Picking The Real Best Picture

Tomorrow night is the Oscars.  I won’t be watching, but I know one thing:  they’ll screw up the selection of best picture because . . .  well, because they always screw it up!  Year after year, movies that appeal to the general population — movies that move us, inspire us, challenge us, and make us feel good as we’re walking out of the theater — get passed over for some hoity-toity, highbrow “serious” movie.  It’s ridiculous.

witness-harrison-ford-kelly-mcgillisThe movie that encapsulates this phenomenon, for me, was Out of Africa.  It was a slow, dreary, unwatchable piece of crap.  It was a “chick flick” of sorts, but one so ponderous that even women who want to revel in the arched eyebrow/heavy sigh/”the intense drama of real human relationships” school of cinema would find it an absolute snoozefest.  Yet somehow this leaden dud won the Best Picture Oscar, beating out the likes of Witness — a great and touching movie about an injured cop who finds sanctuary among the Amish in Pennsylvania.  As yourself now:  if you turned on the TV and had this choice, which movie would you rather watch:  Out of Africa, or Witness?  Does anyone seriously doubt that everybody except members of the Meryl Streep Fan Club would choose Witness?  For that matter, would any network even broadcast Out of Africa?  It’s probably the least requested Netflix movie in history.

The Washington Post has done a commendable public service by going back through the last 40 years of Best Picture Oscar blunders and telling us the real best picture of the year.  I disagree with some of their choices — I still say Star Wars and E.T. were obvious choices for Best Picture Oscars — but it’s a useful exercise nevertheless.  With rare exception, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always gets it wrong.  The people who don’t win the Best Picture Oscar tomorrow night probably should be happy.

For The Love Of Eggs

There’s an egg shortage in America!  As Richard reported in an article in the San Antonio Express-News a few days ago, the large Texas supermarket chain H-E-B is limiting customers to three cartons of eggs to deal with a shortage caused by the avian flu.  Yesterday the Washington Post carried an article with the scary headline “Egg rationing in America has officially begun.”

Egg rationing?  Yikes!  Chicken Little might say the sky is falling!

But really, can we call limiting consumers to three cartons of eggs “rationing”?  Technically, it’s an accurate use of the word, because H-E-B is limiting the quantity people can purchase.  But you tend to associate rationing with much more stringent limits on supply — like getting one pair of shoes for the entirety of World War II.  Telling people they can only buy 36 eggs during one visit to the grocery store doesn’t really seem impose limits that will affect many people.  Other than kids intent on mischief on a Friday night and the members of the Duggar clan, how many people buy more than 36 eggs at one time, anyway?

I like eggs.  When you think about it, they’re one of the more versatile foods we consume.  They’re great on their own — I like mine over easy or scrambled — but they’re also essential for baking.  And they are a great source of protein.

But I’m a patriotic guy who wants to do what is best for the U.S. of A.  If we’re strapped for eggs, I want to help.  I’m willing to sacrifice.  So I hereby agree that I will voluntarily limit my purchases to less than 36 eggs until this “temporary egg shortage” is over.  And because egg prices are already skyrocketing because the invisible hand is reacting to the shortage, my patriotic gesture incidentally will probably save me a few bucks, too.

The N-Word

Today’s Washington Post has a long, thoughtful piece on the “n-word” — the most hateful, racially charged word in the English language.  It’s worth reading in full.  And here is the uncomfortable issue that the article explores:  can the n-word, which in its a-ending form has become increasingly prevalent in youth culture, be redefined and eventually stripped of its racist connotations, or should the use of the word, in any variation, just be stopped?

This year the National Football League has empowered referees to penalize teams whose players use the n-word.  It’s the NFL’s response to several recent incidents with racial overtones — but the decision to penalize the use of the word has been criticized by many players as out of touch with the common use of the word among younger people of different races.  Indeed, internet search engines indicate that, in its a-ending form, the n-word is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter.  The resurgence of the n-word among young people is often attributed to hip-hop culture, where the word is commonly used in the lyrics, and even the titles, of popular songs.  The Post article recounts a story about a recent Kanye West concert where the performer gave white concertgoers permission to say the word as they sang along with his songs, and they did so.

