Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Battles Over Bottled Water

Satellite image of Lake Johnson FL, near Keystone Heights

Satellite image of Lake Johnson FL, near Keystone Heights

By Earl H. Perkins Thursday Review associate editor

(Originally posted February 19, 2014) The St. Johns River Water Management District’s Governing Board has again caved in to the whims of big business in Florida.

The group recently approved a consumptive use permit modification for Niagara Bottling, allowing the company to double the amount of water it draws from the fragile Floridan aquifer. In round figures, that amounts to 910,000 gallons per day for the next 20 years, give or take a couple of gallons and a few soon-to-be-extinct wetlands or ecosystems.

Niagara’s Groveland facility will be obligated to draw water from deeper wells, and the district claims the move will “reduce Niagara’s impacts” on water resources in Lake County.

Impassioned opposition from Florida residents has held little sway with government in the Sunshine State, with power brokers controlling many decision-making bodies for generations.
Taxpayers have lost all faith in government officials, noting they constantly vote against the best interest of those who pay their salaries.

For years the District’s hydrological experts have warned that the easily-obtainable water from the Upper Floridan Aquifer is diminishing, and with the loss of only 50,000 gallons per day, wetlands will dry up and lake levels will drop.

Residents living near the chain of lakes in Central Florida have made it abundantly clear they want pure drinking water, full lakes and sloppy wetlands. A lush and beautiful Florida is all they want.

Running a boat on the lake and watching their children swim in clean water is all they need—just as they’ve been doing for generations. Instead they look out their back door and see boathouses sticking up in the air, a dry and crusted lakebed, and the distant memory of what was once waterfront property.

The Floridan aquifer is the largest, oldest and deepest aquifer in the southeastern United States, stretching across more than 100,000 square miles. It runs under all of Florida, along with parts of southern Alabama, southeastern Georgia and southern South Carolina.

Florida cities supplied by the aquifer include Daytona Beach, Deltona, Flagler Beach, Gainesville, Tampa, Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Tallahassee. It also covers several South Florida municipalities, along with numerous rural communities.

Water stored in the ground is like a bank account, so when your withdrawals outpace deposits, you have major account-supply problems.

Groundwater depletion is primarily caused by sustained groundwater pumping, according to the US Geological Survey. This action can have numerous adverse environmental ramifications, including dry wells, less water in streams and lakes, deteriorating water quality, increased pumping costs and land subsidence.

The first four damaging effects are self-explanatory, but land subsidence probably needs a definition. The quick version is that when you suck sub-surface water out of soil, the ground slowly collapses, compacts and drops, depending on several factors, including the type of soil and rock below the surface. This can sometimes produce those dramatic sinkholes we see on the news, now a persistent problem in Florida and some neighboring southern states.

If you’re more of a common-sense type person, politically-connected businessmen have been building massive high-rise condominiums and buildings for several decades, then sucking water out from under the state. Liken the scenario to Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown just before he kicks it.

Irate Floridians were quite vociferous about their opinions at the District’s February meeting in Palatka, but the entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Six of nine trustees are beholden to the development industry or to businesses seeking water, so it was no surprise they adopted a proposal that will haunt the southeast for decades. The meeting was held in the middle of the week, and the District’s office is conveniently located almost 110 miles from downtown Orlando and 90 miles from Groveland.

Numerous residents came from as far as Orlando, Jacksonville and several Central Florida counties, urging the St. Johns River Water Management District not to grant Niagara’s request to increase pumping at its Groveland facility. Some expressed outrage that a California company was being allowed to take such a massive amount of water from the aquifer, while Central Floridians are already suffering under horrid water restrictions.

Many of these citizens are under mandatory lawn-watering restrictions, while they’re already facing shriveling springs and lakes, along with shrinking drinking water supplies.

“There are hundreds of people who would have made this trip but for the distance and it being in the middle of the workday,” said Clay Townsend, a Morgan & Morgan lawyer representing another of the firm’s lawyers who lives near the Niagara plant.

Please hazard a guess as to how many of 19 million Floridians spoke in support of Niagara. Three guesses, and the first two don’t count. That’s correct, zero. However, there were 29 citizens who implored the board to deny the application.

Bupkis and vacuous are two words that spring to mind when I think of Niagara’s position on this matter, along with a few lines from the truly great Sid Behrman—author of the World’s Funniest Lawyer Jokes.

Ed de la Parte, who has worked for many utilities and specializes in water-fight lawsuits, said it wouldn’t be fair to deny Niagara’s permit with more than a dozen other beverage plants operating in the district. He also noted that the proposed increase would cause no harm to the environment—an analysis formed entirely from the company’s own analysis and the position of the district.

“It’s not about emotion,” de la Parte said. “We have to deal with the best scientific information.”
Niagara has agreed to dig a deep well that will reach into the lower section of the aquifer, which will hopefully lessen potential harm to wetlands, lakes and springs.

The company will be required to prove that pumping from a deeper well is less damaging to the aquifer and the region’s environment. Many residents and businesses in south Lake County already hate the company, blaming Niagara for lower water levels and hence problems with the economy. Realtors, waterfront property and the fishing industry have been an integral part of the area for generations, so you can certainly understand the resentment.

Two board members voted against the increase: Maryam Ghyabi of Ormond Beach and Douglas Burnett of St. Augustine, who had a problem with granting a 20-year permit. John Miklos and Chuck Drake of Orlando were the Central Florida members who voted for the 910,000 gallons.
When they finish stealing Florida’s water, the state will almost certainly be forced to sue Georgia, which has its own major water issues.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Water Rights and the Limits of Growth; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; December 22, 2013.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/BattlesBottledWater.html#sthash.olSiUlwR.dpuf

The New Navy: Luke, Use the Force

Image courtesy of U.S. Navy/Defense Dept.

Image courtesy of U.S. Navy/Defense Dept.

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

The computers, smartphones and handheld technologies of our lives have already taken us to the edge of science fiction and beyond. What were mere fantasies decades ago—the staples found in Star Wars and Star Trek—are now realities thanks to digital technology and smart applications, and we hardly give them a second thought.

But now the United States military is testing new weapons systems that take us past the edge of sci-fi and into a decidedly new era of military conflict.

Even as you read this article, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines are in the flight test phase for the F-35, a stealth fighter which—among its other amazing attributes—can see (literally) in all directions, is largely invisible to radar, can stop midair on a dime, hover and land like a helicopter, accepts specific voice commands, and comes with a cutting edge computer system which will allow aviators to see digital images projected on cockpit surface areas and inside a specially designed visor.

Did you happen to see the movie Oblivion with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman? Well, something like that flying machine, only without the annoying voice of that woman with the faux Savannah, Georgia pecan pie accent.

The F-35 is also equipped for vertical takeoffs, a function the Marines see as a key attribute, and short-runway carrier take-offs, which is the Navy’s preference. A top-secret helmet and visor, which will be specially fitted and customized for each pilot, will enable the aviator to have a 360 degree, spherical field of vision using image receptors built into the skin of the plane’s fuselage, wings and tail. In addition, the plane’s hyper-sensitive omni-directional mapping hardware will increase tenfold a pilot’s ability to detect an incoming missile or an approaching enemy fighter.

And though its development and construction has been plagued by cost overruns and lots of missed deadlines—the F-35 “Lightning II” will be the most expensive weapons system ever deployed by any nation—the high tech fighter plane, sans bugs and snafus, is expected to be finally rolling off the Lockheed Martin assembly line at a regular pace by the middle of next year, with hundreds already on order by the Pentagon.

The F-35 is so advanced, and so well-designed for future retro-fittings for as-yet-undeveloped applications and technologies, that some in the military believe that its basic design and deployment may last for fifty years or more.  Which means that the F-35 stops just short of being Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter.

But exotic high technology is not limited to aviation.

