March 27, 2004

Here We Are Again and Nowhere To Run

Budget Crisis and the Scourge of the Bureaucracy
By Fred H. Arm
Once again, the cries of the City, State, and Federal agencies lamenting their economic plight rumble through the media polluting our eyes and ears. Woe is me - we have to lay off people, close firehouses, shut down libraries, athletic programs for schools an on and on into the labyrinth of economic despair. What do you expect? This lament has been occurring on and off since bureaucracies were brought into being.

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When I was in High School, our teachers warned that the public sector would continue to grow at an alarming rate until it either self-destructed or the work force would exceed the private sector. That prophecy is coming true. A generation ago, in 1978 when the infamous “Proposition 13” decimated the cash cow of real estate taxes, I recall the headlines moaning much as they do today about extreme measures for cutting budgets, bankruptcies of cities, school, library, firehouse, etc. closures, mass layoffs - -the whole catastrophe.
Well guess what? The world did not come to an end. We still kept our firehouses, libraries, and the like; however, that voracious monster, our bureaucracies, quickly found other troughs to feed from. They raised sales taxes, gasoline taxes, income taxes, telephone taxes, improvement district taxes, charged more money for services like court filings, permits, licenses, utility taxes, and on and on until they were once again fat and sassy, growing ever larger and more inefficient. Coupled with the rising economy and the mass influx of humanity into the state, real estate prices went through the roof, thereby providing much additional income that they never even dreamed was possible.
With all their newfound treasures, the bureaucracy monster embarked upon an unprecedented spending spree. Richmond is just one small example. Public employees are no longer considered a supposed “public servant” with an altruistic bent for serving the community, instead they demanded and received extraordinary benefit packages and wages that have passed up the private sector by far.

Recent financial data from the City of Richmond reveals that the average police officer’s salaries to be $79,412.00; police sergeants, $100,572.00; lieutenants $116,848.00; captains $132,202.00; fire department firefighters average $78,830.00.00; captains $98,559.00; and battalion chiefs $112,794.00. In addition to these substantial salaries, the benefits amount to at least 50% extra. These are extraordinary salaries and benefits. I would guess that the majority of businesses in Pt Richmond do not earn nearly that amount of money and have had to invest thousands of dollars together with their blood, sweat, and tears.

Unfortunately, the monster will not be quelled. Budget cuts will temporarily assuage the crisis, however, once the economy recovers adequately, the hungry government mouths will once again cry to be fed. Perhaps one day the entire system will implode upon itself just as my old high school teacher predicted. Whether this happens sooner or later is anybody’s guess.

Posted by fredarm at 05:10 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2004

Karen and Sandy Tie The Knot

Prominent Pt Richmond Couple Wed In San Francisco
By Fred H. Arm
Fellow Point Richmondites and the rest of the world, take notice: the infamous “Count Blogula”, Karen Schneider, writer of “My Point” and other media communiqués, wed her partner, associate Minister Sandy Hulse, in a moving double ring ceremony on March 5th at the San Francisco City Hall. Inspired by the recent fervor of thousands of other couples and the blessings of the courageous Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newson, the happy couple trekked to the City to be married on the Rotunda steps of the City Hall. At the same time, dozens of other couples were also wed throughout the Rotunda as video cameras and digital cameras recorded the blessed events.

One thing that distinguishes the gay marriages performed at City Hall when I compare them to conventional marriages I have seen is the profound joy and ecstasy on the faces of the gay and lesbian couples. It was profoundly moving. I want to thank Sandy and Karen for giving me the opportunity to experience so much happiness in one room. It made me tearful to experience such joy rather the stressful anxiety normally present at straight, conventional ceremonies. It was also an honor to be there.

I cannot fathom why so many elements of our society would want to deprive gays and lesbians the right to pursue such pleasure and happiness. Perhaps it is because some straights are so miserable that they want to make others suffer by depriving them of the prospect the rest of the nation can legally take pleasure in. Whatever it is, they are certainly missing out. Oh well, once upon a time women could not vote either.
So congratulations again Sandy and Karen and may you experience every day of your lives with as much happiness you enjoyed on your wedding day. We love you. Mazel tof!

Posted by fredarm at 10:58 AM | Comments (2)

March 15, 2004

Taking Lives – A Movie Review

Tracking of a Serial Killer With Beauty and Brains
By Fred H. Arm
A series of brutal slayings in Eastern Canada over a twenty period, leads Chief Inspector LeClair (Tchéky Karyo) of the Montreal Police to send for his friend, top FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) to help find this vicious murderer. She uses her unconventional and intuitive mind to get into the mind of the cunning killer, hopefully to uncover his identity. Working meticulously under the eyes of the scoffing French-speaking detectives, she finds that the killer has been not only brutally murdering his victims, he is also stealing their identities, using their credit cards, and even going as far as living in the dead victim’s homes.

Her uncanny abilities alienate her from the traditional detective underlings who jealously resent her interference. She has a deep passion for her work, unlike the other detectives sneering at the sidelines. However, when an unexpected romantic interest takes over, she begins to doubt her objectivity and her instincts. This is when her world begins to unravel.

