Archive for January, 2009

Maxine Waters Cannot Drown Bureaucracy

January 26, 2009

Saw a great story on the news last week. Cong. Rep. Maxine Waters (D, Cal) was trying to help out some of her constituents with their mortgage problems. As the Biz Section columnists like to suggest, they had been trying to renegotiate their mortgages, but had come up against the VoiceMail Wall. Rep. Waters apparently figured she might get better results by being able to start the conversation, “This is Congressional Representative Maxine Waters,” etc. The story did not actually indicate whether the results she got were any better than those of her constituents, but clearly her results were pretty bad. She spent between ten minutes and two hours trying to get through to the appropriate people at the various mortgage offices. Kept getting rerouted, disconnected, transferred, and left at dead ends.

It was all, of course, very familiar to me, as it undoubtedly was to most viewers. We get that kind of treatment all the time, not just from our mortgage offices, but from the phone company, the health care people, the car repair people, the gas and light utilities, and, oh yes, congressional offices. I’m currently in the process of trying to renegotiate my various phone accounts (which include two residential lines, one business line, and two cell phones, one of which—a phone company person helpfully pointed out today—is also a business phone) so as to package them into a lower-cost arrangement. So far, I’m only two phone calls into the process, but then, it’s just the beginning of the week.

What’s really going on here isn’t the fault of any particular private or public bureaucracy. It’s the fault of a decision made by almost all of them 30 years ago or so, that receptionists are a waste of money. Receptionists spend (the reasoning goes) X% of the time answering phones and transmitting messages, which is what they get paid for. But they also spent Y% of the time doing nothing while they wait for the phone to ring. And they still get paid for that time too. We can’t have that. So now the unpaid waiting time has been shifted to the consumer (or, on occasion, the consumer’s advocate, such as Rep. Waters.)

Mr. Wired says this is all a function of queuing theory, and was worked out a long time ago by IT types. Which is why most bank and post office have umpteen windows, ¾ of which are not in use at any given moment, because it is cheaper to make the customers wait in line than to let tellers have any down time other than their official breaks, if any. BTW, at least in Chicago, the Fire Department is now trying to reduce the amount of down time of the firefighters, by putting them on 8-hour shifts, rather than the usual 24 hours on-24 hours off arrangement, which (we are told) gives them all kinds of time to run small businesses and get into trouble. But the 8-hour pattern is ill-suited to almost any seconds-of-terror/hours-of-

boredom job, including but not limited to the US Marines. This needs rethinking.


High Noon in DC

January 21, 2009

The Inauguration was impressive, even on the left-hand half of my computer monitor. High points: the John Williams piece (not quite as good as Copeland on the same theme, but good, and very well-performed. Nice to watch Yitzhak Perlman’s grin.) Lowery’s prayer (basically, Isaiah’s greatest hits. Stealing from the best.) Gene Robinson’s prayer, which I really liked. The crowd, all one million plus of them, not counting the poor guys who had tickets but never made it onto the Mall. The First Kids—the older one with her omnipresent camera (obviously it never occurred to her that now anybody in the world would send her an autographed picture if she asked for it), the younger one with her thumbs-up as First Dad went to do the oath.

Human-but-not-high points: the presidential oath, which the Chief Justice and Obama between them finally got right. The poem (YMMV, obviously.) The address—from Obama we have come to expect real barn-burners, and this was not one of those. It hit all the right notes, as if written to a checklist, which it probably was. Mr. Wired says he should have let his star writers do it, instead of insisting on doing it himself. But apparently the writers did at least have a hand in it. It wasn’t Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, which is probably the best of its kind ever. But it wasn’t bad. Rick Warren’s prayer.

What I liked most of all was something a lot of people probably missed altogether. Last night at one of the broadcasts from the various Balls, Beyoncé, after doing a quite creditable version of “At Last” for the First Couple to dance to, tried to relate her emotions to an interviewer backstage without utterly dissolving into tears, and, in one of her attempts, said, “He makes me want to be smarter.”


