Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Niche in Time

I bought my first music recording in the basement of H.C. Pranges department store in Sheboygan. It was a 45 – “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”, a ridiculous novelty record that makes President Obama’s gaffe about the Special Olympics look like a heartfelt tribute to the disabled (the B side of the record was the same “song”, played backward). I bought my first album – the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – in the same basement.

I got caught trying to steal a Monkee’s record from a small music rack at a New Holstein appliance store – it fell out from under my shirt as I got on my bike and rolled pathetically to the concrete while the patient woman who knew what I was up to watched with her arms crossed. Police were not called. I got my first break out of the way early parents and police were not called (that I know of).

Eventually, there was an explosion of record stores in big and small towns; from groovy boutique stores that doubled as head shops to square mall staples like Musicland. There was a lot of economic activity during the late ‘60s until the late ‘70s as rock music changed the world or rested on its laurels (depending on your perspective), even at $3.99 per album.

I rode the wave for a couple of very interesting years with Peaches Records and Tapes, a national and very temporary chain of deliberately oversized stores that took over a dead Red Owl grocery store on West Silver Spring and filled it with wood paneling and all sorts of musical paraphernalia in 1976. It wasn’t easy to squeeze your way into the major local stores like 1812 Overture – you had to know someone, or so it seemed. Peaches came in with managers from other parts of the country, who, not knowing how pathetically unconnected I was, hired me as a cashier.

The chain, based in Los Angeles, was expanding rapidly – opening a new store in the Midwest every couple of weeks at one point. I ingratiated myself enough with the powers-that-be somehow and was invited to travel to other cities to help them open their stores. Dayton, Indianapolis, Pittsbugh — I got to spend a week in each city, training cashiers on primitive machines (no bar codes – manual entry for everything) during the day and taking advantage of a very generous go-ahead-and-order-anything-you-can-sign-for policy in some pretty nice hotels at night.

In the summer of ‘78, they moved me to Cincinnati to be the #2 manager in a new store. It was the ultimate experience in T-shirt capitalism, where I spent a couple of months in a hotel (same rules), hired a full staff of strangers, got invited to all sorts of free concerts and promo events (a non-performing Tom Waits bought me a beer; saw the Police in a small club with ten other people; met Springsteen backstage), met a bunch of wonderful people and, eventually, figured out that I never wanted to live outside of Wisconsin again. I strapped the pieces of my waterbed to the top of my Celica exactly a year later, made a bee-line straight for Madison and went back to school.

I worked for Peaches during the height of post-Beatles record sales. Saturday Night Fever (“Disco Inferno” – yes; Bee Gees – no) came out while I was there and we had pyramids of the product to go along with the 6'-by-6' reproduction of the cover art (a Peaches specialty). The enormous cross-media success of that monster led to all kinds of excess that eventually managed to strangle popular music. I was working in the warehouse when we returned crates of the Grease soundtrack, not to mention the ultimate insult to music listeners everywhere – the soundtrack to that abomination of a movie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By that time, the music had already began to splinter with the punk rock movement, whose records were far more comfortable in the dirty bins of places like the recently-late, lamented Atomic Records than on the cheesy tiled floors of Peaches.

By the time of my move to Cincinnati, it was already over for the music business, but nobody knew it. Peaches was bankrupt within a couple of years (I’d like to think my reckless hotel bills helped). Music continued to drift and divide into niche audiences, with brief hiccups of decent art with mass appeal by major artists like Prince, Springsteen and Madonna in the mid-‘80s. From LPs to 8-tracks (sold at Peaches when it opened) to cassettes to CDs, the software changed until, now, it has disappeared all together. You can’t hold your music cover art in your hands any more, but you can look at it on a computer screen. But, no touching!

The internet revolution and reality continues to extract its legacy-market victims. Record stores, bookstores, newspapers, car companies, hedge funds, Republicans – all so 2004. But it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Mortgage Broker, the Jailbird

The Journal Sentinel continues its desperate sensationalist tabloid journalism this week, trying to get you upset that some people with criminal records are licensed mortgage brokers. Oh, the horror! Some of them have even taken part in the same shenanigans many others in the industry were practicing during the wild-and-wooly sub-prime era. Get out! How have we sunk so low as a society to let felons try to rehabilitate themselves in this manner? Off with their licenses!