The trail becomes twisted, full of suspense, red herrings, and numerous surprises. A suspect, (Keifer Sutherland) leads Scott into a hair-raising chase and dead end. A witness to one of the murders, James Costa (Ethan Hawke), is haunting as he describes the act of the cold-blooded killing. Scott’s cool and collected demeanor never betrays her true feelings as Costa weaves his tale of horror. The killer’s mother, Mrs. Asher (Gena Rowlands), is chilling as she later recounts to Scott the twisted childhood that formed the evil monster her son has become.

The beat of the movie, driven by director D.J. Caruso, never lets you rest. Even the leisurely scenes leave you on the edge of your seat with anticipation and dread of the next move. Yet, at the same time, the energy of the film leaves you impatient for the next scene to emerge. The plot weaves its way through the Canadian capital with unexpected scenarios that are both unnerving of your equilibrium and fascinating at the same time. The surprise ending is totally unexpected and consists of several surprises within each revelation. This is a brilliantly conceived and well-executed piece of cinematic production, and enhanced by the superb acting by the cast. Well-done Mr. Caruso.

Opens Friday, March 19th at Bay Area theaters.

Posted by fredarm at 09:43 PM | Comments (1)

March 11, 2004

SPARTAN – Movie Review

An Anally Retentive Rescue of the President’s Daughter
By Fred H. Arm
Career special military officer Robert Scott (VAL LILMER) is summoned along with his highly secretive special operations force, to find Laura Newton (KRISTEN BELL), the President’s missing collage-age daughter in Boston. Scott is paired with his novice protégé, Curtis (DEREK LUKE) of Antwone Fisher fame. Leading the task force are some highly placed politicos from the President’s cabinet like Burch (ED ONEILL) and Stoddard (WILLIAM H. MACY), who relentlessly drive the crew to find the President’s daughter before the press must be notified.

Curtis and Scott are rapidly closing the gap to Laura’s whereabouts, when a news broadcast announces that Laura and one of her professors have been found dead at sea from an alleged boating mishap. Scott returns quietly to his ranch somewhere out west. Curtis, dissatisfied with the account of Laura’s demise, finds Scott at his ranch and induces him to come with him to find Laura.

All this drama sounds like it could be quite a story, however, in spite of director DAVID MAMET’s brilliant expertise in constructing an edge-of-the-seat woman hunt, the implausible happenings leaves you confused and righteously skeptical. This flick is as improbable as a 007 James Bond adventure without the fun of sexual interludes, gadgets, special effects, or humor.

The wooden character of Scott has no regard for human life or individual rights and, like Bond, seems to have a license to kill. And kill he does with impunity as the CIA, FBI, Secret Service and who knows whatever other agency casually are along for the ride. It seems that anything is acceptable to justify the end. Without the humor of a James Bond, this movie takes itself much too seriously. It is one of the rare times when sympathies gravitate more to the villains than the anticipated squeaky-clean government law enforcers.

Macy’s role as Stoddard does not quite live up to his usual standard of performance. His exceptional talents are sadly wasted in a mediocre role of a corrupt political operative. Nevertheless, I must say that the film entertains in a curious way, notwithstanding its unbelievability. For the first time in a movie, a gunshot sounds like a real gun. That in of itself is quite unsettling. The action is brisk and the suspense is highly involving. Yet much of the images of the unfeeling Scott would have best been left on the cutting room floor and an extended exposition of Curtis’ talents would have made this yarn much more palatable.

Posted by fredarm at 10:14 PM | Comments (1)

March 05, 2004

Starsksy & Hutch - Movie Review

A Trip Down Memory Lane With Laughs
By Fred H. Arm
How refreshing! Good old-fashioned entertainment - just what the doctor ordered. The crime fighting duo of the 70’s TV hit, Starsky & Hutch, comes to the wide screen with more laughs and fun than the small tube provided when most of you were either not born yet or still in swaddling clothes. Played by Ben Stiller as Starsky and Owen Wilson as Hutch, they provide a more exaggerated and fun contrast in personalities than the original video cast.

The implausible plot does not mean much, since it is just a vehicle to provide situations where absurd, improbable, and oftentimes hilarious situations can flourish to evoke laughter and a tongue-in-cheek parody of traditional buddy-cop movies. Platinum-selling rapper, Snoop Dogg, is well cast as Hutch’s informant, insider, and friend, Huggy Bear.

The villain in this piece, Vince Vaughn, is a little miscast, since he comes across more as a shoe clerk than as a king-pin drug dealer. Nevertheless, that incongruity itself is laughable and does not distract from the hilarious antics of pair. The director, Todd Phillips, provided just the right amount of bouncy pulchritude and sexuality to decorate the settings as a prelude to the next set of giggles.

The film is fun, fast, and nostalgic; however, it is not nearly as hilarious as Ben Stiller’s 1998 film, “There’s Something About Mary”. A good night’s entertainment, without the possibility of Oscar nominations. So what!

