Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Let It Snow

Christmas eve traditionally softens the hearts of employers toward their charges, and the word goes out that it's OK to leave the workplace early with the organization's best wishes for a happy holiday. No so in the cold-hearted world of government contracting in the 1960s. My workday at the McCoy Job Corps Center, as most were, was scheduled to run from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. as usual.

Karl Wagner, a former public school system superintendent who held a PhD in education, was the newly appointed center director as my second holiday season at McCoy approached. Wagner blithely let it be known to those in the headquarters building that he intended to release all personnel who were not needed for security reasons or to supervise residential living at noon on the day before Christmas.

The word got to Al Groncki the morning of the 24th. Groncki was on loan from the U.S. Forest Service to the anti-poverty agency that administered the Job Corps program. His job was to see that RCA, our employer, observed the letter of the law in meeting the provisions of its contract to operate the McCoy Center. He took his job very seriously.

"Not so fast," Groncki said. "The contract calls for all employees to work a full day on December 24. Dr. Wagner, you have no authority to release the workers early."

Wagner had an attorney and two contract specialists on his staff. He summoned them to his office and told them to find a way he could get around the contract provision. They couldn't find a thing, except one small clause that allowed the director to send employees home if a natural disaster put them in jeopardy.

Wagner looked out his office window and observed a few snowflakes falling. "Tell Groncki I'm declaring a snow emergency, and tell the department heads to send all employees who don't live at the center home immediately before this blizzard makes the roads impassable."

I just saw some snowflakes. Please, take the rest of the day off. And, Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

(A New) Home for the Holidays

Suddenly, a buyer for our long-time Utah home appeared, and he wanted to buy immediately. So, we packed up, drove through blizzards, fog, and icy roads, and will buy a new place tomorrow and become official Michiganders.

Despite a depressed economy and an almost equally depressing winter storm that arrived last night, the hardy folks who inhabit these parts seem to be in good spirits. The first fellow transplant who commented on our arrival said:

"God smiled on those who were born in Michigan. The rest of us did our best to get here as soon as we could."

Sounds like something a Texan would have dreamed up, but we're hoping it truly applies to our new home.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Revising Identities

The latest change at our best-known big-box store seems to have elicited a rising tide of apathy. Wal-Mart removed the hyphen (or the star that occupied the same space in many places) several weeks ago. I still am straining to hear the cheers for Walmart.

In these tough times, however, it might be worth taking a moment to ponder the costs of changes like this. Think of the signs, letterheads, labels, painted truck panels, and numerous other items that will have to be altered. Walmart is so big that costs in the millions are easy to visualize, and customers will pay them as the hyphen-less and star-less merchandiser subtly includes them in price increases.

Although in this case the alterations easily could be phased in to hold costs down, keep an eye on our leading discounter and see if its intrepid execs don’t start to champ at the bit and order quicker revisions than necessary to “get the project completed.” They recently were running an expensive advertising campaign just to tell us about it. And who cares? The company’s own home page showed the name all three ways just a few days ago. The star in the middle was replaced with something at the end best described as an orange doodad, making the revised name into a logo that fails to signify much of anything. One would think corporate leaders could find more important things to meddle with.

In the case of Walmart, Wal-Mart, or WalMart, it’s hard to think of a reason for the changes. The company has been making money hand over fist, and is expected to make even more as people look for places to buy cheap stuff to help cope with economic distress.

Sometimes, more than a hyphen or star is involved and there may be fairly good reasons to upgrade a corporate identity. About a year before I went to work at Allis-Chalmers in the public relations department the corporate wizards there decided they needed to create a more modern image by renaming the company and following that with the introduction of a new logo. Most of us thought they were right. The old moniker—Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company—was not inspiring. They fixed that by just knocking off the last two words, and it was a good fix.

