VW Chief Forced To Bug Out

Volkswagen_LogoWhen the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accused Volkswagen of deception regarding the emissions generated by its diesel cars, CEO Martin Winterkorn’s response could have raised questions as to how someone at the top could permit those far from it to ruin his company’s hard-earned reputation as a responsible member of the auto-making community.

That such questions certainly were raised was indicated a week after the scandal’s start – necessitating the recall of more than 11 million vehicles, world-wide – when Winterkorn, at long last, admitted the buck does, indeed, stop at his desk, and he vacated it and his role at the company.

This may prove to be one of the greatest scandals ever to affect the auto industry, and that’s saying something. And given the level of fines (not to mention the unimaginably-vast manufacturer’s costs to fix the problem), it could go beyond putting a long-term dent in this company’s financial picture: It could spell its death knell.

An indication of how seriously the US government, not to mention Germany’s and others, are taking this matter was revealed on Friday (Sept. 25), when the EPA announced that it plans to road test “all new vehicle models and vehicles already on the road  to examine emissions claims following the exposure of Volkswagen’s regulation-cheating scandal,” USA Today reported.

The agency issued an advisory to car manufactures on Friday stating that it “may test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat [sic] device.” (The ‘defeat device’ is, in fact, software, that causes the car to report lower-than-actual emissions.)

It is highly unlikely that American taxpayers will have to absorb a penny of the cost for any such extra testing.

And it could cost a bundle: There are more than 480,000 diesel Volkswagens on the road in the US, and an untold number of others – in dealers’ showroom and on used car lots – also are subject to the EPA’s special scrutiny.

On top of that, the agency also could fine Volkswagen $37,000 for each of the 482,000 on-the-road diesel VW’s with the “defeat” software installed. That amounts to more than $17.8 billion – on top of which the company no doubt will face class-action lawsuits from owners whose cars, truth be told, could perform worse, after the fix, than they currently do – with resulting way higher toxic emissions, and it’s even possible, The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki has reported, that the company could have to compensate owners for the full value of their cars.

The Guardian reported Friday that France’s Energy Minister, Ségolène Royal, has declared that his government will be “extremely thorough, extremely severe” in dealing with what amounts to a serious breach of trust by the world’s largest automaker by sales.

And both Britain and Germany had by Sept. 25 announced plans to inspect affected vehicles.

Go back a few years. Winterkorn has been in charge at Volkswagen – born in 1937 in Hitler’s Germany as  Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH, quickly renamed, the same year, simply as Volkswagenwerk, meaning ‘the people’s car’ – since 2007. He has a reputation as being a hands-on manager, involving himself in whatever details he feels his role necessitates to push the company’s costs down and its profits higher.

Apparently, though, his brain was in ‘park’ while a scheme was hatched to have ‘secret’ software generate false reports on emissions.

How could this happen? How could a company with so sterling a reputation that it was able, based on global sales for the first half of this year, to overtake Toyota to become the world’s largest car company, set itself up to fall so far so fast? (And far it has fallen, perhaps most noticeably in terms of stock value: During the week of September 21, the company’s share price was down, at one point, more than 50% from when the scandal broke; By week’s end, the price had rebounded somewhat, leaving investors down ‘only’ 28.52% if they’d had the stock a year – during most of which time it rose. Until Sept. 18, when the EPA’s accusation was issued, the stock was trading at around $30 per share.

(By Sept. 25, after its sharp decline then a recovery that could be called ‘decent’, under the circumstances, it closed at $27.7.)

Meanwhile, Auto Nation, the US’s largest car retailer (with 293 franchises), declared it has ceased selling any car that has an ‘active’ recall notice against it. That means, USA Today said, that not only will recall-targeted cars not be sold off any of Auto Nation’s lots, neither will any be sold at wholesale prices to auctions or resellers.

It’s early days, and there is no (public) indication yet as to who made the decision to create or install the ‘defeat’ software in diesel cars, or how high up the management chain that individual or group of people was.

What is known is that, as of midweek, “after a marathon board meeting” at the company’s Wolfsburg, Germany headquarters, Matthias Mueller was promoted from head of the Porsche sports car division to the position of C.E.O. – where he is in the hot seat, charged with figuring out, so heads can roll, who did what, when, and how to keep the company moving forward in the wake of what the company’s chairman, former finance chief Dieter Poetsch (who recently replaced a forced-out Ferdinand Karl Piech, a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche), has called “a moral and political disaster.”

Some, as the New York Times reported on Sept. 24, would point to intramural struggles in the board room – likely leading to less-close oversight operating-level activities – as being a significant factor in the development of a program that, rather than being driven by environmental concerns, as it was supposed to have been, was profit-driven.

How such a program, or scheme, escaped the attention of Winterkorn or his team, is one of the ultimate questions.

The true ultimate question is, will Volkswagen be able to survive the scandal?

Watch this space.

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Girls Drinking

Girls and Boys and Personal Responsibility – and Common Sense

The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti recently declared, rightly, “alcohol-facilitated rape is not just drunk sex.”

InTheseTimes.com used, this week (Sept. 26), the term “rape culture” to describe an aspect of what Ms. Valenti was indirectly attacking: the idea that women (more than men) expose themselves, at their own, self-chosen discretion, to go places where they might, but shouldn’t have to, fear physical (read: sexual, in the case of women) attacks.

Slate columnist Emily Yoffee, whose ‘Dear Prudence’ columns are among the most lowest-common-dominator panderings of the web’s offerings, faults society for failing to discourage young women, particularly those in college, where the issue is a significant one, from getting drunk. Doing so, Yoffe said, puts them in positions where decisions they make – including getting drunk in the first place – expose them to the risk that, “by the time they are seniors, almost 20% of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate”, of a sexual assault.

