Opinion and Opt-ED

April 7, 2010

California Chamber of Commerce funding Republican Attack Ads

The California Chamber of Commerce is apparently continuing its transition from a business association to a political lobbying organization for the Republican party. They are now funding vicious televised attack ads against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, implying that he is somehow responsible now that “California’s lost one million jobs” and the fact that “we’re 200 billion dollars in debt”

The Chamber broke a tradition of non-partisanship dating back more than 100 years when it endorsed Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election. For this, they were rewarded handsomely by the Schwarzenegger administration and were given unprecedented access and influence over our State government, to the detriment of almost everyone else – especially small business. The “job killer” label they put on any legislation they didn’t like, for example, for many years virtually guaranteed a Schwarzenegger veto.

According to several news reports, complaints have now been filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission that say the Chamber didn’t even fund this ad through its own political action committee- since that would have been subject to disclosure regulations, and instead paid for it through their membership dues, to the tune of more than one million dollars! They also noted that Republican candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign manager, former Gov. Pete Wilson, is on the chamber’s board.

The man responsible for turning the California Chamber of Commerce into this overtly partisan political organization is apparently their President and CEO: Allan Zaremberg, He was the Master of Ceremonies at the Republican Primary Gubernatorial Debate in Orange County last month, touting his take on “the importance of a business-friendly governor to California”.

He is also the head of the “California State Protocol Foundation” – a shadowy “non profit organization” has paid for millions of dollars’ worth of Schwarzenegger’s overseas travel and other bills racked up by his office, including the use of private jets. This group claims these payments allow the Governor to meet with foreign dignitaries, “thereby supporting business opportunities between California and their countries” but what they have really done is turn what should have been public interest trade missions into luxury junkets with blatant cronyism. More than anything, this organization has corrupted and perverted California’s international trade and economic development programs, and it is almost unbelievable that they have gotten away with it.

The ad now being run by the California Chamber is stunning in its dishonesty. For example, they attack Brown for having been against Proposition 13, the property tax initiative, not mentioning that they were also opposed to it at the time. The theme of the ad is “enough is enough” and that may very well be the way many in California feel about the California Chamber of Commerce.

Let’s hope the next Governor- who ever he or she is, from whatever party, will stop this bullying and political manipulation by the California Chamber of Commerce. The rest of us – especially small business, deserve a seat at the table on California business issues for a change. It seems to me that members of the California Chamber of Commerce should not only resign from this organization, they should also demand a full refund of their membership fees for as many years as they have been members. Regardless of their political party, I’m sure they didn’t sign on for this garbage.

Filed under Business Associations, California Politics, Opinion by

January 24, 2010

Avatar pulled from most theaters in China

The hit movie “Avatar” directed by James Cameron of Fullerton, and distributed by 20th Century Fox, of Los Angeles, is being pulled from most theaters in China, apparently because it is so successful.  As reported in the Los Angeles Times, The movie is no longer being allowed in 2D theaters even though is already the most successful movie of all time in China, having grossed a record $76 million.  The Chinese government only allows 20 foreign movies per year to be shown in China’s theaters. “Avatar,” which opened worldwide in mid-December, was held in Chinese theaters until January because the 2009 quota had already been filled.  The movie is already being widely pirated, with copies available in Beijing’s bootleg DVD stores. 

It seems incredibly strange that the Chinese government should be able to pull one of our most successful products just because it is successful, without any repercussions at all from our government.  Should the U.S. now stop the sale of some manufactured goods from China, as soon as they become successful?

Filed under China, Entertainment Industry, Opinion by

January 18, 2010

China’s Alibaba attacks Yahoo for Google Support

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.  The Alibaba group – owners of the Chinese trade portal Alibaba has strongly criticized Yahoo – its largest shareholder, for siding with Google after a cyber attack on that company.  

As reported in the New York Times, a spokesman for Alibaba, said executives at the company were “angry” because Yahoo appeared to follow Google in suggesting the Chinese government was behind the cyberattacks.  They issued a statement saying that Yahoo was “reckless” in supporting Google because they believed there was a lack of evidence that the attacks were supported by the Chinese government. 

Yahoo is one of the companies that was targeted in the attacks but the company declined to confirm that it was a victim. “The people with knowledge of the situation said that Google contacted Yahoo about the attacks before it publicized them. Google executives were dismayed that other companies were unwilling to publicly acknowledge the attacks, and they were particularly frustrated by Yahoo’s silence” the Times reported. 