The A-C logo was a stodgy affair that did not lend itself to a quick fix. So the image makers scrapped it and commissioned a high-priced advertising agency to develop a completely new symbol. Veteran PR men told me numerous new designs were proposed and rejected over many months before a logo finally was approved by the CEO. Although no one knew the exact costs of developing and changing to the new symbol, my associates estimated very conservatively that the total was about $250,000. In the mid-1960s, a quarter of a million was considered more than just walking around money, even in a big company.

The name change was nice, but it did little to reverse the downward spiral of the Allis-Chalmers corporate fortunes. The logo change became an embarrassment. Just a short time after the sleek new symbol had been plastered, painted, and printed all over the place, someone encountered an Associated Grocers logo, an emblem which had been around for years. It was nearly identical in color and form to the “unique” Allis-Chalmers creation that cost so much to design and adopt.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Geezer A-Go-Go

With my long-running garage improvement project (see Nov. 13 post, “Timely Inaction”) completed, the way is clear for us to sell our Utah home and zip off to Michigan. Of course, real estate conditions being what they are this could take a while.

We’re claiming the reason for the move is to be near our son Lee and his fianceé Karen, who live near Kalamazoo. The real reason is a yearning to be where people don’t say, “We gotta remember we need the moisture,” when digging out from under two feet of winter snow or bailing gallons of threatening water after springtime mini-floods.

There’s something in this for everybody. Some will be delighted to know we are leaving. Some may be a bit sad, but pleased to know we're doing what's best for us. For both groups, we hope the news contributes to a Happy Thanksgiving. And best holiday wishes as well to the many who couldn’t care less.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Seeking a Timely Solution

Deals involving acquisition of acreage by the federal government through purchase or trade can be complex, requiring specialized knowledge and careful negotiations. Forest Service retiree George Campbell served for years on lands staffs in the Eastern and Intermountain Regions, and those who worked with him said he did his job very well.

Despite indications that Campbell could manipulate high-tech gadgets with no trouble, he is not fond of some of them. He chooses not to use a home computer. His recent pronouncements on the subject indicate he fully intends to maintain his distance from PCs.

Just after daylight savings time reverted to the regular brand, Campbell appeared at a Wednesday coffee assembly and asked in a voice filled with frustration if anybody knew how to reset a digital watch, because he was having no luck with his. I told him not to feel lonesome, because neither Sandy nor I had been able to get my fairly new watch properly calibrated. We reset the hours and minutes correctly, which was a bit better than Campbell had done, but we couldn’t get the gadget to acknowledge that it was Wednesday, not Sunday.

After some contemplation of the resetting problem, Campbell announced he had the solution. He was going to buy a duplicate watch. He would have one set for standard time and the other for daylight time. He simply would trade watches twice a year. Someone in the group that heard the “Campbell solution” observed that those who traveled often through several time zones would need quite a few watches.

I mentioned the idea to Sandy, who thought it had some merit. She, however, believed I probably could muddle through. She pointed out that I didn’t do much of anything most days, so carrying around a constant reminder of what day it was probably was not vital.

The next time we met, I asked Campbell how he was coming with his watch problem. He said by working at it for about 30 minutes he figured out the process and had everything reset to the correct numbers. Meanwhile, Sandy and I had downloaded pages of instructions from the manufacturer of my watch, and when they failed to work, obtained another instruction sheet from Walmart, where we bought the gadget. Those directions didn’t work, either.

I was nearly ready to apply the “Campbell solution’ and go with at least two watches. Sandy saved the day. She told me to leave my watch in her care when I was heading off to a meeting and she would make one last try at adjusting the date display. When I got back, the timepiece was functioning correctly.

Sandy had made a 20-mile roundtrip to another Walmart store where clerks gave her a copy of the right instructions. She then restored order in our high-tech world, at least until spring when I try to remember where we put the reset instructions.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Who Dunnit?

This "letter," sent around by old neighbor Dick "Snuffy" Hufschmid, caused a chuckle:

Dear Sir /Madam:

In view of current developments in the banking market, if one of my checks is returned marked "insufficient funds," does that refer to me or you?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Timely Inaction

Was anyone surprised when our newly elected leaders informed us that much of the change we’ve been promised will take time? Had the other guys won, would those mavericks have said the same thing? You betcha.