There are several issues here:

[1] While Valenti’s ‘alcohol-facilitated rape’ is hardly a problem confined to college women, it is an issue that begs the question, ‘Don’t you watch movies? Or ‘SVU’ (Dick Wolf’s brilliant TV series centered on a NYC police unit focused on sexual crime)? Did your mother/grandmother/guardian/whatever never warn you about the assorted risks you run simply being a female in a male-dominated society?

[2] Like many other men, I frequently deny in my mind, and out-spokenly, a man’s ‘right’ to consider himself somehow ‘superior’ to women – as many do, individually, and as many cultures encourage them to; The number of times I’ve emotionally railed against unfair hiring practices – and worked to provide a job or opportunity to a woman whenever I’ve had a chance to, have been many.

[3] The slowly dying practice of victimizing rape sufferers – a realization in both legal and, to a lesser degree, in social circles, that women often are, indeed, victims, and

[4]  The extent to which as women have in recent decades come to feel more ‘liberated’, able to do whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want, just as men always have been able to, too many women – particularly young, vulnerable college-aged ones – continue to put themselves in situations where they are far more vulnerable than they should be because . . .

[5] Lots of men, particularly young, college-age ones, continue to have what seems to be (and may actually be) a genetically-induced belief that they are superior beings, and they can do whatever they want with women.

There’s another, actually more serious issue where young women, and young men, are concerned, when they engage in the consumption of what, regardless of legal issues, is considered to be a ‘sanctioned’ substance such as alcohol. (And, sadly, too often, many imagining-themselves-to-be-adults engage in the consumption of stronger ‘drugs’ – and there’s little denying that alcohol is, in its way, a drug.)

I recall an evening, some years ago, driving through a small ‘college town’ on the south edge of New York’s Peekskill Mountains. It was late in the ‘evening’ – near or after 10 p.m. Reveling students were much in evidence – many of them much worse for wear. And, undoubtedly, many of them were a good way short of the legal drinking age of 21. Few of them, given that they were walking (or staggering) about, could be assumed to be associated with ‘Greek’ organizations – the logic of the existence of which always has totally escaped me – because they were out in public. And whatever else you may say about the

‘Greeks’, they tend to confine their drinking to the car-key-free environment of their cooler-appointed chapter houses.

Which isn’t to say the ‘Greeks’ don’t encourage drinking by members or pledges who’ve yet to attain the age when purchasing – or consuming – alcohol is legal. Most of them certainly do.

As, by being silent (or low-keyed) on the issue, do a substantial share of universities and colleges across this country. Why so many of them refuse to address the underage drinking issue is something legal authorities – who waste considerable resources dealing with intoxicated students – should be seriously exploring. As should legislators.

Jessica Valenti, whom I respect and as a feminist but have issues with on some of her positions, views as “archaic to most feminists and anti-rape advocates” the idea that [young] women who drink and end up in situations they can’t control – often by implying ‘yes’ while never actually saying ‘no’ – might be excused from being responsible for whatever happens. I emphatically disagree – with that premise, but not with the a ‘right’ of a man to force himself upon a partner who, in one or more ways, has indicated a willingness – perhaps even an eagerness – to ‘go all the way’.

Like it or not, we still live, today, in 2015, in a society where – a lot less than in some others – men are programmed  to assume certain superiorities over women – to even be able, despite laws prohibiting it, to discriminate against them in some instances.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for a young women who’s [1] allowed herself to become intoxicated and  [2] who knows, or certainly should know by the age of 18 or so, that men are socially and biologically programmed to function as fanatic farmers – to plant their seed as often, and as far and wide, as they can.

This is, in no way, intended to excuse young (or older) men from the need to contain themselves, to keep their seed safely stowed until an appropriate ‘field’ – a willing woman – is at hand.

Both men and women – young and old – have to accept responsibility for situations they put themselves into. In lots of situations, ‘he raped me’ carries little more weight than ‘he forced to get pregnant’.

Yes, I fully acknowledge that people can, in some situations, be ‘forced’ to do something. But, too often, the supposed victim put herself in harm’s way.

We’ve all heard about the unproved incident of the freshman supposedly being raped by a group of frat boys at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That is an all-too-typical case of a girl who should have known better – surely she’d heard about how that frat, in particular, views women as sexual targets – and not been where she was, doing what she was: Drinking, when she was not even old enough to be legally doing so.

Fortunately, the world has move on to a place where we less often excuse certain behaviors with the ‘boys will be boys’ saw; But we’ve replaced that with ‘kids will be kids’, and seriously begun overlooking – to a large degree – the unwritten rule called ‘common sense’.

“I didn’t know” not to do… whatever … doesn’t fly for people who are so connected to their supposedly ‘smart’ phones that they engage constantly with them, and their friends, some of whom, no doubt, stop texting long enough to have one or many more drinks, and – whoops! – have unanticipated sex.

The good news is, most who end up have to deal with, say, an unexpected baby, will survive, and go on to thrive.

I am familiar with the case of a young woman who gave birth – a long way from home, because ‘that sort of behavior’ was totally unacceptable in the 1960’s – to a baby who now is, in his fifties, a very accepted part of her family and a highly successful careerist working in China.

She didn’t blame anyone; she simply got on with her life – and has done very well in the process.

There’s way too much blaming going on, when girls – young women – get themselves, themselves being the operative word, in trouble.

Ann Landers used to say “quit your bellyaching.” I say, forget ‘blaming’; start moving on.

Stock Markets Are Killing Themselves

There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth recently about the ups and downs of the US stock markets — the NYSE in particular. The self-imposed issues of the market, that is.

Meanwhile, the Big Pharma sector producing pain-relief and self-numbing medications has been banking big bucks. (That includes, of course, the alcohol industry.)

What’s all the wailing about?

Way back when, even before the birth of ‘stocks’ as we know them, people were trading in a stock-market kind of way, though they didn’t call it that. As it happens, that happened 700+ years prior to the invention of derivatives, automatic (computer-based) trading, and other ills of today.