Yahoo paid Alibaba $1 billion in 2005 and gave Alibaba control of Yahoo China in exchange for a 40 percent stake in the Chinese company. Yahoo’s investment in Alibaba has paid off in a big way for that company. Alibaba.com, a unit of Alibaba, went public in 2007 with a huge stock offering in Hong Kong and is now valued at $12.5 billion.  Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba is a celebrity in China because of his success in forcing California’s Ebay to leave the Chinese market, and for taking over Yahoo’s China operations, as part of their billion dollar investment in his company. 

This was a huge amount of capital from a California company that was used to make Alibaba fantastically successful. Now that company is turning on very the people who helped it become what it is.  Is this a simple case of “sucking up” to the Chinese authorities?  Jack Ma is said to be famous for that, and some people even believe he is now milking the resources out of Yahoo so it eventually fails in that country. 

In any event, a consensus seems to be forming that this is a free trade issue.  If the Chinese government blocks Google or other American Internet firms – or forces them to leave that country, the the American Goverment should take the same action with Chinese Internet firms – and it seems like a good place to start would be Alibaba.

Filed under China, Information Technology, Internet, Opinion by

January 16, 2010

China says Google censorship will not affect trade – but should it?

China has unilaterally declared that their depute with Google over censorship and strong evidence of government sponsored hacking will not affect U.S. Trade relations, but do they get to make that call?  

“Any decision made by Google will not affect Sino-U.S. trade and economic relations, as the two sides have many ways to communicate and negotiate with each other,” Chinese government spokesman Yao Jian told a news briefing in Beijing.

Well of course the two sides have many ways to communicate with each other – that is not the point. If one party to a trade agreement censors and blocks the content of the other party, then of course it should it should be a trade issue.  In the tit for tat world of diplomacy, if they block the content from one of our companies, then shouldn’t we block one of theirs?

California buys a huge amount of Chinese imports, but they don’t by nearly as many of our exports. One of our strongest industries in the movie industry – but only 20 foreign films are even allowed to be shown in that country each year. The rest of the movies we produce here are simply pirated (i.e. stolen) there, Can you imagine if we said to China, “we will only allow the products from 20 of your manufacturers in our country each year”. Now they are blocking, and possibly even attacking, one of California’s other great industries – Internet services.

It is not at all disrespectful to China to expect our government to respond to blocking and censorship with reciprocal actions that affect Chinese companies. That is how a mature trade relationship works. Mr. Yao Jian has it wrong. This is exactly the kind of thing that should affect trade and economic relations – this is a trade issue.

UPDATE: Evidence that the Obama Administration may be looking at these blocking and censorship issues from a more sensible “fair trade” perspective, might be found in a speech Secretary of State Clinton plans to give on the issue on Thursday. From a column by Andrew Ross in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

“The Internet is integral to the international trading system,” said Ed Black, CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, who is scheduled to meet with Clinton on the matter this week. “China cannot limit the free flow of information and still comply with its international trade obligations.” “You can’t lecture the Chinese on human rights,” said another industry executive. “You won’t get anywhere with that. So, it’s best to treat it as a trade issue.”

Should the administration go that route, it will enlarge the can of U.S.-China worms already growing around the latter’s increasingly protectionist economic policies. “Greater control of the Internet is part of a wholesale tightening up of the Chinese economy,” said an executive with a high-tech trade organization that is also due to meet with Clinton. “It’s about protecting domestic industries and pushing indigenous innovation. But they’re doing it in blatantly discriminatory, brazenly unfair ways.”

Filed under China, Hollywood, Internet, Opinion by

January 12, 2010

California Budget – the five percent solution

This is from Governor Schwarzenegger’s press release about his proposed budget:

To achieve $1.4 billion in General Fund savings, Governor Schwarzenegger proposed 15 percent reduction in state personnel costs achieved by modifying employee compensation and reducing our workforce budget … as follows:
   *   Employees will be required to contribute an additional five percent towards their retirement costs;
    * An across the board five percent reduction in all salaries;
    * A five percent reduction in the cost of the state workforce payroll implemented by executive order S-01-10 requiring all department directors to reduce their payrolls by five percent.

This sounds a little too incremental for me.  Certainly most State employees can take a five percent hit – they have pretty good jobs, but this isn’t getting to the root of the problem.   What about eliminating Civil Service postions all together?   Put government workers under employment contracts instead – even generous ones.  Then they could stop paying pensions as well, something none of the rest of us get. 