Some big projects simply take time. It is true that Rome and other major works were not completed in a day.

Last week I made a final shelf adjustment and added a bit of paint to a wall section to finish my garage improvement project begun the week we moved into our home—we arrived 26 years ago. You just can’t rush into some things.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Election Math That Didn’t Compute

Shortly before settling in to absorb a bunch of voting returns on election night I ran across a website that made the whole thing simple. The author presented a vast array of charts and numbers, with razzle-dazzle analyses, that purported to predict accurately who would be the next President of the United States of America based on just a few early ballots. It was impressive, and no flaws in the presentation were apparent. If you wanted a quick answer, all the number crunching boiled it down to this:

If the race was close in Indiana, and Obama won Virginia, there was a 100 percent chance that Obama would be our next President. If those two things didn’t happen, we were in for a close race and a long night.

The polls closed very early in both states, so I figured I could learn what was going to happen in not more than an hour after dinner. Maybe I could even win a few last-minute bets (we lost a dinner bet when Obama eventually won). Early results showed a close race in Indiana. The trouble was those unpredictable voters in Virginia just kept standing in line for several hours. About the time CNN was willing to call Virginia for Obama, Obama clearly had won the entire election. Following the wizard’s advice didn’t help me learn a darn thing any quicker than anybody else did.

It wasn’t the first time a flaw in human performance caused frustration when I was trying to follow the guidance of a statistical genius at election time. When I worked in public relations for Allis-Chalmers in the 1960s, our supervisor “volunteered” himself and several of us to work for the Associated Press on election nights. Supposedly, we were doing a civic duty by helping tabulate incoming election returns. Actually, we were trying to butter up the news people at AP. We knew it, and they knew it, but they needed help and we were available.

At that time, the Associated Press was the principal news organization that took it upon itself to declare winners in elections. They used a fairly sophisticated statistical program that incorporated samples from key parts of a state to predict winners. In Wisconsin, where we helped out, the samples were mostly from the heavily populated areas in the southeast, but also included a county or two in the northern rural areas.

On the night of my frustration, we added up totals from report after report, but our leaders refused to declare a winner in the most important contest. Midnight passed; still no call was made. We finally had added up nearly 90 percent of the precincts in the state, and started clamoring for a call. We were told that the statistical formula absolutely required returns from one small county in the north, and it hadn’t reported.

About 2 a.m. somebody got somebody in the northern county out of bed and demanded to know what was going on. Our contact had merely forgotten about the AP commitment and retired for the night hours earlier!

This very unhappy camper got home around 4 a.m. that election night, just about in time to get ready to go to work at my day job. I should have learned right then not to get mixed up with political predictions, but Tuesday night I did it once again.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Should They Speak Out?

Despite occasional disagreement about the practice among journalists, some 400 daily newspapers across the land endorse presidential candidates in their editorial columns. In 2004, they were nearly equally divided between recommending John Kerry or George W. Bush. Interesting--that’s about how the election turned out.

Should the print media presume to tell us who they think can best guide our County? And when they do, should you and I pay attention to what they say? Yes and yes.

My experience is that newspaper editors come to know a lot about politicians because they constantly are exposed to their messages, and also monitor their actions. The newspaper people are skeptical by nature. With few exceptions, the editorials that appear in daily papers are developed by an editorial board. Debates can be sharp, because some effort usually is made to appoint board members with divergent viewpoints. What emerge are better analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates than individuals can possibly make by themselves.

My local paper doesn’t endorse presidential aspirants, but a few years back it decided to make recommendations about local candidates and referenda. I find this very useful in helping me make up my mind about how to vote on things that matter in my life. I wish the Ogden paper’s editorial board would say who it favors for president. That alone wouldn’t sway my vote, but I’d like to see the argument.

