Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Vampires in Brooks Brothers Suits

In December of 2011, I posted a piece called Giving It Away. It was about corporate welfare in Illinois. In the seven-hundred days since, nothing has changed.

The state’s finances remain in ruins, critical legislation has not been passed, and the blood-sucking ghouls who inhabit our executive suites continue to approach the state for hand-outs.

With Christmas just under a month away, I thought it would be appropriate to post about the Illinois state legislature’s ongoing efforts at playing Santa:


In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling. Part of the fallout from the infamous Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision was that corporations possessed the same rights as individuals insofar as political advocacy is concerned.

And three years later, I agree. Corporations are people. So let’s start treating them as such.

In year-six of the Great Recession, U.S. corporations continue to approach state governments for hand-outs. An executive has only to play a few rounds of golf with officials from another state or municipality before legislators are scurrying to round-up a fresh batch of write-offs, deferments, loopholes and (nudge-nudge) “incentives”.

Yet conservatives continue to sputter and rage over the alleged over-taxation and over-regulation of these same corporations. The fact that corporate tax rates are a mere shadow of their nineteen-fifties selves, or that the corporate tax code is riddled with loopholes is irrelevant.

Where were they when Apple CEO Tim Cook testified that Apple’s tax rate on recent income of seventy-four billion dollars was two-percent? Exactly how is it that a corporation maintaining a post office box in some exotic tax haven (thereby exempting it from U.S. taxes) qualifies it as over-regulated?

Much less over-taxed?

While our elected representation pays requisite lip service to the vanishing middle-class and the mounting struggles of the working man every campaign cycle, they reliably enable corporations to duck tens of millions of dollars in taxes.

Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) provides a textbook example.

The food-processing and commodities-trading monolith is a glowing corporate success. They ranked twenty-seventh on the 2013 edition of Fortune magazine’s Fortune 500 list, with revenue of eighty-nine billion dollars.

Less-impressive is the fact they could teach Vito Corleone a thing or two about extortion.

ADM approached the state of Illinois—even as it lay emaciated and shrunken on its deathbed—and coyly curling a strand of hair around its fingers, intimated it might want to move. But they’re not sure where. It could be Dallas or St. Louis or even Chicago.

There are just so many places!

The Illinois General Assembly obediently responded. Its latest offer, while a reduction from the forty-million dollars ADM originally sought, is a big, fat giveaway to a company making a mountain of money even a professional athlete couldn’t imagine.

ADM feels it should be compensated for remaining in the intolerable backwater of Decatur, Illinois. Ask yourself: where are those well-heeled executive wives even supposed to shop?

From my vantage point, Archer Daniels Midland appears to be doing just fine. It’s a little tough to see that they need to be paid for anything apart from the services they render their customers. Their employees are doing a bang-up job, and I think ADM’s towering revenue is reward-enough for their judicious hiring.

(But if ADM truly feels unappreciated, I’d be happy to drop in and give their execs a hearty pat on the back.)

With a mountain of unpaid bills, an unfunded pension crisis that is the worst in the nation and bond ratings that are falling like interest in the Jonas Brothers, doesn’t Illinois have enough drama without yielding to the demands of a blood-sucking corporate parasite?

Exactly what should four-thousand jobs (the number of ADM employees in Decatur) cost—if anything? Furthermore, why pay ADM for hiring people who are already making vast amounts of money for them? Is there any conclusive proof that paying companies to stay outweighs the giveaways and tax forfeitures?

Furthermore, this legislation allows ADM to keep their employee’s income tax withholding, reason being that since there are years in which they have no tax obligation to the state, they are unable to take advantage of certain incentives.

Which is like asking Macy’s to compensate you because you weren’t able to use all their coupons.

Ostensibly, the bill will require ADM to create jobs, as well as maintain its current staffing levels. But despite living in the age of (ahem) over-regulated businesses, I have yet to see a government tell a corporation it couldn’t lay-off its employees. Or insist that it hire.

And neither have you.

When asked if he could guarantee that ADM would remain in Illinois after catching a glimpse of its early Christmas present, Greg Webb, their vice-president of government relations, could only issue a tepid “I don’t know about the guarantee part.”

Fuck you too, Greg.

This sucks for everyone—except Archer Daniels Midland. Taxpayers should never, ever be a corporate revenue stream.

Congress slashed unemployment benefits in August. Now we have the six-percent cut in food stamp (SNAP) benefits. Middle-class wages are flat. Benefits are disappearing—along with full-time jobs.