Filed under California Government, Opinion by

October 6, 2009

Apple leaves U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Apple Inc. has quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because the group has been too critical of proposed steps to cut pollution. This seems like a good move. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents many of the really huge Corporations in the U.S., but has never shown any real interest in small business concerns, or in the rest of our society for that matter. As reported in San Francisco Business Times:

The Cupertino computer and popular electronics business is just one of several businesses, including Nike Inc. and PG&E Corp., that have criticized the chamber’s stance. Nike resigned from the chamber’s board of directors but stayed as a member of the group. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized proposed “cap-and-trade” legislation passed by the House of Representatives and due to come before the Senate. Apple’s vice president of worldwide government affairs, Catherine Novelli, sent a letter to Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the chamber, in which she said, “We would prefer that the Chamber take a more progressive stance on this critical issue.”

Filed under Business Associations, Energy Industry, Environment and Climate, Opinion by

May 18, 2009

Economist magazine calls California “ungovernable”

The respected publication “The Economist” has called California “the ungovernable State”. They certainly have a point- the Goverment here is a total mess, and voters are in a foul mood about tomorrow’s special election – and they should be, our government has failed us, and has many, many structural problems, but our leaders have failed us also. We have a government with absolutely no foresight, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, our part-time Governor, deserves his share of the blame. With all of California’s problems, our “lack of leadership” is certainly the most serious. Here are an excerpt and the full article can be read here:

ON MAY 19th Californians will go to the polls to vote on six ballot measures that are as important as they are confusing. If these measures fail, America’s biggest state will enter a full-blown financial crisis… A good outcome is no longer possible. California now has the worst bond rating among the 50 states. Income-tax receipts are coming in far below expectations. On May 11th Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor, sent a letter to the legislature warning it that, by his latest estimates, the state will face a budget gap of $15.4 billion if the ballot measures pass, $21.3 billion if they fail. Prisoners will have to be released, firefighters fired, and other services cut or eliminated. One way or the other, on May 20th Californians will have to begin discussing how to fix their broken state.

Only a minority of Californians bother to vote, and those voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population… Those voters, moreover, have over time “self-sorted” themselves into highly partisan districts: loony left in Berkeley or Santa Monica, for instance; rabid right in Orange County or parts of the Central Valley. Politicians have done the rest by gerrymandering bizarre boundaries around their supporters. The result is that elections are won during the Republican or Democratic primaries, rather than in run-offs between the two parties.
Representative democracy is only one half of California’s peculiar governance system. The other half, direct democracy, fails just as badly. California is one of 24 states that allow referendums, recalls and voter initiatives. But it is the only state that does not allow its legislature to override successful initiatives (called “propositions”) and has no sunset clauses that let them expire. It also uses initiatives far more, and more irresponsibly, than any other state.

Filed under California Politics, Governor Schwarzenegger, Opinion by

March 10, 2008

A part time Governor?

Does California have a part time Governor? Some people apparently think so, and given the Governor’s commute times the evidence is on their side. When Governor Schwarzenegger was first elected, there were a few raised eyebrows because he was so slow in moving to the State capital. Then the press coverage on this just faded away and I think most people assumed the Governor keep a home or some kind of residence in Sacramento. It turns out he does not and in fact has been commuting on a daily basis to his mansion in Brentwood on his private jet. Other officials and politicians have apparently been grumbling about this for some time but have been “reluctant to risk alienating Schwarzenegger by publicly criticizing him for it”. As the Los Angeles Times reports “there have long been complaints in Sacramento that his attention is too often focused elsewhere”:

Like many of the Californians he represents, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now spends more than three hours commuting because he lives so far from the office. But his ride is a private jet. After flirting briefly with buying a Sacramento abode for his family, then living alone for a while in a 2,000-square-foot hotel penthouse across from the Capitol, the governor has decided to stay nearly every night at his Brentwood mansion.

The commute costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which aides say the governor pays for himself. Some environmentalists say the trips expand his carbon footprint enough to undermine his image as a crusader against global warming, despite the pollution credits he buys to offset the damage.

Abandoning more glamorous parts to settle in Sacramento has long been a trade-off governors made for the privilege of running the state. But Casa de los Gobernadores, the 12,000-square-foot suburban ranch home that Ronald Reagan and his family had built when they ruled the town, did not lure Schwarzenegger and kin, despite five visits to the home by California first lady Maria Shriver and a Realtor.

