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December 18, 2006

Worst of the Year

Happy Hanukkah.

I’m Jewish. Deal.

Now for all of you who insist on requiring that everyone say “Merry Christmas” even if they are atheists, how does it feel?

A little intolerance goes a long way, doesn’t it?

Not to sound too depressing but this has not exactly been a banner year for the United States. This particular session of Congress will go down as clearly one of the worst in the last 50 years. We’re still in Iraq with no end in sight. Thanks to the dim lights in Washington and its cowboy foreign policy, which can best be described as “shoot first and don’t bother with any questions,” Europeans now see the United States on par with terrorists in destabilizing the world. How much better can it get?

 So, against that backdrop it seemed almost necessary that we name someone as truly the “Worst Person of the Year.” Now you might think, “That list could be endless! I could go on for days listing the truly criminally insane or those bereft of any values or morals that either run our government or who somehow become celebrities.”

Here is my short list:

George Bush. Nominated for giving the United States the 51st state: denial. Even though America is in the midst of an obvious civil war where our troops are nothing more than human targets for everyone, this president still thinks we can “achieve our goals.” Someone might remind him we already have. We went in to find weapons of mass destruction. There aren’t any. Time to go home.

This Year’s Congress: Faced with soaring budget deficits and an equally mushrooming imbalance of trade with every country but some third-rate banana republic, a war with no end, porous borders and a health care crisis this bunch decided to punt. In what can best be described as “pandering,” the Republican-run Congress stopped all of the nothing it was doing to pass legislation banning flag burning and gay marriage. Did I miss something? Is there a sudden rash of flag burnings that I have missed? As for gay marriage, who cares? There are probably more men and women cheating on their respective others than there are gay men and women who want to get married, but I haven’t seen any congressional attempts to ban philandering. Thanks for all of your hard work.

Brittany Spears: She probably doesn’t belong on this list but could someone please tell this limited-talent spoiled brat to just shut up and go away? And who spends $3,000 on underwear? And why does anyone think I care?

Fox (Faux) News: Along with its marketing slogan of “fair and balanced,” Fox now has the audacity to call itself “America’s newsroom.” Please. This right-wing lightweight news operation run by former Republican operative Roger Ailes may be wildly successful but so too was the propaganda from Goebbels. Faux News is never balanced unless you call that sharp tilt to the right balanced. As for being America’s newsroom, I suspect there are more people working in the New Jersey bureau of a New York network affiliate than in all of Faux News. And with the exception of one or two reasonably talented individuals (one of them not being Chris Wallace), it would appear there are two criteria for getting hired: you need to be blonde and have big … err… OK … they named a restaurant after them.

The Connecticut DPUC: This group of the significantly incompetent has never seen a rate hike it did not approve in at least some form or fashion. That rates will go up between 30 and 50 percent in less than two years is a standing monument to the DPUC’s ineptness. Just up the road in Vermont and New Hampshire, rates have either leveled off or gone down. Here is an original thought fellas: Tell the utility companies to go back and try harder.

Connecticut Democrats: As a group they are nominated for their sheer lack of fiscal restraint. This group of financial wizards not only spends every dime it can wrestle from taxpayers, it then goes out of its way to find new ways of spending money it doesn’t have. Someday someone will ask, “Do we really need all these programs? And is there a way of actually spending money a little better?” Probably never happen.

Connecticut Republicans: For nominating Alan what’s-his-name to run for the Senate. The minority party is supposed to be the “loyal opposition,” but for the most part this party can’t seem to get out of its own way.

The Family Institute of Connecticut: This myopic bunch rails against gay marriage claiming it is the beginning of the end of the family and of the moral foundations of America. You want to worry about something, worry about crystal meth or guns in the streets or AIDS and unprotected sex. What could ever be wrong with two people who love each other wanting to be together?

Gov. M. Jodi Rell: Nominated with mixed emotions. Clearly she has the potential to be an excellent governor but so far has absolutely failed to be decisive about anything. The Rowland Administration was the most corrupt in recent memory. Clean house. Get rid of all the Rowland appointees “just because.” Chart a course and direction -- and make it happen.