Sidney Harris, the late columnist, once said that, while he had heard lots of people say they would like to be better-looking or richer or in better physical shape or healthier, he had never heard anybody say they would like to be more intelligent. I pointed out in a response which I don’t know that he ever saw, that religious Jews pray for more intelligence every morning. But that was pretty esoteric, compared with Beyoncé saying, on national TV, coast to coast before untold millions of viewers, that Obama, and his inauguration, make her want to be smarter. I am overwhelmed with delight and hope at this. After decades of very smart politicians diligently hiding their IQ under very large bushel baskets rather than intimidate the presumably dumb but sensitive average voter, it is finally okay to be intelligent, and to value intelligence. I have absolutely no idea how smart Beyoncé already is, which tells you something right there. But I wish her well in her pursuit of more smarts, and hope she continues to encourage the rest of us in sharing that pursuit.

Jane Grey

An End to Privatization?

January 19, 2009

For the past 28 years, Americans on all political sides have considered privatization the best solution to almost every problem.  Government, we keep being told, can’t do anything right.  The past three Republican presidents have, of course, gone out of their way to prove this, in a way they should logically never have been allowed to do.  (“If elected head of this government, which should do as little as possible, I promise I will do as little as possible.”  Gimme a break.)  Government, we are told, should not be allowed to run profit-making enterprises, like Conrail, because then it competes unfairly with private-sector markets. And of course it should not be allowed to operate at a loss, as with Amtrak, because then it is wasting the people’s money. All of its operations are full of waste, fraud, and abuse, except, I suppose, those that manage to exactly break even.

What are the supposed advantages of private-sector over government operations? These days, government often contracts with corporations to handle its dirty work, whether collecting office trash or driving trucks over the IED Highway in Iraq.  Most private corporations these days are not unionized, and are therefore able to pay their rank-and-file workers less in monetary compensation and benefits than government workers (or unionized private-sector workers) get.  In addition, private corporations can and often do save money by playing fast and loose with various governmental regulations in ways the government itself obviously can’t get away with.

But on the other hand, corporations by definition contain one more level of costs than government—stockholder dividends.  And they are subject to the whims of private executive management, including outrageous levels of compensation utterly unrelated to any kind of track record.

The major difference between governmental and corporate operations, however, is rarely even mentioned on either side of the political divide.  The ordinary citizen has no input into the selection of corporate management, except perhaps in one or two corporations in which s/he gets an occasional proxy, courtesy of a 401(k) or an IRA.  We all get to vote for the management of the entire government.  Reasonable people can differ about the ultimate efficacy of those votes, but there can be absolutely no question that the ordinary citizen-voter has a lot more effect on the government than the ordinary citizen-stockholder in one or two corporations has on the private market as a whole.

So let’s use this new beginning to start mentioning the unmentionable. Let’s get the government off the privatizing track, and back into hiring its own—make that our own—workers to do our work at wages and benefits we would consider adequate.  The corporate executives won’t suffer.  They will, as usual, land on their feet.  If being head honcho of a major corporation doesn’t buy you exemption from the struggles of ordinary people, whatever else it does buy you isn’t worth the trouble of going to Board meetings. I don’t want the people’s business done by minimum-wage no-benefit “part-time” workers contracted by overpaid private corporate executives.  Save that for the private sector.

Red Emma

Some Advice on Divorce, or

January 11, 2009

When You’ve Given the Same Advice Three Times, It’s Time to Write It Down

I’ve been practicing family law in Chicago for thirty years now.  I find myself telling my new clients pretty much the same thing every time, and it occurs to me that it’s probably worth putting out in the public realm.  So:

1. You’re Going to Be Crazy for Two Years More or Less:  So will the rest of your family—your soon-to-be-ex, your kids, your in-laws, your close friends, and even your pets.  I had one client whose goldfish started acting like a piranha.  You will find yourself doing and saying things you could never have imagined before.  You will start checking out the Yellow Pages for convenient padded cells to book into.

