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I was watching CNBC one day while I was working out.  I wanted to get their perspective on the next financial catastrophe that might befall us. CNBC tends a little toward the “alarmist” side of the spectrum. If you’re not aware of that, that’s probably because you avoid the cable news channels. Hats off to you, if that’s the case.

All the cable news networks tend toward alarmism, I think. Some are worse than others, some not so bad.  I think part of it is the blogosphere; some is just the intense 24 hours news cycle. You have to do something to sell the product, right?

Anyway, here’s CNBC discussing the Senate vote on the financial rescue package of early October 2008. On the show I was watching, one of the talking heads opines that the public sure seems angry about this and many of them, the public, that is, actually still favors the bill’s defeat.  This, in spite of the fact that the Dow was down about 500 points for the week! It seemed inconceivable to them. The people on “Main Street,” as they called it, were still pretty ticked off. They all put on their grimmest expressions and shook their heads in disbelief.

“Main Street,” one of the heads said dismissively, “I wish I could explain to them how stupid they actually are! Main Street,” he repeated, this time with a dash of contempt to compliment his dour expression.

The other heads nodded in agreement. Yes, those folks are pretty dumb, alright. That was the implication, anyway. And the implication was loud and clear.

One of the other heads, a woman, strikingly gorgeous, looked like she was all of about twenty three said, “I talked to a Congressman yesterday that said that a constituent called him and said if he voted for this bill, he lose that guy’s vote!

“So, I guess in this country,” She continued sagely, “if you vote to do the right thing, you lose your job!”

The other heads humphed and grimaced a little bit. They, again, nodded in agreement and looked very grim about the future of the Republic. Very grim indeed.

The entire exchange made me think about the polarization of the public versus the “powers-that-be” over this issue. The big financial bail out of 2008. Now, personally, I favored the bill.  I don’t like a lot of things about it, philosophically, but on balance it looks like it’s the solution with the least risk to the most people. And, no, I’m not talking about the Country Clubbers on Wall Street. I’m talking about the rest of us. The great middle class, here in what the CNBCrs would scornfully call “fly-over” land. But, I see the downside, too. A lot of it is pretty persuasive. But, on balance, the “rescue” seems well advised. I hope I’m right. What I do know is that the folks on the other side of the issue aren’t just of bunch country bumpkins, home schooled and out chopping wheat by hand with a scythe in their spare time.

I think the public can grasp all this. The theory advanced by the talking heads on CNBC that the public is, basically, just a bunch of imbeciles. This is not correct. And, it’s not just CNBC, either. I don’t want to single them out. I heard some “expert” on FOX decrying how dumb the American people were and how they’d better “grow a brain” real fast.

So what’s going on here? Many of us in the Republican Party can’t figure out Obama’s message. In fact, he looks, for all the evidence, like an empty suit. And maybe he is. He calls for “Change” whatever that is. Not even Obama can define it. And the people eat it up. Change. Just change, America. Why is that message so persuasive when the message can’t even be defined by anyone and the guy promulgating it has a public record so thin it couldn’t support a small bird? What’s going on?

I think the disconnect between heartland America and the political and media elites, which are clearly inbred, and Obama’s “change” message have a relationship.  I think the people that are paying the freight, the taxpayers, the small businesses, the volunteers and all the people that do the real work in the country are separating, in a big way, from the people that used to “speak for us.” Obama wants change? Well, so do all of us. We want the entertainment and informational media elites to quit treating us and talking to us like we’re freaking morons, for one thing.

We want our Congressmen and Senators that go to Washington with the best of intentions and some connection to the middle class, to quit graduating from their public service careers a quarter of century later as millionaires. We want our CEOs to be part of the companies they run, not just a hit and run-golden parachute artists. We’re not stupid.

People are mad. That’s true. But, it’s more than a bailout that has them mad. They’re upset that people that have Country Club memberships that are more expensive than one year’s wages for most of us, get to walk away from their incompetence (and probably keep the Country Club membership, too.)  When the rest of us screw up like this, we have the re-po man ringing our doorbell. Why is it, we ask, a different playing field for us?

But, it’s not just that. It having to do that and having some fat cat pundit tell us we’re stupid hicks if we don’t support their prolificate ways.

That’s, I think, the real disconnect. And, when Obama says “change,” even if it lacks definition and substance, the people say, “Amen, brother!” He’s hitting some right notes…and there’s a lot of folks that better pay attention!  Just change, America.