In the old days, there was a level playing field: Someone had something to sell, some one was interested in buying. A trade was done. There were few if any intermediaries. Back then. Still, way back then. there was no ‘hedge’ buying, or ‘margin’ buying, which is pretty much the same thing: Betting on a stock’s rise, or fall, in some cases, to befit you.

You go to the doctor, and say ‘when I put my arm (way back) like this, it hurts.’

Doctor: ‘So, don’t do that.’

To mix metaphors, if an investment advisor told his/her client ‘I’m going to do ‘this’ and it might hurt,’ some investors would say ‘don’t do that; Follow a safe path.’ Others, of course, would say ‘go for it,’ anticipating a gold ring, or the equivalent thereof.

The advisor seeking the greatest gain ‘plays’ the market — buying low and, hopefully, selling high. When he’s representing a lot of small ‘go for it’ investor-clients, and is, as a result, dealing in larger-than-small quantities of stock, it’s just possible his buy or sell could create an up/down tick in the market that, on the downside, could cost his clients a bundle.

And all that assumes a few things: [1] The ‘advisor’ — maybe a street-level bank employee, more than likely a level or two down from an actual stock broker, or ‘buyer/seller’, supposedly has only the best interests of his clients at heart; [2] The advisor has a professional level understanding of certain stocks, or specific industries, and he has the expertise to make sometimes-accurate predictions of which direction — up or down — certain companies’ stock prices will move, in either the short term, or over a longer period of time, and [3] The advisor’s knowledge truly is substantial enough to serve his clients the way they deserve to be served — in a way that, it would be hoped, will shield them from losses and provide them, some of the time, gains.

Then there are the real trouble-makers of the economy: Hedge fund managers. They not only control usually-massive sums of clients’ money, they make, in effect, what amount to ‘bets’ on the direction a stock, or a stock market, will go. Their activities have, for the most part, absolutely nothing to do with the actual value of what a company — a stock issuer — producers; Instead, they are betting on swings in the market having to do with, um, swings in the market. For an assortment of reasons, swings can be hard to predict, or reasonably anticipate — any more than where a roulette wheel’s ball will land.

But give ’em credit: hedge fund managers get it right enough of the time to have major impacts on the movements of stocks and markets, overall. Unfortunately, their ‘exposure’, in terms of the risks they take, are far less than they should be, and both their clients and the America public in general pays the price.

A significant factor reducing managers’ risk is the fact they aren’t playing with their own money, but with that of clients. And which ever way a stock goes, sometimes as a direct result of their activities — and sometimes not — they take a commission.

‘Take’ is the operative word there. This is a bit circular, but try to stay with me: Because hedge fund managers take in huge amounts of money for themselves and their companies, they have lots and lots of money to spent on lobbying Congress in support of this, or in opposition to that, tax law amendment. One of their greatest accomplishments, as sponsors of highly-paid lobbyists, is a section of the tax code that enables them to defer taxes on trading profits. Then defer them again — sometimes to the point, when losses are balanced against gains, their tax liability can drop to a point where, in relative terms, it is ‘affordable’, on their terms.

But, sadly, those terms are not ‘affordable’ to the American taxpayer because tens — nay, hundreds — of millions of dollars of potential income to the Treasury are lost because hedge fund managers are deferring, well off into the future (that may never come), taxes liabilities on their profits.

Then there’s the really nasty stuff — types of trading (beyond hedging and similar ploys) that should have no place in a stock market supposedly based on the real worth of a company, based on what it produces or, in the case of, say, Walmart, sells. (There are many, many Walmarts out there — companies that actually produce nothing but have great (or less) value based on how efficiently they buy and sell items produced by others.)

‘Remember when their was a massive ‘crash’ of the US stock markets in 2008? Who doesn’t, right?

Essentially, and this is, of course, grossly over-simplifying, this crash was caused by the failure of large financial institutions — banks so large that the government deemed them to be ‘too large to fail’ — to be able meet obligations because they were oversubscribed — they’d sold way more than was reasonable, or the market could absorb — on stocks or securities based, totally ludicrously, on totally unaffordable loans made to potential home buyers who, duh, fairly quickly failed to keep up with their payments, causing banks to foreclose on the loans. causing people in massive numbers to lose their homes — and leaving the banks with both loans and houses (they didn’t want to own) with far less value than could be absorbed by the demand for housing. (Take a deep breath after that sentence!!)

Let’s get personal for a minute. Not all that long before the crash, my then wife and I, working with a bordering-on-the-illegal presentations of a loan arranger, got a mortgage on a house we could ill afford. In a sane housing-lending market, our beefed-up incomes and down-played expenses would have earned us a ‘you’re kidding, right?’ response from any institution to which we applied for a mortgage. Not so in the just-beyond-2002 period.

Oh, it took some shopping around and some messing around with the numbers — things the loan arranger was good at, and supposedly paid well for — but we did get the mortgage . . .   and barely managed to keep our heads above water — by scrimping and doing without a lot — to keep the mortgage paid. Late, sometimes, but eventually paid.

This actually happened, successively, on two houses. The first of them, a lovely farm house in a very rural area, with an un-tended apple orchard, a large, fully-fenced yard in back and a pleasant view (over a reasonably-sized yard in front) over fields that, alternatively, prolifically produced corn or hay. They and the field in the back were regularly fertilized, in the off season, with liquid manure from a nearby dairy farm. The first half day or so of its ‘aroma’ is nearly overpowering; Then, if you are fortunate (to have an agreeable olfactory system), the fading smell can be interpreted as a reasonable, almost pleasant part of life in the country.

But while the house served our needs well, it wasn’t attractive, a few years later, when we wanted to move on, to potential buyers. One reason was the fact a tenant we’d had in place for a year or so didn’t do much of a job of maintaining even the simplest of things — like cabinet doors that, mysteriously, went missing.

Then there was the century-old stone foundation: It wasn’t holding up well, and properly repairing in would have cost tens (perhaps many tens) of thousands of dollars. (The house would have had to have been jacked up, the old foundation would have had to be pulled out, and be replaced by a new one. No one was willing to predict what the jacking-up process might have done to the structural integrity of the place.

