Friday, July 12, 2002

HIV Muppet. The Muppets rule my home because my daughter is not quite two. Its hard to say whether she likes Elmo or Zoe better, but hardly five minutes goes by without a reference to one of them. So the news that South Africa's version of Sesame Street, "Taklani Sesame", is adding an HIV positive muppet to the cast caught my attention. I'll tell you straight out, if they did this in the US, I wouldn't like it. There are some ugly sides of life I'd rather not have to explain to a 2 year old. But in South Africa, somewhere between 10-30% of the country has AIDS, depending on which figures you believe. Since about 1/3 of HIV positive women pass the virus to their children through the placenta, and others do so through breast milk, there are a lot of little children in South Africa with this disease. Despite, or because of, the widespread infection, people with HIV/AIDS are shunned in S.Africa like AIDS patients were in the US in the 80s. So Sesame Street is tackling this issue by adding a character who is HIV positive. According to the Taklani Sesame staff, "Children won't be told how the character became HIV positive. Nor will the common ways that the virus is transmitted — through sexual contact or drug abuse — be discussed." Pretty sensible, wouldn't you think: a society being destroyed by AIDS is trying to educate its children to accept other infected kids, not to shun them. But this is something to "chortle" at by the likes of Tim Blair. Making fun of dying children is pretty funny, isn't it.

Thursday, July 11, 2002

A lot of people took note that Larry Klayman sued Cheney and Halliburton today. Unfortunately, its not very likely that Big Dick will have to sit for a deposition on this one. This is actually one of several securities fraud suit filed against Halliburton regarding its accounting while Cheney was in charge. The first one came last month, the huge stockholder plaintiffs firm, Milberg Weiss, who is also lead counsel in the Enron case, filed suit against the company, but they chickened out and didn't name Cheney as a defendant. Two other plaintiffs class action firms filed suit today. They also lacked the guts to sue Cheney. Now the fight is on to see who gets the case. Klayman is a long shot because the other firms are experts at winning these fights. In any event, nobody will get to take Cheney's deposition unless they first meet the very high threshold for pleading securities fraud that was put in place over Clinton's veto in 1995. From what I've read so far, they have no chance of doing that unless some new bombshell is dropped as a result of the SEC investigation, or some former Halliburton employee really hates Cheney and spills the goods on him

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

A TIE?!! What happened to baseball's all star game, and when did it happen? Other sports -- football, basketball, hockey -- have never had a real all star game. In baseball, though, it was a game that the players went all out to win. It used to be the biggest game of the year except for the world series. Ted Williams said many times that the greatest highlight of his career was his game winning, ninth inning home run in the 1941 all star game. All the tributes to Williams this week focused on how he choose to play the final game of the 1941 season when he was hitting exactly .400, but he thought that his home run in the all star game that year was as big of a, or a bigger, thrill. Now players won't even bother finishing the game because a pitcher might have to "risk" pitching three innings. Up until the 90s, any pitcher would have seen a chance for a W in the all star game as a career highlight. Now its just a nuisance. Compare this with the 1970 all star game, when, in the 12th inning (one more than last night), Pete Rose broke a tie by barrelling into Ray Fosse, truly risking 2 careers. Fosse ended up with a broken shoulder, and Rose was a hero. The winning pitcher, Claude Osteen, "risked it all" by throwing 3 innings. I was 2 at the time, so I didn't watch the game, but I've seen the replay of Rose taking out Fosse about a jillion times or so. As an AL fan, I really hate watching that play. I remember the 83 all star game very well. The Giants Atlee Hammacker got rocked and Fred Lynn hit a grand slam. That was the first AL win that I had ever seen (they had lost 11 straight) and it was as exciting as any baseball game I've ever watched. When did this become an "expedition" game. I can't pinpoint the exact date, but as the salaries went up, the desire to win the all star game went down. I use to think the loud complaint that "today's players" are ruining the game was a sloppy, kneejerk attack, but year by year it starts to resonate with me.
Coulter v. Moore I took a look at the NYTimes bestseller list. That lucid thinker, Ann Coulter, has the #1 bestseller for non-fiction books. I don't know what that really says, because you only need several thousand lunatics to make a non-fiction bestseller, but it is not really surprising given the amazing publicity she has gotten for this book. She's been on crossfire, the Today Show and a host of other cable talk shows. This is interesting to me only because if you look at the number 3 bestseller, its Michael Moore's screed, Stupid White Men. I haven't read it, and I probably won't, but a lot of people have. It was a number 1 bestseller for several weeks and its still on the list, just below Ann and John McEnroe's tell all, which has been plugged by every media outlet around, including Barbara Walters on 20/20 interviewing his ex-wife. Moore's book, by contrast, has sold only by word of mouth. He's not been invited to any talk shows other than Politically Incorrect. While Moore gets annoying the way he whines about this on his website, he's got a point. It is pretty strange, isn't it, that a number 1 selling political book gets no play on cable tv. Media bias, anyone? Why doesn't a bestselling author merit a Crossfire show, or at least a tv interview where some over-testosteroned conservative is brought in as a counter guest to try to tear him apart. How about Ann vs. Michael. I think the answer is that the media does not want to hear from the Nader left. I shouldn't care, I've got no love for the Nader left, but their whining about access is started to score points. If Ann Coulter is worthy of tv time, how can Moore not be? Sure, you say, Ann looks better, but let's be clear, she's not that hot. She'd never make the cast of any WB show, not even as a mother (isn't that mother from the Gilmour Girls a cutie) For TV, she's pretty close to "plain." Take away her dye job, and she can play the overlooked girl in a TV movie. Moore's about as ugly as it gets, but h'e quite funny. Roger & Me was a great film, and his TVNation show cracked me up frequently. It even made my wife laugh, and I'd describe her as apolitical. So what's going on here?

