Sunday, July 31

Obama Stimulus gone wrong: SCDOT can't pay its bills on time

The national and regional media are focusing on the federal government’s debt ceiling crisis, making points about who will get paid and who will not get paid if a deal is not reached before the August 2nd deadline.  That is a real story.

But, government is apparently already having trouble paying its bills.  Sources tell VUI that the South Carolina Department of Transportation is 60 to 90 days behind in paying contractors for paving projects.  Such sluggishness in the paying the bills comes in the heart of  “paving season,” that is the time of year in which paving can relatively easily be done.  As fall and winter approaches, such paving ends.

Now, how are sluggish payments affecting South Carolina roads?  Put bluntly, contractors, and their sub contractors pay for equipment, supplies and labor up front.  The longer the state takes to pay them, the more stretched everyone in the chain of money becomes.  As the days waiting for payment drag on, sub contractors are the first to fold, then contractors simply have to shut down their work.  When that work shuts down, projects on roads such as Interstate 385 and 26 will simply end.  Secondary road work soon follows.

How is this happening?  Well, it appears that the State of South Carolina ordered considerable road work counting on money from the federal government via President Obama’s shovel ready part of his stimulus package.  The state contracted with companies to do work that it thought it would get from the federal government in part to pay for.  The problem is, the federal payments to the state have not happened.

That has left the South Carolina Department of Transportation and the contractors who do business with it in a bind.  One source told VUI that the SCDOT has even went to the South Carolina Budget and Control Board and asked for a temporary loan of $50 million to pay contractors.  Another source made it clear, that without payment, his business would have to stop working on state projects altogether.  Various politicians know about this situation and are trying to help the unpaid contractors, but without the money, their efforts seem fruitless.

It is one big mess.  One that is before any fallout from the debt ceiling crisis.  South Carolina is having a hard time paying its bills to private contractors.  Blaming the federal government will be easy to do.  Whomever is to blame, there is a good chance private contractors can not go on paving in the paving season this year.  One thing is for sure, those private contractors are not to blame.  They can not be expected to work for free.

Sunday, July 24

Who will the next Lt. Governor of South Carolina be?

The talk around Columbia is now that at some point in the relatively near future, Lt. Governor Ken Ard will resign his post  State Senator Glenn McConnell, as President Pro Tempore of the State Senate is next in line.  McConnell does not want the job for all sorts of reasons. There are rumors floating around Columbia about a plan to deal with Ard’s resignation.  McConnell supposedly has a letter of resignation from his position as President Pro Tempore of the State Senate ready to deliver if Ard quits his post.   McConnell will resign his post, allow the election of another state senator, and then take back his old job after the new President Pro Tempore is elevated by the state constitution to the office of Lt. Governor

There are so many rumors and debate going on about who will be that Lt. Governor.  Ard of course, might not leave office, but if the State Grand Jury indicts him, he will have little choice. The political atmosphere has changed since then Governor Mark Sanford faced such charges.  An indicted Lt. Governor Ard will have no choice.  But, the State Senate is mulling over their choices.

Three names keep coming up in various conversations:  Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, John Courson of Columbia, and Larry Martin of Pickens.  All three have served the state of South Carolina long and well in the South Carolina State Senate.  Peeler, the Majority Leader of the State Senate, would join his brother Bob in being the only brothers to hold the office of Lt. Governor.  Courson, long known for his love history, would cap off a long career in the job.  Martin, who has served in state politics since 1979, is respected for his work ethic and his demeanor.  Any of the three would bring dignity to the office of Lt. Governor, and the office Lt Governor sorely needs that to survive.  (VUI will post later about why we should have an elected Lt. Governor)

Old fashioned politics will play a hand in deciding who gets the job if Ard resigns,  McConnell is not going to ever take the job.  Rule him out. Peeler holds on to a seat in Cherokee County that might go Democrat if he left it, and he does an outstanding job as Majority Leader.  Courson holds a seat in Richland County that frankly, some think only he can hold for the GOP.  That leaves Larry Martin.  He is respected, he can wear the office well, and his seat in the South Carolina Senate is safe for the GOP in a special election.