Another ‘product’ banks were keen to sell in those days was loans against the supposed value of the property — home equity loans. We had one that, within months, as area house prices started suffering, quickly exceeded the potential sales price.

Long story short: We walked away, owing Bank of America $110 thousand or so, and God knows what in county property taxes. The county eventually took the property over for back taxes.

The second to-be-lost house a similarly sad story: Again, we bought in, too high, when we could ill afford to, and ran an antiques shop in one-third of the main store. It did OK, but wasn’t setting the world on fire. In time — a couple of years —  we extinguished the business, and set sail  for a lower-priced house that, should we decide to move on (as we did fairly quickly), offer a theoretical chance of recouping our investment.

But, on the to-be-lost house,  when we couldn’t find a buyer through a Realtor, we made the serious mistake of doing a rent-to-buy deal with a family that, initially, went all-out to fix the place up and fit it out to meet their sizable family’s needs.

Then, they failed to make promised ‘rent’ payments. Not even one. We tried to get them thrown out, but a lawyer told us the contract we’d written up wasn’t worth the expended paper.

Eventually, the illegal occupiers decamped, leaving a mess on the property we had pay — at the town’s insistence — to get cleaned up. Shortly after that, after we  and they were occupiers, their diligence to ‘keeping up appearances’ suffered an amazing setback — to the point we, the owners, got ‘you’ve got to clean the property up’ complaints from the town.

Then we walked away from that one, too.

Those two house losses were, in one way or another, precipitated by our acquisition of mortgages we totally did not deserve, based on our income and fixed expenses. We lost them, like millions of others lost their homes, because lenders were so eager to lend that they did bad deals — lending to people who had no business committing to the kinds of payments the banks were requiring.

Boom. Crash.

Boom, first for house-sellers. Crash, fairly soon thereafter, for lenders.

This is all part of the initial premise of this post: That financial institutions, be they stock brokers, hedge fund managers or mortgage arrangers, have no motivation to think, beyond the absolute immediate, what harm their actions might wreak. And they don’t.

And in the case of the housing crash, the government compounded the error by bailing out, with taxpayer money, those ‘too big to fail’ lending institutions.

If the US stock markets were run as they should be, without all the fancy beyond-a-company’s-real-value manipulations, and if banks were required to take more responsibility for (i.e. pay more attention to) the short-terms they’ve proven to favor over the past few decades, the NYSE’s shares’ value would certainly be lower, as would the value of the likes of the companies comprising the Dow-Jones average.

But stock values would be more realistic, as would the likes of 401(k) savings accounts, and less subject to fluctuations of computer-generated trades (don’t get me started on that idiocy!) to a point where a company’s output, in production or sales, was more accurately reflected in the price of its stocks.

None of that will, of course, come to pass. More’s the pity.

No God (of Your Choice) Nor Any of His Televangelists Likely Would Approve

A certain company, based in the far-right bible-thumping American south claims to be – and attracts clients because it pretends to be – “faith based.”

Meanwhile, the owner-operator of this call center, abuses his employees – who work either internally or remotely (at home) as call center agents – in more ways than can be elucidated here.

Example: The pay ‘program’ recently was revised in two significant ways.

    1. The base hourly wage – already low – was arbitrarily reduced, and
    2. Agents were advised that, rather than being paid their base wage through their entire shift, during all of which they are required to be at their desks, with headphones on, ready to take calls, they would only be paid – anything at all – for time they were actually talking to clients.

That could, and often does, mean half of most on-the-clock hours were not  generating any income for the worker, the person who was steadily providing a service to the employer, regardless of  how many people called in a typical (or any) hour.

There was, understandably, some kick-back – with, probably, at least one or a dozen employees noting it is illegal to not pay the state’s minimum wage for on-the-clock time – whether the employee is working in-house or in their own time-clock-free home.

So, a couple of weeks ago, the policy was changed again, to indicate that non-talking time would be compensated at the minimum wage.

(This company changes policies, rules and workers’ schedules more often than many people change socks — often without officially advising all employees either by email or via USPS mail.)

People calling in are responding to appeals from one of the many major television- and radio-oriented ministries in the US, a significant number of which pay this company to field these calls.

The calls are of two types: Depending on the ministry, the majority of callers could be ordering something the ministry is selling or offering ‘free’ – often something of no particular value, usually costing the ministry next to nothing. Other callers – more responding to some ministries than others – have ‘prayer requests’.

The caller asks for this, that or the other, and sometimes all three – and the requests to ‘father god’ can range from a cure for an illness, to see a wayward child return home, a win on the numbers or, occasionally, help to deal with a sex-related issue. Whatever. And whatever the request, the call center agent is required to comply, with an instant, out-loud prayer.

Sometimes, contrary to company guidelines, the mostly-female agents downplay or ignore the sex-oriented prayer requests – but that doesn’t prevent them hearing a usually-male caller masturbating as she’s praying.

Nor does the agent’s best attitude, kindest tone of voice and striving to serve the ministry well ward off the ‘crazies’ the people who, when asked for the first three digits of their last name – so the agent can check if they’re already in the system as a result of one or more prior calls – provide part of their first name, or seem baffled by the request.

When asked for a phone number – if that information isn’t already in the system – many don’t seem to know their own area code.

Some get downright belligerent when asked for information intended, in the only way possible, to help the agent fulfill the caller’s request for whatever they’re calling about.

Some callers, when necessary information is requested, get angry, and even curse at the agents.(There is no allowance in this company’s formally unwritten policies for agents – that occasionally are made clearly understood in emails and verbal communications – allowing the agent to simply hang up on abusive callers.)

The company’s failure to anticipate this issue, and its failure to deal with it (by authorizing quick-hang-ups), probably falls into the category of ‘company-authorized abuse – making the unwritten rule that agents ‘will ‘treat all callers, from the start of an interaction through to its successful conclusion’, illegal, in some instances, on a couple of counts.

