Monday, August 27, 2007

Finally, Alberto Gonzales' head is brought

Finally, after at least seven months of foot-dragging by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his boss and buddy, President Bush, George finally answered the plea from this blog and brought us his head.

Gonzales underwent questioning by a Senate select committee comprised of both Democrats and Republicans. The committee, including heavy GOP hitters such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, begged the president to ask for Gonzales' resignation or fire him if he wouldn't quit.

The committee heard damning testimony of Gonzales' behavior in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys for political reasons and the FBI terror investigations in which bureaucrats said hundreds of political appointees in the Department of Justice had access to files of people who were only suspects or subjects of investigation. In the Clinton administration, less than a half-dozen White House employees had such access.

"Alberto Gonzales was never the right man for this job. He lacked independence, he lacked judgment, and he lacked the spine to say no to Karl Rove," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

So, finally Gonzales gave his resignation to his pal, Bush, and the president finally accepted it. Of course, Bush called Gonzales a wonderful public servant and that he was hounded from office for political reasons by the Democrats and the press.

Of course, this now brings to a halt one of the longest journalism contests in blog history.

The winner is Esbey, who, in March, predicted Gonzales would only last two months, but Esbey was closer than the other potential prognosticators. Esbey didn't want a Len'sLens T-shirt but wanted a chance to write about the reasons for the pick. Esbey, just contact me and we'll make the arrangements.

Congrats to Esbey and let's hope the next pick is better, but due to Bush's record, I wouldn't bet the ranch on it.

Names being bandied about include Specter, who said he wouldn't take the job if it were offered, and Homeland Security boss Michael Chertoff.

Your favorite blogger is still doing research on travel and other things and will be popping up from time to time this week. Next week, posts will be returning to a more regular schedule. Please keep checking in.

Until next time...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

How George got to be president

Now I know how George W. Bush got to be president of the United States.

We recently spent some time in a southern state, at a very pleasant hotel right near the beach. The water was wonderful, just enough of a surf to be fun but not enough to be harmful.

The water temperature was fantastic. It's hard to believe that the same Atlantic Ocean that fast-freezes your feet on Cape Cod or Maine is just below body temperature in South Carolina.

The hotel had a water attraction called Lazy River. It's a oval water boulevard about 50 feet long. The idea is to ride a tube about 30 inches in diameter, with two handles to hold, along this lazy river. The water moves lazily, carrying, one would think, a half dozen or so people floating along this waterway. It could be a wonderful way to contemplate the world while relaxing.

The Lazy River is entered by a three-step stairway with handles to hang onto while putting yourself on or lifting yourself off the tube. Pretty simple, right?

The group of people staying in this hotel are from all over the East Coast and Midwest. Lots of smokers, lots of people who have digested way too much sugar and animal fat, but who want to be in the height of beach fashion. Get the picture?

I've decided that this Lazy River is somebody's sociology or psych experiment. Can a cross-section of the USA figure out this attraction? The answer is no.

Instead of floating around this river, many people, adults as well as children, eschew the swimming pool 10 feet away and decide to swim around this river. To make matters worse, some people took root on the stairway where you are supposed to load and unload from the river. Some people walked around the river, carrying children.

This is a simple test of getting it and many of the people failed. Those who got it seemed to come from the Northeast and upper Midwest. Those who didn't get it are from places that voted for George W. Bush.

It makes sense. Those who don't get it voted for a guy who doesn't get it.

So now I know how George got to be president.

Anyway, I have been gathering information for the Lens, especially on the housing crisis. I have not been writing each day, but will resume in a few days. Please check back every couple of days. Thanks.

Until next time....

Monday, August 20, 2007

Some transportation and other issues

If anyone knows the governor of Delaware, please tell her she owes me three dollars. That's half the toll you pay to pass through The First State.

The reason is that on Sunday (August 19,1007), I passed through this tiny state at less than half the speed I should have done. We pay tolls to pass through states and there is an implied contract that the passage will be made as painless as possible for the traveler. Delaware does not keep up its end of the deal and should not be able to collect its full fee.

I think going half and half with Delaware is being overly generous, but that's the kind of guy I am.

Why do I think this traffic nightmare was Delaware's fault? Bad planning on the Delaware Turnpike.

On Interstate 95 southbound, one crosses from New Jersey into Delaware via the Delaware Memorial Bridge. There are tolls for the bridge and another three bucks for the Delaware Turnpike. The first toll is the one I want back.

What happens is this. As a law-abiding driver, one heads for the EZ-Pass lane. It was moving slower than the cash lanes. That should have provided a clue there was something wrong on the other end.

By the way, anyone who does any interstate driving at all should get the E-ZPass. You are nuts if you don't. In most non-Delaware situations, you fly though the tolls as more and more tolls plazas do not have the familiar lanes but scanners mounted 40 or so feet above the roadway. You just keep going at highway speed through the toll plaza. It costs little but the tolls themselves.

Back to my problem. After one passes through the tolls, one heads for one of two main roads leading from the plaza, either I-95 south heading for Baltimore, Washington and points south, or I-95 north heading for Wilmington and Philadelphia. Drivers using the E-ZPass lanes on the left and heading for Wilmington must cross up to a dozen lanes of traffic. Ditto for cash-payers who want to head for Baltimore.