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I am sure the people of Iowa welcomed Speaker Pelosi and are grateful for her first hand accounting, in September, of the damage incurred by our state as a result of the flooding in early June of this year. It was good to see her putting in some quality time with us.

Congressional leadership, personified by Speaker Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid, has responded to the flooding and the personal anguish of Iowa families and businesses in a curious way. Their most notable achievement, to date, has been to go on vacation and attend cocktail parties rather than discuss help for Iowans stricken by the floods of 2008.  

Our congressional delegation, in a bipartisan way, has objected to this “approach” to relief; but leadership insisted on some time off for the “hard working” members of Congress. So, a vacation is what has occurred, thus far. I am in hopes that they will work diligently to make up for lost time and help our fellow citizens. But, the saga continues…we’ll see, I guess.

The sad fact is, the only relief our fellow citizens have seen, to date, is help from their neighbors, through the local governments of Polk County and the City of Des Moines and associated non-profits like the Neighborhood Finance Corporation and the Polk County Housing Trust Fund.  So far, REO Speedwagon and a local casino have proven to be a more effective agency for flood relief than the U.S. Congress or the Iowa Legislature combined. That’s the good news, I suppose.

The bad news is that the entities with the resources to help our stricken brothers and sisters across Iowa are the Federal government and the State of Iowa. Both have exhibited, so far, a spectacular level of incompetence and indifference. Their bureaucracies are too ponderous and too thick to have done anyone any good, at least up to this point. It’s breathtaking, really.

The responsibility lies at the doorstep of the Governor’s office, the legislative leadership and Congressional leadership.  In their zeal to blame all things evil on various Republicans, they’ve taken their eye off the ball and let our fellow Iowans “twist in the wind.” There are literally families still living in campers outside their homes…three months after the natural disaster. There are still block upon block of abandoned homes and businesses in Cedar Rapids three months later…and the only work that’s apparent are the grey shirted volunteers moving from place to place. Three months! Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a little outrageous.

This isn’t the fault of the local governments or the people here in Iowa. It’s simply the nature of huge bureaucracies. They are too big, too unresponsive and too dedicated to empire building and CYA. The result is the tortoise-like pace with which our flood victims are subjected. In 2006 we heard all about the “change” in Washington. We’re hearing it again this year.

This is the “change” we’ve been waiting for?

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The Clive Trolley

The “D-Line” is the newest offering in public transportation in greater Des Moines. This service offers a trolley-like vehicle that goes east to west from the capitol building to the Meredith Publishing Corporation and then back again. About 20 or 25 blocks one-way. There’s several trolleys on it, so you never have to wait more than about 10 or 11 minutes to get picked up.

I took the D-line on the first day it was offered. Not a bad deal; but then again, it’s free, so it’s hard to feel gypped, in any event. Gypped. Hey, I just realized that using that term, although somewhat archaic, is probably politically incorrect! It most likely is a cognate of the word “gypsy.” Therefore, one would guess, the use of the word in a pejorative sense would seem to imply a negative association with an entire ethnic group. Whew! That was a mouthful! But, well done…I think I’m ready for the U of I faculty senate!

But, back to the D-line. When I first heard of this shuttle bus and the name they’re calling it, I, with my usual blockhead jock frame of reference to the entire world, couldn’t figure out why DART was calling a bus route the “Defensive Line.” Where was the O-line, I wondered? How about the field goal unit? The special teams? But, then I uncharacteristically went on to read beyond the first paragraph of the news story about it in the Des Moines Register, the daily newspaper, and found that it actually stands for “Downtown Line.” D-line. Downtown Line…get it? Very urban…very edgy…I guess. Anyway, D-line; who cares? It’s harmless enough and it’s not overly cute and/or politically oriented. It could have been called the Obama Line, I guess. That’s probably next, though.

A New Bureaucracy in Town

So, what’s it like, the D-line? Answer: it’s like riding a small bus. Not a life changer, putting it kindly. But, still, it’s not a bad deal. It’s free, it covers the entire loop; east and west and it comes by about every ten minutes. So, you don’t have to wait around too long for it. All pluses. The pickup spots are very clearly marked…you’d have to be Imbecile First Class to miss them. They’re huge copper colored signs with bold red writing and they’re fastened to about every other pole located downtown on Grand and Locust streets. It shouldn’t be a real mystery on where to wait for the D-line, let’s put it that way.