The call center’s agents are required, after detailing the caller’s information for the ‘free’ or to-be-purchased whatever, to ask, “and how much do you want to donate today?”

Often, the people calling in for a ‘free’ whatever are struggling to keep their heads above water – seeking, through this ministry, from the ‘almighty spirit’ they believe in, for an answer, to how they are supposed to make it through today, never mind tomorrow.

Still, amazingly, many of them give $10, $20, $50 or more than they can ill afford. And the agents are required to ask for even more.

A long overdue expose’ on television ministries (tele-evangelists) was presented recently by John Oliver, formerly a reporter on The Daily Show and now, deservedly, host of his own enterprise, ‘Last Week Tonight‘.

Oliver is, of course, far from the first to point to the shear gall, and the tax code’s enabling, of people who, truth be told, can acquire their ‘minister credentials’ even online for a sum affordable by nearly any shyster out there.

It is truly hard to imagine how individuals claiming to be aiming to help people find ‘a way’, or a better life, can justify holding on to and counting as ‘personal wealth’ the sums some of them do. The Christian Post eight years ago (on Nov. 13, 2007) published a piece by John N. Whitehead detailing the (acknowledged) holdings of some (but hardly all, or even the wealthiest) of the televangelists.

Nobody, where it might matter, is paying attention: In the everyday media and congress. The everyday media  ignores the issue. Congress, which affects who gets taxed and how much — see our upcoming piece on that particular issue — seems to assume the Americans’ Right To Religious Freedom gives a free pass to people who, by any definition, stray way away from the intent or teachings of any commonly-practiced religion and encourage, and lure people into believing they’ll benefit spiritually and possible otherwise by, providing contributions to the ministry.

Meanwhile, you have the likes of Creflo Dollar, whose ‘church’  made — ‘took, in not ‘made’ — more than $69 million in 2006 and provided a couple of Rolls Royce, that in his own words, that“Just because it (my life) is excessive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”

As a recent country music song was entitled, “Wrong.”

Then there’s Joyce Meyers, another client of the company being described in this article. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a while back that she is “living now in my reward.” This one-time bookkeeper,a self-proclaimed victim of abuse as a child, has overcome that trauma to become the head and guiding force of the world’s largest television ministries. She, like Creflow Dollar, is said to have retained well more than $20 million.

A web site called Gospel Assembly Free  says her “life of the Word organization expects to take in $90 million this year.” And that was last year. Her personal personal wealth has been reported elsewhere as being in excess of $26 million.

But she does do some ‘good works’ — helping some sufferers of this or than (including hunger, AIDS and whatever else) in Africa . . .  until she, the aid, and the cameras move on.

(One of the things I truly don’t get about evangelicals and their ‘missions’ is their need to venture off into ‘far corners’ of the world, while so many people suffer in American slums and assorted  other types of underprivileged environments. And millions of others, including many poor newcomers to this country, are struggling with seemingly insurmountable problems. The sums those do-gooders ‘waste’ on airfare and their own survival, during their ‘feel good’ missions, could be far better spend at home — in the good ‘ol US of A.)

But I digress.

I passionately oppose people who claim to ‘have’ religion, be ‘born again’ (what ever that is suppose to mean), and those who make attempts — particularly in emphatic ways, as employers, for example — to force their ‘faith’ on people they hire to perform a service, particularly for a service for which they are being handsomely compensated by assorted ministries.

The morbidly-obese owner of the company being reported on employs his wife (who does virtually nothing, as the entity’s HR person), his father, who primary role is handing out paychecks every two weeks and overseeing a ‘store’ — offering a lot of overstocks from assorted ministries and other ‘stuff’ that, because they hate the company paying them for doing an underpaid, thankless job, most employees ignore. And his step mother mans (or womans) the reception desk.

Creswell Dollar and some other clients of this company might be appalled by this report. I am confident Joyce Meyer will be — and she will she it.

Somebody’s about to get their ass sued — and lose — in several ways.

Dead Man Walking, CT.

Mr. ‘Lunch Pail Guys’ Is A Force To be Reckoned With

Donald J. Trump
Donald J. Trump

I met him once, while I was exploring, with my then-wife, the public-side sanctum of Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. The Tower’s namesake was prowling, observing, taking in the crowds and their reactions to what was then – shortly after Trump Tower opened – a marvel to behold. As it still is.

“The Donald”, as he then was generally referred to (but not by us, who opted for ‘Mr. Trump’), was both approachable and amenable to interactions with people he perceived, largely justifiably, as his ‘fans’. Fans, that is, of the business accomplishments that, in those days, were his sole focus.

It was a ‘hi, how are ya? Good to see ya’ event that, in its way, made a point the recent Rolling Stone portrait of this presidential candidate did: He’s a ‘man of the people’ because, despite his wealth, much of it inherited, ” He was raised around lunch-pail guys in Queens and learned to talk like them trailing his father to building sites,” the article says. “He shares the syntax and sympathies of meat-and-potatoes types, and has crafted his message for their ears expressly, calling out the enemies on their list In New Hampshire,” reporter Paul Sorotaroff writes.

“I watched that huge crowd come to a boil as he took dead aim at corporate greed. ‘When the head of Ford calls me up and he says, ‘Mr. President, we really want to build this plant in Mexico,’ I’ll say, ‘Congratulations . . . we’re gonna charge you a 35 percent tax on every car and truck and part that comes in!’ ‘But you can’t dooo that, Mr. President!’ ‘Trust me, I can do it — and what happens is, they probably fold by 5 p.m.'”

There’s one small problem with that scenario: The president doesn’t have the authority raise (or lower) taxes. Congress does, exclusively.

But entities of the U.S. government, in both the legislative and executive branches, have a long, colorful history of modifying, adjusting and outright ignoring legal niceties as befits their needs or purposes.