There are no signs telling you this so you might go to the single E-ZPass lane, or the cash lanes, on the right if heading for Wilmington and on the left if heading for Baltimore. So, instead of breezing along, you sit, pay your toll and then try to head for the correct road. Then, less than 11 miles later, there is another toll booth. So you drive at something like highway speed for five minutes or so before being caught in another slowdown for the tolls because you aren't told where the EZ-Pass lanes are until you are very near the tolls.

All this backlog can be lessened by some signage by the bridge and modernizing the other toll booth.

So if you know Ruth Ann Minner, the governor of Delaware, ask her to bother Joe Biden, the Delaware senator running for president, and get this problem fixed. Thank you. I'll split the three bucks with you.

Page 2

Did you see the baloney on today's USAToday editorial page from the lobbyiist for the airlines?

The paper published an editorial saying there needs to be a law to force the airlines to stop treating their customers like galley slaves, keeping information from them, forcing them to sit on planes with no food, drink or working toilets for hours.

It's the paper's policy to get a response for the lead editorial, so the head airline lobbyist said no new law was needed and the problem in the skies is the fault of weather, old air-traffic control systems, crowded skies, bad luck, gremlins -- everything but bad planning and greed.

That argument holds as much as the tiny snacks served on most flights. My wife thinks the increase in road traffic comes from people who are sick and tired of being treated badly by airlines. She may have a point. Maybe if enough people vote with their feet and stay off planes and perhaps take trains or buses, maybe the airlines might get the message.

But don't count on it.

Page 3

The front page of USAToday had a story that essentially said people who buy small cars are putting themselves at risk because they would be at a disadvantage in a collision with one of the overgrown gas-guzzlers crowding the roads. That's like blaming the victim for being shot.

It's these ovegrown Selfish Unnecessary Violations that are the problem. They take up so much room, can't get out of their own way despite the huge engines that spew pollution at a sickening rate, have lights that shine into the eyes of people driving more sensible cars and are high enough so their drivers get this feeling of power and use the vehicle like the tank that it is.

Page 4

Two quick points.

First, it's necessary to mark the death of Leona Helmsley, known as the Queen of Mean for her treatment of her employees and who spent time in jail because only the little people pay taxes, or so she said.

On the other hand, she did run a mean hotel, with great rooms, huge towels and stuck to her advertising slogan: "I wouldn't drink out of a plastic glass, and neither should you."

Secondly, Greta Van Susteren and others, please stop this breathy hype of Hurricane Dean. Greta called it Mean Dean and talked as if it were human.

Yes, it's a powerful storm that will probably cause much damage and could take some lives, but it's not the Apocalypse.

Greata and her fellow anchors, please, dial it down a few notches. Let the news set the tone. There will be enough news from this storm for lots of hyperbole without you.

Until next time....

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Unfair housing crisis hitting close to home

Reading stories about the effects of the housing crisis in this nation is heartbreaking.

There was a story in the Washington Post this morning about a Maryland family who had bought a house and had received a mortgage commitment from a mainstream mortgage institution. They were on their way to the closing when the mortgage lender said it would not fund 175 mortgages, including theirs.

To make matters worse, the sellers of their potential new home were counting on the Maryland family's purchase to be able to afford the house to which they were moving, so the lender's retraction had a domino effect.

Fortunately, their broker was able to place their loan with another lender within 36 hours, so all they lost was some time.

At the same time, one of the nation's largest mortgage lenders may be in trouble and approaching bankruptcy, according to a Merrill Lynch report quoted in the Post.

This isn't just a problem for the fatcats and people who want to buy homes. Its effect on the stock market affects millions of people, including medium income folks whose pensions rely on 401(k) investments. A crisis like this affects all segments of the population...probably only the super-rich and the poorest are less affected.

What brought us to this situation? People wanting to do better for themselves and their families and those who took advantage of that dream.

Last August, I did a story for the Norwalk Hour and its weeklies in which economists, bankers, mortgage guarantors and consultants, as well as real estate professionals and bankruptcy lawyers, said mortgages were being marketed to people who could ill-afford them.

Even though some of the people who spoke in the story were in the mortgage business themselves, they said that some home buyers were skating on such thin financial ice that any event -- the loss of a job, a serious illness of any family member a pregnancy -- any negative change of financial circumstance would send them crashing through that ice.

The real estate professionals in the story and others I did at the time said the price of houses were not rising as fast as they did, and that if many houses came on the martket because of foreclosures, the price of houses could actually go down. People who depended on selling their houses in order to satisfy a loan they could no longer afford might be stuck.

I wasn't the only voice howling in the wilderness about this potential problem. A couple of weeks after my story ran, the New York Times carried a simiar warning. USAToday ran stories saying nearly half the mortgages being closed called for no down payment. The Washington Post said many mortgages were being refinanced in order to cash in on equity, which would be used for non-home purchases.

Equity is the value of a house minus what is owed on it.

So why did people pursue this financial course that had such a risk to change dreams of home ownership to fiscal nightmares including foreclosure and possibly even bankruptcy.?

They probably did it for the purest of reasons -- they wanted to improve their lot in lives and get in on the American dream. I remember, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, beloved sportscaster Curt Gowdy, in ads for the American auto industry, talked about the American dream of going "where you want, when you want." In other words, buy a car and you buy freedom. from the need to wait for a bus or train. Just hop in your car and hit the open road.

The people who are now in financial trouble heard and saw that same message about home ownership. All the way from the Andersons in Father Knows Best to today -- everyone who is truly happy owns his or her own home. It's the American dream. "Why not me?"