Endorsements by newspapers are useful because they always are accompanied by the reasons for the recommendation. Editorial boards tend to address the issues, not the “attack dog” junk. Calling Senator Obama an “inexperienced socialist” or Senator McCain an “over-aged warmonger” is stupid and useless. With very few exceptions, the editorial boards don’t engage in the reprehensible character assassination that has been far too prevalent in the current campaign.

Should we slavishly follow the advice of the press? No. We should make up our own minds, but the arguments that accompany newspaper recommendations should be considered. They offer some of the best information available.

Of course, like anything else, endorsements can be reduced to absurdity. Next week cartoonists Garry Trudeau (a liberal) and Carl Moore (a conservative) are going to endorse someone for president in their daily doodlings. I intend to pay no attention whatever to this kind of nonsense, and hope you also will ignore these shenanigans.

Should geezers who write blog posts endorse candidates? No. They have no special knowledge that would be helpful.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ghastly Gein Pops Up Again

Ed Gein died of cancer in a mental institution two decades ago, but writers concocting stories about horrible events for the Halloween season continue to resurrect him. People who lived in Wisconsin 50 years ago, as I did, would prefer the world forget about Gein.

Younger generations may not have heard of the killer, grave robber, and mutilator of bodies who lived in a farmhouse he decorated with human remains near the small community of Plainfield, Wisconsin. But they can get the idea from a series of fictitious monsters patterned after him. Gein’s story was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock”s famous thriller, “Psycho.” He also was the model for Leatherface in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Leatherface wore clothes made from human skin; so did Gein. More recently, Gein inspired the terrifying “Buffalo Bill” character in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Gein admitted, without a trace of remorse or concern, to two murders and exhuming more that a dozen bodies from the local graveyard. He made lampshades, bowls, a shirt, and other items from the cadavers. The local sheriff investigating the disappearance of a woman found her in Gein’s farmhouse. Her beheaded and disemboweled body was hanging upside down from a ceiling beam. The discovery was made in November 1957, the year I graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

I never encountered Gein, nor did I help those who burned his farmhouse to the ground shortly after he was arrested. But I unknowingly passed too close to him for comfort many times over a four-year period. Perhaps I exaggerate the proximity, but nevertheless the annual resurrection of this creature scares hell out of me.

Plainfield is about the halfway point between Madison and my hometown. I, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, drove through the area whenever a trip was made to or from home by auto. One time, three of us stopped in a Plainfield bar for a beer. Two men who stopped in a Plainfield bar a few years earlier never were heard from again. Although he was known to favor dispatching or mutilating women, Gein was suspected of doing the men in. He never admitted guilt regarding the missing men. There were several other mysterious disappearances in the area over several years.

Thank God I never hitchhiked home from school. That probably was due more to circumstance than common sense. Thumbing a ride was an acceptable way to travel in those days. Neither we youngsters nor our parents thought much about the danger involved. Nowadays, parents worry much more, and hitchhiking is rare. Teenage travel may be less adventurous, but it surely is safer.

If you are among those planning a pilgrimage to look for spooks where Gein’s farmhouse stood, or in the Plainfield cemetery where he is buried near many of his victims, please do us all a favor this Halloween. Stay away, and let Ed stay dead.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Help Is On the Way

An Associated Press headline today said, “Iraqis have money, but lack know-how in spending it.”

There’s a nonproblem if ever there was one. As soon as we vote a whole lot of incumbent senators and congressmen out of office week after next, we’ll send them over to act as advisors. This should be a bipartisan group. Plenty of blame for our current financial problems is available to shower on both parties.

When President Bush becomes available in January, he can assume command of the crew. It won’t take long for that bunch to show our Arab friends how to go from riches to rags.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Playing Around Comes Around

In the wake of huge drops in value of many shares on the stock exchanges this month, I feel sorry for three groups.