The (so far) two part saga of greed, intrigue and pretend-outrage is brought to you by former Spice Boy Cary Spivak, from which we have not heard much since he was banished to the back business pages after his separation from fellow investigative columnist Dan Bice a couple of years ago. Given the less snarky, more moderate tone of the Bice column, it appears Spivak brought the right-wing attitude to the enterprise back in the day, which has not been missed.

In any event, Spivak now brings his hungry editors more of the high-horse fodder they have been looking for in their doomed attempt to save the paper by appealing to the same audience as right-wing talk radio. Any time you can get a couple of mug shots of black men on Page One is a good day for the Journal Sentinel, or so they think. I mean, how can you beat a lede like this: "A killer, a handful of drug dealers and a onetime leader of the Latin Kings - these are just some of the criminals who..." What? WHAT??... "have received state-issued licenses to write your mortgage loan."

Whoa, mama, this is serious stuff. 340 criminal mortgage brokers – 500 if you count the perpetrators of the J-S’s last news-bomb campaign, drunk drivers. "The licenses give the ex-cons easy access to a client's personal financial information, including bank account and Social Security numbers," pants Spivak. Yipes! I bet they used them, too. No? Oh. But, never mind because "...More importantly, the licenses open the door to the mortgage market..." No! Not the mortgage market!!

Wait, isn’t the mortgage market all dried up? Yes, and, although the entire series reeks of mortal danger, almost everything in the articles is in the past tense. A couple of these criminals became criminals again when the mortgage market "was awash in billions of dollars until it [er] crashed". They got caught and are back in prison years ago. Well, good. Now those hundreds of apparently rehabbed offenders can go about their business by legally contributing to society, right?

Not if Spivak and the Journal Sentinel can help it. Spending your time in prison trying to better yourself by perhaps studying for the brokerage exam is just another criminal trick, according to Spivak. "Real estate is a popular subject among the drug dealers and white-collar criminals doing time in low-security federal prisons - facilities often called Club Feds...Real estate is always an area guys talk about . . . they make it sound so easy." Yeah, easy, see? "‘The first book I picked up was a real estate book,’ he said." Jesus Christ! Close the library NOW!

Who needs to bother to get a drug cache to sell when you can just go out and use your freshly-minted brokerage license to break the law some more, complete with a detailed paper trail for investigators to use to bust your ass -- again. Makes sense to me. Obviously, they have no interest in being upstanding citizens. This outrageous attempt to find new criminal angles through adult education and state licenses must cease!

And, indeed, it already will. After spending most of Sunday’s article trying to convince us that our hair is on fire, we learn beginning in paragraph 48 that the feds and the state have new rules to do criminal background checks and to prevent felons from getting these apparent licenses to print money within 7 years of their convictions. Problem solved, right?

No. As they do with all of their phony campaigns, expect the Journal Sentinel to wax concerned about this "problem" on the editorial page and to run stories bragging about how some opportunistic legislator or other is trying to put more teeth in the law to bite the bad guys, all just because of the fine reporting of the J-S.

It makes you wonder, though, what exactly the Kings of State Street would have ex-offenders do when they get out of prison. Many of the dark suspicions that they have about the formerly lucrative world of mortgage brokerage would also apply to other, less educated professions. Is the garbage collector searching through my trash for my social security number? Should that janitor be allowed to wander through the halls of our empty office at night, covetting my coffee cups and snowglobes? Is that guy in the back spitting into my Big Mac?

It seems to me it would be a better idea to open avenues for those who have done wrong to make a positive change, not close them by scaring the public with yellow-journalism hysterics. If some cons can use their time in prison productively and come out with a skill or trade they didn't have before, more power to him, and to us. Society as a whole will have a lot more trouble with someone coming out of prison who can't use his honestly-earned mortgage license than with someone who can.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Health Care "Debate" in Journal Sentinel Two-Headed, One-Sided

With its number of pages shrinking by the day and its readership becoming ever more progressive, why would the Journal Sentinel continue to turn over even more of its limited newsprint real estate to predictable right-wing hacks? And how silly is it to have them tripping over the same message on the same day?

