Thursday, November 29, 2012

We're not no. 1! (But we're getting closer)

The business publications are starting their end of the year surveys -- and my Illinois has fared badly in a couple of them.

It's no surprise.

We have a huge unfunded public pension liability (the current figure being bandied about is $85 billion, which is a lot to bandy) and our two most recent governors are in jail.

According to 24/7 Wall Street (I saw this first on Yahoo! Finance) Illinois is the third worst state. Quoting now from 24/7 Wall Street's survey:
48. Illinois
Debt per capita: $4,790 (11th highest)
Budget deficit: 40.2% (2nd largest)
Unemployment: 9.8% (tied-10th highest)
Median household income: $53,234 (18th highest)
Pct. below poverty line: 15.0% (25th highest)

Although many states have budget issues, Illinois’ faces among the biggest problems. In 2010, the state’s budget shortfall was more than 40% of its general fund, the second-highest of any state. Both S&P and Moody’s gave Illinois credit ratings that were the second-worst of all states. In addition, the state only funded 45% of its pension liability in 2010, the lowest percentage of any state. Governor Patrick Quinn has made the now-$85 billion pension gap a top priority for the new legislative session beginning in January.
(If you're too impatient to read the entire linked article, 24/7 Wall Street also provides this link to a pretty neat interactive chart.)

Anyway, 24/7 Wall Street's calculations, Illinois ranks ahead of only Rhode Island and California as the worst run states. (New York ranks 39th on this list.) North Dakota is the allegedly the best run state. Of course, North Dakota seems to be sitting atop a sea of oil.

North Dakota gets a nice mention in a new survey (published November 25) on, written by William Baldwin, entitled, "Do You Live In A Death Spiral State?" However, as the article name suggests, this is an article that accentuates the negative.

Guess what? Mr. Baldwin warns right at the outset, "If your career takes you to Los Angeles or Chicago, don’t buy a house. Rent."

Baldwin lists 11 "Death Spiral" states -- but the (comparatively) good news is that Illinois is only third on this list. (New York is 6th; California is 10th -- the 11th and worst state on the Forbes list is New Mexico (which did, admittedly, finish 44th on the 24/7 Wall Street list).

Illinois fares so poorly on the Forbes list because we have 1.03 "takers" (defined as "the number of state and local government workers plus the number of people on Medicaid plus 1 for each $100,000 of unfunded pension liabilities") for every "maker" (someone gainfully employed in the private sector). By comparison, New York has 1.07 "takers" per "maker," California 1.39 and New Mexico 1.53.

But Mr. Baldwin's article includes a second element for compiling the unhappy members of the death spiral list, namely, "a scorecard of state credit-worthiness done by Conning & Co., a money manager known for its measures of risk in insurance company portfolios. Conning’s analysis focuses more on dollars than body counts. Its formula downgrades states for large debts, an uncompetitive business climate, weak home prices and bad trends in employment."

Illinois fares particularly poorly by this measure. But it's not all bad news. We have overwhelming Democratic majorities in our legislature and Democratic governor. Illinois is such a reliably "Blue" state that voters would elect a piece of cheese if it was nominated in a Democratic Primary. The downside here is that many of those now in office helped us achieve this parlous state of affairs. On the plus side, however, we simply don't have the problem of 'divided government' that bedevils the good folks in Washington as they approach the "fiscal cliff." We can solve our problems here in Illinois, maybe, if we can only muster the will to face them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Looking behind the current praise for Costco

Someone called an article to my attention yesterday on Facebook (speaking of evil corporations) entitled "How Costco became the Anti-Wal-Mart." The article, by Steven Greenhouse, appeared in the New York Times (genuflection optional). And the article is effusive in its praise of Costco and its chairman, Jim Sinegal, for unusually enlightened corporate policies.

To wit: Per Greenhouse's article Costco pays its employees an average of "$17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish." When stock market analysts "complained that Costco's workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, [Sinegal] raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent." And Sinegal was paid less than his brother and sister CEO's -- only $350,000, according to Greenhouse's article, plus a $200,000 bonus. (Sinegal can still hold his head up around the country club, however, because, according to the article, he holds Costco stock worth $150,000,000.)

Inspirational, isn't it? Doing well by doing good. George Bailey brought to real life in retail, right?

And the story has legs. Ashley Lutz, on The Business Insider posted an article heavily reliant on Greenhouse's NYT article just yesterday. (Ms. Lutz's article also appeared yesterday on the Daily Finance site).

There's just one teensy little problem.

A technicality, perhaps; a hitch, a hiccup.

Greenhouse's article was published on July 17, 2005.

I'll pause while you do the math.

And business conditions have changed -- just a tad -- since 2005, haven't they? Somethings called the Housing Bubble and the Great Recession have come in between then and now, didn't they?

Mr. Sinegal is no longer Costco's CEO. W. Craig Jelinek is the current President and CEO. This is apparently a recent change. Mr. Sinegal is listed as the CEO in the 2011 corporate proxy statement; Mr. Jelinek was only the COO. Sinegal's salary was still $350,000, and his bonus was just a shade under $200,000 -- but his total compensation was over $2 million. And Mr. Jelinek's salary as COO was $649,000 in 2011, up from $635,000 in 2010. His overall compensation in 2011 was $3,335,865.

Costco is still profitable. USA Today (a/k/a News McNuggets) reports just this morning that Costco will pay stockholders a $7 per share dividend next month in addition to its regular dividend. (It's a tax planning move; lots of companies are trying to pass cash to investors now, in 2012, before taxes go up next year. And taxes are going up next year, whether we topple over the "fiscal cliff" or not.)

But Costco has encountered some employee-relations problems. According to Mikal E. Belicove, writing September 28, 2012 on, in September of this year (I checked) the National Labor Relations Board invalidated Costco's social media policy in response to a complaint made by Local 371 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

According to Belicove's article, a statement in Costco's employee handbook, warning employees to "be aware that statements posted electronically (such as to online message boards or discussion groups) that damage the company, defame any individual or damage any person’s reputation or violate the policies outlined in the Costco Employee Agreement, may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment," was overbroad. Other employee handbook policies were also invalidated. (The complete NLRB decision is published at 358 NLRB No. 106 and may be accessed from the NLRB website.)