The mortgage pushers took advantage of that dream and sold people houses they had no financial right to buy at terms they could not really afford. These ads are still filling the airwaves from mortgage pushers and car-credit pushers (bad credit, no credit, no problem, buy a new car now).

The frustration of being in that situation must be staggering -- why not your family? You see it on television, the ads that come over the TV, the radio and even in e-mail talk about the good life on your own patch of ground. Don't drive an old clunker.

That's how we got here, I believe. It's really everybody's fault and nobody's fault. The mortgage pusher wove a happy picture, but the buyer had to know his or her own circumstance. It's not fair. I mean that, it really isn't fair.

But it's also not fair to those who scrimped and saved and bought stock and went without to contribute to their 401(k)s. It's not fair for this preventable crisis to cost them tens of thousands of hard-earned dollars.

People are depending on this money for their retirement, to carry them through the inevitable illness and vagaries of advanced age, and it is unfair that their savings are being eroded by those who would not realistically see their own circumstances and could not accept that they just could not afford to own that house.

It is also not fair that the mortgage pushers who sold them that pipe-dream are going to come out of this unscathed. They deserve to lose big-time as well.

Until next time....

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Money knocks woman off the high road

It may not all be about money, but a woman whose basketball team was dissed by J. Donald Imus has made a mistake that will allow the right-wing yakkers to say it is.

She's knocked herself off the high road.

Center Kia Vaughn filed a lawsuit in the Bronx, saying Imus' rant on radio and television last April caused her damage that has yet to be quantified. Although no dollar amount was included in the suit, you can bet that her lawyer, Richard Ancowitz, will put a number on it at some point before the suit is over.

"This is about Kia Vaughn's good name," Ancowitz said. "She would do anything to return to her life as a student and respected basketball player _ a more simple life before Imus opened his mouth on April 4." The quote is from the Associated Press.

Vaughn was on the Oprah Winfrey show in April talking about how Imus opened his mouth.

Along with Imus, Vaughn is suing CBS, CBS Radio and Barnyard McJerk, the guy who started the racial slur to which Imus signed on.

Look, there was no excuse for what Imus said and the women on the team had taken the high road, meeting with Imus and, one would think, trying to get on with their lives. Vaughn says what Imus said makes that impossible.

So now, she and her lawyer want to be paid for that. The university had no comment, which was smart.

I can imagine how angry the young woman must be. The Cinderella season for Rutgers ended one game before a national championship win. Then this idiot pours salt on the wounds.

But sorry, money won't help anyone except the lawyers. I hope the other players continue to take the high road and keep away from putting a price on their humiliation. There may be compensation for doing the right thing, but it doesn't always have to come with a dollar sign.

Page 2

I guess the truth hurts.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an ad, says President Bush is out of touch with ordinary people. Bush only feels for those who are engaged in big business and is out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans.

I would go one step farther. It's inherited.

I remember when Daddy Bush was president and he went into a supermarket as part of an event. He man didn't know what a cash register was. He wanted to buy an item at the market, as part of a photo op, and didn't know how. He had never purchase an item of food to feed himself or his family.

The apple does not fall far from the tree, or in this case, the gold tower.

Until next time...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Marking a milestone and the ventriloquist is leaving

This is my 100th post for Len'sLens. I guess I should mark the occasion and hoist a cool one.

Thank you to all of you who have, steadily or from time to time, come to read the rantings. Especially, I want to thank Paul Bass of the Independent for his support and especially for keying to one post or another.

As a person whose journalism career was pledged to objectivity, it's good to be able to express an opinion on the events of the day, either locally or in a broader spectrum. I know the impact and perceived importance of what one writes has to do with the perspective of the reader and also the perspective of the source. In other words, when I would call the White House from the New Haven Register or the Journal News, I would be lucky to hear back the same week. When I called from USA Today, the handset would hardly stop quivering in the cradle before the phone would ring.

So, again thank you to all of you, in about 25 states and close to a dozen foreign countries who have stopped to read this space. Please keep it up.

Page 2

The ventriloquist is leaving the White House, but now we're still stuck with only the dummy.

Yes, I know it's a cheap shot and way too easy, but one cannot help onesself sometimes.

Of course, I'm talking about the departure of Karl Rove, the supposed brains behind the throne in the inner sanctum of the Bush Administration. He's the guy who spearheaded the Bush run to the presidency and then was the chief architect of the mess into which the nation has been tossed.

He started out plotting out the campaign, the way James Carville and Paul Balaga did for Bill Clinton. But instead of going their separate ways after the election, Rove still had his hand up the dummy's back (again, this blog is rated PG) for the whole first time and the first 2 1/2 years of the second.

Look for him to jump to some other super-conservative, empty headed candidate for either the presidency or other national office (Rudy won't take it, Thompson dropped out). There is sure to be a book, ghost-written by the Brothers Grimm.

Page 3

I'm starting to get sick and tired of the mean-spirted communications being sent from the city of New Haven. In the past year, I've gotten letters from various city departments that were threatening or just mean=spirited. I understand when mistakes are made, but the city doesn't. I overlooked a car tax bill on a car that I haven't owned for months. So, a letter comes in, not addressed to Dear Deadbeat but it might as well have been.

There was no "you might have forgotten' or 'if you have paid please disregard this letter.' It was a list of possible penalties and enforcement actions that the city would commence against me if I didn't pay within the next 10 days, and at the end it said to keep this from happening to you PAY YOUR TAXES. The bold capital letters were on the letter.