But in fact, there is nothing permanently wrong with you.  In a couple of years, you and those around you will once again be normal people.  Not the same people you were before, probably, but normal.  In the meantime, you might want to get some kind of counseling or join a support group or talk to your pastor for help just getting through. If either you or your spouse has problems with alcohol or drugs, you might want to get everybody into various Twelve-Step programs.  Ala-Teen has gotten great reviews from kids I know.  Talk to your kids’ teachers and counselors in school, so they’ll know to watch out for problems.  There is help out there, and most of it is inexpensive or free: use it.

2. A Divorce Will Not Make Your Spouse Disappear: Not if you have kids under 21, anyway.  This process does not end by giving you a magic button that you can press and quietly, nonviolently make your ex vanish from the world, or even from your world.  It will not abolish your relationship with your ex.  It will just change that relationship.  Aside from all the legal and financial work you will be doing over the next couple of years, you will have to work on making that relationship with your kids’ other parent workable.  Above all, don’t ever force your kids to choose between you and their other parent.  Just keep your own door open to them.  There are therapists and mediators out there who may be able to help, although they’re usually expensive.

3. Cook County Illinois is the Largest Divorce Court Jurisdiction in the Country: It may even be the largest in the world—we don’t really have much data from China.  So everything takes longer.  Sometimes time is on your side; sometimes it works against you.  Either way, there will be a lot of it involved in this case.  Generally speaking, you can get the case over fast, or you can get what you want—not both. Try to be patient.  Sometimes your best advantage is the ability to outwait your spouse.


Better Than the Movie

January 11, 2009

Spurred by endless repeats of the trailer for “Valkyrie,” I’ve started reading up on the German resistance to Hitler, and on Stauffenberg in particular.  (This gives me a familiar twinge of grief, because my father, may he rest in peace, majored in German history in college, and we could probably have had some really good discussions about this. I usually get these twinges about much more prosaic things, like federal tax inquiries, since he was a CPA.) Anyway, I’m distressed and surprised by the lack of good reading material—and no historical novels at all–as well as by the fact that a lot of what the Chicago Public Library claims to have on the subject isn’t actually on the shelf.  I noted a while back that this was also true of most of the supposedly available stuff about Mussolini and Italian fascism.  Is this a plot?  Are the fascist paranoids out to cover their tracks?  Who knows?

Anyway, contrary to what most of the more erudite movie critics have to say, Tom Cruise wasn’t necessarily miscast as Stauffenberg, who in real life was exceedingly handsome and charismatic.  And the lack of material about him results at least partly from the fact that the Nazis, or somebody, disappeared all of his personal papers almost immediately after his execution (unless they turn up in some Iron Curtain archive, which is not impossible, but should have happened already if it was going to.)  So the people who do write about him can cast him as a religious fanatic, a superconservative aristocrat, or a socialist sympathizer, since what little evidence there is could support all of those hypotheses.  His politics kind of remind me of the author of the Blog Which Shall Not Be Named, actually, but please nobody tell him I said so.

But what really fascinates me is not Stauffenberg individually, but the movement he was part of, which seems to have thought of itself more as an opposition party in the European parliamentary style than a resistance movement.  Since opposition parties were illegal, of course that was really a distinction without a difference.  But the upside of that was that, unlike most resistance movements and coup plots, the participants had a long and broad view of what would happen after they succeeded, if they did. Most successful coups are followed by several years of chaos, while the participants figure out what to do next.  This one might not have been. The downside was that, because action was so difficult, they overthought everything, and because they could speculate about everything, they could and did argue about everything.  Foreign policy, including visions of a united Europe that look familiar now.  Economic policy.  Constitutional structures—are political parties to be allowed, and if so, how many and what kind?  Education of the next generation.  Why aren’t the alternative history buffs reading this stuff?

I suppose I’ll see the movie when it comes out on cable. The history is undoubtedly a lot more interesting.