I don’t listen to hip-hop music, and I was unaware of the extent to which the n-word has been reintroduced in the vernacular of the younger generation.  I think that development is very troubling and unfortunate.  I don’t think American culture should follow the lead of rappers in the use of the n-word any more than it should in adopting the misogynistic, twerking, gunfire-at-every-party elements of hip-hop culture, either.

There is a generational element to this issue; for those of us who grew up during the days of the Civil Rights marches and police dogs being unleashed to attack peaceful protesters, the n-word is unforgivable.  I don’t care if a hip-hop artist gives me permission to say it.  I won’t use the word because I don’t want to be linked in any way to the brutal racists of the past, and I do not believe that — changed ending or not — the word can ever be sanitized and divorced from its violent, terrible roots.

So put me in the NFL’s camp on this one.  It may prove to be impossible to stop the use of the n-word, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Young people should be educated about why the word is so hurtful and discouraged from using it.  I agree with Denyce Graves, the terrific opera singer, who is quoted in the Post article as saying:  “I know we will never be rid of this word, [but] I would love to see it just vanish.”  I say, let it die.

Obamacare’s First Birthday

It’s hard to believe, but it was only a year ago on October 1 that Obamacare, through that ill-fated healthcare.gov website, was born.  Parents will tell you that a newborn’s first year passes by in a blur — and it has, hasn’t it?  It sure seems like more than a year ago that we were hearing about wait times and website crashes, but ISIS beheadings and Ebola outbreaks and other assorted disasters have a way of telescoping the passage of time.

So, how is Obamacare doing on its first birthday?  Not surprisingly, given the superheated controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act, it kind of depends who you ask.

The New York Post has done a review and gives Obamacare an overall grade of “F,” because it has cost a lot of money, hasn’t really made a huge dent in the mass of uninsured people, has messed with a lot of people’s plans, and is affecting full-time job creation by businesses because of the costs it imposes.  The Department of Health and Human Services, on the other hand, has released a report that says Obamacare has produced a significant reduction in uncompensated costs that have to be borne by hospitals, presumably because there are fewer uninsured people who can’t pay their hospital bills.  Yahoo Finance, in a survey article, found that some people like it and some people hate it, depending on whether Obamacare has raised or reduced their costs, helped them get insurance that they couldn’t have received otherwise, or eliminated plans they liked.

And — some things never change — the healthcare.gov website is back in the news again, because it has a “critical vulnerability” in the security area.  Basically, it appears that the government entity that manages the website hasn’t been using the basic available tools to monitor security issues and test for website vulnerabilities.  It’s not clear whether any people who have used the website — and entered in lots of highly personal information in their quest for insurance — have experienced any identity theft or similar problems.

Regardless of your political affiliation or your view of Obamacare, there is one finding that pretty much everyone should be happy to celebrate on Obamacare’s birthday.   A Washington Post review of congressional floor speeches found that, this month, members of Congress mentioned “Obamacare” only 27 times.  That 1/100th of the number of mentions Obamacare received in October 2013.  Isn’t it nice to not hear politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, yammering about Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare?

Politically, does that mean Obamacare is no longer the hot topic it once was, or does it just mean that Obamacare has been knocked off the front pages by other problems and issues?  Beats me, but my gut instinct is that the Republicans are wise to not beat the Obamacare drum incessantly.  People who hate Obamacare or feel they were screwed by it don’t need to be reminded over and over.  Focusing on ISIS, terrorism, the border, and other non-Obamacare topics make the Republicans seem like less of a one-trick pony.

Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

Uncle Sam, The Scooter Sap

Over the weekend the Washington Post carried a terrific article about how fraudsters ripped off Medicare — and through Medicare, the American taxpayer — in the Great Scooter Scam.  It’s another troubling, cautionary tale that shows how good intentions can run awry, how fraudsters are always ready to pounce, and how our ponderous governmental apparatus is just not well-suited to ferreting out fraud.

The fraud scheme grew out of Medicare’s requirement that claims be paid promptly, and the vast scope of coverage that Medicare supplies.  With millions of claims being received, there was no way to check them out before making the required prompt processing decision.  So Medicare’s default approach was to pay claims first, investigate later.  The fraudsters learned this, and rubbed their hands with glee.  But fraudsters can’t perform surgery or other medical care, so how do they take advantage of that gaping vulnerability in the system?  Medical equipment was the answer . . . but the crooks then had to find just the right kind of equipment, where real money could be made.

Ultimately, they realized that scooters and motorized wheelchairs were perfect.  The need for them was plausible, and there was a huge gap between the actual cost of the devices and the inflated amount Medicare would pay.  The fraudsters created elaborate schemes that included “recruiters” who identified seniors to receive the scooters and bogus medical supply companies — and seniors who willingly participated because they thought there were getting a freebie, even if it was something that they didn’t need.  When Medicare changed the rules to require in-person doctor visits to try to stop the fraud, the crooks recruited doctors who were willing to participate in the fraud in exchange for a cut.

The result?  Perfectly able-bodied seniors with wheelchairs, still in their wrapping, gathering dust in their garages or serving as the perch for oversized teddy bears.  Seniors riffing on the Seinfeld episode and having scooter races in their neighborhoods.  And huge amounts of federal money lining the pockets of criminals.

The scope of the fraud is astonishing.  The Medicare system has paid billions for motorized wheelchairs, and they don’t even know how many of the purchases are legitimate.  One recent audit of paid bills showed that 80 percent were improper.  And even after the federal government became aware of the scooter scam, in 1998, it continued to pay billions in phony claims.  Since 1999, Medicare has paid $8.2 billion for 2.7 million motorized wheelchairs and scooters.  In 2003 alone, $964 million was spend on the devices.  These seem like huge numbers, but they are only a blip in the vast Medicare system — which is part of the reason why it took so long to meaningfully tackle the problem.

The Medicare system now says that it has effectively addressed the scooter scam, and the amounts spent on motorized wheelchairs fell to only $190 million in 2013.  Should we have confidence that all of that money — and all of the billions of dollars shelled out for other forms of medical equipment — is being spent in response to legitimate medical needs?  Not really.  The system is too large, oversight is minimal, and there are too many gaps where the fraudsters can take advantage.  And, perhaps most distressingly, there apparently are lots of “recruiters,” doctors, and seniors who apparently are all too willing to participate in a criminal scam so long as they get something out of it.

The Washington Post article about the Great Scooter Scam should be required reading for every Member of Congress who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to create a governmental program that pays out money to address it.

Picking Up Food Stamps In A Mercedes

The Washington Post website carried an article a few days ago that has provoked a lot of comment.  Entitled “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps,” it tells the story of a middle-class woman who falls into poverty — at least, poverty of a sort.

It’s a sad story, but also the kind that naturally raises questions.  The woman grew up in an affluent suburb, goes to good schools, and gets good jobs.  She meets a guy, gets pregnant, then gets married — but her husband loses his job, they’re saddled with a mortgage that is more than they can afford, and she has twins who are born early and need expensive formula.  Ultimately, she ends up signing up for Medicaid, food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children Special Supplemental Nutrition Program.

The woman recounts embarrassing anecdotes.  She’s got to answer a lot of questions before she gets the aid.  She’s afraid an apparently well-meaning older man will give her money, but instead he makes a friendly religious pitch and she takes off to avoid further contact.  A busybody woman questions her purchase of root beer using food stamps, and the check-out girl stands up for her.  And finally, one day, she has to take her husband’s Mercedes — a 2003 Mercedes Kompressor — to pick up her food stamps.  No one said anything, but they did stare at her . . . and to this day it’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to her.