OK, after paying thousands of dollars in house and car taxes, I forgot the smallest bill of all, barely a couple of hundred dollars. But the nastiness wasn't necessary. It wasn't the first time, either.

My advice to city hall is, especially with an election coming and taxes going up, is to KNOCK IT OFF. NOW.

Page 4

I have to pause and mark the passing of Phil Rizzuto, the great New York Yankees (one of the few times one should use those four words in concert) shortstop and broadcaster. My first thought was, "Holy Cow, I thought he'd last forever."

Rizzuto was a character, something we don't have much in the media anymore and certainly one of the greatest in baseball. Scooter was one of a kind, a double hall of famer who will surely be missed.

In another arena, J. Donald Imus has reached an agreement with CBS over his firing last spring and is talking with WABC in New York about Imus working for that station. He won't be going back to his roots at WFAN, which had been WNBC radio, because that station signed a deal with football great Boomer Esiason, along with Craig Carton, a guy who has insulted minorities and women from time to time, according to the Associated Press.

As you know, Imus was booted off the air for calling the Rutgers University women's basketball team a racial and ethnic slur a day after the team was knocked off in the NCAA finals. This blog prides itself in perhaps being the only publication in existance that has not repeated Imus' slur.

Until the 101st time...

Friday, August 10, 2007

You should not cause the blind to falter

There seems to be a love for the blind spot lately. Maybe I just haven't noticed it, but I think it's having a resurgence.

Those who read this space regularly (thank you) know I rant and rave about driving from time to time.

Lately, there seems to be a love for getting into the blind spot and staying there for some time. For those who do not drive, the blind spot is on the right side of a car and to the rear, a place where no mirror seems to be able to show the driver.

The danger, of course, is a car in the left lane wants to go into the right lane, doesn't see the car traveling in the blind spot, and an accident occurs. The is particularly dangerous if the car has been there for a long time and you haven't taken notice of it for some time. I've had cars riding in my blind spot for miles on highways.

The one that gets me is ego-challenged driver whom you are passing, but then decides that he won't let you get in front of him. He, for whatever reason, won't completely pass you on the right, but installs himself in your blind spot and stays there.

After a while, you've forgotten about this clown. So, you turn on your right signal and prepare to pull into the right lane. He's too far up on your side to see the signal (i try to leave a five-count between signaling and pulling over) and the first reminder you get of his presence is an angry blast on the horn. That's if you're lucky and you don't hear a screech of metal.

Friends, let's try not to do this. Passengers, you may wish to remind the driver from time to time that there is a good-sense challenged person in the blind spot.

Page 2

There seems to be a slight difference of opinion between the state and the city over the building of the Gateway community college campus between Church and Temple streets where Macy's used to be.

In angry letters, Jim Fleming, head of the state Department of Public Works, is blaming the city and Mayor John DeStefano in particular for a series of bungles, missed deadlines and just plain rudeness.

The rudeness comes from the mayor's delegation of letter-writing to Fleming on the project. Fleming asks the mayor whether the passing along of letter-writing to an underling represents a lessening of the city's commitment to project.

My word, doesn't Jim Fleming know there's a war on, a war against the feds to protect illegal aliens (no, not Uncle Martin)? Is Jim Fleming so installed in his ivory tower in Hartford that he doesn't know DeStafano is in a desperate battle with those who would defeat him for mayor? Doesn't he know there is favor to curry, babies to kiss, senior citizens' backs to pat, city managers' performance evaluations to hide and the like? My word, what is a community college and a few dozen million dollars in unnecessary expenses compared to that?
No wonder the state is so messed up.

Page 3
So, Barry Bonds has passed Hank Aaron, who passed Babe Ruth, who passed....

I think in the Christian Testament, it says something like "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." In the Hebrew Bible, the accuser was expected to throw the first stone to execute someone by stoning. So, if we can find someone who never went over the speed limit, never got away with not paying some taxes, never padded an expense get the message.
Until we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bonds was juiced during those years, let's just give him a well-done and get on with our lives.

I think this week will start to show whether the New York Yankees deserve to be in the past-season. They have been kicking some serious butt, but have been doing it with teams well under .500. Let's see how they do when they start playing teams like Cleveland and others that are at or near the top of their divisions. If they can do that, as the Boston Red Sox have, then we have a horse race. If not...well the best team money can buy will have to wait another year.

Page 4
Even though it's pouring down rain today (Aug. 10, 2007), the weekend weather looks good, so let's get out there and have some fun. Labor Day is only a three weeks away come Monday, and school will soon be upon us (parents, prepare to celebrate). So let's get out there and have fun.

Shoshana Olkin, who turned 6 last week, will be honored at a party at her parents' home in Amherst, Mass., Sunday. Happy Birthday again, Shoshie. See you then.

All have a great weekend and for those in the Tribe, a good Shabbos.

Until next time...

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Bush offers sympathy, but no help, in bridges, credit

Before he left on his three-week stay at his daddy's home in Maine, our president today (Aug. 9, 2007) expressed sympathy for people caught in the Minnesota bridge collapse, sympathy for people caught in the credit crunch and sympathy for the regime in Pakistan.

He had sympathy for everyone except the American people.

Congress wanted to raise the gas tax a nickel a gallon to pay for fixing the nation's bridges, many of which need repair or replacement. He said he couldn't back that proposal because of the way the money is distributed. Each member of Congress wants to bring back money to his or her district in order to do the repairs there. He said the nation couldn't have that because the money should be distributed to the states, as it has been, and the states should decide how it is to be spent.