It moves along fine. On the day I was on it, there were quite a few passengers. My wife rode it a couple of days later and she said it was packed. Apparently, DART has identified the correct price-point. Zero. I had to meet a guy at the Temple (Masonic) a couple of days ago; I was thinking about walking up there from the county, but then I said to myself, hey, stupid; take the D-line! It’s FREE, remember? So, I slid over to my old home away from home, the YMCA and picked up the D Line right away and up to the Temple I went. Kind of handy.

But, you have wonder how long DART can keep it up. I like the idea that this free transportation is available, that’s for sure. And, maybe as fuel increases, people will change their transportation behavior. The D-line is a nice step in that direction. It almost made me forget about the open riot that’s brewing on the DART Board. (Unfortunate name, isn’t it?)

Just to cue you in, the legislature allowed a Regional Transit levy in some legislation a couple of years ago. It allowed for a levy to be assessed for regional transportation. Up until then, cities allocated money to help support the our Metropolitan Transit Association (MTA) There’s federal and state money there, too, but a direct levy on the taxpayers is something new. The city has it, the schools, Broadlawns Medical Center and, now, the “MTA”; the newly minted Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority. DART. I know, you’re saying, shouldn’t it be DMARTA? Just shut up. It’s DART, ok?

The idea, and you’ll want to get some professional medical care for your sides because you’re going to split them open laughing at this one; was that the cities would reduce their overall levies as the DART levy took effect because the cities would no longer have to allocate tax money to regional transit. City levy goes down, regional transit levy goes up…even Steven. Everybody’s happy. No tax increase and we have “Regional” transit system. See?

Hilarious, I know. Back here on planet Earth, almost everyone kept their city levies exactly the same; didn’t reduce them by even one red cent, and allowed the regional levy to go into effect. Presto! Tax increase!

How about a free Beamer?

Nonetheless, it was not a big number in anyone’s book so it went largely unnoticed. But, the DART Board wasn’t done. They passed a resolution earlier this year to spread the costs of the regional transit system equally over all the communities. Nice tax decrease for Des Moines, there. A little bit of an increase for West Des Moines, but for virtually everyone else? Woo! Let’s put it this way, if you live in Clive or Johnston, as examples, you’re gonna notice this one.

In Clive’s case, for example, their levy was about 7 cents. So, for an owner of a $200,000 home in Clive (that’d be someone that’s down on their luck in Clive, obviously…like me) the old levy cost you about $70 a year after rollback. Now, the levy is going to .45 cents for all my Clive brethren. So the same $200,000 homeowner is going from $70 per year to about $450. A 542% increase. Not bad if you’re into sobbing uncontrollably.

Now, your first instinct may be to say, well, the City of Clive had better just tighten their belts…I don’t want my house payment going up $35 a month for a service I don’t use! Ah…so naive. This invoice doesn’t get passed on to the City of Clive or any other city…it goes directly to the taxpayer. You! No middle man. Surprise! Happy Birthday!

You know, on a theoretical level, I agree with the regional levy. Everyone should share the costs equally. That seems reasonable. But, when you start drilling down into the actual effects…like a 500% tax increase; well, real life intervenes. In Clive’s case, they have like a dozen people that ride the bus. They’d literally be better off buying those dozen or so people nice used BMWs and fuel for a year than subjecting all their citizens to this tax increase. It would literally be cheaper. But, Clive’s a team player and they are, to their credit, looking for some “middle ground.” So, are many of the other cities. I hope they find it.

Meanwhile, if you’re a Clive resident, like me; use the D-line as much as you can! When you get on the trolley, you don’t have to fork over a dime. You’re doing that already at the first of the month! Use the D-line! It’s free….kind of.

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I was “invited” by the US Attorney, Matt Whittaker, and his office to testify for the prosecution in the CIETC trial of multiple defendants. The testimony was directed at three defendants, but not the CIETC CEO Romona Cunningham. Her trial would be separate, if she ever was to have one.

Something occurred to me during my testimony for the US Attorney’s office and their prosecution of the CIETC 4 minus 1. It was; how do people get involved in something like this? Obviously, no one sets out to be publically humiliated on their way to prison. No one ever sets out to spend time in prison, in the first place. Not exactly a resume’ builder, putting it kindly.

But, with our impeccable 20-20 hindsight, it sure looks like, where CIETC is concerned, there were enough really idiotic decisions made that one could almost make the case that somebody wanted some time behind bars. If that was someone’s objective, it appears that was one tight game plan. It’s going to work.

But, as we all know, that wasn’t anyone’s game plan. It’s just the debris from one bad decision after another. Bad decision. That term hardly captures it. A bad decision is taking I80 west when you meant to go east but were daydreaming. That’s a bad decision. It’s grabbing the pepper shaker and using it when you meant to grab the salt. Those are bad choices.