Without getting into an analysis of the merits of the NLRB's decision in this case, it does at least indicate that Costco may not now be the untroubled workers' paradise portrayed in Mr. Greenhouse's 2005 NYT article. Is Costco still the industry leader in wages and benefits? Is it still a good corporate citizen?

Look, kids, it's almost Christmas -- and I want to believe.

But can I?

Why does a seven year old 'news' article suddenly catch fire on the Intertubes? Is this just a PR campaign?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hiding in plain sight in the dish drainer

Maybe some of the kids wouldn't recognize what a dish drainer is or what it's for.

Dishwashers are increasingly standard in American kitchens.

We have a dishwasher at the Curmudgeon home, but a few years back we got a dish drainer, too. The idea, of course, was that we could use this for those items that couldn't or shouldn't go through the dishwasher.

And I suppose we do use it for that. But it has another purpose as well; it's where I put stuff when I don't know where it's supposed to go.

I learned long ago not to ask Long Suffering Spouse where something should be put. Her usual response is equal parts sarcastic and non-responsive. "Do you live here?" she'll ask.

Although that's a sarcastic question, I learned it is best not to respond in kind. I might have once answered, "You call this living?" -- but only once.

To avoid this peril, I've sometimes put stuff in the dish drainer.

I don't think I'm the only one to do this either: Our dish drainer is never empty. Usually it's stacked up to overflowing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Older Daughter gets more bad news

All the signs and portents were so positive.

I suppose they always have been, early on, just after implantation.

The doctors feed Older Daughter with hope and inject her with drugs and she pees on sticks looking for faint lines and hoping they get darker.

They don't.

This was Older Daughter's third try at in vitro fertilization this year and this time the doctors weren't criticizing her eggs ("you have old eggs," they told her after the second failure -- old eggs? -- she's only 28!) but when the crop was harvested there weren't as many eggs as Older Daughter and her husband had been led to believe. (Why can't these doctors count? my wife and I would ask each other. How does 15 turn into 8 overnight? And, if their counting is so approximate, then why do they express it so definitely?)

Still, these eggs, if fewer than predicted, were Grade A Choice, and four of the eight fertilized began to increase and multiply. For the first time in her three efforts, my daughter was given the option to freeze two fertilized eggs for possible implantation later.

Siblings! my wife and I thought. We began to hope.

Hope. Such a nice word. Except in this case when it really describes us opening up our feelings to a savage emotional roller coaster ride. In a carnival roller coaster, the car is pulled up a hill by a cable attached to the chassis; the cable releases when the car gets to the top of the first hill and everyone rolls down -- and up the next one. In this case, however, we are grabbed by the heart and pulled along, then thrown down, left to stuff our innards back into our heaving chests when things go badly.

Now I know I've mentioned that Older Daughter is very impatient. She couldn't wait 48 hours for the results of her nursing boards, for example. She had to know immediately. And she figured out a way.

Hank, her husband, is no better.

They were coming to our house for Thanksgiving and they wanted to know what to tell us. The doctors wanted her to come in on Thanksgiving morning for a blood test. She wanted the test Tuesday. If it was bad news, she wanted some time to recover. The doctors said Tuesday was too soon. Eventually, though, there was a compromise: They would have tests both days.

The test is done in the morning; Older Daughter gets the results by phone later on that same day. That meant Older Daughter would be getting the results of her Thursday test en route from Indianapolis to Chicago.

Long Suffering Spouse and I added a layer of dread to our layer of hope. And Older Daughter would be standing up for her new niece on Saturday at the baptism of our granddaughter. Under the circumstances, we desperately wanted good news. We always have wanted good news, of course, but our desire was particularly urgent here.

Well, the test on Tuesday was OK. The test on Thursday was better. On Thursday the doctors told Older Daughter, "You are pregnant."

It was a happy weekend. Sure, we were all still walking on eggshells. Sure, we weren't assuming a happy ending. But a happy ending was in the realm of the possible now. We thought.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I didn't hear my wife's phone ring Sunday. She was in the living room with Younger Daughter; I was in the family room watching the Bears game.

I heard nothing until my wife called out. "It's over!"

I wasn't certain I'd heard correctly. But the tone was unmistakable. I went immediately into the living room. I sat down, bracing for the blow.

"It's over," Long Suffering Spouse repeated. "She had another blood test this morning. There was almost no change. Everything has stopped."

I had a plate in my hand; it was one from breakfast that I'd picked it up by reflex when I got up from my recliner. I didn't throw it, though I wanted to. I didn't curse (I don't think I did, not then). I suppose I didn't do much of anything. Maybe it was because Younger Daughter and my granddaughter were also in the room, and I'm still conscious about trying to set a good example. But maybe it was because, except for gathering up my scattered innards and stuffing them back into my chest, there was nothing else to do.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There's apparently no mistake. Older Daughter's doctors can't do anything right, but they're apparently never wrong about bad news.

Curmudgeons aren't supposed to cry. Besides, Long Suffering Spouse has done enough crying for both of us. But my allergies are particularly bad today.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What happens to the TV when the Curmudgeon dozes

It's Younger Daughter's fault, really. Younger Daughter who burns toast. Who reduces bagels to ash. Who once almost set fire to the house by so badly over-stuffing the wash machine that the agitator couldn't move and the motor began smoking -- but that's off topic.

Younger Daughter is not a cook, much less a "chef," but somewhere along the way she's become enamored of The Food Network, especially cooking competition shows like Iron Chef or Chopped. Or maybe it is that these are the Food Network shows that are being aired when I have lapsed into unconsciousness in front of the TV and my grip on the remote becomes relaxed.

The problem here is that Younger Daughter is involving my wife in these shows. Long Suffering Spouse is an excellent cook, of course, and when Younger Daughter seizes the remote from my lifeless hand and switches over to The Food Network, Long Suffering Spouse becomes interested.

I have lapsed in and out of consciousness during some of these shows. In one of them, the "chefs" are given random and seemingly unrelated ingredients which they must use in an entree or a dessert and whatever it is they have to do in the third segment of the show. I think there's three segments.

And the ingredients are not just random, they're weird. Onions, lemon drops, and seaweed. Hot dogs, peanut butter, dirty sweat socks. Something called "kale."

