Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Debate Envy

I love a good argument.

Just ask my friends and family, and if they tell you I don't like one get back to me and I'll convince you they're wrong.

Some people have this crazy notion that arguing is a bad thing and it's best to keep things to yourself or just nod in tacit agreement.

Which brings me to the Florida primary.  No noddin' in agreement there.  Instead, the Republican wannabes have been flinging poop and hammers at each other since storming out of South Carolina a couple of weeks ago.

It sounds like the new slogan should be, "Come to Florida, and leave your TV at home" given the relentless attack ads from all sides.  And as is often the case, cash is king, with Romney about to be crowned after outspending Newt Gingrich by a large margin.

He who has the most dough has the most toys, and most votes.  Sad but true.

Except in debates, which are the great equalizer.

As a debate lover, this year is special.  In fact, it seems like the debate schedule is tracking the NBA's condensed lockout schedule (teams play every night this year, right?), sans the candidates riding charter planes together or getting busted in nightclubs.

I haven't watched all of them, but I've tuned in to plenty of spin doctors for a post debate house call,  "Sportscenter" like highlights for political junkies.

Some feel that the number of debates is hurting Republicans heading into the general election.  Instead of focusing on their common opponent, President Obama, they are using valuable resources taking live shots at each other on a regular basis.

Not sure I buy that.

For one thing, if there were, say, only four debates instead of the 16 we have had so far, it would force candidates to drum up votes solely through appearances, attack ads, PAC ads and online begging.

With fewer debates, who knows how quickly we would wither down to today's "Final Four."  I suspect the path of attrition would have been far different.

Regardless,  I'll take a live debate any day over the canned speeches and hand picked audiences of the campaign trail.

There is nothing like purely unscripted moments in debates.  Who could forget Richard Nixon sweating in the first televised debate, Ronald Reagan's "I'm paying for this microphone" moment, the Michael Dukakis rape question, George H.W. Bush staring at his watch or Lloyd Bensten's "You're no Jack Kennedy" swipe at Dan Quayle.

Interestingly, only Reagan ended up winning his election.

After Republican voters settle on a nominee, I hope there are just as many debates in the general election.

I also realize 16 plus debates in the fall is as likely as Barack Obama appearing on an episode of "Hillbilly Hand Fishin'."  As the incumbent, President Obama would have little to gain and plenty to lose by engaging in multiple debates, and I would expect him to employ the "Rose Garden" strategy with plenty of safe, staged, scripted moments for the press.

Boring, but effective.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Jim Cramer The Everyman

As a market commentator I have always taken CNBC's Jim Cramer for what he is: An effective entertainer.  The host of "Mad Money" has been around a long time and is a fixture among financial talking heads. 

Cramer was interviewed the other day by MSNBC's Alex Witt about tax policy.   Here's the link:

I was struck, as I often am in such interviews, as much by what is said as what is not said, or not asked. 


I realize wading into the whole "media bias" cesspool is a dangerous thing, and it's really not my point. 

I could devote an entire post, let alone an entire blog, to the bias (real and imagined) in our media from both sides. 

To wit:  The network that declares itself "fair and balanced" often isn't, while the other one often leaves me wanting to "lean forward" in order to hurl a blunt object. 

My blowhard is smarter, and better, than your blowhard.  Frankly the subject bores me. 

Back to the interview.  At one point Cramer claims he pays a 56% percent tax rate on his salary, which I presume to be a combination of the top 35% federal rate and 21% in his state and local hit.   For the remainder of the talk the scroll at the bottom of the screen reminds us of the high taxes paid by the mad money man.  And yes, Cramer feels that people like him should pay more, particularly in capital gains taxes. 

Here's the problem.  Alex (in this case Dim) Witt takes Cramer at his word and doesn't follow-up.  She doesn't bother with a simple question such as, "Jim, are you saying that you don't have any deductions or capital gains that would make your adjusted gross income and effective tax rate much lower?" 

No property tax or business deductions?  I'm highly skeptical.  Jim Cramer is a smart, successful, wealthy guy. I doubt he pays his 56% and returns to his room at the YMCA, hotplate included.

It's important to note that Cramer is barred by CNBC from buying or selling individual stocks other than for his charitable trust, which he must disclose.

I knew that beforehand, not because Cramer shared (or was even asked) the reason he's not part of the capital gains party.

Maybe I am nitpicking, but this is an instance where I wish the interviewer had bothered to probe just a bit.  Then again, maybe the only point was cross promotion of another NBC show, a tax "chalk talk" filler before the breathtaking tour of Cramers buttons and hats.

Tax policy is a big deal.  And this was a missed opportunity.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wrestlemania, Youth Edition

At 6:00 am last Sunday, my son Thomas, age 13, and I headed out to his club wrestling tournament.

Cue the theme from Rocky, "Gonna Fly Now."

Youth wrestling tournaments are quite the spectacle, beginning with the early morning traffic jam for weigh ins.  We arrive just before 7:00 am at the dark, dank gymnasium north of Chicago, a perfect setting for a blue collar sport.  Forget the brie and chardonnay, this is a Velveeta and Red Bull crowd.  Kids file in with gear over their shoulders, parents carrying coolers.  Once inside, the kids are round up like Holsteins to have their weight, hair and fingernails checked.

After a quick team warm-up, we all sit, and sit, teams and parents clustered together on hard, unforgiving bleachers, which is fitting. 

Wrestling is a grueling sport, who's one-on-one nature and continuous movement results in a twisting, reaching, ongoing vulnerability.  I competed in high school with teammates who now coach my son.  We are all older, fatter and balder, but the lessons remain.  As legendary Iowa coach Dan Gable says, "Once you've wrestled, everything else is easy." 

Beginning at 9:00 am up to 12 matches take place at once on four mats, made possible because kids as young as 5 don't need much room.  Groups of kids are called up to the "bullpen" room by age group, then sent out to wrestle each other, often after a 30 minute wait with nothing to do but stare and flex at each other.

Whoever came up with chaos theory had youth wrestling tournaments in mind.  Where else can a parent sit for over seven hours to watch their child in action for a total of 30 minutes, presuming each six minute match "goes the distance," which at the youth level is as likely as Tim Tebow embracing Buddha.  Unlike baseball or choir (my oldest daughter's passion), where you are vested in a "team" because your kid is part of a group, it's hard to get excited watching the 40 or so matches before my guy is up.  Then again I have never seen someone throw a hip toss on a mezzo soprano.

At the youth level matches are quick and random.  Last year, Thomas lost a close match, after which I went for my constitutional. As I emerged, his coach ran up to me and said, "Man, what a great turnaround." Turns out he pinned another kid while I was, ahem, away.

On this day, Thomas lost his first match, then battled back against three opponents to take fourth place, winning a nice medal (any parent knows it's all about the hardware). 

We headed back around 4:30, stopping for his obligatory McFlurry before we talk about the day.  In his fourth match, for third place, he faced a kid known for headlocks, youth wrestling's version of a "one trick pony."  Thomas countered him the first two times, stepping in and managing a takedown, but missed the third time and got pinned.  I tell him how proud I am, for persevering, at which point he flashes a sheepish grin and says, "Thanks Dad, but I was just tired and ready to go."

Marv Levy, who led the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls, used to walk the field during warm-ups and ask his players, "Is there anywhere you would rather be than right here, right now." 

My answer, of course, is no.