Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Glass Debt Ceiling

An old man was on his deathbed following 30 years of failing health. Throughout his steady regression no doctor, medicine, witchcraft, health food, exercise, prayer, money or love could restore him. He simply slipped further and further into ill health. And now here he was: old, tired, burdened, weaker than ever and unable to care for himself.
His family gathered ‘round him one afternoon in a solemn effort to make some very difficult decisions. The inevitability of this moment had weighed upon them for a long time but they each found ways to avoid it. Now the time had come and something had to be done. They had two choices and they were both distasteful: prolong the agony or pull the plug and see what happens. The old man had grown so weak he was unaware of the circumstances. From his perspective the shadowy figures standing in his room may very well have been strangers, enemies, foreigners or even people that wished to do him further harm.
The End
. . . . . .
Glass ceiling has a bad image. At this time in the history of our beloved country I wish I could change that. It would be good to see the consequences of the conclusions our most inept politicians make in early August regarding our government’s ability to borrow more money. Many claim to know the calamity that will surely and immediately follow a decision to keep the debt ceiling where it is. Others seem to be willing to take the risk and escalate the inevitable. I, for one, have no blooming idea. I will say this: Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke belong to the Calamity Group (this is appropriate on many levels) and I have witnessed them fail at every turn. If our politicians set new and higher limits on our borrowing ability you can rest assured that Old Ben will have the printing presses fired up within seconds of the vote. More fake money, more real debt.
My hunch is this: ‘His family gathered ‘round him one afternoon in a solemn effort to make some very difficult decisions. The inevitability of this moment had weighed upon them for a long time but they each found ways to avoid it. By the end of the day they had each found another way to avoid it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

'Quiet, please.'

I watched most of The U. S. Open Golf Championship with my son, Roy, over the past 4 days. If you watched or read about the tournament you know that some great golf was on display and one young man, Rory McIlroy, ended up the runaway victor breaking many records during his remarkable stroll around Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD. Yes, the play was stellar. The coverage, on the other hand, was awful, just awful. Were it not for Johnny Miller - his observations and complete understanding of and respect for the game – the daily coverage could have been viewed with the mute button engaged on the remote. Surely Andy North and Paul Azinger added professional and educated commentaries before and after the hole-by-hole coverage. Everything else about it was boring, repetitive, opinionated, unnecessary, over-the-top, aggravating, boring and repetitive. ESPN and NBC were the co-conspirators in this drivel they passed off as sports coverage.
I suppose the least egregious – other than Miller’s unique perspectives – would be the hole-by-hole announcers. Across the board they are former players with big-time playing experience and, for the most part, they offer interesting and accurate commentary on specific shots and situations. My favorite of these reporters, by far, was Roger Maltbie because of his ease in communication and common sense. My least favorite in this category include Curtis Strange and Peter Jacobsen – the former is stodgy and dry while the latter tries too hard to be funny with little or no success. The balance of the on-course reporters were, as usual, stationed on the same tees, fairways and greens throughout the entire 72 holes resulting in monotonous banter like, ‘The fairway cants right to left’ or ‘You simply can’t go at this pin’ or ‘The smart play off the tee is a fairway metal.’ They also cow-towed to every question and remark served up to them by Prince Miller: ‘Yes Kimo Sabe.’ Pathetic.
Perhaps more maddening were the special interest cutaways to people like Bob Costas, Jimmy Roberts and Tim Rosaforte. These men and these segments should be banned from all future telecasts. It feels to me like I’m being forced to watch the talent portion of a Miss America contest or a rerun of The Galloping Gourmet. Few of us wish to know background stories on these players – especially the little fairytales about kids who grew up playing golf everyday at a country club. Yes, there are some very compelling stories and that’s all good. But how many times in 4 days (not to mention every weekend since The Masters) did we have to suffer through McIlroy’s wash out in Augusta? How many times did we need to be reminded that Poor Leftie has yet to win an Open? Who really cared how many presidents were members of Congressional? How many times on Sunday were we made to feel as if our own fathers were no-count pimps compared to the oh-so-special relationships between these golfers and their dads? Zip it, guys. Just zip it.
Finally, there is Chris Berman. 30 years later and I still can’t stand this guy. He should never be allowed near a sporting event, a television or a microphone, again. I long for the day when I can write – Finally, there is no Chris Berman.
On the other hand – I hope Young Rory is around for a long, long time!