In both shows there are panels of three food snobs who appear to actually eat the concoctions made from these unlikely things (the "chefs" are also free to add all sorts of other stuff, and do, but I can't pronounce most of the junk they add in either) and sometimes claim to enjoy them. They generally seem to say some encouraging things about each "chef's" effort. But there is also an insufferable moderator (maybe it's the same guy on both shows). Whether it's one guy or two different guys, the moderator's role is the same -- get the judges away from the positive and back to the catty and caustic. The moderator is an über-snob. When I drift back to sleep I dream of him being forced to eat white bread and plain hamburger. It would probably kill him. I would not shed a tear.

Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter get caught up in these shows though, debating the merits of the particular presentations (dipping the peanut butter in liquid nitrogen was interesting, wasn't it?) and trying to predict who which "chef" will prevail.

On both shows there seems to be some reality-TV type backstory stuff as well -- alternate bonding and bitching among the contestants as far as I can tell -- which I guess gives Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter more time to form, and debate, their opinions.

Sometimes, when I wake up during these shows, I protest feebly. The womenfolk ignore me, knowing I will go back to sleep momentarily. "And stop snoring so loud!" Long Suffering Spouse might chide me as I go under again.

Still, the other day, when Long Suffering Spouse was taking me to work, I confronted her. "You always complain when I watch shows about the Roman Empire," I said, "and you're so disgusted by their gustatory excesses. Peacocks' tongues and such. I think that was one of the random ingredients in one of those shows you had on last night."

"It was not," said Long Suffering Spouse, but defensively I thought.

Of course, whatever advantage I'd achieved, I immediately squandered. "Food is fuel," I said, "and all this fru-fru and okra and fried seaweed is ridiculous. It's just as impractical and decadent as a Roman banquet."

"Some of it is very practical," Long Suffering Spouse insisted, recovering her ground. "And you'd like some of it. One chef made bread pudding last night. And what's wrong with food that tastes good and looks good?"

"But it's made of stuff no one in their right mind should eat!"

We were at the train at this point, and I jumped out so she could continue on to work. "If no one told you what was in it, you'd like some of this stuff just fine," she said -- and she's probably right. When it comes to food, I'm strictly 'don't ask, don't tell.' I don't want to know. If I like it, I'll eat it. If it doesn't like me later on, I won't eat it anymore.

I spent some time today looking up some of the more exotic menu items at ancient Roman banquets. Dormice were pretty common. According to a website called Facts and Details:
Romans hosted elaborate dinner parties with hosts trying to top one another with the most elaborate dishes. They ate ostrich brains, unfeathered peacocks, dolphin meatballs, herons, goat feet, peacock brains, boiled parrot, flamingo tongues and orioles. They liked watching birds fly out of featured dishes and ate an electric fish because “it was fascinating.” Sometimes a calf was cooked up with a pig inside it and inside the pig were a lamb, a chicken, a rabbit and a mouse. The Roman Emperor Elagabalus once ordered 600 ostriches killed so his cooks could make him ostrich-brain pies.
Wikipedia also has a nice, unappetizing entry about ancient Roman cuisine. An excerpt:
Fish was served only in earlier periods, and it remained more expensive than simpler meat types. Breeding was attempted in freshwater and saltwater ponds, but some kinds of fish could not be fattened in captivity. Among these was the most popular, mullus, the goatfish. At a certain time this fish was considered the epitome of luxury, above all because its scales exhibit a bright red color when it dies out of water. For this reason these fish were occasionally allowed to die slowly at the table. There even was a recipe where this would take place in garo, in the sauce. At the beginning of the Imperial era, however, this custom suddenly came to an end, which is why mullus in the feast of Trimalchio (see the Satyricon) could be shown as a characteristic of the parvenu, who bores his guests with an unfashionable display of dying fish.
I will concede that I haven't actually seen any of the "chefs" on the TV food shows cook ostrich brains or rabbit fetuses or pig uteruses. But I just don't see that much difference between these ancient Roman excesses which my wife claims to deplore and the modern TV foodie shows that she and Younger Daughter are starting to watch.

And it's getting serious: Yesterday, I worked later than usual. By the time I got home Younger Daughter and Long Suffering Spouse were already watching The Food Network (spearmint leaf candy -- oh, the über-snob foodie moderator couldn't stand that -- and almond powder and some sort of dumpling, I think).

I'm pretty sure Long Suffering Spouse is not going do anything weird with our turkey tomorrow. (I have to eat more turkey these days since my insides were removed -- it's easier to digest than real meat, like beef, but basically I still see turkey as the sacrifice that must be made for the privilege of eating stuffing.) But I'm going to have to watch her closely in the coming weeks. I'm afraid what may inspire her when she and Younger Daughter watch food shows together.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Curmudgeon has another pedestrian insight

There is an inverse correlation between blogging activity and activity in real life.

When we get busy in our real lives, our online substitutes may be neglected.

You'd think this would almost certainly be healthy. Almost. A lot depends, of course, on what takes up our time in the real world.

In my case, I'm not entirely certain how healthy it is.

Sleep deprivation isn't healthy. Younger Daughter's baby is the picture of robust, chubby health. She is gaining weight and she's strong as an ox. When I say she is a true Viking baby her father Olaf just beams.

But I don't see much of Olaf these days. Because that chubby, healthy baby is colicky as all get out. Long Suffering Spouse says she's never heard a baby cry so much. It's taken me 55 years, five children and one grandchild to find out that 'colicky' is just another word for 'gassy.'

Well, colicky is a far more polite word, isn't it?

Anyway, Olaf isn't getting a lot of sleep at night and he has to be up at 4:30am for work as it is. And Younger Daughter -- as I mentioned previously -- is really taking the brunt of it. But Long Suffering Spouse and I have not been unaffected.

We'd been trying to get to bed earlier before our domestic arrangements were so thoroughly rearranged. The idea was that we were better in the morning, and got more done, so why not get up sooner? That meant we shouldn't fall asleep in front of the TV and stumble upstairs at 1:00 or 2:00am as we'd begun to do.

And have begun to do again inasmuch as there's no point going upstairs into the land of the screaming baby, is there? And Younger Daughter is glad for her mother's company as I snore loudly away in my chair, asleep again in front of the TV despite my best intentions.