“I just don’t have a home in Sacramento,” Schwarzenegger said in a recent interview at a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., where he had flown — by private jet — to attend the winter meeting of the National Governors Assn. “The question is how can I be with my family, because that is extremely important, to be with my kids. They are all growing up. They are in their teens. They need their father around,” …

Schwarzenegger has used his vast financial resources to create a kind of roving governorship, with almost constant travel in and out of California. He spent more than $591,000 in campaign funds, donated mostly by special interests, for travel in 2007 — a year in which he was not running a major campaign.

The governor rarely sleeps now in the $62,000-a-year hotel penthouse paid for by a tax-exempt charitable foundation. But in the early years of his administration, Schwarzenegger spent most weeknights there, working late, receiving visitors and playing chess, former aides said.

“When I worked for him, he was there almost every night,” said Donna Lucas, a public relations consultant who was a senior advisor to the governor and first lady during Schwarzenegger’s first term. “We were working so hard, I can’t even tell you. I know it was important for him to have an opportunity to be up here in Sacramento.”

When he went out, his security detail would knock loudly on the door of the hotel garage where his caravan of SUVs was parked, wave to the workers and bring the governor down from his suite, as garage and hotel employees took pictures. Now he is rarely sighted. “I didn’t see him in a very long time,” a cashier said from inside a booth at the garage, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing the job.

Filed under Governor Schwarzenegger, Opinion by

February 25, 2008

California beef recall sets back trade negotiations

As reported in International Herold Tribune, but isn’t it possible that in some countries this situation could have occurred and no recall would have been issued in the first place?

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said Friday the nation’s largest beef recall has set back negotiations to ship U.S. beef to Japan and South Korea. Those markets closed to the U.S. cattle industry in 2003 after a scare over mad cow disease. Schafer said at a convention of meat packers and processors that he is hopeful trade talks will continue, but that the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. recall has diplomats asking why the U.S. can’t ship safe meat. The USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef from the Chino-based slaughterhouse after the U.S. Humane Society released undercover video that showed slaughterhouse workers there kicking and shoving sick and crippled cows and forcing them to stand with electric prods, forklifts and water hoses. Downer cows, or those too sickly to stand, are banned from the food supply because they carry a higher risk of mad cow disease and other illnesses.

Filed under Agriculture and Food, Opinion by

November 8, 2007

California Chamber finally gets called on it’s “Job Killer” label

The Sacramento Bee has reported how the California Chamber of Commerce has used the “job killer” label they coined to kill any legislation they don’t like, and how the label virtually ensures a Schwarzenegger veto. The Chamber broke a tradition of non-partisanship dating back more than 100 years when it endorsed Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election, and has been a reliably Republican institution ever since. The article also describes how this slogan has been used to advance the career of Allan Zaremberg, who has now hung out as Chamber President for more than a decade. It is good that the media finally reporting on this, as the Schwarzenegger administration has been in virtual lock step with the California Chamber and has never understood that being “pro-corporation” and being “pro-business” are vastly different things. What this simplistic bumper sticker slogan had really killed is serious debate on business development in California.

Today, calling a bill a “job killer” is the kiss of death for legislation the chamber deems unfriendly. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed all but three of the chamber’s 41 job-killer bills on his watch. The chamber’s job-killer list, a compendium of a dozen or so Democratic bills that would rein in businesses, has become the unofficial score card that industry and trade groups use to measure their success in beating back unfriendly legislation. The chamber issues laudatory press releases – “From day one in office, Gov. Schwarzenegger has demonstrated his commitment to protecting California’s economy and encouraging job creation,” reads one dated Oct. 12 – and the governor takes a bow. “Since I took office, California’s business climate has dramatically improved,” the Republican governor said after vetoing all 12 of this year’s job-killer bills.

But critics charge the chamber simplistically tags as job killers all legislation that would improve environmental protections and consumer protection, including tort reform, insurance reform and landlord/tenant law. “I think it’s part of the whole movement by the free marketeers, extreme right-wing of the (Republican) party that has identified this as an effective phrase,” said former Democratic Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson. “Unfortunately, it resonates with people in way that takes the focus off the real legislation.”