So, VUI predicts, if Ken Ard resigns, Larry Martin will end up Lt. Governor of South Carolina.  South Carolina will not lack with Martin.  Martin has served in state politics since 1979,  in both the State House and State Senate. Martin is a textile guy, and we like that.   Martin has been recognized for his work for the mentally ill and the blind.  Indeed, some might say that work is what best qualifies Martin to preside over the State Senate and be Nikki Haley’s Lt. Governor.

August in Paris, and why we’re not there...

Traffic around Tour Eiffel heading out of City

August in Paris

When we first moved to Paris in 2008, it was all a very new experience, and by no means did we feel “local”, we still felt very much like tourists.  In July, our gang of ex-pats, locals, and visitors from around the world would gather weekly to have a picnic "apéros" at Palais Royale.  It was a great way to meet people, “catch-up” on the latest, as well as enjoy the beauty of the Parisian parks.  This event became a local staple. As August neared, less and less people starting attending, hmmm.

Picnic apéros Palais Royale
In 2008, we lived in the Montmartre area of Paris (18eme).  After living there a few months, we developed our list of favorite restaurants, favorite boulangerie, patisserie etc. On August 1, we went to our favorite restaurant to discover much to our dismay that they would be closed for a month-and-a-half, closing August 1, re-opening September 15.  At first I thought how weird, why would anyone close for a month-and-a-half? In my American way of thinking that is a huge business loss opportunity, especially since it's peak tourist season.

As we proceeded into August, I noticed that more than half of the stores and even cafés were closed on Rue des Abbesses (18eme), one of the main shopping streets where we lived close to Montmartre.  I’m in complete shock, where am I going to get my bread, and an even bigger problem is where are we going to eat? I even noticed some pharmacies closed for the month; fortunately there was a list of pharmacies that would be open during the August exodus.  And, friends from our weekly picnics starting thinning out, many going on planned vacations to  the beach, to their country homes, or out of the country altogether.

What is this August exodus?

It’s an annual event like “Christmas” or “Easter” break for Americans. Parisians escape typically starting mid-July and returning first week in September, otherwise known as "La Rentrée". Why do they go and where are they going?  Think of it like this, when US kids are on summer break, they’re usually on break for a minimum of a month-and-a-half. So, starting typically in June, families organize vacations around their children and work schedule. Big difference is that Americans usually go on a vacation for a week or two and it's spread out during the summer, since many parents have to return to work and vacations are quite short compared to France or most of Europe.  Average vacation for US workers is about 2-weeks; whereas at minimum vacations in Europe and particularly in France can start at 6-weeks

August is known as the vacation month. Parisians usually go on vacation for the whole month of August, and sometimes longer preferring to leave sometime in July.   In some cases, businesses actually go on hiatus, or there are skeleton crews to staff “critical” operations.  I asked a close Parisian friend, why August, and he basically said, that as far as he can remember, when he was a child, his parents would pack them in their car every summer and head anywhere outside of Paris, especially towards the beaches to escape the heat and humidity.

Why August? It’s “just” because, that’s what Parisians have been doing since time-in-eternity.  One is expected to go on vacation, Paris weather is hot and humid and not very pleasant, most shops, stores, and restaurants are closed, and the only people in Paris are tourists.  In fact, I believe tourist outnumber Parisians in August.