Really gnawing at us, right now, is Older Daughter's latest struggle with IVF. Again I mentioned this before -- but it's a daily roller coaster with her. Every cramp, every twinge, may mean failure. Or not. She's cornered the market in home pregnancy tests -- she's jumping the gun, of course, but that's how she is. Impatient. She wants to know now whether things will work. We'd like to know, too. But it's not in our hands -- or hers -- and, despite their pretensions, it is certainly not in the hands of her doctors.

Older Daughter has taken a leave of absence from work because she's been told to 'take it easy' while we wait for the fertilized eggs to attach. If it really was necessary to be practically stock still for a week in order to get fertilized eggs to attach, the human species would have died out eons ago. Somehow, though, women keep working and cleaning and picking up after us men and still manage to get pregnant and bring forth babies. Yet, Older Daughter's doctors yelled at her yesterday because she drove her car. It might be ill-advised to try and lift her car, but drive it? All her doctors care about is having their excuses lined up: If things don't work out, it will all be Older Daughter's fault. (In a pig's eye.)

Today seems like an uptick on the roller coaster and we're all happy. This may change the next time the phone rings. But I know this: If it works or if it doesn't, I will still have no use for these doctors who think they know everything and have no more control than... me.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Even in Taiwan, they hate Jeffrey Loria

NMA.TV has jumped all over Jeffry Loria for dumping most of the big paychecks on his team on the Toronto Blue Jays, including long-time White Sox favorite Mark Buehrle. Yes, these high-paid free agents underperformed in Miami; so did their manager, Ozzie Guillen. I blame Loria (OK, I blame Ozzie a little, too, for cozying up to this doofus -- Ozzie should have known better). Anyway, I'll bet Toronto gets more out of all of them than ever Loria did. And Ozzie will land on his feet, too. (Although he won't ever become a Shakespearean actor.)

NMA.TV is a product of Next Media Animation, a Taiwanese subsidiary (says Wikipedia) of Next Media, a Hong Kong media conglomerate. Their Sims-like animations of events in the news are often quite funny.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Unsolicited advice to the Grand Old Party

Full disclosure: I have never voted in a Republican Primary. I have always voted in the Democratic Primary. I've lived in Chicago now for over 40 years, including all of the last 30. In between I lived in a distant Chicago suburb, which I call Boondockia. I went to high school there and attended college and law school in Chicago. I've always felt the Democratic Primary was more interesting than any contests the Republicans might have (sure, they might have one interesting race, now and then, but the real action was on the other side). In recent years, in this part of the world, the Democratic Primary has been the real election; the November general election is really a vestigial formality.

Because of this background, Republican strategists (if that's not an oxymoron) may be disinclined to hear anything I have to say. But I can only try.

The GOP is in thrall to the biggest of big businesses -- to Wall Street -- to the Fortune 100 -- to all the businesses too big to fail. Old news, right?

But, guess what? So are the Democrats.

How else do you explain zero prosecutions of Wall Street bankers for the housing collapse? You Republicans may protest that Democrats don't understand business, and maybe you're right. But they understand, and respect, Big. Bigness. Big Government. Big Business. Different sides of the same bad penny.

Republicans should bail on Big Business.

If I were in charge of the Republicans, I'd insist that my party was the party of Main Street, not Wall Street. The Democrats can have the superstar CEOs. I'm for the small businessmen, the startups, the shopkeepers -- not Walmart, but the little stores that are endangered because of Walmart and all the other big box, low wage, profit squeezing behemoths.

I'd demand a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Hey, Republicans! Come back, let me explain.

Illegal immigrants depress wages and take jobs away from American citizens. Big Business loves them. Why? I just told you -- they depress wages.

But Mexicans (for example) cross the border to find work, not to go on welfare. And they come with job offers in hand. A cousin, or a brother, or someone from the same hometown, can get the new illegal work in a restaurant, or factory, or in a cleaning service. These are not criminals. The ones who are hiring them are the criminals -- the ones who turn a blind eye to the citizenship status of their work force, especially when they are so big they can subcontract work to services without technically, necessarily knowing for certain sure that their contractors are staffed almost exclusively by illegals.

Anyone with a pencil can figure if it takes three people to clean the big box store each night, but the nightly cost per store charged by the cleaning service does not add up to three times minimum wage + benefits + supplies + profit margin, then the cleaning service is using illegals. Republicans need to demand prosecution of the Big Business execs who are hiring these contractors and the ones above them in the corporate food chain who sanction such obvious illegality. Get a couple of CEO superstars in a perp walk on the evening news and listen to the cheers from Main Street -- and from the threatened neighborhood business districts in big cities, too.

For illegals who've been here x years -- 10? 12? 8? the number is negotiable -- and who have kept out of trouble, find a way to let them become citizens. Pay a nominal fine, perhaps. But make them citizens because, then, Big Business can't exploit them any longer.

Still with me, Republicans? OK, next, insist that the minimum wage be increased.

No, I'm dead serious. I have one catch. The minimum wage needs to be split: Full-time students, or persons under 18, perhaps, or 21, can get paid (say) $4 an hour, but raise it to $10 or more for persons older.

We need to replace those illegals somehow, you know. Those illegals replaced American teenagers during my lifetime. Kids my age worked as busboys in restaurants, stock clerks in stores, delivering newspapers. There was a time (believe it or not kids, this is true) when Americans cut grass. Really. Nowadays middle class kids don't work at all at anything until they're nearly done with college -- and then they "intern." Intern is a word that now means 'you-work-for-free.' Working is like every other human skill; it has to be learned. Sane people will not hire persons with no concept of work to learn at $7.25 an hour ($8.25 in Illinois). Thus, interns.

We have urban areas where no one -- and certainly no males -- have any meaningful work experience, or even any prospect of work experience, ever. Ever wonder why gang life is attractive? Selling drugs? Getting shot at, going to jail? There's no viable alternative. Provide one, Republicans, and you might even create a viable two party system in American cities again. And there'll be no more of this whiny nonsense about Democrats winning because they give "gifts" to minorities. Gifts? The foreclosure rate spiked here in Chicago again this month, and in many places across the country. Unemployment is far higher in the inner cities -- urban voters got no 'gifts' -- but voters in the cities see no place else to go. No one is offering an alternative. Republicans, here is your alternative.

Stop embracing statism. How much mileage did the Democrats get this year from, "Osama bin Laden is dead! And General Motors is alive!" If Osama bin Laden is dead, why is the TSA still with us? The Republicans need to rail against pointless, needless security that inconveniences all and catches no one. (The underwear bomber was caught because his father turned him in, not because of airport security. The TSA confiscates nail clippers and cupcakes.)