People who are in their sixties, entrusted their savings to the markets, and were planning to retire soon may have to postpone their entry into the golden years, and quite a few may have to work until they drop. This group doesn’t have ten or more years to wait for the markets to recover.

Younger guys and gals who were saving to help their kids with college education costs or to get a down-payment on a home also took a big hit if they listened to the sweet music of brokers and “financial advisors” who said putting their cash into the market rather than into more conservative savings plans was the only thing to do. The race no longer went to the steady; to be “with it” you had to be among the swift, nimble, and clever. You could charge or borrow for just about anything, and the big returns you would earn in the market would pay off your balances at some vague time in the future. The arguments were persuasive, but they were hogwash.

Some middle-aged workers also deserve sympathy. After their employers canceled or refused to finance any new company-funded retirement plans, they had little choice but to bet on the stock market through 401K’s as a way to accumulate wealth they would need in the future. Some tales are told of employers actually telling workers it was to their advantage to get out of company-funded retirement plans in favor of “personal choice” arrangements.

The people I couldn’t care less about are in the big group that smugly told solid citizens for years that they were outdated and stupid for putting their nest eggs into safe investments, such as long-term certificates of deposit or tax-exempt municipal bonds, because the returns just didn’t match the rich rewards available in the market. These jerks deserve what they got. They should have paid more attention to the words in some common descriptive phrases:

We play the ponies.

We play the tables.

We play the slots.

We play the stock market.

When you choose to gamble, you ought to be prepared to take the consequences without a lot of whining. Calling a gambler an investor doesn’t change the odds a whole lot.

Disclosure: The Gabbygeezer has no position in the stock market.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Slightly Provincial

The nice lady on the phone several days ago was a true voice from the past. Betty Rowe Baker was a close friend of my sister and the daughter of one of my heroes (see Nov. 2, 2007 post, “My Hero, Dr. Rowe Baker”). I hadn’t talked with Betty Rowe for at least 50 years.

We did a lot of reminiscing about days in the old hometown. My caller mentioned that she subscribed to the Tomahawk Leader, although most of the names in the news no longer were people she knew. That observation got us onto the topic of something that was unknown to many of us when we were kids in a small town. We seldom knew the street names, or if we did, we were hazy about where they were.

We found houses because they were “across the street from Nick’s, next door to Schmidt’s, “ or “right where the road turns north in Jersey City.” I knew where Wisconsin Avenue was because we lived on it. And Fourth Street was familiar, because beyond it, when walking “downtown,” Wisconsin Avenue was known as “Main Street.” Other than that, my knowledge of the location of streets was limited.

We thought we were pretty sophisticated in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After all, a passenger train stopped beside the depot at the end of Main Street every day. It disgorged travelers from such grand places as Chicago and Milwaukee. We even had a famous eatery. Jim’s Logging Camp, a steakhouse a few miles up the highway, modestly advertised itself as “The Antoine’s of the North,” assuming that we and tourists who came to our city were acquainted with New Orleans’ restaurants. We thought we were pretty worldly in many ways, but in fact we could be very provincial.

One night at our dinner table Mom started a conversation about a “man from Illinois” who lived in our immediate neighborhood. After a while, my sister asked just who this man was. When Mom revealed his name, we learned that the immigrant has lived across the street from our family home for 27 years!

Apparently, it took a little time to become recognized as a fully integrated citizen of my hometown.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bring the Sheriff Back to Town

A whole lot of us thought deregulation was the way to go when our hero Ronald Reagan made it a pillar of his campaign in 1980. After all, wasn’t free enterprise the American way, something to be taken literally? And with less government interference, business people would just naturally be freer to lead us to prosperity, and wouldn’t that be wonderful?

So we ran roughshod over what we saw as a misguided regulator crowd. Laws were changed. Officials were admonished to be kinder and gentler to the very guys they were supposed to be watching, because, after all, American business leaders could be trusted. And, of course, private enterprise does everything better than government. It can even regulate itself, we were told.