On the other hand there are a few advantages to remaining in Paris in August:
  • Less crowded.  In fact, parts of the city seemed almost eerie. If I didn’t know any better, it would almost seem as if the apartments, shops etc., were all abandoned.  A big hint that people are on vacation, window shutters are all closed.
  • You can walk through the metro “maze” without playing “bumper shoulders” with people.  And, you can actually get a seat on the Metro, buses and trams.
  • Less noise, especially if you live in a congested area.
  • Although there is traffic heading out of the city during the peak exodus and for the return “La Rentrée” – once most Parisians are gone, the traffic lightens up significantly, especially around the peripherique (highway circling Paris).
  • Paris provides activities for kids who are not able to leave Paris for the summer. They create a gigantic beach scene, sand and all at “Hôtel de Ville.” And, there is also  "Paris Plages", with sand and beach like atmosphere, lounge chairs and parasols are provided along the Seine.
Paris Plages

Things to consider when remaining in Paris in August:

  • Your favorite boulangeries, patiserries, charcuteries etc., may be closed. However, you will always find an alternative, and sometimes the store owners will give you a list of e.g., boulangeries open in the area.  Interestingly, some merchants who do not leave Paris  will close anyway, because they too need a vacation/break.
  • Medical. Your primary physician will most likely go on hiatus as well. However, there is usually someone to take over in his/her absence, or s/he will give you a referral.
  • Most restaurants are closed; a fabulous website  "Paris by mouth" has an excellent list of restaurants, bistros, bars etc. open in August.  And, the restaurants that remain open are not crowded.
  • August can be extremely hot and humid.  Most Parisians don’t believe in air-conditioning.  Hence, air-conditioning as we known in the US is not common in Paris. So, don’t be surprised if some of the restaurants, bistros etc  are not air-conditioned, or even some of the stores.  In fact, some of the larger department stores such as “Bon Marché” will be air-conditioned, but since many still believe the old French wives tales of drafts making you sick, most are on low or at a much higher temperature, so bring a personal hand fan. This is also true for some of the metros and trams that are “air-conditioned”.  Note, on average vacation rentals are not air-conditioned but they typically provide fans.
Kids cooling down at Parc André Citröen fountains in August

“To go, or not to go is the question?”

As we become more “local” and especially when we moved to the 15eme arrondissement, which is more residential, we felt a need to escape Paris in August.  In fact, our second year, we left for 2-weeks and headed to Belgium, the following year we went to the south of France, last year we went back to the U.S. and as a I write this article, I am back in the U.S. and will not return to Paris until mid-September.

We recently had a conversation with our local boulangère.  She asked if we were going away in August, we responded, yes in fact we were, and we were going because she would be closed in August, and we would miss her bread terribly, so we are forced to leave. She laughed!

So, I guess in one respect we’ve become Parisians, so as Parisians prepare for their August exodus, I bid everyone a “Bonnes vacances” or “Bon été”…

Saturday, July 23

We all pay the price of the game of political chicken on the debt

The President of the United States and the United States Congress are playing a high stakes game of chicken.  For those who you do not know about the game of chicken, it is a game, mostly played in rural parts of the United Statres, where men have their egos tested.   Sometimes it is cars against cars in a lane, sometimes is tractors against tractors head on.  Sometimes it is man against man in some bar.  It is a game of egos, not worrying about the consequences.

Frankly, that is what the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House are doing.  They had dueling press conferences on Friday.  They refuse each others calls.  They both are surrounded by sycophants, the Tea Party on the right and liberals on the Left.  They all cry dig in.  That call goes about while those of us who know something about economics and business know that if the United States defaults on its debts, all economic Hell will break loose.

But, the politicos want it.  The game of chicken is in their political calculations for 2012.  The economic problems that their game of chicken could cause for the rest of matters not to them.

Frankly put, all involved earned the Southern title of pissants.  Here is how.  Speaker Boehner broke off talks with the President of the United States.  He would not even return the President’s phone calls.  The President vacillates.  The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution gives the President the right to raise the debt ceiling on his own.  Instead, he debates with his legal team, he debates with Congress, he meanders.

Why does the Speaker ignore the President of the United States?  Why does the President of the United States fail to act powerfully?  The answer is simple.  They are playing politics with the future of our economy.  The people around both men want to score political points, make moves.  The fact that the people of the United States will suffer from a failure to raise the debt ceiling eludes both sides.  They want to score political points.