The old joke is that Democrats want to regulate everything outside the bedroom, Republicans want to regulate nothing except what goes on in the bedroom. Neither position is acceptable. Yes, there are social issues that strongly divide us in this country. But the Democrats have successfully painted Republicans as a bunch of extremists on social issues because the Republicans themselves have made such a big deal on social issues. Drop it, guys. Jobs. Individual responsibility. Prosperity. These are the real issues. Leave social issues to the priests and rabbis and ministers and imams.

Republicans must demand regulation that curbs the rapacious evils of Big Business -- and leaves Main Street free to flourish. Break up the banks! Nothing should be too big to fail. The Democrats want to regulate everything; the Republicans should insist that regulation be reasonable and moderate. The Democrats don't care how onerous regulations are -- Big Business can always comply. But the Republicans can insist that the burden of regulation be lightened so that Main Street can comply. And the Republicans must insist that those who cheat -- Wall Street always cheats -- must be severely punished. Enforce the laws.

The Republicans don't have to take my advice, of course. But what other choice do they have? They are following the road taken by the Federalists and the Whigs before them... to extinction.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Not easy times to be a Curmudgeon

Perhaps we will name the baby-to-be-named-later Screaming Mimi.

Regulars will recall that, not only have I not given Younger Daughter's child a name here on the blog, my real life family has not figured out what to call the kid. Yes, she's named after her grandmothers -- but my wife isn't comfortable yet calling someone else by her own name.

But we're both calling the child names now, and not friendly ones. The child sleeps through the day and screams all night. It's taking a heavy toll on Younger Daughter.

Long Suffering Spouse and I know what the problem is. (OK, Long Suffering Spouse knows, and she told me.) Younger Daughter is nursing. By midnight, after napping fitfully during the day when the baby allows it, Younger Daughter doesn't have -- er -- can't produce -- er -- well, the baby is hungry again an hour or two later.

And she lets everyone know it.

Long Suffering Spouse has begun gently suggesting replacing Nature's Own with a bottle of formula at night, possibly introducing cereal into the mix soon, in order to fill up the child for a good night's sleep... for everybody. The baby's doctor chimed in yesterday with a similar suggestion. Naturally, as a doctor, she feels compelled to prescribe some magic elixir besides, but that's OK. (The baby also has a gas problem and a prior, lower dosage of the same magic potion reduced the consequences of same. The baby's doctor also instructed Younger Daughter in some gas relief procedures that may also be helpful. They are certainly disgusting enough.) But the point is that the doctor has now chimed in, largely backing up Long Suffering Spouse's gentle (and increasingly desperate) suggestions.

But Younger Daughter is uncertain. She seems to feel that she's failing as a mommy by using even one bottle of formula a day. She's stressed that she's unable to satisfy her child's needs. The child, however, does not appear to be suffering. She's up over 140% of her birth weight in roughly seven weeks. Just this morning I tried to reassure Younger Daughter that she's doing the right things, that a bottle now and then or some cereal is not a betrayal of any motherly obligations. She looks so drawn these days, so wiped.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, Older Daughter is again trying IVF. The den of thieves, er, clinic where she and her husband are being treated entered into a contract with the kids providing three chances for a baby. The clinic is down in the count 0-2. They are on their third attempt.

Older Daughter sounds hopeful on the phone -- but she's always sounded hopeful at this stage, right after implantation. We can only hope that, this time, her hopes will prove well founded. We'll know if things go wrong. I am so worried for her, too.

And up in Wisconsin, Youngest Son is having his own problems. He wants to be a teacher. Teaching is a noble profession. My wife is a teacher. My mother was a teacher. But schools of education and education departments and so-called education professionals are swindlers, liars, thieves, bigots, scoundrels and idiots.

I used the pejorative "bigot" advisedly. Youngest Son is taking a course this semester in which he is learning that all the problems of the world are caused by white people. But that's not why I am calling the education department at South Janesville College (the fictitious name I've given to the very real school where Youngest Son attends) a bunch of bigots. I think it's probably OK to shake up Youngest Son's middle class complacency. But I resent that he's become a victim of discrimination in the education department. And, before any of you get all excited, some of Youngest Son's black classmates are also being discriminated against.

It's not a race thing -- heaven forfend that a bastion of liberal groupthink like South Janesville College would ever discriminate on the basis of race. But, ironically consistent with their preferred narrative that discriminatory behavior is instinctive in the human animal, the education department discriminates against athletes. Jocks. Football players. Or, in Youngest Son's case, baseball players.

He's received failing grades from education professors on tests or papers to which TA's in the department would have given grades of A or B (yes, I'm accepting as true what my son tells me).

I've told Youngest Son to protest against this discriminatory treatment of the "differently abled," but he has wisely rejected my counsel in this regard. Alternatively, I have suggested he kiss whatever butt he must kiss in order to get through. He chafes at this, but says he is doing it.

Still, yesterday, he called and said there's no way he can graduate in four years and student teach and play baseball. He needs to student teach in order to get certified. He can't student teach under the auspices of any education department besides South Janesville's. Nor will South Janesville's education department accept education credits from any other school. So he can't pick up any core courses or electives over the summer (at far lower cost). If you think a four year school should have a way to get their students through in four years, then you are probably old and out of touch like I am.

This is total horsehockey of course, but the so-called education professionals, for all their progressive posturing, are nothing more than reactionary guardians of a medieval guild.

I feel sorry for Youngest Son who wants to pursue an honorable career but must go through such distasteful, even hateful, gatekeepers.

Now consider. I feel bad for Younger Daughter. I am worried sick about Older Daughter. I am angry for, worried about, and sorry for Youngest Son. I am exercising sympathy muscles that -- as a serious Curmudgeon -- are strongly inclined to disuse. It's a bit of strain at the moment.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Feeling a little ambivalent about Veterans Day

The old uniforms are back in the closets this morning; the medals have been returned to the display cases. The banks and courts are open again.

Maybe -- now -- I can carefully, cautiously share a little of my unease with the Veterans Day celebrations of all things military now just past.

It's not that I don't support the military. I respect those who have put on the uniform, especially in these last several decades when military service has been entirely optional.