They kept the Mercedes because it was the one reliable thing in their lives.  And now, after years of her husband being unemployed, he’s found a good job that pays well, and she’s going back to grad school.  She says that “President Obama’s programs — from the extended unemployment benefits to the tax-free allowance for short-selling a home we couldn’t afford — allowed us to crawl our way out of the hole.”  She closes the story by noting that they still have the Mercedes.  Thank God the combination of years of unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a federal program that let them get rid of a bad house purchase let them keep their Mercedes!

As I said, it’s a story that raises many questions.  If this woman grew up in an affluent suburb, where was her apparently well-heeled family during this period of her falling into Mercedes-owning “poverty”?  How could her husband have remained completely unemployed for years, as opposed to taking any job that would produce some income?  If he wasn’t working at all, why did they need two cars?  Why didn’t she make him go get the food stamps, perhaps to motivate him to get off his duff and find a job?  How do we define poverty if a couple can own and drive two cars and get significant financial aid?

But Kish, as is usually the case, asked the most pertinent question of all:  why would this woman write this story in the first place?  If she’s as embarrassed as she claims to be, why not keep this sad tale of her struggles to herself rather than publicize her circumstances?  Isn’t writing this story just a pathetic cry for attention from some needy person who wants the world to know that yes, she’s had her brush with the common folks?

Hillary Clinton’s Speaking Fees And The Colleges That Are Paying Them

The Washington Post carried an interesting article yesterday about the enormous fees that colleges are paying for the privilege of hearing a speech from Hillary Clinton.

UCLA paid Mrs. Clinton $300,000 — $300,000 — for a speech in March.  (According to the Post, UCLA also paid Bill Clinton $250,000 for a speech in 2012.)  The University of Connecticut paid $251,250 for a speech from Mrs. Clinton in April, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is set to pay $225,000 for a speech in October.  Five other schools — the University at Buffalo, Colgate University, and Hamilton College in New York, Simmons College in Massachusetts, and the University of Miami in Florida — also have paid for speeches from Mrs. Clinton but have not disclosed the amounts of the payments.  The Post article helpfully notes, however, that her standard speaking fee is $200,000.

This is no surprise from the Clinton standpoint.  Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised “dead broke” comments were made in the context of attempting to explain why the Clintons needed to amass a considerable personal fortune, estimated to exceed $100 million, in the 14 years since President Clinton left office.  To the extent she is keeping some of the fees for herself — at least two of the big payments, from UCLA and UNLV, apparently are dedicated to the Clinton Foundation — Hillary Clinton may simply feel she needs to further add to that wealth.  Or, she may be gearing up for another presidential run and want to add to her personal campaign war chest.  Or, she may think she is a hugely important historical and cultural figure who reasonably should be paid outlandish fees to speak at college events.  Either way, if colleges are willing to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars her way for a speech, who is she to say no?

What about the colleges, though?  Seven of the eight said Mrs. Clinton’s fees were paid by a lecture series endowment or private donations and not through tuition, student fees or public dollars; at UNLV she will be headlining a glittering fundraising event at the Bellagio Casino where school trustees hope her “star power” will boost donations.  There’s no doubt that private underwriting is better than using endowment or tuition dollars to pay Mrs. Clinton’s high fees, but there’s still something unseemly about it all.  When we constantly hear about the problem of crushing student debt and annual tuition hikes, how can colleges be affiliated with events where any speaker is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars?  Has Hillary Clinton suddenly vaulted into the pantheon of compelling public speakers next to Lincoln and Churchill?  Or, is it possible that at least part of the decision to agree to pay such amounts to Hillary Clinton was motivated by a desire to curry favor with a person who many think is likely to be the next President of the United States?