The fault about what could happen lies everywhere.  But, the President has the power to act.  Forget the Congress.  Congress approved the budget we are under that has created the debt.  They even raised their own salaries.  The President should give up his professor like vacillation and raise the debt limit by executive order.  The President should have done that long ago.

But, the President did not.  He wanted to score political points.  The Speaker wanted the same.

So, here we are.  Two sides are dug in over political gamesmanship.  Fears of high interest rates, runaway inflation, and disrespect around the world mean little to those folks.  It will hammer the American people hard.  But, that is all good for the people who think they can win some type of political advantage.

Our leaders have let us down, in both parties.  Both sides are scared to death of some political interests.  They are beholden to them, not to the dreams of greatness of America.  And, as an American businessman, I am scared to death of what their game of chicken will cost us all.

Thursday, July 21

Goodbye and thank you space shuttle program

On April 12th, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was recovering from a gunshot wound he received in an assassination attempt.  The Soviet Union seemed the better of the United States in the Cold War.  Most Americans did not have access to cable television.  Mobile telephones were elite contraptions found in cars.  The personal computer as we know it was basically still a dream.  The internet was slow, clumsy and in the hands of the military and academics.  Microwave ovens and old VCRS were not even common in American homes.

Also on that date, NASA launched the first mission into space of his daring space shuttle program.  The space shuttle named Columbia, with two crew members, launched into space, beginning a thirty year run that would change the world and see the world change.

To understand the magnitude of the space shuttle, one must grasp how difficult it is to go into space.  It takes tremendous energy to break the Earth’s gravity and go into space.  It is dangerous stuff.  While the United States mastered that, it had not mastered doing that with a space vehicle that could land on Earth and be used again.  Until the successful mission of Columbia in April of 1981, even elite scientists thought such a thing was relegated to the science fiction writers.  Columbia proved them wrong and started a trend toward to technology.

NASA has always been on the cutting edge of technology.  The drive to achieve great things in space has given Americans, and all human beings, big dividends here on Earth.  Many of the technological wonders we now take for granted have their roots in the space program.

The space shuttle program was no different in what if offered.  NASA developed a fleet of shuttles that serviced space stations, put satellites in orbit, and did research that made differences on a seemingly routine basis.  For five years, traveling in space on the shuttle seemed routine.  People forgot how daring and challenging the feat was.

Then, in January of 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its ascent into space.  The sadness and shock of America and the world were real, but then President Reagan insisted that the shuttle program go on.  Reagan was on of those leaders that thought America dared to do great things.

And, do great things from then on the shuttle program did.  All sorts of achievements in space where made.  As those achievements were made, Americans found more and more high technology in their daily lives.  Lessons learned and well maintained satellites and space stations made technology part of every day life. It was not all the space shuttle, but NASA programs were right in the middle of making things like the internet, cable and satellite television and mobile phones readily available for the masses, among other things we now just take for granted.

We also took for granted as routine the space shuttle missions.  That ended on February 1st, 2003.  After seventeen years of routine space travel, and  almost 22 years after its first flight, Columbia was destroyed reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.  Seven lives were lost.  Political finger pointing began.

The shuttle program continued, but with a huge political backdrop.  Investigations were launched.  People questioned costs.  That led to President George W. Bush issuing a directive ordering NASA to shut down the shuttle fleet and seek other space vehicles.  President Obama went one step farther when he took office, and ironically for a liberal Democrat, moved to shift space travel and the maintenance of the satellites that are now so much a part of daily life to be handled by private entities.

Thus, last night, the space shuttle Endeavour touched down on Earth, bringing to a close the one of the most successful and daring things the United States and, frankly, humanity has ever done.  Despite the 14 lives lost during the thirty years of the space shuttle program, the space shuttle made space travel routine, it gave us incredible advances, and showed to the world just how much the United States gives to the advancement of the world. When one ponders the achievement of the space shuttle and how it and NASA changed the world in the last thirty years, perhaps it is fitting the shuttle program ended last night.