Tens of millions of people remain un—or under—employed as a result of the corporate-induced Great Recession, which I think we can all agree is just great.

Our Supreme Court declared that corporations are people, too. What I want to know is when do we start treating them like one?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My (Kind of) Hi-Tech Adventure

In the context of 2013, buying and installing a new printer is the technological equivalent of blowing your nose. Grab a tissue. Honk. Toss.

Simple.

So when my decade-old Lexmark printer ceased functioning, I assumed that replacing it would be routine.

But my inner cynic was not so easily swayed.

“Are you fucking serious? This is a computer. The concept of simple does not exist. Your computer was outdated by the time Bush began his second term. You’re up the creek without a paddle, pal.”

Shaken, I soldiered on. After all, my tech needs were very basic. All I needed was something that could faithfully duplicate whatever I had committed to Microsoft Word. I wouldn’t be demanding professional quality photo prints by remote from Angkor Wat with my iPhone.

My first choice was the HP Envy 4500. It seemed like the perfect fit between the limited abilities of my 2002 Dell Dimension 8200 and whatever I might be getting in the future. Plus, the chart on the outside of the box confirmed it was compatible with Windows XP.

But as Abbott and Costello once observed, the big print giveth, the small print taketh away.

Long story short, my computer refused to recognize the Envy 4500. This despite CD-ROMs, manufacturer web sites, downloads, workarounds and user forums. I had even gone under the hood and disabled things I never knew existed. All to no avail.

Of course, this warning didn’t exactly fuel my determination:

Continuing your installation of this software may impair or destabilize the correct operation of your system either immediately or in the future. Microsoft strongly recommends that you stop this installation now and contact the hardware vendor for software that has passed Windows logo testing.

So this was about logos? Couldn’t I just hire a graphics designer and have them develop one that was mutually appealing to HP and Microsoft?

I sighed. This was another item for the Does Not Compute list. A list of things that, while virtually incomprehensible to me, were facts of life in the senseless regions outside my brain.

Calls to HP’s 24/7 help desk netted only 24/7 messages that all available agents were busy, but that my call was very important to them. Of course, it wasn’t important-enough to adequately staff their call center, but that’s another story for another day.

As a HP spokesperson no doubt would have told me, it was this very lack of support that had made my HP printer so affordable. Having learned that when I push my luck it frequently pushes back, I abandoned the installation.

On returning the Envy, the twenty-somethings at the local big box store took one look at the gray in my hair and assumed the worst. They clearly took me for a moron. Or a technophobe.

Couldn’t they see I was the bastard offspring of Wozniak, Gates and Jobs? What was wrong with them? Besides, if I was a moron, would I have refused their suggestion that a tech install it for just $29.95?

Once my credit card (and my thinking) had been adjusted, I determined it must’ve been the wireless capacity that was subverting the installation. Like my computer, I needed something simpler.

My next victim was the HP 2512. It had great reviews, and looked like the Luddite-approved printer my computer was insisting upon. But after another day-off disappeared, a thought broke through the stony incomprehension of my ignorance: I needed to try another brand.

Yeah, that was it.

Armed with the kind of optimism only the truly naive can harbor, I returned to the big box store where I had purchased the 2512. I was determined to find a really basic printer.

And by basic, I mean one that only recently had been configured to work with electricity. Was there any chance Gutenberg had entered the computer printer game?

Fate led me to the Canon MG2520. It sat forlorn, a $29.95 misfit on a shelf full of machines that could do everything except your laundry. I scanned its box carefully, making sure it was a printer without ambition.

Copy, scan, print. Nothing more. Nothing less. Perfect.

I rode a wave of happy ignorance home, confident I had finally found the right printer. The third time is always the charm.

Isn’t it?

On opening the box, this seemed to be the case. For starters, the Canon didn’t require that a man with man-sized hands reach into a tiny space better-suited for a ten-year-old's to remove packing tape from pieces that, even without said tape, had all the mobility of a death row felon.

Secondly, the requisite pan-cultural sheet with illustrations depicting the actions required for set-up actually used drawings that resembled my purchase.

Even with a pool nowhere in sight, this was going swimmingly!

On and on it went, my confidence (or relief) zooming like a rocket. Any higher and I would need an oxygen mask.

I needn’t have worried.

At the point where I was to install the drivers, my computer displayed the same poor manners it had shown the two HP printers. It refused to acknowledge them. No matter how I attempted the install, it resembled an international feud at the UN.