We were in the transition to the volunteer military when I came of age. I have a draft card somewhere in the house -- un-singed, I assure you. Without looking it up, I think the last draft lottery (from which no one was actually taken) was conducted the year I turned 17. I think the year I turned 18 was the first year that the lottery was suspended. I know Saigon fell a month after my 18th birthday.

But I am old enough to have imbibed the mindset of the vast majority in those unhappy days: If called, I would not have been thrilled, but I would have reported. Whatever you kids may think you've learned from the TV and movies of the period, not everyone hightailed it to Canada to avoid the draft and, really, very few seriously considered it. Did young men with low draft numbers enlist in the National Guard in order to avoid a possible summons to the infantry? You betcha. Did young men prolong their college deferments as long as possible? Oh, certainly.

Most people were not excited at the prospect of entering the military in the early 1970s. But I don't think that this sentiment was unique to the Vietnam Era. There's an old Daffy Duck cartoon in my collection, set in World War II, the so-called "Good War." Daffy is living in middle class comfort, listening to the war news on the radio, waving the flag and singing patriotic songs.

Image from Draftee Daffy obtained from Wikipedia.
Then Daffy gets his notice from the Draft Board. The rest of Draftee Daffy (1945) is about Daffy's ultimately futile efforts to evade the comical little man from the Draft Board. But Warner Brothers was not trying to stir up anti-war sentiment in 1945. The humor comes from Daffy's reluctance to back up his patriotic fervor with real, personal commitment. Audiences had to understand and identify with Daffy's attitude or they would not have laughed. The cartoon could not have been made.

Today, nobody has to back up nothin'. Our endless wars are fought with proxies. Men who maxed out their deferments or sought shelter in the National Guard ("protecting Oak Street Beach from invasion by godless Canadians," as one of my ex-partners put it) got us into Iraq and Afghanistan and may yet get us into Iran. And we'll continue to yo-yo young men and women out of their daily lives (no hiding in the National Guard for this generation -- and, too often, no armor or training either) and thrust them into harms' way. But we'll gush over our men and women in service at sporting events and on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and think that makes it all OK.

But it doesn't, does it?

There have always been miscreants in the military, bullies, cowards, even outright thieves. Notwithstanding all the sentimental schmaltz on TV this weekend, not everyone who served was Sgt. York; some were Sgt. Bilko. When the all-volunteer military came in, it was believed that the general, overall quality of America's fighting forces would improve. Malcontent civilians would be replaced by persons hoping to fight. But even if we assume that this was true, it must also be agreed that there is a toll, a price to be paid, when our soldiers are subjected to deployment after deployment, in hot spot after hot spot, in endless wars where there are no front lines and where any civilian man, woman or child may be out for blood.

The cracks are beginning to show. In late September the U.S. Army observed a stand down day to focus on the problem of soldiers committing suicide. Think about that: There have been record numbers of suicides among active duty soldiers.

It is expected that the defense offered on behalf of the sergeant now facing a preliminary hearing in Washington State, charged with the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, many of them children, will be that he was suffering from PTSD at the time of the massacre, caused by a prior concussive head injury sustained in Iraq. In fact, the sergeant was apparently on his fourth war zone deployment when the massacre took place (the other three being to Iraq). Each deployment lasts approximately a year. (Let's put that in perspective: A soldier who came ashore in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, would have been in combat for only 11 months before V-E Day in May 1945.)

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a brigadier general is now on trial on sex crime charges. The general -- while on deployment in Afghanistan, mind you -- allegedly demanded nude pictures from female subordinates. Other charges faced by this officer include "forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct and adultery, which is a crime under the military justice system."

And, of course, try and make it through today without hearing more lurid innuendo concerning David Petraeus (the former CIA Director), or his mistress, or the woman allegedly threatened by Petraeus's mistress, or the Marine four star general who succeeded Petraeus in overall command of Iraq and Afghanistan -- and who now is being questioned about thousands of allegedly inappropriate emails to the second woman.

The stress and strain of 11 years of unrelenting war on all ranks can not be dissipated by staging college basketball games on the deck of a retired aircraft carrier or at an American airbase in Germany. Hugging vets or thanking them for their service is nice, but it won't make anyone's limbs grow back or even make the nightmares go away.

We have these lovely Veterans Day ceremonies and we think we are then entitled to pretend that everything is fine. We've done our part. But it's not fine. We haven't done our part. Thus my discomfort. We either have to have some peace for our warfighters or start spreading the burden of service around.

All I am saying... is give peace a chance.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Maybe you are semi-retired"

You may be sure that the Teeny Tiny Law Office remains open for business here at the Undisclosed Location -- I mean here I am, in the office, on a court holiday, right? -- but my wife is less certain... thus her comment to me yesterday which I've made the title of today's essay.

Because, however, in my wife's eyes, I am semi-retired, I have become the Family Information Node. Younger Daughter has a doctor's appointment today. Long Suffering Spouse is hoping her daughter will text her -- but, if there's anything to report, she said, call Dad.


And we're back on pins and needles with Older Daughter's IVF treatments. I disclose nothing here because... because... because I don't want to tempt fate. But she also has a doctor's appointment today. And her mother gave her the same instructions.

Oh, yes, and the reason I'm in the office on a court holiday? Well the truth is, Long Suffering Spouse doesn't have the day off. I don't mind being Home Alone -- but with Younger Daughter and the Baby-To-Be-Named-Later in residence, I wouldn't be.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Illinois is now effectively a one-party state

There's a reason I don't go to Vegas or bet on horses: I'm lousy at picking winners.

Just yesterday, on this blog, I offered views on the outcome of three local Congressional races. Despite acknowledging that all three districts had been drawn to eradicate the incumbents, I predicted that only one (Tea Party stalwart Joe Walsh) would lose for sure. I expressed some hope that more moderate incumbents Bob Dold and Judy Biggert might survive, while suggesting that Biggert was in deeper trouble than Dold.

Well, all three lost.

The Mapmaker won.

Illinois today is as close to a one-party state as you can get without being Cuba. The difference is that the Democratic Party in Illinois is not a monolithic entity; it is a marriage of convenience among those who wish to gain and retain office. Ideology is for amateurs. What wins elections are the lines on the map. Because of lines drawn on a map, yesterday's election was, in Illinois, almost a formality.