Later this year, probably in July, the U. S. Navy will test a laser weapon on a vessel at sea. The laser has already been developed, tested and re-tested in the lab, as it were, in controlled, land-based facilities. But this year’s at-sea testing will demonstrate the laser’s full potential. The device can be operated by one individual at a single control panel, and can be used to instantly disable an approaching aircraft, drone, rocket or speedboat.

Its biggest advantage, according to the military, is that unlike guns, which can run out of ordnance, the laser can be fired for an indefinite length of time. The laser can also be fired with extreme precision, meaning it can quickly disable, say, a speedboat carrying explosives, at a great distance and with incredible accuracy. An unlike the laser-pointers now in the news for their widespread use in classrooms and boardrooms (and as an annoyance and threat to commercial airline pilots), the Navy’s laser—a narrow particle beam accelerator with a lethal punch—is largely invisible.

The Navy’s new laser weapon is not a toy with which to torment your cat, nor is this Obi Wan Kenobi’s light saber.

But the dazzling weapons don’t end with that.

Sometime in late 2015 or mid-2016, the Navy also plans to sea test an electromagnetic railgun—a weapon which can effortlessly hurl an inert projectile at speeds exceeding six times the speed of sound. At sea level, and depending on air temperature, that’s approximately 4566 miles per hour (7350 km/hr).

At that mind-bending speed, a relatively light, non-explosive projectile (read: inexpensive) becomes lethal, and can disable or destroy an incoming rocket, drone or aircraft from a great distance. In the end this reduces cost and also increases the effectiveness of the weapon.
The electromagnetic railguns have already been field tested on land, and the Navy envisions a program in which rail guns can replace conventional heavy guns on most ships within the next 20 years. Some military analysts say that the only thing constraining their deployment has been the enormous amount of electricity required to charge and fire the gun, a problem the Navy plans to have resolved within the next 18 months or so. Many future destroyers will be equipped with on board generating stations designed primary to power the railguns.

All three weapons systems—the F-35, the laser and the electromagnetic railgun—are seen by the Pentagon as essential, proactive tools for fighting “the next war,” which is the polite military euphemism for theoretical match-ups not against Libya, Iraq, Syria or Venezuela, but against the superpowers China and Russia. And because of the surgical precision and purported accuracy of such weapons, they may also be deployed against terror threats and against rogue states like North Korea or Iran, whose potentially sudden and unpredictable moves may trigger regional crises.

Not everyone in the U.S. is on board with all of these weapons systems. The cost of the F-35 has escalated far beyond its original estimates and has now become famously pricey. In an interview with CBS’s David Martin on “60 Minutes,” the Pentagon’s weapons evaluator and buyer called the F-35 program “acquisition malpractice,” and suggested that the project had been badly mismanaged from the start. The special helmet, for example, have cost about $500,000 apiece, and may yet go up in cost by the time the military completes all flight testing.

Then there are the moral and ethical questions, a persistent condition when newer technologies enter the battlefield, even theoretical scenarios: would such high powered, nimble weapons not be prone to mishaps or malfunctions? How safe is a lethal laser weapon if it can be easily operated from a computer workstation by a single sailor? And would not ordnance fired at 4566 MPH pose an obvious risk if triggered by mistake, meaning there would be no time to abort, or hit the self-destruct button? And in a time of great unemployment, underemployment and economic struggle, is it sensible to make a priority of an advanced jet fighter program that has cost more than than it cost the U.S. to send twelve men to the moon.

But there is political support from both Democrats and Republicans who point out that China and Russia may already be working on similar weapons programs even now. And the Pentagon chiefs, along with a lot of flight test officers, nevertheless hold to the opinion that the F-35 and its dazzling advances make the program essential—warts and all. Once debugged, the plane is expected to perform as advertised and revolutionize air combat—with a distinct advantage for American aviators.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/NewNavyWeapons.html#sthash.l9vNb7wM.dpuf

Back in NY: Tonight Show Debuts with Jimmy Fallon

Photo courtesy The Tonight Show/NBC

Photo courtesy The Tonight Show/NBC

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

(Originally posted February 18, 2014) After a nearly 40 year stint on the west coast, where the Tonight Show was filmed and hosted in beautiful downtown Burbank, California, the newly retooled and remodeled show—now over 60 years old–was televised again in New York City, the town where it had been hosted generations ago by Steve Allen and Jack Paar.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon premiered on Monday, February 17 to what NBC hopes to be wide viewership, acceptance and high praise. To judge from the first installment with Fallon, the iconic show may be entering in good standing with its new incarnation after the previous 22 years under the comedic leadership of Jay Leno.

The Monday debut was approachable, direct and at times dazzling. It was also very funny, the key attribute for the rollout of a show so heavily watched by mainstream audiences and TV industry types.

Fallon began with a personal, somewhat humble introduction, praising his parents (his mom and dad were in the audience), and recognizing the great distance he had travelled from his small town upstate New York upbringing and his start on the equally iconic comedy show Saturday Night Live. Fallon introduced himself as “your host…for now,” a reference not lost on audience members or viewers who have followed the long, sometimes troubling saga of NBC’s love/hate relationship with Leno.

Fallon also introduced the new Tonight Show house band, an eight-man Philadelphia-based jazz-swing-soul-rock combo named The Roots, the same band that had been with him in his previous run as host of Late Night.

This week’s debut show, which did not slow down after his heartfelt and seemingly genuine opening, also included some pretty upbeat and upscale moments, among them a hilarious and well-choreographed musical sketch in which Fallon and Will Smith give the audience a brief, humorous history of hip hop dance moves.

There was also an energetic rooftop musical performance by U2, shot with precarious and vertiginous ingenuity atop the GE building at 30 Rockefeller Center, a few floors above where the Tonight Show digs are now located among NBC’s offices and television studios. Later, U2 band members came back into the new studio to visit with Fallon and perform one more tune, this time an acoustic set.

During the show Fallon pointed out that the new space—smartly decked out with tall blue curtains, deep, glistening wood paneling and an elaborate wood-grained model of the New York skyline behind his conservative desk, is the same studio used decades earlier by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson before the show moved to westward to Burbank in 1972.

After settling in at his new desk, Fallon also joked that the old friend who had once bet him $100 that he would never be the host of the Tonight Show, now owed him that C note—whereupon actor Robert De Niro entered the stage and dropped a one hundred dollar bill onto Fallon’s desk. Much to the delight of the audience, De Niro was followed by a procession of other stars, each handing him $100, and the cameo appearances included New Yorkers Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker. Joan Rivers, once a frequent substitute host for the Tonight Show in Johnny Carson’s day, also made an appearance to pay her “debt,” as did Stephen Colbert, who—in lieu of a $100 bill—dumped a large bucket of copper pennies onto Fallon’s desk and shoulders, and into his lap.

“Welcome to 11:30, bitch,” said Colbert.

The multi-talented Fallon seemed genuinely thrilled to be the show’s new host, and indicated he understood the pressure he was under to please the audience and attract and retain newer, younger viewers. Fallon’s generally positive track record with SNL, and later at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in the increasingly crowded world of late night TV entertainment has led NBC to bank heavily on the success of the newly revamped show.

NBC hopes to regain the high ground in the ratings war in the post-11:00 slot, now populated by shows those of like David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Arsenio Hall and others—all of whom have developed their own dedicated followings.

Jay Leno, who took over after the retirement of Carson in 1992, gave his last performance as host of the Tonight Show a few weeks ago, and in an emotional goodbye he thanked his fans and those who had worked with him for so many years on the show. He also wished Fallon luck on the show. Leno’s contract with NBC would have taken him through the fall of this year, but he agreed to an early buyout equal to one year’s salary.

Most viewers who watched the new show rated Fallon’s performance a success. And now NBC crosses its fingers in the hopes that ratings remain solid.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/TonightShowJimmyFallon.html#sthash.9nMF6lJc.dpuf

To Face the Press (Or Not)

Republican Governors Page

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Friday, February, 14, 2014) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has had a rough seven or eight weeks in the spotlight, even with the remarkable positive spin from the most watched Super Bowl—and the most highly rated TV event—in history taking place right in his own home state.