Thus we get the likes of government shutdowns, women dying on combat missions they are specifically banned from participating in, people being held indefinitely — without being charged with anything — in a probably-illegal prison in Cuba — and something oddly called extraordinary rendition — the secret moving of individuals suspected of terrorism or, among other things, war crimes, to a jurisdiction where it is permission to interrogate said suspects in ways totally against U.S. constitutional law.

Few if any are better at manipulating rules and standard operating procedures to their own ends than is Mr. Trump. And as has been amply demonstrated since he declared himself a Republican presidential candidate in June, he’s pretty good, too, at making claims and promises as — and even more — outrageous than political candidates, in general, are famous for.

The differences between some of his claims and those of some of the 21 (count ’em, twenty-one) others seeking to put their seat behind an Oval Office desk include the facts that:

[1] A good deal of what he says bears little if any resemblance to the truth (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said on June 16, and The Hill debunked that comment a month later — as others did before and since;

[2] He is less concerned with realistic presentations of what he might do — if he could — as president — than with appealing to the base emotions of people with fears that are unrealistic (a Hampton NH resident said to him, speaking of undocumented [nee ‘illegal’] immigrants, “They’re everywhere, and they’re sucking our economy dry,”  and/or downright stupid: Another quote from The New Yorker article, from a man who thinks Trump reflects “an unconscious vision that white people have — that there grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country; I think that scares us,” and

[3] Even as he declares he won’t do so, he seems to delight in insulting women — note his “blood coming out of her . . . whatever” attack on first Republication moderator Megyn Kelly of CNN, and his more quoted-in-Rolling-Stone remark(s) (as quoted by USA Today: about fellow candidate Carly Fiorina, ‘Look at that face!’ he cries. ‘Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?’

It’s early days, for sure, but the Guinness drinkers (in their home country, Ireland) are betting — but, one has to wonder, why?? –) Jeb Bush (whose mother, of all people, declared earlier this year that “we’ve had enough Bushes in the White House”) will eventually trim Trump’s lead then overtake him, to become the Republican’s eventual nominee for president.

Talk about a Hobson’s Choice — which is, simply, you take the one choice (in this case, either of two not-very-good options) or none at all, meaning that, no matter which way the Republicans choose, where their ‘not-as-concerned-as-s/he-should be candidate options are concerned, they are likely to miss the brass ring — tossing the election to . . . who? Hillary Clinton, who, you can count on it, hasn’t seen the last of the email server or other (possibly not yet known) ills her campaign will suffer, or Bernie Sanders, or . . . ?

Sanders is at the opposite end of an exceptionally broad spectrum from Trump in at least two significant ways:

[1] He speaks, with vast political experience in his wake, what is widely regarded as truth, truth that is facts-based and issues-oriented, and

[2] as Trump is, at the other end of the spectrum, not dependent on fund-raising because he’s independently wealthy.

Sanders, as he’s proud to tell you, avoids big corporate or interest-oriented donors.

Trump claimed that, as of early in September, 2015, he’s spent very little “aside from for some jet fuel” on his campaign. Sanders has spent a good deal more than that, but only from what’s been donated by able-to-give-only-a-little individuals.

Trump gets massive media coverage because of who he is and, sometimes, because of the fact he’s attracting sizable crowds and, probably as important, that they represent a spectrum of people — some of them, it might be imagined, simply curious to see a celebrity who’s spent a lot of time on TV in the past decade.

Sanders, meanwhile, seems to be moving toward filling stadiums with people who believe, when all is said and done, some of the same things Trump preaches: The big money people grab too much of it, and we need to take it away from them; trade agreements that allow companies to export jobs are bad, and need to be legislated against.

Then there’s Iran: Sanders supports the internationally sought-for deal that would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb; Trump’s position, as declared on CBS News, “they have suckered us” into a deal we’ll regret.

That from a man who has many made people regret dealing with him, as he’s declared bankruptcy four times even as he protected enough of his ‘stuff’ to rise again, like a phoenix, to be able to again brag how ‘successful’ he’s been as a titan of big business.

And, amazing many, how strongly he seems to feel he’s qualified to be president.

He’s not.

Egging OFF The Competition

First things first: [1] I have had NO contact with the American Egg Board, nor has that egg-promoting trade group made any attempt to recruit me to promote hens’ eggs over any other source of protein, natural or lab-developed. [2] I love eggs, and eat them regularly (often with bacon, or sausage (and if you haven’t tried Walmart’s own brand, do so) — and [3] more regularly than my doctors might like, despite what the Harvard School of Public Health and/or the iconically-named Mayo Clinic might say.

The Guardian revealed on Sept. 6 that the government-sanctioned American Egg Board (AEB), a promotion-oriented entity created to support the hen, or shell egg industry, has “paid food blogs and targeted [a] chef to crush vegan [egg-alternative] startup” Hampton Creek.”

The Guardian‘s lengthy report said Edelman, “the world’s largest PR firm” (for which: Disclaimer, I worked on one project, nearly 40 years ago), was recruited (and undoubtedly paid big bucks) to “conduct qualitative/quantitative consumer research to pinpoint and prioritize areas of focus” positioned to counteract Hampton Creek’s suggestion — subtly but not very clearly made on its web site — that its powder vegan substitute for eggs is a viable alternative to non-powered oblong food sources produced by actual chickens.

If would appear, from Hampton Creek‘s otherwise largely unhelpful web site, that ‘traditional’ egg producers might well have something to fear from what The Guardian refers to as “a Silicon Valley upstart” with a product designed to replace shelled eggs in such processed products as cookies — which, along with crackers and pasta, many types of which also include eggs/egg products in their too-lengthy ingredient list, account for some $26,000,000,000 ($26 billion) in revenue annually. That, as the saying goes, is not chicken feed. (The egg portion alone accounts for some $5.5 billion a year in revenue, according to a separate Guardian article.)