Radio comedian Sean Hannity: This intellectual pipsqueak used to be a house painter and obviously the paint fumes went to his head. His three-hour rightwing moralistic scolding is heard on hundreds of stations around the United States in large part because his syndicator owns hundreds of stations making it “free” to them. Hannity still believes we can win in Iraq and that Nancy Pelosi is evil and gay marriage is bad. I think he would bring back public hangings if he could.

So there you have it, my short list of nominations. You are welcome to add your own or vote on any of these. Send your comments to my e-mail address below. I’ll tabulate the votes and print some of your responses in my next column.

Happy holidays.

Steve Kalb is a Hamden resident, a former TV news director and radio talk-show host, and is currently a reporter for WELI radio and an adjunct professor of journalism at UConn-Storrs. Every other week, he will cleanse his brain of extraneous thoughts by jotting them down here. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

December 4, 2006

A Wallet Lightener

It was a Thanksgiving present no one was looking for and the announcement of which was clearly timed to ensure there wouldn’t be riots in the streets. Connecticut’s baby electric company, United Illuminating, applied for a 30 percent rate hike on residential bills and up to a 50 percent hike for businesses.

The reason? Bids from electric suppliers had increased dramatically. The problem? The bids go directly to the Department of Public Utility Control, which then votes on what it says is the best bid. The public doesn’t get to see the bids, nor the governor, nor the attorney general. No one save for the commissioners and functionaries who serve in the DPUC. It is a process that has the transparency of mud.

The unfortunate part is deregulation was supposed to fix this. Freed from the mundane responsibility of actually producing power (isn’t that what electric utilities are supposed to do?) in 1998, the clearly myopic Legislature saw a day when companies would vie for Connecticut business. Utility producers would line up for the opportunity to provide electricity to residents and businesses in the Nutmeg State, and competition would lower prices. I also think they were hoping in their collective heart of hearts for the return of 37-cent-per-gallon gasoline and bread under a $1.

But if you look at the process and its implementation you can’t help but wonder what legislators were thinking. Not only is the process closed to all but the DPUC, but there seems to be no oversight by anyone! Having sat through the press conference and announcement about the 22 percent CL&P rate hike last year, I can tell you the room is filled with a paternalistic attitude best described as, “We know better than you do, honey.”

In the enabling legislation that freed utilities from actually making anything (and for which they were paid millions, I might add), the utilities did the impossible. They made buying so-called clean “green power” produced from solar, wind and possibly the burning of cow chips more expensive than buying dirty power from natural gas and coal-fired hydroelectric and nuclear plants. In effect, there is actually a surcharge if you buy wind power.

Now, I get that the price of natural gas has gone up. I also understand that while still cheap, coal is still not free, but for the life of me can someone explain how the price of wind went up? When did the sun start charging? Yet thanks to the insane pricing plan currently in effect, the price of “regular” electricity is tied to the price of “green” power. I have nothing but the highest respect and regard for legislators most of the time, but these weasels should be ashamed of themselves.

The answer is actually pretty simple. Go study our Vermont friends. Theirs is the only state in the region that decided not to go down the deregulation highway. From the Vermont Department of Public Service Web site:

Vermont's electric utilities are regulated monopolies that operate under a "certificate of public good" granted by the Vermont Public Service Board. As regulated monopolies, their rates and policies are subject to review by the Vermont Department of Public Service and approval by the Public Service Board.

The result? While our rates in Connecticut have skyrocketed, rates in Vermont have either stayed the same or gone down.

I suspect some DPUC commissioners and clearly some utility company executives hate the thought that the public might find out how they set rates. The DPUC should be required to hold public hearings on rate increases and justify them. Not at 9 in the morning on a Tuesday when only the unemployed and retired can attend, but on successive evenings all around Connecticut. You want to work for the DPUC? You want to have the title of commissioner? Then you have an obligation to report to and be accountable to the public. Get out of the tower and tell people why their rates are going through the roof and what you’re going to do to fix it. And please don’t tell me it is the best you can do. If that is the case then we need to find people who can do better.