The ability of political figures to take a break from public office and immediately be showered with money from colleges and public corporations alike is a deeply troubling reality in modern America.  The willingness of colleges to pay a current political figure like Hillary Clinton many multiples of the average annual income of Americans for a single speech, and her willingness to accept such amounts, is just another example.

Picking Up Food Stamps In A Mercedes

The Washington Post website carried an article a few days ago that has provoked a lot of comment.  Entitled “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps,” it tells the story of a middle-class woman who falls into poverty — at least, poverty of a sort.

It’s a sad story, but also the kind that naturally raises questions.  The woman grew up in an affluent suburb, goes to good schools, and gets good jobs.  She meets a guy, gets pregnant, then gets married — but her husband loses his job, they’re saddled with a mortgage that is more than they can afford, and she has twins who are born early and need expensive formula.  Ultimately, she ends up signing up for Medicaid, food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children Special Supplemental Nutrition Program.

The woman recounts embarrassing anecdotes.  She’s got to answer a lot of questions before she gets the aid.  She’s afraid an apparently well-meaning older man will give her money, but instead he makes a friendly religious pitch and she takes off to avoid further contact.  A busybody woman questions her purchase of root beer using food stamps, and the check-out girl stands up for her.  And finally, one day, she has to take her husband’s Mercedes — a 2003 Mercedes Kompressor — to pick up her food stamps.  No one said anything, but they did stare at her . . . and to this day it’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to her.

They kept the Mercedes because it was the one reliable thing in their lives.  And now, after years of her husband being unemployed, he’s found a good job that pays well, and she’s going back to grad school.  She says that “President Obama’s programs — from the extended unemployment benefits to the tax-free allowance for short-selling a home we couldn’t afford — allowed us to crawl our way out of the hole.”  She closes the story by noting that they still have the Mercedes.  Thank God the combination of years of unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a federal program that let them get rid of a bad house purchase let them keep their Mercedes!

As I said, it’s a story that raises many questions.  If this woman grew up in an affluent suburb, where was her apparently well-heeled family during this period of her falling into Mercedes-owning “poverty”?  How could her husband have remained completely unemployed for years, as opposed to taking any job that would produce some income?  If he wasn’t working at all, why did they need two cars?  Why didn’t she make him go get the food stamps, perhaps to motivate him to get off his duff and find a job?  How do we define poverty if a couple can own and drive two cars and get significant financial aid?

But Kish, as is usually the case, asked the most pertinent question of all:  why would this woman write this story in the first place?  If she’s as embarrassed as she claims to be, why not keep this sad tale of her struggles to herself rather than publicize her circumstances?  Isn’t writing this story just a pathetic cry for attention from some needy person who wants the world to know that yes, she’s had her brush with the common folks?

Our Cutting-Edge Government

On Saturday the Washington Post published a stunning news article — one of those pieces that make you shake your head in wonder and disgust.

The story, by reporter David Fahrenthold, is about how the Office of Personnel Management — the main agency charged with human resources function for federal employees — processes the retirement paperwork of those federal employees. And “paperwork” is apt, because even though it is March 2014, the process is done almost entirely by hand and almost entirely on paper. Imagine! And to make it even weirder, it all happens underground, in a remote abandoned mine in Pennsylvania that received paper forms by the truckload and is filled with filing cabinets. That’s right — filing cabinets.

Using its antiquated process, it takes 61 days for the Office of Personnel Management to complete the retirement process. By contrast it takes Texas two days.

Does any large private company still process personnel actions on paper and by hand? Do any still maintain filing cabinets of sensitive personnel documents?

No wonder these guys botched the job of designing a functioning website!

The Putin Piece

Several Webner House readers and friends have asked me what I think of the op-ed piece from Vladimir Putin that was published in the New York Times.  If you haven’t read it, it’s here.  I’ve got several reactions to it.