Well, American business leaders can be trusted. Their job is to operate efficiently and maximize profits for their shareholders. They can be trusted to work hard to make their operations successful. There is nothing wrong with that. Without guidelines about what is permissible, though, financiers and business people face too much pressure to produce large short-term profits, and do it quarter after quarter. That was part of the problem when we went overboard with deregulation. Caution became a dirty word. Many individuals crossed the line and committed fraud. Others had no ethics to begin with, and gleefully took advantage of the new deregulated situation.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot the lessons of the not-so-distant past. Government programs that did work in combating effects of the Great Depression included considerable regulation of our financial institutions. That inspired confidence, which along with wartime spending, lifted us out of economic disaster. In the late 1980s we should have learned the lesson again when relaxed regulation of Savings and Loans created an expensive bailout crisis. We quickly forgot about that and went on our merry deregulation way.

We ignored two very fundamental things about human nature. First, like it or not, greed is a major motivator of Homo sapiens. Second, many of us like to think we are considerably smarter than we really are.

Let’s face it; most of us simply do not understand the complexities of high finance. We haven’t a clue about what’s going on with derivatives, hedge funds, credit-default swaps, and exotic mortgage-backed securities. Hedge fund managers don’t even reveal how they are investing the money entrusted to them! Investors are supposed to just have faith.

Ignorance about high-level money matters is not confined to the middle and lower classes. The wealthy often don’t understand sophisticated financial deals, either. They, however, can hire accountants, lawyers, and other expensive advisors to protect their interests and make big profits for them. We common folks simply are unable to do that. We have neither the money nor the contacts.

We are the minnows in the financial pond. It should come as no surprise that the big fish just ate a whole lot of us little fish. They almost always do. This time, we suffered the additional indignity of being forced to pay the costs of the meal.

We must empower our government to closely monitor and regulate our financial institutions simply because we cannot protect ourselves from greedy executives and the predators who are ever-ready to pick our pockets to benefit themselves or their clients.

We need to get the sheriff and a whole lot of deputies back into our financial community right now. We need to back them up by restoring many old regulations and creating some stiff new ones, and we need to cheer them on as they round up the wrongdoers and hang them high. We need enterprise that is both free and fair.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Campus Comedy

A promotional ad during a timeout in Saturday’s Wisconsin-Michigan football game extolled the virtues of the “Wisconsin Idea” in education—“The Boundaries of the Campus are the Boundaries of the State.”

That’s another way of saying UW pioneered in developing extension activities. When I was a freshman at Wisconsin, another activity that often drew attention, and sometimes criticism, was nearing its end at the school. The student humor magazine, the Octopus, was in its final year. The magazine’s motto was “The Bounders of the Campus are the Bounders of the State.”

Only a true zany could come up with something like that. The editor was one. He lived in the room next to mine in the cheap rooming house where I spent my first semester. One of the editor’s favorite projects was producing an Octopus issue that was a parody of the student newspaper, the Daily Cardinal.

The editor christened the parody paper the Daily Crudinel. I don’t remember the exact number given, but I do recall one of the most ingenious items on the Crudinel sports page. A headline proclaimed: “Fencers Lose to Illinois, Six Dead.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bring in the Clowns

There it was, right on the front page of my morning paper, a direct quote from one of our brilliant Utah politicians commenting on a proposed bailout of national financial institutions:

"I don't believe this crisis has been caused by an unregulated market. In fact, the free market probably hasn't been given enough of a chance to perform."--Congressman Rob Bishop

No wonder we so often are the laughingstock of the Nation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Crisis, For Sure

A whole lot of disagreement has been swirling around regarding the state of the U.S. economy. It's been a little hard to really know who's doing what to whom. For some time our president was claiming that the fundamentals of our economy were sound, but even he lately agreed we have some big problems.

Just yesterday, I encountered indisputable evidence that we are in an economic crisis of the most desperate kind.

During my 26 years in the U.S. Forest Service, we often referred to the outfit as the "Forest Service family." That was not a corporate invention of some public relations practitioner. There really was a family spirit throughout the organization.