The so-called Bridgegate scandal has diverted his energies and his time, and has driven out of the limelight save for that nearly two-hour press conference last month followed by his state of the state address to the New Jersey legislature a few days later.

Now he must face the music again, this time in his new and prominent role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. His selection for that job last fall was widely regarded as the final step in what would be his inevitable entry into the 2016 presidential sweepstakes. Until the fracas over the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City, Christie was generally viewed by political analysts as the GOP front-runner, and the man-to-beat among the other Republican hopefuls.

Christie’s poll numbers last fall showed him to be the favorite among GOP voters, easily besting his closest potential competitors—Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul.
But much water has passed under that bridge. And much has changed.

Once able to hold his own in theoretical match-ups against presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Christie’s poll numbers have fallen—slowly at first, then more dramatically. Other than a brief appearance at the Super Bowl, during which boos could be heard (albeit from lots of people not from New Jersey), he has been forced to stay out of direct contact with reporters. His much-watched trip to Florida a few weeks back to help raise money on behalf of Florida Governor Rick Scott resulted in no appearances outside of the private dinners and receptions, and zero contact with reporters.

Even as subpoenas were issued by the special committee investigating the bridge scandal (and the matter of the Sandy Relief money), Christie has communicated with the media by way of written statements, emails or through spokespersons in his office. The normally gregarious, outgoing and plainspoken Christie has remained tucked away behind his office walls and the cover of tinted windows on black SUVs.

But beginning on February 24, that may have to change, and the governor may have to face direct and heavy incoming fire from reporters as he convenes the GOP governors in Washington, D.C.

In Washington, where the press corps makes up a significant share of the political population, any event in which a top-tier presidential contender makes an appearance will draw throngs of reporters and photographers. In this case, many of them will be drawn by the scent of blood in the water. In fact, had everything been going swimmingly for the New Jersey governor, you can bet a few of those same reporters would yawn and stay home. But this is different. The media super storm which has swirled around Christie seems to know no limits, and the sharks have been circling for months.

Fairly or unfairly, the dilemma he will face during the Republican Governors Conference is a no-win scenario. If he makes an appearance, even for a brief few questions, it will produce little of anything useful for the GOP and nothing but grief for Christie. Reporters will ask nothing about the conference, despite the importance that such confabs can sometimes generate. All questions will be directed, again, toward what the governor knew and when did he know it: lane closings, vindictive emails, threats to withhold Sandy relief funds, bullying of political opponents, and the issue of what evidence folks like David Wildstein might possess to incriminate the governor.

On the other hand, if Christie decides to duck reporters—and the governors send out someone else to field the media questions—Christie will be accused of dodging accountability, or worse, of hiding something. As a group, reporters tend to get more annoyed by a failure to appear than anything else, and you can bet the spin will be universally negative—even from Christie’s friends among the press corps—if he avoids any public appearances in which Q&A is the order of the day.

By most accounts and by most measures, artificial or otherwise, the clock is ticking on Christie’s window of opportunity. If he is unable to make Bridgegate go away by mid spring (so far there is no smoking gun linking him directly to any of the bad behavior for which he has been accused) his presidential ambitions for 2016 may be ruined. Even some in the GOP have begun slowly backing away for the governor. But his immediate culpability will become irrelevant by June or July, which many regard as the failsafe point for the start of exploratory action for presidential fundraising and organizing.

The test of his resolve to put the scandals behind him may come next week in Washington, when he makes that fateful decision about whether or not to appear before that shark-frenzied room of reporters, videographers and photographers.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 1, 2014.

A Super Storm in Jersey; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 20, 2014.

Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 13, 2014.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ChrisChristieBridge2-14-14.html#sthash.fk4Pnz4X.dpuf

The Big Merger: Comcast & Time-Warner

Comcast logos

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told reporters from CNBC and NBC (two networks whose parent company, by the way, in Comcast) that he would not have proceeded with Thursday’s announcement of a proposed $45 billion merger between Comcast and Time-Warner if he didn’t think the deal would move easily through the federal regulatory processes in Washington.

Some business analysts suggest that Roberts and his top Comcast brass know what they are doing, and that his comments about moving forward through the regulatory steps are in fact reflective of the mood of the principal government agencies involved: the Federal trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. Comcast has a well-established track record of managing major media and cable mergers, almost always coming out on top and rarely facing fierce political opposition. Its past merger with AT&T’s huge broadband division and its purchase of entertainment giant NBC-Universal (which it purchased from General Electric), proved that Roberts and his team understood the political and regulatory waters.

But let’s assume for a moment that this time—in this deal—pressure is brought to bear in Washington to give the Comcast’s proposed Time-Warner buyout closer scrutiny.

Consumer groups, predictably, are already shouting that the mega merger would essentially make the already number one cable provider even more massive, creating in essence a cable monopoly for those subscribers in areas already served exclusively by one of the two companies, or in those areas where there is marginal competition between the two giants. The proposed combined cable company would include some 34 million subscribers, and both companies provide cable, phone and high speed internet in most of their customer footprint.

In a variety of customer satisfaction surveys cable companies often rank poorly. The Philadelphia-based Comcast and the New York-based Time-Warner, the two largest cable providers in North America, typically trade places for the top slot (one might say the bottom slot) in those grim surveys with their dubious distinctions. Consumer groups and several watchdog groups have suggested that the mega merger will only make things worse for millions of customers.

But there is a flip side to the equation. As the costs of technology and content rise, Comcast’s massive size gives it leverage to manage and control at least some of those prices and fees. (See Mega Cable Mega Merger; Thursday Review; February 13, 2014).

This has been Comcast’s modus operandi for decades as it moved from the second tier of cable providers into the top ten. Indeed Comcast’s track record of keeping current with technological changes, product innovations, and a dizzying ten or twelve years of customer marketplace changes (including a dramatic shift toward wireless and mobile technologies) has meant that smaller cable providers and the few Mom & Pop operators still out there often found themselves unable to compete on the same scale as Comcast. In short, Comcast says it can offer far-reaching service improvements and advancements based on its economy of scale.

But, this is cold comfort for people who fear the worst: slower response time to field service problems, longer on-hold waits for customer service, prices increases, and billing problems.

One possible political and regulatory outcome might be that even if the deal is allowed to proceed, federal regulators might impose strict conditions, such as divestiture of some parts of the newly created cable footprint. There may also be a push to allow more competition from smaller companies in many of the areas now served exclusively by either Comcast or Time-Warner, but especially in those locations where competition currently exists between the two giants. (A similar debate may ensue over the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, a marriage which would leave the U.S. with only three major wireless carriers).

And there will be possible ripple effects into other areas. The merger may give Comcast the muscle to more fiercely compete with Netflix, a service which has taken a big bite out of Comcast’s desire to make content king. Companies like Netflix and Apple have a lot at stake in this deal, and indeed it may be in their best interest to lobby against the Comcast/Time-Warner merger as it will no doubt affect their access to valuable bandwidth—some of which Comcast will control.

In the end, the question of how this will affect cable customers remains open and speculative. The answer will come only when millions of customers see which weighs more—the product and technological gains, or the longer on-hold waits for a customer service representative.

Related Thursday Review articles: Mega Cable, Mega Merger; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Thursday, February 13, 2014.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ComcastTimeWarner2-14-14.html#sthash.0YhS4tCX.dpuf

Checking Account, Post Office Style

Postalservicebank

Thursday Review staff

(Originally posted February 13, 2014) That the United States Postal Service has been facing hard times lately is no great secret. The Post Office has faced ever-more complex problems of competition with online payments, mobile account and payment apps, and rapidly evolving consumer preferences in the digital age.

For a century and a half the Post Office it was awash in black ink thanks to a constant sea of mail—letters, bills, payments, magazines, and more. Every few years the rate for first class postage might go up, but there was a balance. The internet has changed all of that. Now, the Post Office knows only red ink, and its future has become increasingly uncertain.