Filed under Business Associations, California Politics, Opinion by

November 5, 2007

Alibaba’s Achilles heel

On Tuesday, the Chinese trade portal Alibaba will conduct an initial public offering on the Hong Kong market, and it seems to have set of an absolute feeding frenzy among institutional investors. The company has received an almost unbelievable $100 billion U.S. dollars in orders from investors, and many fund managers could get zero allocations when the initial public offering closes on Thursday. Alibaba has so far has raised more than 1.5 billion dollars from investors including at least $100 million from Yahoo, which owns 40 percent of the parent company. Demand for these shares has been so strong – exceeding share allocation by more than 150-fold, that the cash inflows caused the Hong Kong dollar to appreciate against the US dollar, forcing the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to sell its currency to keep it from rising beyond the official peg to the U.S. dollar.

On the surface, none of this makes any sense at all. While Alibaba has an impressive installed base- more than 24 million people have registered for the service, it’s technology is mediocre and it’s profits lackluster for a deal of this size. Alibaba made only $29 million in 2006, though this year it is forecast to make $83 million. Forbes pointed out that this works out to an “astronomical” price-to-earnings range of more than 100 times earnings.

So what got all these investors so incredibly excited? There are a couple of different theories. One is the salesmanship of their CEO Jack Ma – and he must be good if he convinced Yahoo to give away the store as they did in 2005. He skillfully sold global concepts like “China” and “manufacturing” and “the next Google” – downplaying his company’s many shortcomings. For example, in their launch prospectus they said “there are 42 million SMEs in China in 2006. Internet use has risen 23.4 percent annually since 2002, with 137 million users in 2006″. All this is true, but it has nothing at all to do with Alibaba- any company in China could have said the same thing. There may have been one more unspoken thing he sold, and that is the sense that the Chinese government will always be on Alibaba’s side. While Google is being blocked and having its traffic redirected to Chinese companies by Chinese authorities, Mr. Ma and his partners at Yahoo have made it clear that they will cooperate with the Chinese government. As the Financial Times put it, “Mr Ma has made no secret of his own willingness to co-operate closely with the Chinese authorities in any investigations into his company’s users. Clearly, a company with the support of the Chinese government, has far less financial risk then one whose business can be terminated by simply flipping a switch.

We are more than aware of the dangers here. In September, 2005 we wrote about Alibaba, and the billion dollar Investment Yahoo had just made. At the time, the Chinese Oil Company was trying to take over Unocal (since bought by Chevron) but I thought the Yahoo/Alibaba deal warranted much more attention than it was getting and expressed this concern:

I think the Alibaba takeover of Yahoo China is a big deal. Much bigger that CNOCC trying to pay too much for one of our little pissant oil companies. The Yahoo-Alibaba system could could evolve into a robust national trading platform- an export-driven engine that could help China become even more of an economic powerhouse. Since smaller countries would have to play by their rules they could even move towards a global trading platform that has domination of all major supply chains.

For writing this, this newsletter and portal was promptly blocked in China. Why would the Chinese government block an obscure little newsletter operating in a completely different part of the world, I wondered. Had I hit a nerve? In any event, my concerns about Alibaba dominating supply chains proved to be overblown and never happened- at least not yet. If anything, Alibaba proved to be rather bumbling, and there was talk in the financial community that Yahoo was greatly disappointed in Alibaba. When you pay a billion dollars for a minority share in a company that only makes $29 million a year, this is certainly understandable. Still, what if Alibaba became the “official” ecommerce system of China. Then the billion dollars Yahoo paid would be a fantastic bargain- maybe on a par with something like the Louisiana purchase. I think the possibility that Alibaba could gain some kind of quasi-official status in China is one reason for what I understand is called “wuli rexin” – or “irrational exuberance” among investors about this particular deal.

These investors should be careful of what they wish for. What do we have when you merge Government and Corporate interests? I’ll give you a hint- it is not “communism” and should the Chinese government get involved in “picking winners” – as they certainly seem to be doing, they could completely destroy Chinese entrepreneurship. Alibaba’s premium accounts cost a whopping 40,000 yuan, or $5,300 for Chinese customers, but far less for foreign customers. Isn’t it a possible that some of the Alibaba member base will begin to feel ripped off by these outrageous prices? Isn’t it also a possibility that some bright Chinese entrepreneur will figure out a way to offer the same- or much better services, at far less cost?

An interview in TechCrunch with the CEO of an American manufacturing portal had this take on the deal: “There is not a lot of depth in what their business is doing. They are basically a directory and that offers limited value beyond supplier discovery” said Mitch Free, CEO of MFG.com, “Alibaba has done a great job selling listings to suppliers in China. However, Alibaba is virtually unknown within the industrial community in North America and Europe. In order for their model not to implode”, he said, they will need to both “deliver value to their supplier customers in China” and also “build a brand and value proposition with the industrial-buying community in North America and Europe”. He concluded that, “those buyers have moved way past using directories and are looking for more transactional depth and process integration”.