Monday, July 08, 2002

Bush's corporate governance speech. Of course, he won't say anything worthwhile, and he certaintly won't do anything worthwhile. It's just not consistent with his ideology to even believe that a problem exists. Based on what I've read, there are very few journalists who understand this issue either. The New Republic has had a few insightful articles though. Gregg Easterbrook almost nails it with this essay linking the scandals to CEO pay, but he's only half right. Easterbrook notes that CEO's have gotten rich off of pay-for-performance, but the performance has been an illusion. Its really too strong of a statement, because even in this environment, most companies numbers are legit (I hope!). But ridiculous CEO pay and the accounting scandals are linked because they flow from the same source. It's a failure of the corporation as an institution. Corporations are supposed to be run by the board of directors, but those boards have not shown a willingness to actually get involved when it comes to accounting problems or CEO pay. Unfortunately, in light of the new scandals, they may wake up to the accounting issues, but still remain spineless regarding CEO pay because there is no public pressure there. The "pay-for-performance" charade of CEO compensation has not been exposed by WorldCom and Enron, but by the fact that CEO pay continues to skyrocket despite two lousy years of stock performance. Corporate boards just can't say no, and CEOs set their own compensation. How much are you worth? $10 million, $20 million, $150 million? If you are setting your own compensation, why not aim high? Another overlooked issue is board compensation. In an I-stratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine fashion, CEO pay and board compensation have gone up in tandem. Fifteen years ago, directors received token fees for serving on a board. They used to get about $10,000 plus a a fee of between $1000 and $5000 for each meeting attended. It is a small time commitment -- attending five to ten meetings per year, so that was a fair deal for a part, part, part time job that looks good on the resume. But just as CEO's were asking boards to triple CEO compensation, the CEOs were recommending similar dramatic increases in directors fees. It is now not unusual for directors to receive $350,000 annually for a "job" that requires them to attend a few meetings per year. These fees are not surprising. With the CEO taking tens of millions from the stockholders, the directors must consider a few hundred thousand dollars to be a pittance. So how do you fix this? It's really hard to do it without very heavy handed legislation. I think the best way to get results is shame. Now that a member of an audit committee who fails to do his job can expect to be pillored in the press instead of elected president (a la GWB), those directors have become keen about doing their jobs. A similar jolt has to be sent to directors who serve on compensation committees.