A couple of points, if you please.

The collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul and the subsequent reports on the state of the nation's bridge infrastructure give mute testimony to how badly, not how well, the present system works. We obviously need to try something new, and instead of using the Executive Branch's resources to work with Congress on finding a better way to maintain the bridges, Bush sends out a scold saying he suggests the Congress examines the way it does things.

Thanks, George. That's really helpful, especially since you are scolding the Congress for doing the things you do best: taking care of your friends.

I'll bet the president really feels for people killed, injured or even inconvenienced by the bridge collapse in Minnesota. But feelings don't get anything done.

The actions that are needed, raising the gas tax and ending the Iraq war, are far from his mind. Raising the gas tax will, in the next three years, raise $20 billion of the nearly $200 billion experts say we'll need over the next 20 years to fix the bridge and tunnel problem, according to the Associated Press.

The gas-tax hike may have a nice side effect: It may cut down on some of the driving we're doing as a nation and maybe persuade some people to give up the gas-guzzling SUVs for more reasonable transportation and may even get some of us out of our cars into van pools, buses, trains and the like.

But Bush cannot have that because it may impact on his great and good friends in the oil industry, from whence comes the Bush fortune and the Cheney fortune,. Then there's the Carlyle group. The Carlyle Group had on its board George H.W. Bush (until 2003), James Baker III and members of the Bin Laden family. (yes, that Bin Laden family) sold their investments in the group in 2001. Funny thing about that.

Ditto on the credit crunch. Bush won't do anything to reduce the profits of the bankers who are allowed to do things like jack up your credit card interest rates if you were late in paying another creditor. The mortgage brokers (I call them mortgage pushers) are still trying to intice people to take out mortgages with draconian terms for houses they cannot afford on their best day.

Some of these pushers had been willing to lend to anyone, even if they had no credit, because of the advent of mortgage securitizers who didn't insist on the safeguards mandated by the big three: Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and Ginny Mae. A securitizer is a company that buys mortgages from originators (mortgage bankers, brokers and the like) with money raised by selling stock backed by the mortgages. Unlike Freddie, Fannie and Ginny, these securitizers didn't require a 20 percent down payment and credit-worthiness in the mortgages they package. The interest rates were higher than the issues sold by the big three, so some investors, including hedge funds, bought in bigtime. I guess those interest rates don't look so great now. Some of the buyers didn't have a choice because they invested in mutual funds purchased for them and perhaps in 401(k) plans.

Although those forced to sell their stocks now may end up being hurt financially, most investors who can afford to stay in the market only take paper losses.

As one investor told me in October 1987, as the market took a nearly 600-point hit (in 1987 dollars), "I haven't lost a dime until I sell." People who can't pay their mortgages don't have that option.

Car dealers are no better as credit pushers. Come buy a car even if you have bad credit, no credit, don't know anything about credit. Don't drive around in that clunker (even if it's the only thing you can realistically afford). Come to us and we'll put you in a new or great used car.

All this is coming back to haunt not only those whose recklessness caused it, but everyone who relies on the financial markets, which means most of us due to 401(k) and other investments we are now required to rely on for our retirements, because companies have been getting away with no longer offering defined-benefit pensions.

So the sharp drop in the stock markets affects all of us, not just a few Wall Street fatcats. And Bush ruled out direct help to those caught by the mortgage and other credit pushers. Thanks, George. Keep your sympathy.

What does the war in Iraq have to do with all of this? The cost of the Iraq war for less than a year would pay for the complete renovation of our entire transportation infrastructure, that's what.

Finally, Bush told the boss of Pakistan he had better act on any intellegence received about Al-Qaida.

Excuse me, but the real fight against the people who knocked down those buildings in New York and are trying to knock us all down is in Afghanistan, but Iraq. We should be in that fight with all our resources, not wasting them in Iraq, where the legislators are cooling their heels on vacation in Jordan and other relatively safe places.

Al Qaida is in Iraq because we are. They weren't there under Saddam Hussein and neither was Iran. But we kicked out Saddam and are wondering why all these warlords are rushing in to fill the vacuum left by his ouster.

So have a great vacation, George. Get some rest. If the Congress and the American people ever grow some guts, you may need it.

Until next time...

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Being a prophet isn't easy

About a year ago, with help from some economist and banker friends, as well as from an quasi-government agency that buys mortgages, I did a piece saying that mortgage borrowers, especially those whose credit was not the best, might be in for trouble.

I wish I had the Web address for the piece -- like an idiot, I never saved it -- but it ran in the weeklies of the Norwalk Hour and in the Hour itself in late August or early September 2006. Maybe you could get a copy -- I never succeeded in getting one.

Better yet, e-mail me and I'll send you the copy I filed.

It's nice to be right, but not when you have to watch thousands and thousands of people going down the drain financially by doing just what the experts say not to do. I'm talking about the real experts not those who are trying to sell mortgages.

One of the biggies was not to go into hock to the full value of the house by not only taking a mortgage for most of the house's value but by then taking out an equity note for the rest.

That leaves you with no equity. Equity is the value of the house minus how much is owed on it.

Borrowing against the house sounds great -- buy a car with proceeds from an equity line of credit and the interest is deductible from income tax where interest on a car note isn't. Use the money to take a real vacation to an exotic, not just a few days at the shore.

There really is no such thing as a free lunch. You borrow up to your eyeballs and then get sick, which is ranked as the top reason people get into mortgage trouble. Losing your job is another biggie.