Jane Grey

2009 Update–What Is It About Illinois?

January 5, 2009

Sorry, no catchy titles, no earthshaking ideas.  My computer has finally been rejiggered and is back at work, thanks to the wonders of the barter economy.  Chicago is cold but the skies and streets are clear.

And Illinois is in the middle of yet another political crisis.  Our probably-soon-to-be-ex-governor has appointed Roland Burris to fill Obama’s senatorial seat, and all kinds of people are refusing to accept this decision.  The Illinois Secretary of State doesn’t want to sign the papers he is required to sign, indicating that Burris has been appointed by the governor, even though that signature is an utterly insignificant ministerial act.  The Senate Democrats are promising to refuse to seat Burris, even though the Supreme Court made it absolutely clear several decades back that they have no choice in the matter.  (That was back in the days of Adam  Clayton Powell, whose district kept re-electing him while Congress kept unseating him.)  Okay, I think the appointment was a bad move on the governor’s part, and accepting it was an even worse move on Burris’ part.  What the governor should have done was named Barbara Flynn Currie (who is, incidentally, the Wired Family’s state rep.), a perfectly qualified person who also happens to be the head of the State House committee on impeachment.  Which would have thrown the impeachment process into a cocked hat, while making nobody mad.  But Burris is reasonably honest and competent (and, full disclosure here, once endorsed me when I was running for office in 1984.)  He is perfectly qualified, and nobody has any legal grounds for refusing him the senate seat.  These theatrics are nothing but a waste of time, money, and attention.  Enough already.

Meantime, Bill Richardson has withdrawn his name from consideration for Secretary of Commerce because he’s being investigated back home.  Which I guess is classier than what Burris is doing.

Which brings me back to our original question: what is it about Illinois?  Five governors indicted within my lifetime (one acquitted, one not yet tried, the others jailed for various terms. And that’s not counting two others who left office just ahead of the sheriff and are now posing as Messers. Clean while pronouncing on the current incumbent’s sins.)  The lowest ratio of spending on social needs to per capita income in the country.  School spending only slightly higher per capita than that of Mississippi, and actually lower than Alabama’s.

As the Blog Which Shall Not Be Named points out, we certainly aren’t unique–there’s always Louisiana.

Maybe what we should be asking is: what is it about voters?  A friend of mine was declaiming vigorously the other day about why our governor was allowed to appoint the new senator in the first place, rather than having a special election.  I pointed out that Illinois law, unlike that of some other states, doesn’t provide for that.  I then pointed out that it might not have helped much anyway—who, after all, put the governor in office in the first place?  Us, the voters, that’s who.  Why do we keep electing these guys?

Which brings us back to the electoral process and how voters use it:

We vote for the lesser evil.

Or we vote for the person we know the fewest bad things about.

Or we vote for the person we know anything about.

Or we vote for the person who seems to resemble us in some important way, like race, or gender, or religion, or subcultural preferences.

Or we vote for the person whom we could imagine liking, if we ever met in person.

Or we vote for the person from the party we have always voted for.

In Illinois, we not only elect our governor, senators, representatives, and sheriffs, we also elect about half of our judges.  Our ballots, as a result, are long enough to trip over on the way out of the booth, and most voters know absolutely nothing about more than 75% of the candidates.  As a lawyer, I know something about several of the judicial candidates, having practiced in front of them.  I occasionally have input into the judicial evaluations of the various bar associations, and in general I think the evaluators know what they’re doing.  So, by voting the bar association lists except where my personal experience disagrees with them, I’m doing a much better job than most voters.  Like most lawyers I know, I get asked for information before elections by many of my friends.  Maybe that helps the process too.

But this was not what the Founders had in mind.  It is also not what communitarians and Catholic advocates of “subsidiarity” have in mind.  What they were looking for, I think, was an electoral process that starts among the 500 or so people any individual voter is likely to be personally acquainted with, and works its way up through “captains of tens” and “captains of hundreds” and “captains of thousands” and so on, as originally suggested in the Jewish scriptures.  Not unlike the precinct captain-based organization of the old Chicago Machine or Tammany Hall, when you think about it.  Which was certainly no model of good government.  In fact, corruption, cronyism, and wrongheadedness seem to cluster at the levels of government most beloved of the communitarians and subsidiarists, when you think about it.  This is getting too complex for me, and it’s dinner time.  We welcome suggestions.