The Internet and The Music Industry, Part I

My good friend, JF, recently pointed me to a few articles on the Internet speculating that Google, Inc. – and/or other large Internet and computer-based corporations – has so tired of negotiating fruitlessly with record labels that they have entertained the notion of ‘buying the music industry.’ I include the quotation marks around that last phrase for a reason: this is a quote from one of the reports. This is beyond simplistic; indeed, it is uninformed; no, it’s stupid.
The music industry consists of layer upon layer, decade after decade of complexity in which record labels represent but one (albeit significant) sector of the whole. The challenges faced by Google, Amazon, Apple and all other Net-focused companies negotiating with ‘the record labels’ are mere skirmishes. Wait till they go up against the music publishers, songwriters, musicians, managers, agents, venue owners, royalty representatives, performing rights organizations and other license and rights’ holders.
It is understandable that a journalist reporting on a music industry story would wrongly misappropriate the moniker ‘record labels’ for ‘music industry.’ When the average consumer thinks about music they likely ponder their favorite artists, songs or live shows. When the average consumer gets pissed off at the music industry (paying too much for a CD, a rancid collection of songs on a new project, poor sound quality, a regurgitated ‘Best Of’ release) they likely imagine the greedy bastards running the record labels. Some of these reactions are justified but many are misguided. Indeed, record labels (and for the moment I use that phrase to represent the Big 5: EMI, Universal, SONY, Warner Brothers and sometimes BMG) function as the hub of the wheel in the music industry. At various points in the process they interact with – and even represent – the music publishers, artists, managers, booking agents and – for the most part – all other factions of the industry. But they have little, if any final authority over any of these entities. So, let’s move beyond the idea that ‘the record labels’ represent the final frontier in difficult negotiations faced by these potential buyers of ‘the music industry.’
I suppose the next of many related issues is the true value of that which would be purchased. It is almost impossible to place a dollar value on ‘the music industry.’ The most current, unbiased and accurate statistics I could find today suggest that the total revenue generated by all aspects of the industry in 2010 was $68 billion worldwide. Roll that number out over 4 years with modest growth estimates and you come pretty close to $300 billion. Just for grins let’s use that number as fair value for such a transaction. Here are the current market caps for the companies suggested as possible suitors for this global business: Apple: 291B; Google: 156B; Amazon: $85B; eBay: 37B. The combined market cap of these 4 behemoths is $569B – less than twice the suggested value of the global music industry. (Facebook is estimated to be worth $50B and plans are being made to take it public. How would you like ‘the music industry’ to be run by Mark Zuckerberg? Would that make things better? Is he a good guy?)
And finally, to end Part I of this tirade, I choose to share a few personal conclusions about the music industry as I have known it and experienced it in my lifetime. The major label model began crumbling in the 1980’s, probably before. It needed to crumble: decades of arrogance, huge salaries, absurd artist advances, really bad music and apathy were the large contributors. And yes, it is proving to be a long, slow death. Here’s more bad news: when the patient is finally pronounced dead the reading of the will is going to take at least as long as the lengthy death, probably longer. Each of its myriad sectors has millions of hands and eyes, claims and rights; they shall not go away quickly or easily. Best wishes to the lucky new owner(s.) If anyone reads this and truly believes that a little tape copying here and a little file sharing there had no impact on this industry’s demise – you are ignorant, uninformed and naïve. (As a professional songwriter I can only suggest that you teachers, doctors, CEO’s, truckers, firemen and accountants slash your income in half 3 times over the next 15 years.) And there’s one more bit of very significant information that speaks to the heart of this matter: 2 major Grammy Award Winners from 2010 (Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding) were signed to record labels – independent record labels! The natural processes have long been in the works – a new era has already begun. Let's allow it to happen...