It always makes me grimace, putting it kindly again, when some feel-good social worker, in a TV interview, says that mom and sleaze ball dad/boyfriend made some “bad choices” on the way to murdering their defenseless 2 year old kid with a hammer or something just as heinous. That’s not a bad choice, that’s having an IQ of about 61, no appreciable education, no parental support and the presence of pure evil. That’s a lot more than a bad choice. Those terms seek to minimize one’s behavior. Sadly, they also have the effect of minimizing the punishment and any tiny chance of rehabilitation that the wrong doer may eventually somehow get.

So it goes with CIETC. At some point in the journey, they went from “bad choices” to outright malevolent behavior. But, how, I wondered, did they get there in the first place?

I know government and constituents pretty well by now. If the Executive Director of CIETC, Ms. Cunningham, had just stayed with her $187,000 salary, she could’ve gotten away with it forever. People may have scoffed at it and grumbled about an under-educated hayseed making more than the Governor. They may have speculated about “who’s she sleeping with?” but, that’s about it. We’d have thought it sucked, but we’d sigh and say, well, that’s our stupid government for you. Then, we’d have gone on to wonder about this year’s Hawkeye football team or something like that. That party would’ve never ended. But, it wasn’t enough, I guess.

Ramona, we now know, had some apparently unique talents and used them to, ultimately, over-reach. It wasn’t enough to be making more than the managing partner of a huge downtown Des Moines law firm. It wasn’t enough to be making more than almost every college president in the state. Somewhere in there, she had to have more. Why? Somewhere along the line, the list of people with sticky fingers began to grow. Why?

Did somebody say, “I know what you’re doing and I want mine?” Evidently, we can now say with some certainty that no one said, “I know what you’re doing and you need to stop because it’s wrong.” No, they never said that. They said: we want ours, too.

People say, ah, everyone does it…we shouldn’t be surprised. Let me tell you something. You should be surprised. Real surprised. Because no one does this. I serve on tons of non-profit boards and commissions and this kind of thing just does not go on. Period. If one wants to be hip and cynical, they can say it does, I suppose. But, the truth is, it doesn’t. This CIETC thing is a class one five alarm scandal. It would be anywhere.

This scandal would be page one in any metropolitan area in North America. There is no doubt about that. This isn’t some guy charging off his chap stick on the city expense report while he’s out of town. That’s the kind of “scandal” we’re used to seeing around here. No, this one is the big leagues. This one is the 1927 Yankees of political scandals.

It has seven figure misappropriation of funds, personal payoffs, embezzlement, sex, more sex, multiple partners, girls gone wild and all masterminded by people with barely more than a high school education. Makes you grateful they weren’t Harvard MBAs doesn’t it? Of course, if they were, they’d be Dennis Kowslowski and Jeff Skilling…and they’re spending time behind bars, too. So, who says you can’t play with the big boys with just a high school GED?

Somewhere along the line, I have been thinking, somebody had to make the conscious decision that we, the co-conspirators, aren’t satisfied with huge salaries; we want to inflate them with huge bonuses, too. Not only that, we want to spread those bonuses around a little, too. At some point somebody had to be thinking, well, we’ve gotten away with this much; it looks like we can get away with a lot more.

Oops.

But why? Too many trips to Prairie Meadows? Gambling losses? Was there a drug addiction? Were they all playing each other against one another with payoffs to everyone to keep the house of cards from getting too noisy?

One thing that never entered into anyone’s thinking, apparently, was of the $1.3 million that got siphoned off, that was $1.3 million that was never going to help one single displaced worker, one single re-training of anybody, one single human being anywhere…except, of course, those who were scamming the system. What sort of mental gymnastics do you have to do to rationalize that in your own mind? We now know what kind of sexual gymnastics it takes to make it all work; but, still…you have look into the mirror everyday, don’t you?

Maybe it all boils down to what you see in that mirror every morning. If you see a face you’ve come to loathe so much you have to just shut your eyes when you walk past the mirror; maybe that’s the face of someone that can remorselessly walk off with millions of dollars that were put in front of you to help your fellow human beings. On the other hand, if you see a decent human being in there…one that is struggling to make it all work, but struggling honestly, at least; that’s not such a bad face to look at every single day. That’s a face you could wake up next to in bed every day. And, it wouldn’t be attached to a body holding documents for you to sign, either.

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