There is already some indication that the smart money is getting out. Mr. Ma has even left two of his best companies out of the deal: its online shopping unit, Taobao.com, and its online payment services provider, Alipay. Why would the investors let him get away with this? Yahoo had a big run up on it shares as a result of news of this deal, but Terry Semel, Chairman of the board of Yahoo, made his largest trades of company stock in two years when he exercised options in late October to buy 2.1 million shares at $15 each and immediately sold them at prices ranging from $29 to $31.54. He walked away with a quick $32.8 million profit. If the Yahoo-Alibaba deal is so fantastic, why did buy and then immediately sell shares in his own company? Does he know something we don’t?

So the bottom line. With free and fair competition, Alibaba could be a good deal- but it probably isn’t. Without free and fair competition, however, Alibaba ironically could be a fantastic deal- but if that is the case, many people in the world may be turning to Yahoo and saying, “you created a monster”.

Filed under China, Internet, Opinion by

October 25, 2007

Editor’s Notes: San Diego Fires, Day 4

Editor’s notes from today. Trying to get some work done in the middle of a firestorm.

*Frustrated sitting here just a few miles from Qualcomm Stadium and not being needed- a little like missing Woodstock. As earlier reported, the atmosphere their was said to be almost festive this afternoon- complete with Jazz bands, ethnic food sharing, massage tables, etc. Sure that getting stuck there too long would be no picnic, and of course a tragedy for those who lost their homes, but somehow it seems like something historic is going on.

*Why is the Military taking so long to respond again? I thought they would have been a bit chastised by their performance four years ago. I have heard some rogue Air Force Colonel in Colorado had to order some of his aircraft on a “training mission” to California to justify getting them here, but not sure if this is true.

*KPBS- the public radio- and TV station knocked off the air- lines feeding its transmitter were burned in the Harris Fire on Mount San Miguel. UPDATE: They are broadcasting on FM 94.9 (KBZT-FM), which volunteered to air KPBS radio’s news programming in place of its usual musical lineup

*Texas based Clear Channel Communications may be using the emergency as an excuse to shut down Progressive Radio Station KLSD – they own practically the entire radio spectrum here- and in TJ. They had far right conservative Roger Hegcock broadcasting on the Progressive station’s dial number. Will their reestablish their former “all right wing, all the time” format? Need to check into this later.

*Congressman Duncan Hunter- long in bed with the Military, may finally have done something useful- he seemed to have cut through some bureaucracy and got 14 military fire-fighting helicopters and 5 C-130 military planes deployed.

*Global media coverage is so intense that everyone seems to be reporting frantic relatives repeatedly calling who can’t believe we haven’t all burned to death. Firestorms make for great media visuals.

*Firefighters here have been heroes as usual- and they seem to getting very skilled at setting backfires- and fighting fires in coordination with aircraft. The area burned is huge, and the real story is how many houses they are saving. Whole firestorms seem to be passing through some neighborhoods where they are somehow saving many of the houses.

*Huge helicopters pounding the fires now, finally- seems almost choreographed- like a ballet dance. I haven’t seen a C-13o but they are said to be huge and fly very low- and douse a quarter mile swath or retardant in one swoop. That’s why they need the evacuations- so they can fight the fire with these things without snuffing out people too.

*Just turned on TV and heard Governor Schwarzenegger- he is staying engaged- and seems to be promising to help everyone, but also stressed the need for insurance. Reminded us that he mobilized 1500 National Guard, said the fires moved so fast they became quickly overwhelmed. He’s staying on this one.

*I’m proud of my city for the “full court press” nature of the response, but the politicians seem to be hot dogging it a bit. Not so much a “fight for the microphone, as it is a orgie of self congratulations.