Democrats gained seats in the State House and Senate. David Ormsby, writing for The Illinois Observer, said "Illinois House and Senate Republicans were wiped out on Tuesday night."

The Mapmaker won.

Once and future Rep. Smith
The "signature win" for Illinois Democrats (although they're slightly embarrassed about it) was the election of Derrick Smith to the Illinois House in the 10th District.

Outside of Illinois, you've probably not heard of Smith. The name doesn't register. Smith was appointed to his seat in March 2011 by Democratic committeemen when a vacancy occurred. In March 2012, just a week before the Democratic primary, Smith was arrested on federal charges. An informant caught him on tape accepting a $7,000 bribe to promote a grant to a day care center. On tape, Rep. Smith can be overheard telling the man passing the money to just 'leave it in the envelope.'

The man passing the money was also the man wearing a wire.

Smith's erstwhile patrons would eventually demand that he step aside. But not right away. Not until after the primary.

Smith faced opposition in the Democratic Primary from a one-time Republican operative named Tom Swiss.

It simply wouldn't do to let a Republican-in-Democrat's-clothing gain a free pass to Springfield simply because the Democratic candidate stood accused of taking a bribe. So the Democrats pushed hard for Smith in the primary... and only then called for him to step aside.

But Smith wouldn't go voluntarily. So, this summer, Smith was expelled from the Illinois State Legislature. That cost Smith his seat in Springfield and his paycheck -- but it didn't remove him from the ballot.

Some of the area Democratic committeemen recruited a bond lawyer and former Daley and Stroger staffer, Lance Tyson, to run against Smith as the candidate of the "Unity Party." But Smith won easily.

So many people in Cook County are so conditioned to vote Democratic that they will do so even when the leadership would rather they didn't.

Smith can't be booted out of the General Assembly again -- unless, of course, he is convicted. Given the tape recordings, the presumption of innocence notwithstanding, a conviction seems like a pretty safe bet. Then the Democratic committeemen will appoint someone else.

The Derrick Smith fiasco is emblematic of the chokehold that the Democratic Party has on Illinois -- because it draws the map.

The Party's control of the primary process is more tenuous.

The primary is in March -- deliberately so long before the election so as to discourage people from even thinking about voting, except for those committed (and loyal) to the Party. (Suppressing voter turnout is really a bipartisan strategy.) The last thing the Democratic Party in Illinois wants is serious public interest in the primary process.

But that's the only game that's left in town. In our town, anyway.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

OK, maybe this did constitute electioneering

Whenever there's an election, there are questions that arise about electioneering.

We've come a long way, baby.

Used to be the candidates would put out food and beverage to induce their supporters to come out to the polls -- now, typically, candidates or their supporters are not allowed within x feet of the polling place (x varies from state to state). You can't wear campaign buttons when you go to vote either. You can bring in information to help you complete the ballot, but you can't do anything that might be construed as an attempt to influence the next guy in line. That might be considered "electioneering."

So how about setting up a voting booth next to an Obama mural at a school in Philadelphia?

Well... guess what? Liz Goodwin reports in a story posted this afternoon on Yahoo! News that a Pennsylvania judge order polling place workers to cover up this mural of President Obama after Republicans complained.

Some electioneering cases are easier than others.

If you don't vote, you can't complain

So of course I was out early this morning to cast my vote. I can't imagine not complaining.

One thing I won't complain about is the end of the political attack ads.

Here in True Blue Chicago we haven't been subjected to very many presidential ads at all -- but, don't worry, we've had more than our share of campaign sliminess.

This is how dumb our home-grown Republicans are: Two years ago, they won a majority of Illinois' seats in Congress and they thought they'd done something. But they didn't win the Illinois House, the Illinois Senate or defeat the fourth Democratic vote on the Illinois Supreme Court (the one seat that was on the retention ballot). That meant that Republicans had exactly no say in the redistricting process -- and all of Illinois' Congressional districts were redrawn to erase the Republicans' gains in Congress.

(And, for my money, it was stupid to go after Justice Kilbride in the first place. He was guilty of no sin of omission or commission except for the original sin of being elected as a Democrat from an area that typically elected Republicans. And without Republican control of at least one house of the Legislature, erasing a 4-3 Democratic majority on the Illinois Supreme Court would have been meaningless. Probably. It might have curbed some of the more wretched excesses of the Democratic map-makers. Maybe.)

The lines were going to be redrawn anyway: Illinois lost a seat in Congress because of the 2010 Census results. But because the Democrats kept control of the Legislature, they kept control of the map-making -- and, accordingly, Chicago's loss of something like 200,000 people didn't hurt the Democrats one little bit. One Republican incumbent was eliminated in the Primary.

Our local attack ads focused on the mostly suburban three districts that the Democrats hoped to take from the Republicans. Strident Tea Partier Joe Walsh will almost certainly lose to Iraqi War Veteran Tammy Duckworth (she lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down). Freshman Congressman Bob Dold is in an expensive, and dirty, battle with Brad Schneider. Republican incumbent Judy Biggert is in an equally costly, and sleazy, battle with former one-term Congressman Bill Foster. The SuperPAC money that has been vomited into this market has made all of these individuals much smaller than life.

The Democrats have tried to smear Dold and Biggert with Walsh's views, some of which are pretty far out there. But Dold and Biggert are more in keeping with the Illinois tradition of country club Republicans. Dold even has commercials airing in which he proudly proclaims his pro-abortion views -- to distinguish himself from his colleague Cong. Walsh.

Walsh's views are not his biggest problem. His biggest problem is that he has a loud mouth and he doesn't know how to shut it. Every word out of his mouth sounds angry, strident, grating and disagreeable. Even when I want to agree with him on something, I still want to smack him.

Anyway, Walsh will probably lose, and turnout will decide the fate of Dold and Biggert (Biggert being, I believe, in more danger than Dold). But -- in Illinois -- it doesn't really matter who goes to Congress. The Democrats still control the Illinois General Assembly and will tomorrow as well.

And we'll still have a huge unfunded pension liability, crumby schools, and an increasing crime rate in Chicago, all to go along with our shriveled tax base.

Great, right?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Curmudgeon makes a (decent?) proposal

Even casual readers of these essays will have noted my disparaging remarks, from time to time, about the state of my law practice.