Many of the solutions proposed over the last few years have been radical, and painful: post office closures; layoffs; early retirements and buyouts; outsourcing; fewer drop off boxes; termination of Saturday deliveries; reduced hours; perhaps even a four-day delivery week. And even when these scenarios are thrown into the mix, newer, quickly evolving projections show such a future shortfall that may persist well into the future. That means more red ink, and even more price increases for all forms of delivery.

But if U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D. Mass) has her way, the United States Postal Service may soon be adding neighborhood banking to its resume.

Warren has endorsed a plan which would allow the Post Office to enter into partnership with credit unions, banks and other financial institutions to operate bill pay services, check cashing and check depositing, and even process loans for customers who do not have a checking or savings account at a traditional bank or credit union.

Warren and others who have signed onto the plan see this as a win-win. The Post Office would gain a valuable source of modestly profitable foot traffic—enough, presumably, to re-energize its purpose and get the black ink flowing again. Further, Americans who lack access to banks would be able to engage in routine bank activity, like check cashing and small loans, giving them a far better option than the nearby payday loan operations which typically charge extremely high fees and interest rates.

Warren is one of several Washington legislators concerned about the high interest and heavy fees imposed on customers who use retail street corner check cashing services or neighborhood retail loan stores. Some so-called payday lenders offer cash advances on paychecks, charging fees for the transaction but also charging a hefty interest rate.

Warren says that as many as 68 million Americans lack access to a traditional checking account and many of those have become dependent on the payday lenders. Warren’s plan would facilitate using the U.S. Postal Service as a lower-cost mechanism for simple activity like payroll check cashing or small loans.

Some critics, however, see this as an unnecessary and potentially expensive intrusion into commerce and banking by a federal agency ill-equipped for such activity. The low profit of such banking activity could mean that the Postal Service sees little, if any, actual return, and some analysts suggest it could actually cost the Post Office more money and send it deeper into the red ink. Others raise the issue of training, security and logistics. Postal employees are not bankers, nor are they typically equipped for the complexities of loans. The combined downside could be an expensive adventure in neighborhood banking and something that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

But supporters of the plan say that the Postal employees can be easily trained to learn such processes, and that the Postal Service is ideally equipped to adapt to this new set of tasks.

And few would argue the point that payday lenders and check cashing services are nothing more than predatory operations designed to take advantage of people without means. Banks have expressed an interest in partnering with the Postal Service as long as the feds are willing to back up the loans and pursue those who do not pay them back. Under Warren’s proposal, the Treasury Department would be empowered to garnish wages of those who do not fulfill their obligation to repay loans or debts.
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Is Hillary Clinton Inevitable?

hillaryclinton2016

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published February 12, 2014) Democratic strategists want to keep the road to 2016 free of obstructions, diversions and, if possible traffic cones. So far they have had good luck in managing just such a feat.

Such is not the case for the GOP, where lane closures and other interruptions to the traffic flow have disrupted what Republican leaders had hoped would be a more orderly procession. Once, less than 60 days ago, some polls showed New Jersey governor Chris Christie in a dead heat—or holding his own—against presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. No other Republican had enjoyed that clout.

And though Christie continues to fight back against the latest round of charges (those non-specific allegations from former Port Authority administrator David Wildstein that the governor knows a lot more than he has told reporters), the New Jersey governor has seen his standing in national polls take a mild hit lately, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that his presidential chances for 2016 are in serious jeopardy.

Despite Christie’s defenders rightfully pointing out that there is no smoking gun, the combined weight of the allegations grows week, and may ultimately make the issue of what the governor approved (the time-honored question “what did he know and when did he know it?”) irrelevant. If Christie’s presumed presidential bid falters, the GOP must begin its search for the next savior.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is coy about the next few years, and when pressed on the subject she has continued to day that it is too early to think about another run for the presidency. And as anyone who knows anything about national politics will tell you, that means yes, in fact, she is running—flat out, full steam ahead. Otherwise the answer would come back “no.”

Clinton enjoys a pre-cycle level of approval that is the envy of many presidential hopefuls, past and present. Recent polls by CNN show her leading Democrats as the party’s first choice by 70% or better. Polls conducted by the Washington Post/ABC News in late January showed her pulling 73% of Democrats, with Vice-President Joe Biden trailing with only 12%. Clinton has few, if any, serious rivals.

After rumors swirled around for several days last week and over the weekend, current Secretary of State John Kerry sought to put the chatter of his own potential presidential bid to rest.

“I’m out of politics,” Kerry, now 70s, told CNN, “I have no plans whatsoever.” Kerry ran for president in 2004, but was defeated by President George W. Bush. He had served in the United States Senate for 28 years before being tapped to replace the retiring Clinton for the top post at State.

Vice-president Joe Biden has also had his name, unofficially, in circulation as a potential candidate in 2016. Many analysts say that he is unlikely to challenge Clinton once she makes her candidacy official, which could come as early as next year. But Biden is understandably reluctant to close the door completely, and for some Democratic strategists, that hedge may be useful—especially if problems swirling around the tragic Ben Ghazi episode continue to plague Clinton. Or, in the unlikely event that Clinton simply decides not to run.

For Democrats, Biden is a good fallback option: lots of name recognition, no major baggage from his years serving as Obama’s number two guy, and a better-than-average track record of choosing sides craftily and smartly when it comes to the sweeping social changes which have occurred over the last four to five years (same-sex marriage, immigration). Biden’s occasional misfires and gaffes, which have always been a part of who he is as a politician, present no problem that cannot be overcome with humor and grace (though who can say what misfires might ensue over the next year or so). And Biden is a formidable, cool debater.

Biden also earns the automatic inheritance of a small piece of Obama’s veneer and graces, much in the same way that George H.W. Bush got his own get-out-of-jail-free card when he ascended in the winter of the Ronald Reagan years. Bush absorbed a bit of Reagan’s Teflon; Biden gets a bit of Obama’s popularity.

In short: Joe Biden becomes the Democratic Party’s default position if Hillary Clinton chooses retirement.

But the downside is that Biden is not Obama. Nor is he Hillary Clinton, or even Al Gore, for that matter. Biden may inherit some good will for being Obama’s VP, but he still lacks charisma and style. How soon we forget 2008: those debates in which Biden found himself stuck in the third tier, alongside Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, and behind even Bill Richardson and John Edwards. When viewed in that context, Biden shrinks.

Furthermore, Biden may seem like a good second choice to many Democrats, but he inflates instantly into an object of target practice for the GOP. On issues like gun control, you can bet on Republicans will pounce. And GOP tacticians may find the gaffe-prone, malapropistic Biden easy fodder for negative sound bites.

But who is out there beyond Clinton and Biden? Al Gore is not likely to emerge from his semi-retirement—nor would he necessarily be welcomed by all Democrats. John Edwards’ once-promising track as an energetic, Bobby Kennedy-style progressive has been derailed. Neither Nancy Pelosi nor Harry Reid is viewed as presidential material, nor have they allowed any talk of a candidacy to gain traction.

Some progressives within the party, still stinging from what they view as a lukewarm embrace of a larger, wider liberal agenda by the Obama administration (see “Obama’s Progressive Deficit”; Thursday Review), seek new fertile ground in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, by far the most progressive of the high-profile Democrats currently under discussion. Warren, who defeated the popular Republican Scott Brown in 2012, is unapologetic about her populist and progressive bona fides. For Democrats whose heart and souls are decidedly left-of-center, Warren fills the bill nicely—even better, a few might argue, than a calculating pragmatist like Hillary Clinton.

Warren, a former Harvard professor and a skilled debater, would easily rally the party’s progressive base and generate excitement.

But there are downsides: she has little experience (a similar complaint was made against the young Senator Barack Obama in 2007-2008), and her populist agenda and sometimes shrill talk might become an easy target for Republicans. Warren’s words can be eerily similar to the speeches of Frank Church, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy—a compliment perhaps to Warren and her staff, but a gentle warning that GOP candidates will make easy sport of a “1970’s style socialist radical from Harvard.”