No less than two of the paper’s growing stable of local GOP-friendly columnists kicked the same health care cat this Sunday, playing the same Orwellian language tricks on behalf of the health insurance industry. Either they both got the same memo on the same day from some industry stooge or they are the most unimaginative couple of corporate mouthpieces – outside of wing-nut radio – in local media. I’m guessing it’s both.

Usually, reporters and columnists for the Journal Sentinel are not supposed to be active with any political party. Such rules do not apply, apparently, to John Torinus, the chairman of a graphic arts company in West Bend, a board member of notorious right-wing election-flipper WMC and a regular contributor to Republican campaigns. Torinus appears regularly in the Business section driving the tiresome low-tax/free trade/anti-labor agenda of the stereotypical capitalist class. Apparently, this kind of tripe is expected in the Business section, which – the reasoning goes – is only read by captains of industry who need their egos and outdated notions stroked. That was back when there were some captains and some industry in town, but, the tell-‘em-what-we-think-they-want-to-hear tradition continues as the J-S.

In his column this Sunday, Torinus explores familiar territory for him, promoting the type of high-deductible health insurance imposed on his company’s employees and trying to get state and local government employees off of the naturally more-expensive real health insurance – you know, the kind that actually pays for your doctor visit before eating up $3,000 of your own money first. Although he used the phrase "high-deductible plan" to describe, well, the high-deductible plans as recently at last October, he now uses the deceptive language "consumer-driven health plans". Out of necessity, these cheaper plans are now all over the private sector. Torinus claims that since such plans "work" there (they don't, by the way), it should also be imposed on public employees.

First of all, Torinus presumes the use and funding of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), the Trojan horse scheme cooked up during Junior Bush’s early years to move the country down just this slippery slope. The fact is that, in practice, most people with high-deductible plans don’t have HSAs. If they have to go to the doctor or end up in the hospital, that first $3,000 is out of their own pockets, if they have any.

It’s actually like having no health insurance at all. What really happens is that people who have to pay the first couple thousand or so (no big deal to silver-spooners like Torinus, but still...) let the little stuff go, don’t get regular check-ups – preventative care goes out the window – leading to more serious health problems down the line.

The scheme benefits only one entity – the health insurance companies, which – for relatively healthy people with less than $3,000 care needed for the year – may not ever have to pay any doctor bills for many of their "insured". But this is the "consumer’s choice" according to Torinus – to let the toothache, the bout with depression, the weird lump on the skin go for now. This is the exact opposite of optimum health care in every other industrialized country in the world, but, hey, let ‘em eat cake, says Torinus.

Meanwhile, over at the four-page Crossroads section, the editors again found room for the omnipresent Patrick McIlheran, who decided on the same day to squawk about the same thing with the same "consumer-driven" language. Not surprisingly, Republican Milwaukee’s favorite dog-on-a-leash is happy to throw in with the high-deductible crowd, crowing about the arrangement with public employees in Manitowoc County and boldly expanding the "lesson" to the edges of the known universe. "The question isn't whether HSAs and markets work but whether they can be permitted to work," says the former copy boy who, due to his own union protections at the J-S, I'm guessing, has to deal with no such thing.

The situation in Manitowoc if accurately described by McIlheran (I know -- big "if") appears to be unique, extraordinarily generous and symbolic of nothing. Unlike the vast majority of private employers celebrated by Torinus who might, at best, match an employee's contribution, the HSAs in Manitowoc County are funded entirely by the county. So, besides paying the premiums of the high-deductible plan, the county plunks $3,000 into the HSA of every employee every year. "...the leftover money builds up, and they can keep it when they leave," reports Paddy Mac.

Shit, I'd take that deal, too. But, other than other small counties -- go Calumet, cheers McIlheran -- how the hell would governments as large as MPS, Milwaukee County or the State of Wisconsin do the same thing?

Even if they could, it proves nothing about the larger point Torinus and McIlheran are trying to make about the "dangers" of national health care. The HSA/high-deductible scheme is a lie designed to save the bloated health insurance industry from America's inevitable long-overdue move to a 21st century health care financing system. There is no way the Obama administration is going to be distracted by snake oil salesmen like Torinus and McIlheran. They are much more serious than that.