Employees at all levels did what they could to help each other out. It was almost a requirement to invite visitors from other locations home for a meal with one's "real" family. Supervisors often hosted their subordinates at group dinners or parties as a kind of "thank you" for good work, especially around the holidays. Groups of employees frequently socialized after hours at restaurants or taverns. For some, the organization was the hub of their social as well as working lives.

Part of the mutual help was sharing knowledge of where to get the best bargains on just about anything. If you wanted to find the most inexpensive place to get decent restaurant food in almost any city, you could tap into the Forest Service underground network and the favored spot was described for you very quickly. We were known widely as tightwads. I will admit to that, although I like "careful spender" better.

Some years ago as a combined birthday and Christmas present, I took Sandy along when I had to make a week-long business trip to San Francisco. While I was in meetings, she had a great time taking the various tours available in that wonderful city. One was with a prominent chef who took a small group to lunch at favorite restaurants over several days. Sandy then took me to the best places for evening meals.

The first time we did that, she extolled the virtues of one Chinese restaurant that her host chef had proclaimed the best value in a city famous for that type of food. When we got there for dinner, there was a line waiting to get in that stretched about halfway around a city block. We had to pass all the waiting diners to take our place at the end of the line. Every single Forest Service man and women who had been in my meeting that afternoon was in that line. All had tapped into the value network.

What does that have to do with confirming that our economy is in the toilet? Yesterday, I had coffee with a group of Forest Service retirees in North Ogden. They have been meeting for years on Wednesday mornings in McDonalds, because the purveyors of Big Macs and other health food would sell a cup of coffee to a mature adult for 27 cents. Unlimited free refills were available. These guys knew a good deal when they saw one.

We were horrified to learn that next week McDonalds is increasing the price of a senior coffee to 40 cents. We old Forest Service family members were in total agreement that failed financial institutions and rising gas prices were indicators of problems, but a 60 percent increase in the price of our McDonalds coffee was conclusive evidence of an economic calamity.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Going Green Again

Ah, once again we live in a nation of people singing the praises of going green. It's happened before.

When the "environmental movement" went into high gear in the early 1970s, some Americans bought economy cars like the VW Beetle and some even started to use public transportation. The enthusiasm pretty much wore off until an oil embargo raised new alarms a few years later. When the embargo was lifted and gas availability and prices returned to normal, we went into a prolonged period of favoring gas-guzzling SUVs and over-sized trucks as our family vehicles.

But now, we are serious about going green. Gas prices are horrendous, and better days ahead are unlikely. Everywhere, we learn of Americans taking the pledge to reduce consumption and thus force prices back to more reasonable levels while combating air pollution at the same time. Could that work? Yes it could. Will it work? Probably not.

Last week Sandy and I made our monthly run to Idaho to help support schools in the great potato state by purchasing a lottery ticket. I decided to perform a little test to learn what greener gallivanting could achieve.

It's almost exactly a 180-mile roundtrip to our favorite lottery ticket peddler with all but a few yards of it on an interstate highway with a 75 mph speed limit. Usually, I set the cruise control on 77, turn on some great music, and cover most of the distance in the fast lane. This time, I cruised at 65 miles per hour.

Sandy's car got 29 miles per gallon on the trip, four better than it had been getting at the higher speed. Gas was $3.80 per gallon that day. We saved one gallon by slowing down, which covered almost 40 percent of our usual lottery loss—a pretty good deal. The roundtrip took 22 minutes longer than usual. The scenery and music were great and I experienced a marked reduction in stress by staying in the slow lane, so the extra time spent on the journey could be considered a plus.

Of course, multitudes of others already had figured out that slowing down on an interstate trip had benefits. Sure they did. We passed exactly two vehicles—two decrepit old trucks—during the entire journey. The several hundred other drivers taking the same route all whizzed past us. Talking green is one thing, driving green apparently is quite another.