For decades the name Cuomo has loomed out there at the edges of serious political talk. From the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was Mario Cuomo, a New York governor who frequently flirted with his presidential ambitions. These days the talk is instead centered around Andrew Cuomo, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and currently the popular governor of the Empire State, and seen—like Biden—as a good fallback position in a race without Clinton. Cuomo’s strengths are substantial: high name recognition; a good track record as governor of a large and diverse state; and, indeed, the state of New York, which carries a hefty reward in the Electoral College. In the electoral arithmetic, Cuomo can be expected to easily carry a cluster of other northeastern states, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But Cuomo, the old school pragmatist and careful conciliator, does not draw much enthusiasm from the progressive wing of the party. Save for his support of same-sex marriage rights in New York, many of the same Democrats who are excited about the name Elizabeth Warren are lukewarm when the talk turns to Cuomo. Also, polls do not show Cuomo scoring well against theoretical match-ups against names like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan or Rand Paul.

The list often stops there, with those names: Clinton, Biden, Warren and Cuomo. But after a few more cocktails the loosened lips around the dinner table or the bar might produce the names of three other governors: Patrick Deval of Massachusetts; Brian Schweitzer of Montana; and John Hickenlooper of Colorado. All three were given prominent speech slots at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012. Of the three, Deval is obviously the best, most energetic speaker, but Schweitzer seems the most intriguing for his robust, western cut and his rugged political narrative (though Montana carries only slight electoral weight).

None of the three have much impact in national polls, and they score poorly in name-recognition—though one can reasonable argue that Barack Obama had little traction in national polling when he first entered the fray in mid-2007.

So for Democrats, Hillary Clinton remains the only person in the top tier, in a class by herself and without any serious challengers. It’s very difficult to imagine any scenario in which a candidate from the aforementioned list could make the same sort of come-from-behind run that Barack Obama accomplished in 2008.

And with the widest pre-primary polling lead seen in decades, that makes Clinton just about inevitable. Which is almost the same thing that was said about her candidacy back throughout 2006 and 2007.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 1, 2014.

No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 18, 2013.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/HillaryClinton2-12-14.html#sthash.xYNsfrWr.dpuf

Energy Prices on the Rise

 

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By Thursday Review staff

Industry analysts had expected it and right on cue it arrived: higher energy prices across the board. The extreme chilly weather during the past six weeks created an unprecedented demand for home heating oil and placed one of the greatest demands for electric and gas heat the country has ever faced. And winter is not even over, yet.

Much transportation activity across North America slowed to crawl: closed highways, roads, bridges and rails; limited air travel with thousands of flight cancellations each week; school closures and workplace slowdowns; and millions of Americans choosing not to use their cars or trucks, sometimes for days at a stretch. That created a dramatic drop-off in demand for aviation and diesel fuel, and an even bigger drop in demand for gas at the pump.

The average price for a gallon of gas actually dropped five cents during January.

But according to AAA, that too will change. A longer-than-average period of winter and post-winter maintenance for refineries means a reduced supply. Furthermore, over-the-road shipping must now catch up after many weeks of inactivity, meaning more trucks and more rail activity than normal. Add to that the traditional increase in demand for gasoline which accompanies the arrival of spring, and gas at the pump will almost certainly begin to rise.

The cost of home heating may have the biggest impact nationwide as homeowners and consumers face some of the biggest energy bills they have ever seen. Some economists worry that to pay for those higher-than-average home heating bills, many consumers will be forced to rein-in spending on other items. This could slow the recovery and bring on a brief mini-recession as Americans face an increase in both home energy costs and gasoline.

But not all economists are in agreement. Many point to the slow but steady improvement in the job numbers as evidence that the economy is making its way back—stubbornly perhaps—to a full recovery.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Polar Vortex Economy: Losers, Winners; Thursday Review; February 2, 2014. – See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/EnergyPriceRise.html#sthash.oiHWvosL.dpuf

Big Bang Versus Big Bucks

Composite image by Alan Clanton and Lisa Herrin; images courtesy of CBS and NFL

Composite image by Alan Clanton and Lisa Herrin; images courtesy of CBS and NFL

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

(Originally posted February 6, 2014) Big Bang Theory may be really big on CBS, but NFL is bigger. The NFL had its best year yet in 2013, and the most recent Super Bowl, despite being a one-sided affair in which the Seattle Seahawks ran roughshod over the hapless Denver Broncos, still managed to retain viewer loyalty right to the end—and, in fact, became the most watched TV event in history with 111.5 million viewers.

In one word: Bazinga!

CBS took notice, and recently concluded negotiations with the NFL for next year, at which time CBS will carry Thursday Night Football for the first eight Thursday games of the 2014 season. The Thursday pro football telecasts will supplement CBS’s already highly rated coverage of the AFC on Sundays.

But there is a slight problem: Big Bang Theory, one of CBS’s most popular sitcoms, airs weekly on Thursday nights, right in the middle of what will be NFL football games starting in the fall. That presents an explosive problem for ratings-centered programmers.

It’s Sheldon versus Sherman, so to speak.

The deal between the NFL and CBS was viewed by all parties involved as advantageous. The NFL wants more viewers to their pro games on Thursdays, games which typically receive the lowest viewership when compared to Sundays and Monday nights. The NFL has made no secret that they would like for the Thursday games to rival Sundays in ratings, and they saw CBS as the right vehicle for that wider audience. CBS also saw much to gain from grabbing those eight games. CBS outbid Fox, Turner Networks, NBC, and ESPN/ABC (both owned by the same parent company, Disney), but will gain the brief loyalty of the ever-growing audience for pro football, along with those ad dollars that follow.

Though figures have not been released officially, industry analysts believe that CBS paid approximately $250 million for the eight Thursday night games. That means CBS is betting big on more football.

The question remains: what will happen to the highly rated Big Bang?

Though CBS has not made a decision, most TV analysts suggest CBS will simply move Big Bang to another prime time location for that eight week period. Others have suspected that CBS might try to find a new permanent home for Big Bang Theory, disruptive though the move might be.

No matter what CBS decides, now everyone knows where the real clout resides when it comes to the ratings and the dollars. That means that for Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter (played by Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki), those hilarious Cal Tech physicists with the astronomically high IQs, brute force and brawn trump brains, at least on Thursday nights. Bazinga!

Related Thursday Review articles:

Super Bowl Sets New TV Ratings Record; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 4, 2014.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/BigBangVsNFLonCBS.html#sthash.uGwH9J5n.dpuf

These Youngsters From Liverpool: The Beatles & Ed Sullivan

Image courtesy of Capitol Records

Image courtesy of Capitol Records

By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor

(Originally published Saturday, February 8, 2014):

Sunday, February 9th, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The event will be commemorated by CBS on Sunday (February 9, 2014) with “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles.” The program will air in the same time slot, 8:00 p.m., as the band’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show. The salute will feature performances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

As a child, I can remember sitting in front of our black-and-white television on Sunday evenings watching programs such as Lassie, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. Perhaps the most popular Sunday evening program was the Ed Sullivan Show, the most highly-rated variety show in the history of television. “Ed Sullivan,” as the show was typically referred to, first aired in June, 1948 and ran on CBS until 1971. The show aired on CBS for its entire run in the era before cable television, and in an age when only three networks existed.

American culture in the early 1960’s was already coalescing around the family TV set. There were no electronic devices such as i-Pads, cell phones or video games to provide distractions. TV dinners were becoming more prevalent and families would often eat their evening meals sitting in front of the television set, only getting up to adjust the antenna, or “rabbit ears,” to improve reception. The kids might argue about whose turn it was to get up and change the channel because TV remotes weren’t in common use then, either.

Our culture was also more insular in the early 1960’s. The internet didn’t exist, international television wasn’t common and even trans-oceanic airplane travel was not as routine as it is today. There were fewer means for connecting people on a global basis. Other parts of the world were regarded as faraway, exotic or mysterious. In a sense, technology constrained our cultural horizons.