For, we now seem to live in a time in which politicians on the right and the left do not believe in Americans achieving great things.  They tell us to tax.  They tell us to cut.  They tell us we can no longer be who we are.  They tell is, as the President said, to “eat our peas.”  They tell us as the TEA Party folks say that we can no longer afford the price for being great in our achievements and how we treat one another.  Indeed, the death of something like the space shuttle program seems to sum up the sorry leadership we Americans get on the right and the left today.

For, we are the nation that went to the moon.  We are the nation that created NASA and the space shuttle program.  We are the nation that forever changed the world for the better.  Having leaders who tell us, on the right and the left, that we no longer are, what Ronald Reagan dubbed, “the shining city on the hill” that  “is the best hope for mankind,” defines how we as a people have declined.  We must dream.  We must have things like NASA and the space shuttle.  We put aside those on right and left filled with fear.  We are Americans.  We dare to great things and to treat one another well.

Thank you, NASA.  Thank you to every single astronaut and worker on the space shuttle program for a job well done.  You showed the greatness of the United States of America.  Congress and the President should learn from you.

Monday, July 18

Lt. Governor Ard will likely stay in office

We at VUI were glad to see that someone other than our staff reads campaign finance disclosures and finds interesting stuff.  We have been doing it for years.  But, when Democratic Party Chairman Dick Hartpootlian and the South Carolina Democratic Party did the homework, the State newspaper ran an article about more problems with Lt. Governor Ard and his campaign finances.

Attorney General Alan Wilson  announced he was forming a task force to investigate Ard and other cases of potential public corruption.

So, it does  look bad for Lt. Governor Ard.  However, unless some major development happens, do not look for Lt. Governor Ard to resign or be booted from office.

After all, former Governor Sanford had more serious allegations and he paid a civil fine and paid that fine with campaign money. Frankly, politicians and political groups in South Carolina play fast and loose with the laws and get away with it.  That is the culture of South Carolina politics that gives us all sorts of groups who hide their contributors.

The culture of South Carolina politics is not the biggest reason that Ard is relatively safe.  The biggest reason is State Senator Glenn McConnell.  McConnell, who as President Pro Tempore of the State Senate, has the most raw power in state government, made clear during the Sanford scandal that he did not want to be Lt. Governor.  Some believe that saved Sanford.

Little has changed since the Sanford scandal.  McConnell remains a quietly powerful figure.  People around the state do not know him by and large, but he rules the State Senate with his wit and his politically iron fist.  As President Pro Tempore, he would be elevated to Lt. Governor if Ard resigned, leaving his powerful post to be better known with a lot less power.

During the Sanford scandal, ideas were floated about McConnell resigning his post as President Pro Tempore and letting his replacement become Lt. Governor and then taking back the office after the elevation.  That is tricky.  Letting Ard stay in office is  a sure thing.  That is why, again, unless something bigger breaks, Lt. Governor Ard stays.

Friday, July 8

A tragic night for baseball

I love the game of baseball.  I have followed it since I was a kid.  As a kid, I learned to respect what happened in the game of baseball.  I could never hit, on  a regular basis, the balls coming at me at all speeds.  I learned to respect the game.

Recently, my dad pointed out to me that I had coached on championship youth teams in basketball and football.  “Son, you need to go coach one in baseball and win one of those to finish it up.”  I replied, “ No sir, I will never coach baseball,  it is my past time. I just want to watch and enjoy.”   Anyone who has ever coached a sport knows that watching games  in that sport, you can not help but think about what you would do.  Baseball is my brain candy and enjoyment.

Well, my enjoyment was hit by tragedy last night.  I root for three teams, the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers.  The Rangers are my AL team to root for.

First, baseball is about fun.  Going to the park, at the college, minor league or major league level, is fun.  You grab a beer and a bad hot dog.  You hope to grab a foul ball when you sit in the bleachers like I do.  You just hope to have a good time.