Let's say you get into trouble and can't pay on the note. If you followed the age-old rules and had a 20 percent down payment, chances are the bank sold your note to one of the classic mortgage-buying quasi-governmental organizations, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae or Ginny Mae, which is owned by the government. These three would probably work with you, lowering payment, extending payment times or whatever made sense to keep you in your house.

If you couldn't put down 20 percent and qualify for backing by one of the big three, you went to a mortgage banker or broker who put you into a mortgage for all or most of the house's value. They probably sold you an adjustable-rate mortgage or one of the litany of mortgage variations that have popped up in the past 20 years.

Who could blame you. Owning your own home is the American dream. Everyone should be able to live up to the dream, or so said the mortgage pushers and real estate salespeople. Never mind if the numbers showed you could not afford a house and your pesky bank cautioned you that you would end up owning your own financial nightmare. Hey, you deserved it.

A few years went by. That pesky Federal Reserve kept on raising interest rates and your teaser adjustable mortgage rate has gone up and up and up. You could sell the house, but you have no equity in it and due to the number of houses on the market, the price of the house has gone down. You can't refinance because your payments equal more than the cost of the house and your friendly mortgage pusher doesn't want to know you.

Even if you were to sell the house, chances are you would still owe thousands of dollars to the company that bought your mortgage from the mortgage pusher before the ink was dry on your closing papers.

A year ago, it was watch out, this can happen. Now it has happened.

One of the most amazing thing is that the mortgage pushers are still advertising, even though other mortgage companies are going belly up.

Oh, you may want to know how the experts knew this downturn was coming if enough people were foolhardy not to listen to good counsel? Because the same thing happened only 20 years ago. The nitty-gritty circumstances were a little different, but the big picture was the same.

All one had to do was look.

Until next time...

Monday, August 6, 2007

A man should be able to walk at 3 a.m.

This story does not have a happy ending.

It's about a man who had more than his share of problems during a hard life, but a man who had met his reverses with goodness to his family and others.

His name was Moniek Eckhaus, he was 84 and his funeral was yesterday (Aug. 5, 2007). He did not die of natural causes, but causes that seem to be more common in New Haven.

I have to admit I didn't know Mr. Eckhaus well. I was good friends with his son, Zvi, who was known around New Haven as Henry Eckhaus. I still consider his daughter-in-law Sima as one of my closest friends. One of his granddaughters and one of my daughters were all but inseparable during high school.

So I don't come to this piece impassionately.

Mr. Eckhaus had trouble sleeping. That's not unusual for a Holocaust survivor who lived in Eastern Europe until there was an Israel to which to run.

He fought for Israel for many years. He and his wife divided their time between Israel and a neat, well-kept house in the Beaver Hills neighborhood of New Haven, not far from Southern Connecticut State University.

He buried Zvi in 2001. Zvi, a jewelry designed and manufacturer, had suffered from catastrophic heart problems for years, which finally claimed his life.

So Mr. Eckhaus liked to walk at all hours of the night. The police knew of his habit and kept an eye on him, as much as they could.
His family said even the local no-goodniks knew him, knew he never carried money, and left him alone.

Most of them did, that is. Mr. Eckhaus was accosted and beaten during one of his night walks a few weeks ago. He lingered in the hospital until late last week.

All this is bad enough. The reaction of people who didn't know him was natural, practical but quite disturbing. Why would anyone walk in New Haven in the middle of the night?

That's the point. An old man should be able to walk in New Haven in the middle of the night.

One of the prime reasons given by government for vacuuming money out of the pockets of citizens at an obscene rate is that it's necessary to protect the most vulnerable among us.

I don't know who's more vulnerable than an old man walking alone in the middle of the night. We did a lousy job of protecting him. Protecting those who have played by the rules, worked, raised families and want to live out their last years in peace must be our top priority.

New Haven has been nominated for an awards by the National League of Cities. According to a city press release, the NLC awards " recognize outstanding programs that have improved quality of life in their city or town."

Until New Haven can protect people like Moniek Eckhaus who want to walk alone at two or three or four in the morning, we should be ashamed to accept such an award.

Until next time...

Friday, August 3, 2007

A little of this and a little of that

Well, the weekend is knocking and we've covered some important topics this week here at the Lens.

Let's end with a little bit about a lot of things.

Sean Penn, the actor, is too dumb to know he's being used by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, as a propaganda tool. I think tool is the operative word.

He's standing alongside Chavez as the South American strongman rants and raves about American policy in Iraq. I can rant and rave against American policy in Iraq, but Chavez can't.

Penn is making himself the 21st century's Jane Fonda. It's not Chavez's soldiers being killed in Iraq while the Iraqi officials and would-be officials go on vacation and fritter around in intramural squabbles. Chavez needs to shut up.

Penn can rant and rave as much as he wants about the Iraq war, but he needs to do it here, not standing next to a guy who doesn't have the U.S. good in mind.

Page 2

Speaking of people who need to think a bit more about what they say, our secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is taking her foot out of her mouth after her scold about democracy.

She basically told the Palestinians that they need to govern responsibly. She's dead right on that. But one of the reasons they're having so many problems is our administration's insistence on democratic elections in the territories at the worst possible time.

You take a government that you back but is in trouble with its people due to graft and inaction. You stir in insistence that elections be held just then. And, if you are the Bush administration, you then are floored that the electorate voted for someone other than the people you backed.