First, I’m amazed that some people are questioning the decision of the Times to run the piece at all.  As a fan of the First Amendment, I firmly believe that more speech is better than less.  I’m glad the Times ran the piece, because it did what free speech advocates expect — it provoked lots of comment.  The Washington Post, for example, ran a response that annotated and “fact-checked” the Putin piece.  In my view, all of the discussion — about the role of the Russians, what American policy is and should be, and is the piece a pure propaganda effort — is a very good thing.  The more people become aware of competing views, the better.

Second, I think the piece was a carefully crafted bit of propaganda from a foreign leader who is following his own agenda.  So what?  There is still value in being exposed to the views of other actors on the world stage.  I’m also not troubled by the criticism of American policy.  We’re big boys, and we — and our leaders — should be hardened to the rough and tumble of a world where others are pursuing different agendas.  If there are members of the Obama Administration who are feeling bruised by the criticisms of Vladimir Putin, they really need to get over it.

Finally, although I agree with Putin’s notion of America working within the framework of international law and international organizations to resolve the Syrian crisis, I completely disagree with one of his broader points.  He thinks its dangerous that many Americans view our country as exceptional, I think exactly the opposite.  Most of our ancestors came to America precisely because they believed it was exceptional — and it was, and is, exceptional.  It is the place where Old World class, religious, and ethnic divisions are shed and where freedom allows people to advance and prosper no matter what village they come from or what religious faith they follow. The opportunity and freedom found in America is not found in Putin’s Russia or countless other countries.

Sorry, Vlad!  You’re wrong about America.  We are exceptional, and the world is a better place for our exceptionalism.  In the gush of reaction to the Putin piece, I’m hoping that many Americans — including President Obama — focus on that reality as well.

Black Budget, Black Box

Edward Snowden’s leaked information continues to gradually make its way into the public eye.  Yesterday the Washington Post ran a carefully worded story discussing the “black budget” for U.S. intelligence agencies for fiscal year 2013.  It’s called the “black budget” because very little light is shed on what the intelligence agencies are actually doing with the money they are receiving.  And it’s a lot of money.  According to the Post story, the “black budget” for fiscal year 2013 was an eye-popping $52.6 billion.

Spending on intelligence has skyrocketed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and you get the sense that the intelligence community saw the attacks as an opportunity to expand their manpower, their budgets, and their influence.  They were hugely successful.  There are now 16 federal agencies involved in intelligence gathering, and they collectively employ more than 107,000 people.

The Post story focused on areas where the intelligence community apparently is unable to provide much meaningful information — like North Korea — but I think the real story is the size of our spy operations.  From the President on down, I’m skeptical that there is much in the way of meaningful oversight of what those 16 different agencies are doing — to say nothing of coordination of their activities.  How much assurance can we have that the agencies are complying with laws and directives, including those that prevent routine intelligence gathering about Americans engaged in domestic activities?

Size and money may allow you to buy neat spy gizmos and establish operations in faraway lands, but they also have a disadvantage.  Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying:  “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”  The more people involved in secret activities, the less likely it is that they will remain secret for long.  With 107,000 people involved in intelligence gathering, is it any wonder that our government leaks like a sieve and people like Edward Snowden can collect and disclose reams of classified information?

The (Sigh) News About The News

The news business in America has been in the news a lot recently, and unfortunately the news is pretty much all bad.

Two of our most storied newspapers, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, have been sold for a small fraction of their value only a decade ago.  The New York Times, which bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion, sold it to billionaire John Henry for only $70 million.  What’s worse, the Times retained liability for the Globe’s pension obligations, which reportedly total more than $100 million.  If you do the math, that means the Times basically lost its entire $1.1 billion investment over 20 years.  Although the Times tried to justify its sale as an effort to focus on its core “brand,” it’s obvious the sale sought to unload a money pit that the Times didn’t know how to turn around.