Steve Kalb is a Hamden resident, a former TV news director and radio talk-show host, and is currently a reporter for WELI radio and an adjunct professor of journalism at UConn-Storrs. Every other week, he will cleanse his brain of extraneous thoughts by jotting them down here. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

November 12, 2006

Could Corporates Be Greedier?

Having watched Republicans get thrown, no I am sorry, hurled from office on Tuesday I could spend this column handicapping why they lost. But since I have something else in mind, I’ll say it in a sentence and then we can move on. Americans don’t like being lied to over and over and over again and this administration, whether it be on Iraq, the economy or the environment, never saw a lie it didn’t like. There you go.

I had an economics professor who once told me that as economies become more sophisticated they evolve from making stuff to becoming a “service” economy. That means you go from making steel to making software. Less brawn, more brains. Sounds advanced doesn’t it?  Companies always seek the cheapest source of labor and the thinking goes that steel from Korea, Japan or wherever will be paid for by Americans earning more from the sale and service of intellectual property. After all, only a moron would want to have customers in the United States serviced by someone in some second- or Third World enclave whose English barely rivals that of a 10-year-old.

Obviously, we have lots of American companies run by morons.

Consider the following. Last Saturday, while on the Internet, I smelled something coming from the modem on my computer. Maybe it was the puff of smoke followed by the flame that jumped from the modem that convinced me there was something wrong. I put the fire out and called the DSL provider to get a new one. Seemed like a good idea since this one had been on fire! Even the most rudimentary electronic devices don’t work terribly well after they have been on fire. My father taught me that. And if he hadn’t, I probably would have figured it out anyway.

So I called the 1-800 number for the DSL provider and spent the first five minutes pushing “1” for “yes” and “2” for “no” until I was almost ready to launch the phone out the window along with the pitifully melted modem. But I was confident that patience would yield a good result.

I was wrong.

I don’t remember his name. It doesn’t matter. Let’s call him “Fred.” I am not sure what country I had been forwarded to but clearly it was not the United States. He had a thick foreign accent and the lag between question and answer could be measured in seconds.

So I tell “Fred” my modem had caught fire and I needed a new one. He said that was nice and he was there to troubleshoot the problem. Was my modem plugged in? he asked. No, I said, because it had caught fire. He told me to plug it in and tell him how many lights came on. I did. No lights came on because the modem had (take a guess here) caught fire! We spent the next 60 minutes trouble shooting the modem, the wires, the power supply, the network interface and clearly the limits of my patience.

Every once in a while I would remind him that all of this was probably futile because the modem had (let’s try this as a group now) caught fire! Fred politely acknowledged each and every time I had said something and then blithely went on as if I had been speaking in tongues. Clearly he had never been taught the words, “on fire!”  At some point I hung up.

I tell you this not to poke fun at people trying to make a living in a foreign country but to point out how much of American business is run by knuckleheads. How criminally insane do you have to be to think that a customer service representative in a Third World nation (where in many parts there are no sewers or running water) can somehow be trained to provide highly technical customer service support to people tens of thousands of miles away?

Meanwhile, companies line up to battle against any increase in the minimum wage in the United States arguing that it would mean the end to small business.  What moron thinks that anyone can live on $11,000 a year? The next weasel politician that says we shouldn’t raise the minimum wage should be forced to live off the minimum wage for a month. That is less than $1,000 a month. Most of the folks in “the district” blow that much in three days.

In a country that puts price above everything how can we expect anything else?  Company presidents besieged by shareholders who aren’t happy with reasonable returns make unreasonable decisions. We outsource the one thing our “maturing” economy can do well. Pretty soon the only thing we’ll be able to do is constantly refinance our homes to “unlock” the equity so that we can buy more “stuff” made anywhere but here and serviced “over there.” And this country will neither make nor own anything anymore.

Steve Kalb is a Hamden resident, a former TV news director and radio talk-show host, and is currently a reporter for WELI radio and an adjunct professor of journalism at UConn-Storrs. Every other week, he will cleanse his brain of extraneous thoughts by jotting them down here. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)


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