This is not to say that I haven't tried to drum up business -- though I might wish it were not so, man does not live by blogging alone -- but there are over 91,000 lawyers in Illinois now, with the latest crop of newbies being sworn in last week. It's pretty hard to stand out in a crowd, especially a crowd that large.

Still, my business development efforts may have made an impression on somebody because I recently got a solicitation to submit a bid to a public agency for outside legal work.

They're not looking to give me a job, you understand, but this agency invited me to put together a proposal to beg to be hired on a case-by-case basis as one of who-knows-how-many similarly qualified outside firms.

Beggars can't be choosers, right?

Besides, this is pretty heady stuff: Somebody thought enough of me to include me on a list of persons who would at least have the opportunity to compete for some business. I have no idea who it was. I don't know anybody at this agency.

But the downside of not having previously been invited to make a bid for public work is that I don't really know how to do it.

I improvised.

I put together a nice letter and got some supporting materials assembled. I asked for, and received, a couple of really glowing recommendation letters. I printed out my CV -- and actually took the time to review it and refresh my recollection with regard to past accomplishments that I thought might be relevant to the agency inviting the proposal. By the time I was done (the morning the proposal was due) my head was swollen to twice its normal size. Golly, I thought to myself as I reviewed my final product, I've had a pretty good career. I've done some pretty good stuff. Maybe I've got a real shot at getting all sorts of new business.

A cloud passed across the bright sunshine of my thought processes. If I get too much work, will I have to add staff? Where would I put them? Will I have to move again?

Irrational exuberance quickly dissipated the cloud. Those would be good problems to have, wouldn't they? I could pay down my credit cards... with minions on board, maybe I could take a vacation....

I made the requisite number of copies of my proposal (these requests have very specific, even picayune, requirements) and schlepped them over to the office of the agency that had inquired.

Even with all the copies, my package was easy to carry -- barely an inch thick. The morning was crisp and clear, and I was glad I'd remembered to bring gloves from home, especially since the agency's office was probably a mile or so from my office. No, I didn't take a cab -- I can't afford it.

Naturally, I was bringing my proposal in on the last day, during the last hour, permitted for bids to be submitted. (I really am a lawyer, you know.) As I huffed and puffed the last few blocks, I began to wonder if I'd see anyone else bringing in their materials. I wondered if I might recognize someone.

I didn't recognize anyone, but as I was clearing building security I did see a young man coming in with two bankers' boxes on a cart. The air began coming out of my balloon. I wonder if that's a bid package, I thought to myself.

Of course it was.

And, as I was coming out of the building, I saw a young lady groaning under the weight of three oversize clasp envelopes. Another bidder, I thought dejectedly, as I began to wonder what the agency might think of the wispy thin little bit of paper I'd brought in. I hope nobody laughs out loud, I thought.

The Sun had disappeared into the clouds as I walked back to the Undisclosed Location. The wind had picked up, too, and the walk back seemed ever so much longer than the walk over.

Friday, November 02, 2012

A few kind words about compromise -- even equivocation, flip-flopping and temporising

I'm tired of ideologues.

More, I'm afraid of them.

History teaches us that the American Revolution was successful in no small part because Americans already knew how to govern themselves. Our Founding Fathers were practical men, skilled in governance and politics, able to keep their eyes on the prize -- independence -- without worrying unduly about ideological purity.

Sure, when independence was achieved, our Founding Fathers, Washington always excepted, drifted into competing parties and started slandering each other. But the British threat was past... or it was past until, oh, about 1812 or so.

On the other hand, when revolution came to France, where the Bourbons had ruled by Divine Right long enough to extinguish almost all forms of self-governance, men with no experience to speak of had only ideology to rely on -- they were all philosophers, while most of our Founding Fathers were practicing, common law lawyers -- and France was subjected to the Reign of Terror.

Now, you can argue that a little more ideology and a little less practicality might have prevented the Founding Fathers from accommodating slavery in the Constitution -- you can argue that safely, now, because, unlike our Founding Fathers, you don't have to worry about the slaveholders walking out of Philadelphia and starting up their own competing country in the South, three score and 14 years before the Civil War actually started.

I was reading Roy Blount Jr.'s essay, "Mr. Lincoln Goes to Hollywood," in the current issue of the Smithsonian, and I was touched by Blount's description of Lincoln's meeting with the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was an ideologue. He understood that slavery was wrong, wrong, wrong and he had the moral courage to shout it from the rooftops. He thought Lincoln a contemptible, conservative, wishy-washy, unprincipled temporizer. But in the scene Blount recounts, Lincoln tells Stevens that a compass can only tell you true north -- but it can't tell you where the swamps are along the way. If you don't know how to get around or through the swamps, what good does it do you to know where true north lies? You have to know both where to go and how to get there.

In our current, sad, ugly world, we are surrounded by ideologues (though everyone claims, of course, it's not them who are the ideologues, it's those other guys). Compromise is treason. Changing one's opinion is "flip flopping." Equivocation is a mortal sin.

In the current presidential campaign, the Democrats have successfully portrayed Mitt Romney as a temporizing, waffling, flip flopper who'll change his positions as often as others might change their socks in exchange for votes. It is, of course, of no moment that anyone, to gain the nomination of either party, a candidate must reach out to the party's extremists (did I say 'extremists'? I suppose it's more polite to say 'activists' -- but extremists is about right) and then lurch back towards the center in hopes of winning the general election. In Mr. Romney's case, it may even be true that his opinions are more malleable than most.

But, let me make this clear: Flip flopping, compromise, temporizing, equivocation -- all these things may be fine, even good, as long as there is a respectable core of principle underlying and a clear destination defined. Leadership is sometimes about pulling, sometimes about pushing, but often about persuasion. In the case of Mr. Romney -- or anyone else -- equivocation, etc. is only a problem where there isn't a clear, appropriate objective.

In one way (and perhaps in only one way) Lincoln had it easy in that he had an obvious, easily defined goal: The preservation of the Union first, and only then the abolition of slavery. What is the goal -- the vision -- that Mr. Obama has or that Mr. Romney has? We all claim -- now -- finally -- belatedly -- to share Dr. King's dream of a world in which a person will be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. We all claim to want full employment, decent housing for all, an end to hunger, a dignified old age.

But these platitudes are too general to be a destination. We need to see better what -- if anything -- our leaders see as our destination before we can decide whom we should follow. Right now, though, we're all in the swamp together.