By early 1964, John Kennedy had been assassinated and Elvis had finished filming his fourteenth movie, “Kissin’ Cousins,” set for release in March. The death of President Kennedy and the transformation of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll into a singer of cheesy movie soundtracks disillusioned many American youth who began searching for new outlets for their energy and idealism.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom, British youth had found a new outlet for their expression in the form of four musicians from Liverpool. Calling themselves “The Beatles,” the band had recently exploded onto the musical and cultural scene in Britain, a society still emerging from the shadows of World War II. Rationing had been abolished only as recently as 1954 and there was a pervasive sense of national economic decline. Britain was trying to find its way in a post-colonial, Cold War world.

The Beatles’ rise from obscurity gave Britain a new relevance and ignited the latent energy of British youth.

1963 saw the rise of “Beatlemania” in the United Kingdom, sparked by an appearance on the BBC program “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” The groups’ first record, “Love Me Do’” barely dented the Top 20 in late 1962. However, over the next few months, the Beatles became sensations with “Please, Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The last three songs were consecutive number one hits. The Beatles represented a fresh, positive sound and they wrote most of their own material, which was unprecedented in pop music. Their music was inspired by numerous influences from rockabilly to doo-wop to Elvis and Little Richard. They were inventive and eager in the recording studio and very charismatic as live performers. As for interviews, the group was quick-witted, funny and refreshingly down-to-earth, making them an instant hit with reporters.

During a dinner meeting in New York, in November, 1963, Ed Sullivan first met Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The meeting was arranged at the urging of Peter Prichard, an English theatrical agent who was also employed by Sullivan as a talent evaluator. The impresario and the manager agreed that the Beatles would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th and again on February 16th, in a segment to be taped in Miami.

The appearance on February 9th was highly anticipated in light of the media blitz that surrounded it. The Beatles and Epstein arrived on Pan Am flight 101, which left London’s Heathrow Airport in a scene of pandemonium, complete with screaming girls straining against police barricades. At JFK Airport, the anxious crowd was estimated at approximately 5,000, not including 200 or so members of the media. Incidentally, the actual airplane which carried the Beatles, “Clipper Defiance’” was scrapped by the airline in 1977 in Long Beach, California.

After an airport press conference the Beatles were taken to the12th floor of the Plaza Hotel. They were greeted by another mob scene and indulged more journalists at another press conference in the hotel’s Baroque Room. Members of the group were thrilled to learn that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was now #1 in America.

At 1:30 p.m. the Beatles were whisked by limousine to CBS Studio 50 on Broadway to rehearse for the appearance that evening. Mounted police were in place along the route to keep frenzied fans away from the limos. George Harrison was not present for this rehearsal due to a fever and strep throat. His sister Louise, living in Illinois at the time, had been flown to New York to tend to her ailing brother. Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for George at the studio when the camera operators needed to test for angles and lighting. However, George was onstage with his band mates when the time came for the actual broadcast that evening.

When the episode aired at 8:00 Sunday evening, 60% of the television sets in the United States were tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, a figure representing an estimated 73 million people. As the show’s headliners, The Beatles took the stage in front of a studio audience of 700. Sullivan introduced the group as “these youngsters from Liverpool…” They opened their first set with “All My Loving” and closed it with “She Loves You.” In a briefer second set, the Beatles performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The youngsters from Liverpool had arrived in America and conquered it. Their success paved the way for the “British Invasion,” the wave of British bands whose popularity was ignited by the Beatles. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a seminal moment in the Beatles’ legacy as the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, and forever linked the narrative of Ed Sullivan to the history of The Beatles.

It is a legacy that will endure as long as people listen to music.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/BeatlesEdSullivan.html#sthash.wZPHjeqd.dpuf

Super Bowl Sets New TV Ratings Record

Image courtesy of Fox Sports

Image courtesy of Fox Sports

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Tuesday, February 4, 2014) The Seattle Seahawks blowout victory over the Denver Broncos last Sunday was exactly the sort of lopsided affair which delivers partisan fans endless joy, but gives those marketing experts and those big-budget television advertisers heartburn and grief.  After all, how many TV viewers will remain glued to the big game once it becomes apparent that the outcome has already been handily established?

The answer, sports fans, is a lot.

According to Nielson ratings released by Fox Sports and News Corp (the ratings were based on surveys taken during and immediately after the game), Sunday’s Super Bowl drew in a staggering 111.5 million viewers, which makes it the most watched event in all of television history.  The previous all-time viewership record was set in 2012, also in a Super Bowl game.
When scored by percentage, Sunday’s game in East Rutherford, New Jersey tied the 2013 Super Bowl aired by CBS.  Both games were viewed by 46.4 percent of TV households.

Conventional wisdom holds that a lopsided game will drive viewers away from the event in search of other distractions, even changing the channel in search of something else to watch.  Such was not the case this past Sunday, and that was good news for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and for all those advertisers who ponied up millions of dollars to place their 30 second and 60 second ads in the biggest football event of the year.

Even this year’s halftime show, which featured Bruno Mars and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, topped Nielson’s charts, pulling in 115.3 million viewers and besting previous records set by Beyonce in 2013 and Madonna in 2012.

Why the viewer loyalty so deeply into such a lopsided game?

Some entertainment, sports and TV analysts suggest that several factors might have been at work.  One is the organic growth of the Super Bowl itself, now a sports institution in its own right even larger than the NFL on its best Sunday.  Many people choose to watch the Super Bowl even if they have not kept up with teams during the regular season, and still others participate in watching by way of parties and special events.  Those numbers appear to have grown steadily over the last decade, much in the same way that, in previous decades, millions who would tune-in watch the World Series had in fact seen few baseball games during the same season.

In addition, Super Bowl parties have become social events found in every neighborhood in every city and town.  Weeks of advertising by grocery stores, fast food chains, delis, restaurants and bars, as well as by the major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, heighten the narrative and encourage a holiday-like spending spree for what amounts to the first big party event after New Year’s.  Retailers compete fiercely for this social event spending, and year after year that bar has been raised.  And this year, a particularly sluggish holiday season meant that many big box stores and food companies were looking for a way to close that gap in sales.  Indeed, spending on pregame advertising also hit a new record for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Sports analysts, and dedicated pro football fans in general, also point to the unusual nature of the 2013-14 season in which Seattle—a team which has never won a Super Bowl—channeled so much energy and generated so many headlines through their combination of stifling defense and explosive offense.  This was the first year in which the two teams rated number one in defense and offense at the start of the season both made it to the end of the season intact—and it was the first season in which teams ranked number one in the conferences, the NL and the AL, met in the big game.  These factors meant that fan loyalty was running high all season long for both Denver and Seattle.

According to Brien Sorne, who runs the marketing agency ALCOM in Tallahassee, Florida (as much as sports-centric a town as one can find) generational changes are affecting the way we view the game.

“Welcome,” Sorne says, “to the new NFL: young, brash, outspoken, holistic, unselfish, fierce, and unrestrained by conventional thinking.”  Sorne sees the new and rapidly evolving style of play as a challenge to the old school.  “Like American minute-men challenging the might of the British regulars, the rules of war have changed.”

Sorne cited the classical Homeric narrative in the weeks leading to the big game, that of the noble warrior Peyton Manning, a battle-worn commander, bravely deploying his forces “against a younger, hungrier team.  If knives and swords were part of the game, we would have seen Peyton at mid-field near the end, while the Seahawks finished him off.”