So now, because of our meddling, Hamas not only is a powerful force for evil in the territories, but it is a powerful force for evil in the territories that is recognized by much of the world as the legitimately elected legislative group in the territories.

So then, Rice delivers a scold to the Palestinians about governing responsibly while saying the U.S. is glad the elected governing entity has been overturned.

No wonder the rest of the Middle East is scratching their heads.

Look, I have nothing by hate and contempt for Hamas. If I ruled the world, they would all be put in the back of trucks and returned to Iran and Syria that backs them. But, we need to make sense with our foreign policy pronouncements.

Condy, when you speak, people listen. Make sense.

Page 3

I went to see Michael Moore's "SiCKO" the other day. Senior Day at the Orange cinemas -- $3.50 a shot for a film that younger people get to pay $10 to see -- the deal of the age.

It would have been much more powerful if it didn't insult the intelligence so much and so often.

For example, Moore travels to France to compare their medical-delivery system with ours. He interviews a family about its income and expenses to prove that despite the free medical care that all get in France, the result is not a confiscatory tax to pay for it all.

What's the one question he didn't ask them? You got it -- how much of their income went for taxes.

A large segment had to do with people injured while serving at Ground Zero after Sept. 11 and who were not treated adequately for subsequent medical problems.

So, since Moore found out that the alleged terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, got better medical treatment than those who served at Ground Zero, he loads the Ground Zero victims into boats and sails to Guantanamo Bay.

Of course he doesn't get there -- it seems he really didn't try all that hard. But then he heads for Havana.

If the picture is to be believed, they stroll into Havana and are welcomed, given medical treatment better than they would have received at home, and treated as heroes by Cuban firefighters.

That may have all taken place, but Moore would have you believe no previous arrangements were made. Please. The Cuban in charge of public relations must have thought he or she had died and gone to heaven.

There is no excuse for the American medical system and the way many people, even those with what they thought was adequate insurance coverage, are treated. The story is sad enough without these attempts to made it stronger with these little intensifications.

Page 4

Finally, happy birthday to Shoshana P. Olkin, who will be 6 tomorrow (Aug. 4). Shoshana, who will enter the first grade in September, is a graduate of kindergarten. She likes to play with her cats, do puzzles, read, and play with her sister Naomi and her new sister Elli. Happy birthday from grandpa and Savta Sue and all of us here at the Lens.

Have a great weekend and for all of you in the Tribe, have a great Shabbos.

Until next time...

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Heartbreaking becomes heartwarming

This is a story of good people. Lots of them.

The readers of this news and opinion (mostly opinion) space will remember when some people turned some cemeteries, sad places in the best of times, even sadder.

Late last April, some people turned over dozens of tombstones and scrawled a swastika on some Jewish cemeteries in East Haven. The vandals were never caught.

The event was enough to turn the blood cold for anyone with a soul.

There are, however, many, many people with souls out there and dozens of them reacted to this sad situation in ways that warmed my heart, and the hearts of all those involved in the restoration of the damage.

The local media, the New Haven Register, as well as the affiliates of all three networks, Channel 3, Channel 8 and Channel 30 as well as Channel 61 did stories about the vandalism. That brought in a flood of concern, and a flood of dollars, from all across this nation. That more than covered the cost of fixing the damaged tombstones.

East Haven Police Chief Leonard L. Gallo immediately assigned increased patrols to the area. With the help of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven, the synagogues involved, as well as Gallo, a working group began brainstorming ways to prevent a recurrence.

Jimmy Shure, owner of the Robert E. Shure Funeral Home has stepped forward to underwrite new signs for the cemetery. The United Illuminating Co. is installing lighting to forestall further vandalism and Shure has pledged to cover the electric bill for that.

Mark Shiffrin, a local attorney and former commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection has played a major role in this effort, as have Lisa Stanger and Fran Parness of the Jewish Foundation.

Cong. Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim of New Haven suffered the most damage last April, although the swastika was scrawled on the Westville Synagogue's entryway.

Rabbi David Avigdor and Goldie Goldberg, synagogue administrator, took the lead, along with Parness, in making themselves available to the news media.

Spreading the word allowed people to express their concern and revulsion with the vandalism.

"This outpouring of concern and of dollars has turned a sad situation into one that makes you feel good about your fellow man," Avigdor said.

Avigdor and Goldberg want to thank all who have reacted so positively to this sad situation and who have stepped up to see that it never happens again.

Editor's Note: The writer is president of Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim synagogue in New Haven and is a member of the committees cited in this piece.

Until next time....

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When Daddy Warbucks buys the paper

I've been described as a veterans newsman. One of the saddest things of which I'm a veteran is happening again in New York.

That, of course, is the taking over of a good newspaper (today, it's the taking over of a great newspaper) by a rich guy.

I don't know Rupert Murdoch, left, who has succeeded in purchasing Dow-Jones & Co., the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, but I know his ilk. I don't think he will be able to keep from meddling, and with a wonderful paper like the Journal, that could be tragic.

Murdoch said he would put money into the business, but I'm not convinced it will be put into the editorial product. I think there will be layoffs.

Layoffs have happened twice to me. Once at the New York Daily News, where I was laid off personally by Robert Maxwell, who had bought that struggling paper from the Tribune Corp., which now owns the Hartford Courant, Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time and New Haven Advocate in Connecticut.

But the one that affected greater New Haven most was the sale of the New Haven Register by the Jackson family in July, 1986.