Hell in a Hand Basket

I recently attended an all-day retreat with the ministerial staff of my church. As prompted by a document prepared by our senior minister we each shared responses to questions regarding our core beliefs, the future of The Church and our personal and professional goals for the coming year. One of the questions urged us toward a view of humankind – where are we headed?
The answers that rolled forth were marginally varied but all very positive - until it got to me. My response was, ‘We’re going to hell in a hand basket.’ These folks know me well so this answer did not really surprise them. They responded with mock groans and comments that chided me for being so negative and pessimistic. They know me as a happy-go-lucky guy so these friends and colleagues are always surprised that I hold such a fatal view of our human destination. As much as I love, respect and admire these colleagues I find their ‘faith in humankind’ postures astonishing on at least 3 levels: logical, intellectual and scriptural.
Soon after this time of sharing we took a break for lunch. I invited anyone present who wished to speak with me about my global pessimism to grab a sandwich, a Bible and the front section of any newspaper and join me for lunch. I had no takers. It is not a good feeling to be perceived as a fatalist – especially when you’re nothing of the kind. Frankly, ‘I have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!’ But that ‘peace that passes all understanding’ is not a product of my faith in humanity; it is anything but.
Thirty minutes in front of any television newscast should give any rational mind reason to be a pessimist. Fifteen minutes reading any newspaper should bring any breathing human being to his/her knees. Momentary consideration of the need in front of us all should have any sensitive man or woman crying out for mercy. Logically, I have concluded that this world is going to hell in a hand basket.
For 59 years I have witnessed our world wobble to-and-fro from one war to another; one leader to the next; one super power to another; one plan for peace to another war; one dictator to more corruptness; this poverty to that poverty; this crisis and that crisis and those crises all at once. I have heard pledges, speeches, kings, presidents, religious leaders, reporters, talking heads and all manner of promises and plans to bring permanent change to the ravages we face on planet earth. As I write this my country is engaged in at least 3 wars (call them what you will) and toying with at least one other. Genocide is being perpetuated by evil ones cross the globe. Greed has all but destroyed our world’s economy. Drug wars annihilate countless of innocent citizens on every continent. Diseases once eradicated from the face of the earth are returning. This is not what I call progress. Intellectually, I have concluded that this world is going to hell in a hand basket.
The Bible has called us to help usher in The Kingdom of God. The way I read it we are expected to do this by loving one another, serving one another and assisting the least of these. Also, we are expected to carry The Gospel message of repentance, forgiveness and grace to the ends of the earth. However, real peace will not be realized on human terms. Whether we like it or not the very best we have to offer is as filthy rags to God. We are incapable of final, total and eternal reconciliation with one another; it is not in our human DNA. Peace will only come with the return of Christ. I did not make this up. Spiritually, I have concluded that, without Christ, this world is going to hell in a hand basket.
You don’t want to know what we discussed after lunch.

What To Do With The Westboro Baptists

On Monday, June 13 a funeral was held in Nashville, TN for Nashville native and Marine Sgt. Kevin Balduf, age 27, killed in combat in Afghanistan one month earlier. News spread quickly that a group from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church were planning to be present to further spew their misguided beliefs and cast a shadow of shame and humiliation on an otherwise reverent moment. Although I was unable to attend the memorial service for Sgt. Balduf I am proudly aware that our community turned out by the thousands to celebrate his life and selflessness and to peacefully counteract the presence of this band of dark marauders.
Having been raised in a small, conservative, Bible reading, memory verse reciting Baptist congregation I must confess total bafflement by the mean-spirited shenanigans of these so-called Christians. In general Baptists can be misunderstood, stern, immovable, harshly conservative on social issues and downright difficult. Believe me, I know. (The ether is full of wonderfully funny perspectives on Baptists morality: Don’t make love standing up or the Baptists will think you’re dancing. Jews don’t recognize Jesus; Protestants don’t recognize The Virgin Mary and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store; Always invite 2 Baptists to go fishing with you – if you only take one he’ll drink all your beer.) It is also a widely observed phenomenon that Baptists – generally speaking – have an uncanny knowledge of the scriptures. This makes The Westboros particularly hard to understand.
We know that The Holy Bible includes 2 Testaments. In The Old one we encounter a God of foreboding – fierce, powerful, at times very angry and punitive – The Father. And then we open the pages of The New and are introduced to a gentler, kinder, more human, relatable, story-telling, healing, comforting and forgiving God: Jesus, the Son. And with His death, resurrection and ascension we are introduced to a third: The Ever-Present Comforter and Guide – The Holy Spirit. They each have their own identity and role. According to the definition of The Triune God – The Trinity – The Three were together (One in Three, Three in One) in the beginning, are together now and shall be for eternity. Further, the scriptures tell us that none of them has or ever will change. Now, with that simplistic overview I return with basic questions for The Westboro Baptists:
1. Have you read The New Testament?
2. Did you realize that Jesus taught forgiveness?
3. Have you tried to practice grace?
4. What did Christ mean when he said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone?’
5. Is heaven going to be filled with people like you?
6. How do your actions live up to these commandments Christ left with us: Love The Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your spirit; love one another; serve one another; repent; love your neighbor as you love yourself; whatever you’ve done unto the least of these you’ve done to me?
And a few humble suggestions:
1. Open up that New Testament.
2. Keep your condemnation to yourselves (it is not your role.)
3. Repent and seek forgiveness.
4. Become less miserable.
5. Dance
6. Do something kind.