Marriage From the Other Side

January 1, 2009

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the analysis we’re seeing here.  Back in the days when marriage was about children, it was mainly about insuring that the children born to a man’s wife would be his children and not some other guy’s.  And, back before DNA was invented, the cheapest and most effective way to do that was to control the wife in question.  No doubt that was good for the family and good for the community.  But it wasn’t good for women.  It led to purdah, honor killings, and a lot of other bad stuff. As well as a bonanza for the textile industry, given how much more fabric it takes to veil a woman than to blindfold a man.


If, OTOH, marriage is just about sex, well, shoot, all that matters is that your partner has sex with you more or less when you’re in the mood. What s/he does the rest of the time is no big deal. 


Which is not how Mr. Wired and I live our lives, of course.  For 44 years, we have done the monogamy thing.  Which has been good for our families and our community, no doubt.  We have maintained a household which has provided care for a child and help for several other children, as well as for each other in illness and injury. 


But we made the choice to do so. It was about each of us as an individual. 


I’m of two minds (at least) about this.  Or maybe each of the Wired Sisters should speak in turn:


Red Emma—The communitarian nostalgiacs tell us that the family does, efficiently and at no cost, things for its members that the market economy and the state do only badly and at huge expense.  The family maximizes the range of choices for its members in ways that the market and the state cannot possibly do.  But, in the process, it discounts completely the value of female labor and loss of choices.  Yes, the result may well be a better society than what we have now, for men and male children.  Similarly, classical Athens was a wonderful place to live, if you were free and male.  Probably the ante-bellum Southern US was pretty good too, if you happened to own a plantation and the people who kept it running.  But any society which can maintain its advantages for some of its members only at the cost of some other members’ freedom does not deserve to survive. Whether we like it or not, if we cannot devise a good society, based on good families, without returning women to servitude, all we have a right to do is muddle along until we figure out how to.  Remember those family comedies in the ‘50s, in which Mama was called out of town for some emergency and the family suddenly had to survive without her and discover just how crucial her work really was, now that they didn’t have it?  Well, folks, that’s where we are right now. And just demanding that Mama come home won’t cut it any more.  She may not want to, and she may not even be able to.


Jane Grey—The family maximizes choices for its members in ways the market economy and the state cannot possibly match.  Barbara Ehrenreich refers to the family as a “socialism of two” (or, presumably, three or four or more.)  Within and because of the family, individuals can choose to take part in the market economy or not; to work for a corporation or run a small business or be an independent artisan.  The family can choose to support one or more of its members in the arts, countercultural politics, or community service.  Nobody else is going to pay people to do that.  If we allow the family to shrink and disappear, we will have nothing left to support individual choices except the market and the state, which have both, over the millennia, done a really poor job of it.


CynThesis—We may not even be able to make this discussion fruitful any more.  Whether we like it or not, the market has already come pretty close to destroying the family.  An increasing number of our families are formed when young people go away to college or the military, marry other young people they meet there, and then settle down in the first place they find jobs afterwards.  In the meantime, their respective parents move someplace else for their jobs, and then, ultimately, some other place for their respective retirements, until the families in question have one end in Florida, one end in Boston, and one end in Chicago, and, if they’re lucky, can make enough money between them all to see each other once a year at most.  If we can’t find a way to create families where people actually live, there just plain won’t be any.  It doesn’t matter whether a couple moves for her job or his job (or, for that matter, for her job or her job.)  The market will determine where and for how long they will sink roots, and who their neighbors will be.  If they cannot form a community with those neighbors, there will be no communities.


Sorry to be so gloomy. Happy New Year, and peace and light to you all.


The Wired Sisters