I came to work in New Haven because of yet another sale -- that of the Hartford Times to the Jackson Family by Gannett, Inc. The Jacksons took a struggling paper and, due to blunders both by the Jacksons and Gannett, as well as miscalculations, public Jackson family squabbles and with the gleeful help of The Hartford Courant, killed it in 1976, less than two years after they bought it.

After the Times died, some of us were subsumed into what became The Jackson Newspapers -- the New Haven Register and The Journal-Courier. I arrived during one of the darkest chapters in the Jackson dynasty, the attempt to unionize editorial workers by The Newspaper Guild.

A bright spot, ironically, was the Blizzard of 1978. The news staff, led by Don Sharpe and Bill Guthrie, showed they could cover the big story, could have fun while stuck in hotels under bad conditions. It led to great things.

The next year, the union was decertified, Lionel Jackson Sr. gave his son, Lionel Jr., known as Stewart, operating control and the clouds parted, at least for a while. Stewart Jackson poured millions of dollars into the paper, redesigning the Journal-Courier, replacing draconian management practices with modern incentives for greatness, buying new presses and later moving to a former shirt factory and changing it into a modern news environment.

The Journal-Courier staff reacted by kicking editorial butt, carrying home nearly every regional editorial prize available, as well as scoring high in international design competitions. The Journal-Courier became one of the best newspapers of its size anywhere.

Of course, it couldn't last. In 1986, for reasons I still don't understand, the Jacksons put the company on the market and subsequently sold it to a group fronted by Ralph Ingersoll 2nd, son of one of the giants in the newspaper game, for $170 million, a huge sum. The deal was financed mainly through junk bonds, with junk bond king Michael Millken behind the scenes.

Although tall, Ralph wasn't a giant. He took the wind out of everyone's sails and the money out of the company. In the year after the sale, the editorial staffs had been combined, with reporters forced to write stories for both newspapers.

That made for incomplete reports. The reporter was forced to leave a compelling part of the story out of his report and save it to make what editors hoped would seen like a fresh story for the other paper.

In 1987, the charade ended and The Journal-Courier was combined with the Register into a single morning paper, turning the reading habits of the New Haven area on their ear. Circulation dropped. Good people began leaving. The paper went from one of the best to run of the mill at best.

At the same time, one of the most bizarre episodes of my career occurred. By that point, I had become real estate editor and a business reporter because I also wanted to get back on the street, because I wanted to be a reporter again after more than a decade as a desk man.

Our editor and publisher, Tom Geyer, herded us business reporters and editors into a room, where he told us Ingersoll wanted us to do a series on junk bonds. Not any series, mind you, but one that showed junk bonds in a favorable light to use in upcoming appearances before Congress.

We refused. Ingersoll let it be known that he wasn't happy and our jobs were perhaps not as secure as they had been. We refused again, saying we wouldn't softball a story on a strategy that, by that time, had begun to show the cracks that would later become a collapse that would help bury Ingersoll.

Finally, Geyer negotiated a deal by which we would do a single story about junk bonds and let the facts determine the story's slant. We were relieved, but dark clouds were left over our happy little group.

The wheels began to come off the wagon in 1989 when Ingersoll became convinced that St. Louis needed a tabloid newspaper, full of color, scandal and scantily clad women. The St. Louis Sun, was born.

It was to live for about six months at a cost of about $36 million, not counting the cost of the staff Ingersoll stripped from his other papers for the abortive venture. The box a left is mute testimony to its failure.

Shortly after that, Ingersoll lost control of his American newspapers in early July, 1990, eventually to The Journal-Register Co., then of Princeton, N.J., a holding company of E.M. Warburg Pincus & Co.,of New York, which still owns the Register.

Shortly thereafter, the first of a series of layoffs occurred. It was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra is supposed to have said.

When the Jacksons bought the Hartford Times, the first person to be laid off was Ed Valtmann, the editorial cartoonist and the only Hartford Times employee ever to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Ingersoll followed the pattern. One of the first to go was Bob Rich, the prize-winning (not Pulitzer, at least not yet) cartoonist who gave the paper one of its bright spots.

I survived the first two layoffs. Neither publisher Geyer nor I survived the third.

It was a Monday, Oct. 15, 1990, and Geyer said he would not agree to a round of 30 layoffs, coming on the heels of a 19-person dismissal. Of the 30, 20 were to be from the newsroom, which was already full of empty desks.

Geyer later said he was told to either do the layoffs or be fired himself. He chose the latter.

The next day, Oct. 16, the 30 of us lost our jobs.

I was on the phone, doing an interview on a story involving a store that sold cloth and buttons.

That was a far cry from the investigative pieces, the prophetic stories of economic downturn, the microscopic examinations of the fall of real estate titans that caused the editor of the Miami Herald to marvel how all these sources were gotten to speak for the record. But since there were so few of us left, everyone did everything.

The tap on the shoulder came in the late morning. Sorry, someone mumbled, but I need to take you to HR, which that day meant human recycling. Sad-faced workers processed those designated. News executives told me I could come back the next day for my belongings -- they didn't want the television news cameras camped by the employee entrance to see people carrying out their lives in a carton.

They also suggested I leave via the back door, so as not to appear on television. I told them I came in the front door, and was going out the same way.

I put on my coat and walked out, head held high, to give a news conference covered by three camera crews. Kevin Hogan of Channel 3 asked me what the headline if the day was.
I said the paper had sliced through the fat and the meat and was now cutting away bone. I said I was more sorry for those left behind than for myself.

I still am.