A significant share of the egg- or egg-like material going into cookies and the like is generated by the “roughly 280 million birds [that] give us about 75 billion eggs per year — about 10 percent of the world supply, according to a web site that, like Hampton Creek, would have you avoid the likes of supermarket-dispensed eggs — even supermarket-sold so-called ‘organic’ ones. Which is, at first glance, ironic, as that web site’s orientation is ‘natural health’ and things that aid or support it.

But, simultaneously, that site offers positive reinforcement to Hampton Creek, in that it suggest — nay, straight-out declares — that eggs from both both ‘free range’ (non caged) chickens and their closely captive counterparts are washed in a way “which leaves your eggs vulnerable to contamination and faster spoilage”. In some instances, commercially-sold eggs (even organic ones) are coated with something, “often mineral oil …a non-natural agent, a petroleum product that was never intended for you to eat.”

For societal  reasons, people often ‘walk on eggshells‘, in the sense of treading lightly regarding what we say to others, but we tend as strenuously avoid eating eggshells (such as the little pieces that sometimes end up in scrambled eggs) because … ew! … the mere crunch of them is thoroughly off-putting.

So much for the mineral oil, or whatever, used to coat eggs — except for this: Egg shells are, like human skin, porous. Your typical egg, which one would be hard pressed to distinguish, physically, from an ‘untypical’ version, contains some 7,500 pores, through which mineral oil — or water, for that matter — might pass, contaminating what the American Egg Board fairly enough promotes as “the incredible edible egg”.

Try this: Crack an egg (carefully, to avoid shell bits being carried along with what it houses) into a bowl. Pour a tablespoon of water over it. What happens? The water rests (probably uncomfortably) on the egg’s undulating surface. It does not join and become part of the egg’s mass. The egg remains, for all intents and purposes, contamination free from whatever it was coated with.

I, for one, find it comforting to think that eggs are washed and sanitarily coated before being presented to me in retail establishments. I know what many of them were resting in, in those no-space-to-spare cages the vast majority of egg producers spend the bulk of their productive lives in. A dozen I purchased in my local Walmart yesterday cost me a measly $2.97, or 24.75 cents per egg.

Hold it a minute.

That was at Walmart, where stuff is supposed to be cheaper (or cheeper, where eggs are concerned) than elsewhere. I can’d cite ‘elsewhere’, but I can cite a couple of egg promotion ads on the AEB web site declaring eggs to have cost, last year, in the neighborhood of 19.58 cents per or 16.66 cents per, depending on which promotion — tied with the purchase of Pillsbury ‘Grand’ biscuits (in the first instance) or, illogically, Keebler crackers, in the second.

Either of those prices represent an amount that is ‘chicken feed’, compared to what I paid. But I can presently pay $1.87 or less per gallon for gasoline, while the national average price is something like $2.60 (as of last week, with retail gas prices falling).

The point? I live/work in Virginia, where egg ‘farming’ isn’t, amazingly, a growth industry, while tobacco farming is a dying one. Tobacco fields, which tend to be in (country) areas where land is, or was, cheap, could easily be reemployed as large-scale ‘free-range chicken’ operations or, less humanely, a caged-chicken egg-production one; Then there’s also the potential for providing locally-grown chickens for the state’s gazillion fried chicken sellers. But, truth be told, most of them are more concerned about ‘finger lickin’ good’, and price — theirs and the consumers — than the actual heritage of the original product.

The originally-quoted Guardian article noted that food blog Hemi Weingarten author (Fooducate) as having published a post reported as sponsored by the AEB. Entitled “10 Reasons to Love Eggs”, it included this sentence: “At just $0.15 each, eggs are the least expensive source of high-quality protein per serving.”

“This language is consistent with one of the American Egg Board’s most regularly used talking points,” The Guardian article said.

I wish I could shop where Hemi does! Or even where the AEB are promoting!

Back to the cookie issue: If eggs are so important in cookie-making, how come someone can come up with five (count ’em) vegan substitutes for them in baking recipes?

But the biggest threat Hampton Creek may pose in the food-selling world is a product it calls ‘Mayo’. The Us Food and Drug Administration has told the company it cannot use that name, because ‘mayonnaise’ must, according the FDA definition of it, contain egg.

More specifically, the FDA regulation says, ” Mayonnaise is the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and one or more of the egg yolk-containing ingredients specified in paragraph (c) of this section. One or more of the ingredients specified in paragraph (d) of this section may also be used. The vegetable oil(s) used may contain an optional crystallization inhibitor as specified in paragraph (d)(7) of this section. All the ingredients from which the food is fabricated shall be safe and suitable. Mayonnaise contains not less than 65 percent by weight of vegetable oil. Mayonnaise may be mixed and packed in an atmosphere in which air is replaced in whole or in part by carbon dioxide or nitrogen.”

While that’s certainly more than you ever imagined you’d come to know about that while stuff you slather on sandwiches, the definition does tell you that the government your taxes support takes such stuff as mayonnaise seriously. Very much so. (It might also be argued, as I imagine Hampton Creek is, that such fine attention to detail is an example of government gone mad — of tax dollars being needlessly spent to describe how “some guys mixed a few things together so the resulting product would taste great as a sandwich spread”.

Hampton Creek has, indeed, declared it has no intention of changing the name of its product and, moreover, it will be using Mayo as the base for an expanded range of products that will, they insist, be coming soon to a supermarket and to lot of food service establishments near you.

When Steve Jobs figuratively turned a piece of fruit into a computer, then a range of mobile phones, it took a while for him to gain traction in a competitive field. Hampton Creek could be where Jobs and his then partner Steve Wozniak were in 1978, a year after they formed the Apple Computers company.

Fortunately for them, they never had to rename their product because there always was so clear a distinction between its piece-of-fruit namesake and the object that would, in time, end up on millions and desktops and even more pockets around the world.

If the Hampton Creek folks were smart., they give in on the ‘mayo’ issue and simply rename their core product ‘Better Than Mayo’ or “i’m Like Mayo” — with a very small ‘m’ in ‘I’m’ — leaving both the American Egg Board and the US Food & Drug Administration  with egg on their respective their faces.