**Idea for future Tourism Campaign: “Don’t be shy about coming- every thing is San Diego that could burn, has burned!”.

Filed under Opinion by

The San Diego Fires: a disaster very unlike Katrina

As I write this, firestorms are still raging around my lovely city, but I don’t think the pictures you see on the news tell the whole story. For one, though no one is really saying it out loud, there seems to be a quiet determination here that San Diego will not be another Katrina, where civil society collapsed, and the Federal government did nothing. So many people have donated food and other relief supplies to Qualcomm Stadium, the city’s main relief center, that authorities are now turning them away. The mayor even said that he thought the evacuees are being treated like VIPs. He had good reason to think that, as the L.A. Times described:

Just inside the stadium gate Monday, a young bleached-blond woman offered a drink: “Would you care for a Red Bull, sir?” Another hundred feet on, a woman walked by carrying a sign: “Anyone distressed?” She gave directions to a crisis counseling center down the way. There was more food than could be eaten. More help than could be used. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders guessed there were as many volunteers as victims. A good 9,000 people ended up here, at Qualcomm Stadium, and if this was the endgame of a disaster, it would be a disaster that seemed possible only in the idyll of California. There was a banh mi picnic in the parking lot, beef empanadas on the chow line, Caesar salads, cartons of fresh Starbucks House Blend, free magazines, toys for the kids, cots for grandma, pizza by the slice or, if you wished, the box. There was a man playing jazz guitar, a blues band, massages and acupuncture. “It’s better service than when you go to a restaurant,” said Gary Potter of Rancho Penasquitos. “Every time you turn around, people are asking us if you need something — water, food, anything.” “They thought of everything,” said Erin Kelley, his wife. She was particularly impressed by the massages being offered in the parking lot. A steady stream of volunteers brought blankets, potato chips, diapers — anything they thought someone might need. The makeshift campsites inside the stadium quickly took on the fabric of Southern California. There were faces and traces of words from Vietnam, Mexico, China, South-Central L.A., as families staked out their own little territories to call home for a day or two or three. They re-created neighborhoods, complete with a group of boys on skateboards. Look man, free food, they shouted, swooped in, ate and ran.

San Diego was horribly unprepared when fire hit four years ago, but this time seems vastly different. In the grocery store this morning, the woman behind me was buying dozens of bags of carrots. I joked, “you must really like carrots!”. No, she said, it was a treat for the evacuated horses in a local park. The police won’t let any more relief supplies in there either, but she hoped to give them to the cops so they could give them to the horses. The organized animal rescue is just one example of “lessons learned” from the last fire, as animal lovers became just one part of a “full court press” in response to this horrible situation.

To be fair, this disaster is far different from the one in New Orleans. For one, most people have cars here so evacuation is less of a problem. For another, most of the evacuees (but not all) are fairly affluent as they are homeowners in rural areas, so we have a situation where at times the less affluent are helping the more affluent. Still, today,, even with so much devastation here, I have some real reasons to be proud of my city.

Filed under California culture, Opinion by

October 23, 2007

Google being blocked and redirected in China

We know China will block Internet sites whose politics they don’t like (it has happened to us) but now it seems they may be blocked for business reasons as well. Worse, it has been reported that they are redirecting traffic from some sites to those of competitors. Isn’t that stealing? From Business Week, “China’s Internet Censors Strike Again”:

Google has confirmed that the search giant’s Chinese service was out of business for parts of last Thursday and Friday. “We’ve had numerous reports that Google.cn and other search engines were inaccessible in China last week,” says John Pinette, Google’s Hong Kong-based spokesman, adding that “traffic was being redirected to other sites.”

Pinette wouldn’t comment on just where that Google traffic went. But it seems the site that ended up receiving the Google traffic was Baidu, the Chinese search engine that is tops in the market and over the years has been able to win fans among Chinese officialdom for being obedient in following censorship rules. Baidu already has a big lead over Google in the Chinese search market (more than half of Chinese searches take place on Baidu, versus about 25% for Google). It doesn’t help Google’s cause that the censors seem to be steering traffic Baidu’s way, too.

Filed under China, Foreign Relations, Internet, Media and Entertainment, Opinion by

October 15, 2007

Nuñez tries to explain his junkets

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is trying to defend his practice of using campaign funds to pay for international travel and expensive purchases. A Los Angeles Times investigation showed he spent nearly $50,000 on airline travel this year and more than $8,000 for high-end hotels in Europe, and thousands of dollars in extravagant purchases by tapping his $5.3 million “Friends of Fabian” campaign fund. He then really stepped in it when he said, “”There’s not too big a difference between how I live and how most middle-class people live” which contrasted greatly with his long cultivated image as a champion of the working poor. In trying to explain himself at a news conference, Núñez said, “The fact that I’ve been successful, that I’m the speaker of the Assembly, and I’ve represented California around the world is something I’m very proud of,” and that this travel would help “broaden his horizons”, he went on “I think the fundamental question here is, should I use campaign funds for trade missions and educational missions, or should I be using government money, or should I be using non-profit entities that sponsor trips like these?”