That is what that firefighter in Arlington, Texas was after last night.  He wanted to have a good time with his young son.  A ball player, doing what he thought was the right thing, threw a foul ball up into the stands, that firefighter went for it, misjudged his position, and tumbled head first to his eventual death over the rails.  My brain candy became hard reality when I saw the footage.  A boy lost his dad, a wife lost her husband, and oh how I feel for that poor guy who tried to reach for him and grab him.

In the coming days we are going to hear all sorts of things.  You can bet someone will reach out to the grieving family and help them find a way to sue the Rangers or Major League Baseball.  There will be jerks out there who say, “why do that for a just a baseball?”

When all those things come out, I ask you to remember this.  A dad took his son to a baseball game.  That dad tried to get his son a foul ball to remember the date.  It was tragic.  But, it was what any dad would do for his kid at  a baseball game.  What he done was not stupid.  What the player for the Rangers did in throwing the foul ball up to the stands was not sinister.  What happened was a tragic accident.  It was horrific.

But, the great game goes on.  There have been fans who leapt to their deaths for all sorts of reasons.  There have been players who got killed running into outfield walls and by pitches.  But, what hits hard is there was this good guy, a good dad, trying to get the sweet souvenir for his kid.  Anyone who loves the game of baseball is saddened by what happened.  For that guy in Arlington who died going for the foul ball defines the game.  We all want that foul ball.  We all want that sweet souvenir.  But, even in our brain candy moments, life can be harsh and brutal.  Any fan of baseball mourns over that dad losing his life.

VUI offers prayers for the family and friends of the fallen fan.

Wednesday, July 6

Both sides in the budget debate miss the point

The Democrats and Republicans are taking the nation's economy and the world's economy to the brink on the budget and the national debt.  Their handlers tell them to do that.  Those handlers are well paid and watch the polls and the money flowing into campaign accounts and party accounts well.  Drama is the game now.  The Democrats, led by the President and his people, hint at invoking the 14th Amendment  to raise the debt ceiling.  Both sides seem unwilling to budge on their positions.  Republicans want to cut spending.  Democrats want to raise taxes and close tax loopholes.  

The problem is, if both the Republicans and the Democrats got their way, the debt problem would still be there.  Simply put, the United States can not cut its budget enough or raise taxes enough to solve the debt problem.  Like in times before, we have to grow the economy.  What we have now are two sides of fools doing what paid political hands tell them will satisfy this or that group, with no one seeming smart enough to see the solution that is real economic growth.  

Let VUI be clear.  Combine the plans put together by the paid for consultants who run both parties, and you still have a debt problem.  There is no way around it.  The numbers are stubborn.  However, economic growth will get us out of this mess.  

Now, how to grow the economy.  For years now, VUI has advocated the Fair Tax.  Scrap the corporate and individual income tax, replace it with a consumption tax, and our manufacturing base will return and our revenues will roll in and the government will have more than enough to spend on things that the majority of Americans expect it to.  At the least, the capital gains tax needs to be eliminated or at least set way below income taxes, so people are encouraged to invest.  It is Economics 101.  We have to encourage businesses to stay here and people to invest here.  

Sadly, the leaders in both parties are not willing to adopt such measures.  They fret about the next elections.  They have highly paid consultants who grease the wheels, so to speak on both sides.  What we the people get are two groups of people, virtually paid for and living in fear of fringe interests, who stake out their positions hoping that this or that block of voters will support them.  Apparently, the days of statesmen, men and women in politics who did their own homework, and thought for themselves, are gone.  It is about about what this or that politico tells them to do.  

That might be okay in most political things.  But,the economy shapes the nation's survival.  Where are the great leaders of courage?  We seem all too much like Rome in its later days, once the hope of mankind, slumping along with its leaders succumbing to the endless parties and bribes of those who had their ears, leading to government for the few by the few to cause the ruin of it all. 
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