"I beg of you. Will the secretary general please recognize the drivers from Canon?"

"No."

In a spasm of desperation no one installing a printer should ever feel, I attempted to defy Microsoft and their skull-and-crossbones message. “You want unstable? I’ll show you unstable!” I muttered as I clicked the button marked ‘Continue Anyway’.

Despite the promise of gleeful insurrection, clicking the button only returned me to the original screen and a second chance to make the “right” decision. This was a twisted and infuriating re-run of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

I could practically hear Regis Philbin. “Is that your final answer? Are you sure?”

With the discovery that Canon’s help desk was only open Monday through Friday, a household project I had been putting off suddenly seemed very appealing. As would crucifixion.

On Monday morning, a weary male voice greeted me. It wordlessly intoned “What do you want?”

After outlining my experiences to the rep, I obediently inserted the CD-ROM into the disc drive and initiated the install. “Same old thing” I smugly informed him.

In direct opposition to the manufacturer’s instructions, he had me do things. Ignore things. Defy Microsoft. Confident I could pursue legal action if my hard drive crashed, I consented.

Only this time, the rebellion was a success. The drivers had not only been installed, but my computer was acknowledging them like an honors student at a Miss Manners academy.

But I had questions. Why, despite my computer meeting the detailed system requirements listed on each of the three printers, had it been such a headache getting them to work?

The rep responded. “Sometimes, an operating system like XP will confibulate the central processing unit, causing retrofluxes in the random access memory which prevents, ugh, secondary collateral processes from initiating a world takeover.”

Or something like that.

“I see” I lied and thanked him for his time.

Twelve car trips, nine days, three models from two manufacturers and one USB cable later, I finally had a functional printer.

My streamlined and supercharged information age existence could now continue.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Riffing on the Movies

It’s a bit odd that I don’t post more often about movies, considering their profound impact on me. So many of the most fulfilling moments of my life have been spent in darkened theaters, given over to an absorbing story line playing out on a giant silver screen.

How could I forget the nights of my youth, taking in the cinematic wonders of the thirties, forties and fifties flickering for free on late night TV? Or seeing The Godfather, Raging Bull, The Last Emperor or The Painted Veil in a theater? They looked like beautiful gems on a black velvet pillow.

Like you, I have my favorites. In addition to the above, there’s Out of the Past, Vertigo, Picnic at Hanging Rock, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Last Picture Show, The Wrestler, La Strada, Network, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Casablanca. And Fargo, The Hustler, A Streetcar Named Desire and Ikiru. And Rashomon and Citizen Kane and Mulholland Drive.

Can I really ignore Lawrence of Arabia, Chinatown, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or 12 Angry Men? Or Mr. Roberts, The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Hell no.

Just to make it an even thirty, let’s throw in His Girl Friday and My Cousin Vinny. (I don’t broadcast the fact, but yes—I laugh. Sometimes.)

Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski are geniuses. John Huston, Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Federico Fellini, Sidney Lumet and Peter Weir aren’t far behind.

Which leaves out Sydney Pollack, the Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Bryan Forbes, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman and Anthony Minghella!

Crap. No wonder I don’t post more film blogs.

As best I can, I reckon I have seen approximately 1,057 movies in their entirety. The decade most often represented is the eighties, which makes sense since a. I was young, and b. had disposable income.

I have seen more of Hitchcock's films than any other director’s, and find it very appropriate that, given the extravagant imagery of his films, Fellini died on Halloween.

In a really peculiar bit of coincidence, the countries which produce my favorite cars are also the country of origin for my favorite foreign-language films (Japan, Italy and Germany).

I tend to like movies featuring conflicted and troubled individuals. Individuals facing dilemmas, moral and otherwise.

That said, I love film noir. It is, without a doubt, my favorite genre. And for my money, Out of the Past is the ne plus ultra of the species. Razor-sharp dialogue, great cinematography and one of the best performances of Robert Mitchum’s career.

Not surprisingly, Jane Greer is my femme fatale of all-time. Her Kathie Moffat has a heart colder than a stripper’s smile. To borrow a line from the Gene Hackman movie Heist, she could talk her way out of a sunburn.

This is also Kirk Douglas’ first film, and for an actor lampooned for his over-the-top performances, he turns in a taut, no-frills one here, conveying a violent menace barely contained by a cool exterior.

OK. That's the end of the blog. If you’re of a mind to, leave your favorites in the comments section. I am nothing if not curious.