Another factor seemed to be the commercials.  Many viewers indicated that they do watch the big game for a look at some of those much-talked about, much-hyped ads.  This year was no exception, and—pregame hype about the content of those ads reached an all-time high.  Many of the ads were widely discussed beginning weeks in advance, and this year a record number of ads were already being characterized as “controversial,” “emotional,” and in some cases “too hot for TV” ten days before kickoff.  The examples are too numerous to list here, but include Soda Stream’s “banned” ad featuring actress Scarlett Johansen, the widely-promoted Budweiser spot shot in Winter Park, Florida and portraying a war veteran returning home, and ads for high end cars like Jaguar and Maserati (perhaps the most expensive products ever advertised in a Super Bowl game).  Dozens of ads were “banned” altogether, but received millions of views on You Tube by internet users curious about the content of the spots.

“Super Bowl XLVIII was engaging for those ads,” Sorne told us.  “We watched just to be sure we had seen every commercial, hoping the next one would be better that the last.  Like fireworks shows, we won’t stop watching until we know we have seen the finale.”

Much to the delight of marketers and advertisers, those ads become objects of entertainment, and become the instant source of conversation on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Monitoring social media during the game, Thursday Review writers noticed that the chatter quickly shifted from Seattle’s gathering victory—which seemed inevitable from the first quarter—to the content and caliber of the ads.  “Radio Shack 1980s ad best so far,” one friend posted.  A few minutes later another friend posted, “couldn’t Ford have saved a few dollars on over-the-top ads and passed that along to car buyers?”  Still another friend posted “I am losing track of where the reality ads begin and end, and what’s an ad and what’s part of the game!”

“The Super Bowl is not a football game,” Sorne says, “It is a national holiday.  Like Christmas, you don’t have to believe in the virgin birth to participate.  We are an entertainment-oriented society in which anything that can stimulate us a bit further is worth watching.”

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SuperBowlTVratings.html#sthash.FFCs5yNJ.dpuf

Coffee Prices: The Woes of Joe

Cups of Coffee

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally posted February 5, 2014)  North Americans, and some other folks spread across the northern hemisphere, may not soon forget this year’s record-breaking cold winter, a time when those hot cups of coffee have been one of the few cheap ways to stay warm.

But it’s not winter in the southern hemisphere, nor is it cold in Brazil and other parts of South America where a severe dry spell has put the brakes on coffee production.

Some parts of central and northern Brazil are experiencing a drought serious enough to cause coffee prices to rise worldwide for the seventh straight day of trading on commodities markets (the drought is also affecting other crops in Brazil, including sugar, sugar cane and soy).  Brazil is the world’s biggest producer of coffee, producing far more than its famous neighbors to the north and west, Columbia, Peru and Ecuador.  Market analysts say that because Brazil supplies so much coffee to so many nations—nearly one third of the Earth’s total production of coffee—that the South American drought will have a ripple effect throughout the world.

For coffee drinkers this could mean higher prices, sooner, rather than later, not only in restaurants and high end coffee shops like Starbucks, but in U.S. grocery stores as well.  For Americans and Canadians suffering through the longest and most severe winter in over 100 years, this is bad news when it comes to those easy and cheap ways to stay warm.
This year alone coffee prices have increased 29%.

For many restaurants, and in the hotel and hospitality industry, one solution would be to simply tweak the brand or grade of coffee being served to customers or guests.  Coffee is now being produced on every continent, and in many countries.  For example, many Americans might be surprised to learn that Vietnam is also a huge producer of a wide variety of coffees distributed around the world.  Other countries producing large quantities of coffee include Indonesia, Ethiopia, Thailand, India and Malaysia.  So why not just alter wholesale buying habits to work around the Brazilian drought?

For retailers like Starbucks, it’s not that easy.  In the U.S., coffee aficionados are known for their discriminating nose and taste buds, and a shift in source, grade or quality might result in customer dissatisfaction.  Menu price increases might also backfire.  Sudden or fluid price changes can often an immediate effect on sales, especially in an economy in which so many consumers are looking to save money wherever possible.

Grocery stores and big retailers like Target and Wal-Mart will most likely find it easier to pass along slight increases in bagged coffee to their customers.  Target, which is known to stock a variety of brands, from intermediate to high end (Starbucks, Gevalia, and Seattle’s Best), often offers brief price cuts, often to undercut their competing grocery stores.  To cope with the world increase in prices, Target may simply forego those discounts and stick to their typical $8 to $10 per bag price.

Brazil has had their lowest rainfall in about 20 years, coupled with slightly hotter temps than usual for this time of year.  Some market analysts predict that if Brazil’s dry conditions continue, even for a few weeks, U.S. and European consumers will see those increases in coffee prices no later than the end of February.

There is good news for consumers: Columbia, which has not been suffering as badly under drought conditions, has increased coffee production by 15% within the last year, and several other coffee producing countries have also increased output.  Though this may not be enough to offset Brazil’s shortfall, it may close part of that coffee gap.

In the U.S., now suffering under the fourth of what may be five massive and severe winter storm systems, coffee may be cold comfort for those looking to save money before that next energy bill shows up in the mailbox.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/CoffeePrices.html#sthash.mpkX3c96.dpuf

The Last Shape Shifter

Image courtesy The Weinstein Company

Image courtesy The Weinstein Company

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Sunday, February 2, 2014) Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor whose chameleon attributes enabled him to so successfully morph into the characters he portrayed that we often forgot he was acting, was found dead early Sunday in his Greenwich Village apartment.  He was 46 years old.

Though not a household name in the sense that he occupied headlines the way Alec Baldwin or Sean Penn might, and though not chiseled with the sort of looks that brought him the brand of adoration movie fans might lavish upon leading men like Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Will Smith, Matt Damon or Orlando Bloom, Hoffman was instead what one would call an actor’s actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a rare quantity—which is to say he was the kind of actor who floats across the film radar screen maybe only a handful of times each generation.

Like John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon; The Godfather Part II) decades before him, Hoffman was unafraid to tackle the parts which required vulnerability, weakness, fear, self-doubt, even, at times, self-loathing.  And in an age in which the Hollywood movie-making formula requires cocky self-assurance and bravado from its leading male roles (how many times has Tom Cruise basically played the role of Tom Cruise?) this meant that Hoffman was a true rarity, someone willing convert the looks and the tone and the voice that one might define as non-traditional into mainstream power.  He demanded little of the camera.

Conversely, his skill was such that he could essentially reverse the dynamic, as he did with uncanny power in The Master, a film in which he plays the self-assured, charismatic Lancaster Dodd (an analog to the real-life L. Ron Hubbard if there ever was one in modern cinema), the leader of a fledgling quasi-religious self-help cult which specializes in “processing” its members to free them of collective memories and billions of years of accumulated pain and fear.  Hoffman plays opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who takes on the manic role of the dysfunctional Freddie Quell, a troubled, bipolar alcoholic with heavy baggage.  The complex waltz between the two characters is one of the most chilling—and compelling—ever forged in recent movies (a testament not only to Hoffman’s skill, but also to director Paul Thomas Anderson).

Anderson, a visual perfectionist who can said to share the cinematic DNA of Stanley Kubrick and, more recently, Terrence Malick, had worked with Hoffman before, and the young director knew he had something special.  In Anderson’s atmospheric and dazzling period piece, Boogie Nights, and in the intensely cathartic Magnolia, Philip Seymour Hoffman emerges as a crucial, pivotal character, in each case absorbing and digesting wide swaths of emotional vulnerability, pain and insecurity.

In early films, like the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998) or Frank Hansen’s The Getaway (alongside Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger), Hoffman plays it for the sake of the leads, easily accepting the role of foil to the majors in key scenes.  In Red Dragon he absorbed it all: a deliciously unlikeable combination of self-centeredness, narcissism, jugular-motivation, self-importance and tabloid trash hunger as reporter Freddy Lounds.

But by the time we see him in Cold Mountain, in 2002, easily working with gravitas and presence alongside Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, we realize that this guy has rivers—even oceans—of talent pent up behind that sturdy face and poorly-shaven mug.  We realize that one day this actor might own this screen.