The Washington Post and related publishing businesses were sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250 million.  Although the price was higher than the pittance paid for the Globe, it still shocked the journalism world because it was much lower than the Post‘s expected value and because it ended the long-time ownership of the Graham family.  Both the Post and the Globe have been troubled by the same trends that have plagued other newspapers — declining circulation and a business model based on paper, with all of its attendant costs, when the rest of the world is moving full throttle into digital communications.

In addition to the fire sale prices paid for these two legendary publications, recent journalism news has seen continuing layoffs of reporters, editors, and other members of newspaper staffs.  Last week, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off about one-third of its editorial staff.

One sign of the desperate times in the news business is the effort to see the silver lining in Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.  Some people in the journalism industry hope that Bezos, who has taken Amazon from an on-line bookseller to its current status as an ever-expanding conglomerate powerhouse, may be able to figure out what has stumped others in the journalism business:  how to make the daily newspaper something that everybody will read, and happily pay for, again.

Our First Place In Washington, D.C.

When Kish and I first moved to Washington, D.C. in February 1981, we lived on the third floor of a brownstone at 1019 East Capitol Street.

It wasn’t a roomy place.  There was one bedroom and a bathroom, a narrow living room and a tiny kitchen.  But it was in Washington, D.C., and you could walk outside our front door, look down the street, and see the dome of the U.S. Capitol.  It had a neat little eating area where light would stream in through the windows in the morning.

We subscribed to the Washington Post and read the paper before work while we drank our coffee.  We had a car with a valid D.C. permit — no small feat given the byzantine D.C. bureaucracy — but we hardly ever drove.  We walked everywhere or took the Metro.  On pretty weekend days we often strolled down to the National Mall, bought croissants and coffee, and sat on a bench reading our paper as the joggers moved past and the tourists gawked and the shadow of the Washington Monument drifted across the green lawn.

Kish worked in the Senate and I worked in the House.  We walked down the street in the morning and parted ways at the corner next to the Library of Congress.  She turned right to go to her office; I turned left to go to mine.  We worked hard and paid our taxes.  Kish moved on to other jobs  after a while, and I moved on to law school, and then we moved to a larger place in Foggy Bottom.

I will always remember with great fondness our little space on East Capitol Street, however.  We loved it there — and, in retrospect, I think it is where I first started to understand what it meant to be an adult.

HUD Dud

President Obama, and many other others, have pointed out that those saying we can balance the budget solely by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” are taking a phony approach to fiscal discipline.  However, that doesn’t mean that “waste, fraud and abuse” doesn’t exist — a fact proven by yesterday’s Washington Post piece on spending by HUD on community housing projects.

The Post story found that in recent years more than $400 million in HUD money has been spent on stalled or abandoned projects.  In some cases, money was loaned and projects never got underway.  Many of the people to whom money was given had no experience in construction or had questionable qualifications for getting the federal booty.  The overall picture painted by the article suggests that our tax dollars were spent with little concern for how they would actually be used, and then with little attention to how they were actually being spent.

I recognize that $400 million is only a tiny drop in our colossal deficit bucket — but $400 million is still a lot of money in my book, and the Post article looks at only one program administered by one agency.  What would we find if every federal program were subjected to similar scrutiny?

I’m not surprised by the waste found in the HUD housing efforts, nor am I surprised by the attitude reflected in the quotes from government officials who are involved in this poorly run program.  One person who manages HUD money says we need to reduce the risk by enacting “basic standards” — which suggests that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent without even “basic standards” that apply.  Could that possibly be true?  The Post quotes another government official, Mercedes Marquez, HUD’s assistant secretary for community planning and development, says “We can do better and we will.”  But why on Earth should we believe her?  Isn’t it safe to assume that every HUD official since that agency was formed has said pretty much the same thing?

This is an example of where governments and businesses diverge.  In any business, a division that failed to insist on basic accountability and frittered away $400 million would be shut down — period.  Why shouldn’t we take the same approach with this badly administered program?