Monkeying With Security …… Near Beijing, China

It’s not enough that the oft-times irrational leadership of China feels it necessary to tightly control the human population, they’re now  similarly controlling — or trying to- simians. Albeit for a good cause, though.

In anticipation of the September 3rd celebration of the end of World War II in Asia — though what the Chinese had to do with that is, like much that’s Chinese, inscrutable — when 12,000 troops, an untold number of military vehicles of all sorts, and a military fly-over involving some 200 fighter jets, the country’s supremely wiser minds elected to employ a band of fighter jetsmacaque monkeys to help guard the parade periphery.

As The South China Morning Post observed, “you can pay them peanuts” and they do what they’re told to.

What they were trained to do, via assorted whistled commands, was to climb trees (a natural, task for them), then destroy birds’ nests and keep the birds from returning, or remaining in areas where they might pose a hazard to overflying jets, which have an unfortunate tendency consume birds in their jet engines, sometimes with fatal results for the planes. (A bird’s future, once it is sucked into a jet engine, extends only a few more seconds, if that.)

The South China Post cited photos showing monkeys being trained at an unidentified military base, for this ‘monkeying around’ mission.monkeys

As there were no reported incidents of bird ingestions by jets during the Sept. 3rd parade, one might assume all participating monkeys were given military honors or, at the very least, ample quantities of their food of choice.

(The ‘you can pay them peanuts’ line fits appropriately in situations where an employer is seeking, or has taken on, workers who are, unfortunately, underpaid. The saying is, ‘You pay peanuts, you get monkeys’.  ‘Sounds good, but the least bit of research reveals that these usually-not-terribly-unfriendly creatures are better fed a more varied diet.)

Animals of various sorts have been trained to perform assorted physical tasks for thousands of years. We’ve all heard about lions ‘trained’, in the vaguest of ways, to provide entertainment during the Roman Empire as they toyed with, then killed, hapless individuals in Rome’s Colosseum and similar settings. Many of us also have heard of ‘dancing bears’ and other beasts being used in circuses to provide pleasure to animal-insensitive audiences.

The history of dancing bears was, if not extended, at least placed as long ago as Byzantine times, when an undertaking a few years ago set about tunneling under the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the Asian and European parts of Istanbul, Turkey. The skulls of many of them were uncovered, with “cubs’ skulls showed compression fractures, from having been hit during training; The adult skulls had marks on the muzzles, from having been bound shut,” a recent New Yorker article reported. It added: “Dancing bears had been a popular Byzantine entertainment. Empress Theodora’s father was a bear trainer.”

That massive dig also uncovered huge numbers of horse heads (and, no doubt, other horse bones) as well as bones of elephants and horses “with unmistakable marks of butchery.” It had been known that bears and donkeys were eaten by people in those days, but evidence from this dig showed that horses were, too. (Evidence also suggested that, when they were too old or exhausted to be made to work anymore in the circus at the hippodrome, “the thrifty Byzantines had fed the elephants [upon their retirement] to the lions.” the New Yorker article noted.)

We’re also familiar, today, with how dogs can be trained to function as the ‘eyes’ of sight-impaired people. Most of us have no clue how they are so-trained.

It starts, when a dog viewed to have the right aptitude, takes up a temporary residence with someone trained to provide simple ‘basic training’: How to walk on a leash, how to obey basic commands, how to heal (walk neatly at the side of a person), and a good deal more.

A hard thing for the not-involved to understand about a ‘seeing-eye dog’ is the fact that, for far more hours than people are asked to work daily, it is ‘on duty’ and dedicated to not being distracted by anything that might interfere with its protection of its person.

If it’s ‘owner’ — the human depending on it, and with whom it shares life — allows you to pet the dog, you shouldn’t expect a response, as you might from a house pet. These ‘helper dogs’ are anything but housepets — though they can perform that role, too, when they’re ‘off duty’.

Dogs aren’t the only animals trained as helpers for blind humans. Take the case of Cali, a chestnut brown horse, the near-constant companion of Mona Ramouni, of Williamston, Michigan. Given that, as a horse working as a personal assistant, Cali can be expected to get the absolute best of care, there’s no reason she shouldn’t life out in full her potential life of 50 or so years. And there’s no reason, because she’ll be so well-cared-for, Mona won’t live even longer (given her potential life of 81.2 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics).At some point, she may need to find a new Cali.

To provide miners an opportunity to live to a ripe old age, it was long the practice, before more reliable (and humane) means became available, to place caged (but hardly trained) canaries deep in mines where they, but not the miners, could detect the presence of natural gacanarys (which is naturally odorless). Unfortunately, for the canaries, their discovery of the presence of gas was almost immediately followed by the bird’s death — serving as a warning to the miners to high-tail it to higher, safer ground.

Dolphins. Who can forget dolphins, one of the most intelligent of non-human mammals? A sizable number of them have enjoyed — at least we can hope they’ve enjoyed — a trouble-free but busy career as performers in zoos and other types venues where wildlife is put on display. There’s a good chance, though, that despite not having to hunt for food and really only needing to ‘work’ a few hours a day, many of those beautiful creatures would prefer taking their chances as what they are supposed to be — creatures in the wild.

That may or may not be the case, as well, with homing pigeons which, like the likely-to-die canaries, spend a sizable portion of their lives caged. But homing pigeons can win awards: One named Cher Ami was awarded France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre for its heroic service in delivering, despite being injured, a dozen important military messages during World War I. Like when it was wounded, the bird probably never knew what hit it when the award was presented.

That’s the sad, and the magical, thing about animals enlisted to assist humans in one way or another: Most of them — dogs being a notable exception — probably have no clue that [1] they’re being singled out from others of their species for special tasks, or [2] why they are, among other things, enjoying so steady a food supply — and of such superb quality!

At some level, pet dogs clearly understand the special roll they play in their people’s lives.

Lucky dogs!