Then, Hoffman emerges with so much power that we lose track of who his is.  He becomes the decade’s most notable movie changeling, an actor so easily able to change color and shape and density that we forget he is an actor.  Charlie Wilson’s War and Synecdoche, New York prove that he is capable of almost anything on screen.  He plays opposite Tom Hanks with such ease that we actually spend almost as much time watching Hoffman as we do Hanks—about as stupendous a performance as one can expect.

His complete transition from an actor named Philip Hoffman into the writer Truman Capote was total and inspired (for the movie Capote, directed by Bennett Miller).  It may have been challenging work to remain in character for the role, but Hoffman made it look easy.  The result was a film of remarkable, crystalline quality.

By the time he stars opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt, Hoffman had found his way to the Pantheon, playing the role of Father Brendan Flynn with such aplomb and believability that we accept without question that he is that Catholic Priest (just as we accept Meryl Streep in her role as Sister Aloysius, the school’s domineering, disciplinarian principal, and soon Father Flynn’s arch-nemesis in their escalating battle of wills).

Watching Hoffman in films like Pirate Radio and The Ides of March was to watch an artist at work—not by stealing the scenes, nor by chewing on the scenery, but by not calling attention to himself.  In this sense, he worked at the opposite end of the spectrum from actors like Jim Carrey or Johnny Depp.

And watching Hoffman at work opposite George Clooney or Ryan Gosling (in The Ides of March), or Brad Pitt (in Moneyball) was also a way to remember that looks aren’t everything.  Sometimes gravitas and skill come from something deeper, something more challenging—the special sort of inner metal that shatters exteriors and upends convention in a looks-obsessed world.

His loss will be felt deeply in the filmgoer’s flickering world.

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Bridge to Nowhere

CHRIS CHRISTIE GOP_crop

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Saturday, February 1, 2014) Bridges have a beginning, middle, and an end—with a lot of access ramps and lanes to shepherd the traffic in, or to divert it away.  And sometimes, there are obstacles.

So it is with some of the great political love affairs of the past generations.  Gary Hart was once held in such high esteem by the progressives and reformers within the Democratic Party (especially after Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984) that Hart’s ascendancy to the nomination was regarded as a fait accompli.  It did not happen. More recently, in the election cycle of 2011 and 2012, Herman Cain was so popular with GOP conservatives and Tea Partiers that his brief, meteoric rise seemed to upend the Republican procession and disrupt the status quo of both parties.  But Cain crashed.

In each case, partisan euphoria was replaced with harsh reality: politicians are not saviors, but flawed mortals, though we still have the tendency to want to elevate some political figures to sainthood.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been, by some accounts, the most talked about potential savior the Republican Party has had in some years, and the GOP’s de facto front runner.  Given a top speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, and more recently chosen to lead the Republican Governor’s Association, he shares the top tier of presidential hopefuls with a small handful of well-known names: Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal.  But Chris Christie’s name is the one most often considered at the top of that short list.
Now, that position of preeminence appears to be challenged by what has become, surely, the biggest challenge to Christie’s political reputation as tough-talking and blunt, but an honest broker and a man of the people.

David Wildstein, an administrator for the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey, now claims that he has written proof that the governor was aware of a deliberate campaign of lane closures which caused massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge back in September.  The four-day long vehicular gridlock was the apparent result of political payback, retribution against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not publicly back Christie during the governor’s re-election campaign.

Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority a few months ago, has previously said that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.  Wildstein’s former boss at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, has also said the lane closures were part of a long-term study, though the Port Authority has stated that there was no official clearance for any such study.  Wildstein and Baroni were both known to be Christie allies.

But in December, text messages and emails revealed what appeared to be a pattern of cooperation between top members of the governor’s staff and some employees of the Port Authority, and the bridge scandal quickly became front page news across the country.  Then, in what some regarded as a “piling on” by Democrats eager to puncture the governor’s presidential prospects, things got worse for Christie, very fast.

There were accusations that the governor misused Hurricane Sandy funds to create slick television ads touting a return to normalcy for business and tourism.  Though the ads were technically an appropriate use of the money under federal guidelines, they were regarded by some critics as little more than political ads designed to boost his re-election chances, and others complained that the ads—at the least—were simply wasteful spending in a state still beset with problems of reconstruction and repair.  At worst, the television spots were political ads.  A production company with a higher bid than others had been selected, and its scripts all called for the governor and his family to make appearances in the ads.  Scripts prepared by the other film and video companies competing for the contract did not feature the governor.

Then, days later, there were more accusations of bullying and threats of withholding funds, most notably from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer.  Zimmer said that she was approached by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and told, in essence, that her ability to receive Sandy relief funds would be contingent upon her support of a major redevelopment project worth billions backed by investors with close ties to the governor.  And despite Guadagno’s denials that any such threat was issued, Zimmer says the proof could be found in her own journal entries from that same day.

The governor held an epic two-hour long press conference as the entire nation watched, and during that appearance he denied any wrongdoing, claiming he had been blindsided by the events.  He was apologetic and contrite.  Most regarded his explanations as sincere.  In his State of the State address days later (in what have been the most watched state speech in American history), he briefly touched on the scandals, but said that New Jersey needs to move forward.
Was it possible that the governor was truly betrayed by vindictive staffers for whom perhaps the wrong top-down standard of leadership had been set?  Without a smoking gun, Christie could still survive.  Maybe.

By last week most reporters and analysts suggested ominously that the entire mess had reached a precarious tipping point—one more surprise, and the governor’s political path to the presidency would end abruptly.

Now Wildstein tosses a new, potentially lethal stink bomb into the mix.

Through his attorney, the former Port Authority official says that Chris Christie’s seemingly sincere mea culpa to that packed room of reporters can be disputed by way of documents—as yet unseen and undisclosed—which prove the governor was aware of the political retribution (though the letter does not specifically mention the bridge fiasco).  If true, and if Wildstein’s new evidence demonstrates a direct link between the lane closures on the G.W. Bridge and the governor, Christie’s political future could be limited.  In fact, some in New Jersey are already calling for his resignation.

Christie’s defenders are quick to point out that Wildstein is seeking a plea bargain with the investigators who are circling ever more closely to the core of the case.  Wildstein is also demanding that the Port Authority pay for his legal defense.  And like other aspects of this unfolding political drama, some observers question why Wildstein has waited until now to claim to be in possession of evidence which investigators say he should have made available six weeks ago.  (There were similar questions raised when Hoboken’s mayor Zimmer waited nine months to reveal the alleged quid pro quo on Sandy relief funds).

Among Republicans, Christie has his defenders and his detractors.  His advocates suggest that there is credible evidence that the entire affair is an organized hatchet job, pointing out that the only person to gain long term advantage from the mess is potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner for Democrats.  Indeed, some polls have shown the New Jersey governor as the only Republican able to best the Senator in theoretical match-ups for 2016.  Former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani has suggested that because of that polling parity between the two top candidates, the whole brouhaha has been engineered by Democratic strategists as a way to derail any threat to Clinton.

But a few in the GOP see that affair as being about as well-timed as it could be: either the governor is shown to be innocent of any direct connection to the various charges, including Wildstein’s recent allegations, in which Christie walks away, perhaps stronger for the ordeal (especially if it is shown that Democrats engineered a witch-hunt); or, Chris Christie goes down now, early, before his political collapse damages the Republican primary and debate narrative beginning, presumably, 15 or 16 months from now.  Some in the GOP suggest that a Christie meltdown in, say, late 2015, would spell disaster for a party seeking to find its way back from its poor performance in November 2012.  One independent friend said that for Republicans it would “be like watching the Hindenburg collapse in flames in Lakehurst, N.J.”

In the meantime New Jersey takes a break from the scandal and enjoys a long weekend of Super Bowl activity.  On Monday the business of politics returns, and with it, more potential bombshells in what has become known, too easily, as Bridgegate.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Super Storm in Jersey; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 20, 2014.
Chris Christie: A Bridge Too Far; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 13, 2014.

Photo composite above by Alan Clanton; Chris Christie photo and Republican National Convention photo, Alan Clanton for Thursday Review.

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