Opens everywhere today.

Posted by fredarm at 09:46 AM | Comments (0)

March 04, 2004

Richmond’s Long Awaited Budget Hearing

City Employees Union Clamor For Blood
By Fred H. Arm
That long awaited budget for the City of Richmond was finally aired by the Mayor of Richmond, Irma Anderson, along with various opinions and suggestions by attorney John Knox and consultant Darolyn Davis. It seems the City will have an astonishing deficit of some $35 million dollars unless there are some drastic cuts and creative actions taken by the council.

At the packed council meeting, three fourths of the attendees were employee union members wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of SEIU (Service Employees International Union). Many speakers from the union viciously attacked the Mayor and Council as the crowd cheered on and applauded in approval. They complained that they have suffered enough with the previous layoffs and now they want the top brass to take pay cuts first.

Notwithstanding the union members’ hostility, it appeared that the employees reluctantly were open to accept cuts in salary and benefits rather than incur massive layoffs that would cripple the City as early as this summer. Most of the reprieve would have to come from dipping into redevelopment funds, however, even with the cross-fertilization from various bond funds, the City would still have a $7 million deficit unless the employees take some drastic cuts. Next year, without the availability of the bailout funds they plan to seize this year, the deficit could be around $20 million dollars. What a fine mess they have gotten themselves into.
I suggested privatization of services, which logically did not go over too well with the Union. Oh well, back to the drawing board. I cannot imagine Richmond surviving this crisis intact with the mind set the administration has demonstrated. If the City of Richmond were publicly traded as stock, I would definitely short it.

Posted by fredarm at 09:56 PM | Comments (1)

Richmond – City In Crisis

Maybe Privatization Is The Answer?
By Fred H. Arm & Robert Poole, Jr., Reason Foundation
Now that the word is out about Richmond’s $35 million dollar “Black Hole”, perhaps it is time to do something more effective than simply bellyaching about how awful it is. Has anyone ever entertained the radical remedy of Privatization? Around the world, government services and enterprises are being shifted into the private sector via a phenomenon known as privatization. In Britain, nationalized industries such as British Airways and Jaguar have been returned to investor-ownership via stock offerings. Similarly, in Chile, hundreds of firms nationalized by the Allende government have been returned to private ownership. Not only is there a dramatic decrease in costs, there is a windfall, one-time cash infusion without having to raise any extra taxes.

However, privatization goes further than simply returning once-private firms to the business sector. Margaret Thatcher's government privatized over 1.5 million council houses - public housing units that were created by the public sector. It also privatized the major airports, the gas utility, and the telephone system - all of which had always been in the public sector. Similarly, the Japanese government is privatizing Nippon Telephone and Japan National Railways, which have been long-term fixtures of the public sector. Essentially, privatization is actually dismantling big government, not merely correcting the excesses of socialist regimes.

Since the City has naively “given away the store” in pension benefits, health care, salaries, and political patronage, perhaps privatization is the only reasonable way out of this mess. Frankly, I do not need all those bureaucrats running around essentially being non-productive while they draw such extraordinary benefits.

Full privatization, then, involves the transfer of both the financing and production to the private sector. At the municipal level, this can mean either the withdrawal of government from the field, letting private firms take over (as in, say, police, fire, ambulance service, or garbage collection) or the sale of the government operation to private owners (for example, road maintenance, sewage-treatment plant, engineering, and/or planning). Full privatization generally means the divestiture of an enterprise or asset to private owners.

The evidence shows overwhelmingly that the theory, rather than the bureaucrat’s and unions' claim, is correct. Every controlled study comparing public versus private service delivery shows lower costs (for a given level of performance) for private enterprise. This includes nationwide studies of garbage collection in the United States (1976) and Canada (1985); of fire protection (1976, Arizona); public-works services such as street sweeping, pavement patching, and traffic signal repair (1984, Southern California); transit services (1986, US); school bus transportation (1984, Indiana); airlines (1977, Australia); naval ship repair (1978, US), and many others. In these statistically valid studies, the cost of government services is typically 30-40% to as much as 100% higher than private services.

What has made privatization far more attractive, however, even to socialists such as Spain's Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and David Lange's Labor government in New Zealand, was the realization that large one-time cash infusions would be possible from the sale of these industries. To be sure, there is little market for shares in a large loss-maker such as British Coal or Japan National Railways. However, if a new management team can be brought in and given a free hand to slash costs and rationalize operations prior to privatization (as in the case of British Airways, Jaguar, and Rolls-Royce), the market value of the company can be quite significant. As of the end of 1988, the British government had realized over $40 billion in one-time revenues from privatization of council houses and state industries. The New Zealand government realized over $14 billion from its privatizations, and the Japanese government over $100 billion just from Nippon Telephone and Japan Air Lines. These revenues help to reduce budget deficits without tax increases.

So wake up citizens of Richmond. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are also many capable, civic-minded individuals that would gladly volunteer their time to make this all happen. Let’s give it a go!

Posted by fredarm at 03:16 PM | Comments (0)