Mr. Speaker, a small suggestion. when you are in a hole, stop digging. First of all, campaign funds- or public funds, should not be used to “broaden your horizons” – that is what your own money is for. Second, as we have said here at least a dozen times, people will forgive an occasional international junket if you you also come up with some meaningful and international policies or programs- but the Legislature and the Schwarzenegger administration have done neither. You might, like the Governor, be able to fool some people into thinking that using these shadowy “non profits” with “undisclosed donors” to fund your junkets is good public policy, but those of us who follow this issue closely know better- and eventually everyone else will too.

Filed under California Legislature, Opinion by

October 8, 2007

L.A. Times expose on Nuñez junkets

The Los Angeles Times has written an expose about the luxury junkets being taken by Speaker of the California Assembly, Fabian Nuñez. Entitled “Nuñez travels the world like a high roller” the article describes how the Speaker has “traveled the world in luxury, paying with campaign funds for visits to some of the finest hotels and restaurants and for purchases at high-end retailers such as Louis Vuitton in Paris.”

In a sad and familiar refrain, the Times also reports that “it is not clear how these activities have related to legislative business, as state law requires, because the Los Angeles Democrat refuses to provide details on tens of thousands of dollars in such expenditures.”

Haven’t we been here before? California’s politicians seem to be far better at taking these junkets then they are at making quality policies- especially as it relates to international business and trade. We have harshly criticized Governor Schwarzenegger for the “undisclosed donors” he uses fund his international trips, and it is disconcerting to learn that this kind of corruption has apparently also spread to the Legislature. Read the whole sorry story at this link: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-nunez5oct05,1,1069266.story?page=1&cset=true&ctrack=1&coll=la-headlines-california

Filed under California Legislature, California Politics, Opinion by

October 7, 2007

Hollywood steps in it again, or did they?

ABC Studios is taking heat for a comment made by one of the characters in it’s popular “Desperate Housewives” series. The controversial scene occurred when character “Susan” – played by actress Teri Hatcher, tells her doctor: “OK, before we go any further, can I check those diplomas? Because I would just like to make sure they are not from some med school in the Philippines.” Filipinos take pride in the quality of their medical professional, so this caused quite a stir. As reported in Global Nation and the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Many Filipino-Americans found the apology issued by ABC Studios and the show’s producers insufficient. A broad alliance of Filipino-American groups said it wanted the TV network to take concrete steps to correct its mistake, such as holding cultural sensitivity and diversity awareness training for its management and staff. Rico Foz, executive vice president of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, said the group was demanding that the ABC television network immediately edit out the controversial scene… The remarks sparked protests from the Philippine Congress and presidential palace and prompted a letter to the show’s producers from the Philippine consulate in Los Angeles.

State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) also jumped on the opportunity to make some political hay out of the situation and posted this statement on his website:

As a senator who represents the largest Filipino community outside of the Philippines, I am appalled that the producers and writers at ABC found this type of humor acceptable, This desperate attempt at humor is offensive and has no place in our community. Filipinos, including those trained outside of the United States, have made invaluable impacts on the medical field, and should be valued, not disparaged.

According to Global Nation, Senator Yee has urged the television network that produced the show to issue a public apology its next broadcast in addition to the apology it has already issued.

Not so fast Senator, let’s think this one through. What if the studio was purposely showing the shallowness of this character- which was almost certainly their intent. What if the sentiment that “Susan” expressed also sometimes expressed in the real world- however ill informed and uneducated that might be? Do we really want our entertainment in the future to be the most neutral, politically correct material that writers can create?

This incident came to light just days after Paramount was forced to delay the release of Kite Runner- but that was involving a rape scene that could have exploded ethnic violence. This is just a scene about a mildly bigoted airhead in a nighttime soap opera. It doesn’t rise to the level of where any kind of self censorship should be considered. It could even be argued that ABC Studio’s gave the Philippines medical industry and professionals a chance to assert themselves.

Filed under Hollywood, Media and Entertainment, Opinion, Philippines by

July 10, 2007

More on the funding of Schwarzenegger’s luxury junkets

The Los Angeles Times has written still another expose of Governor Schwarzenegger’s use of shadowy “non-profit organizations” funded by “undisclosed donors” to pay for his foreign trips- euphemistically called “trade missions” . The California State Protocol Foundation, one of the most notorious of these groups, is closely associated with the California Chamber of Commerce, and is widely thought to be a vehicle used to curry favor with the Governor by major corporations and others with business before the State.

By giving to this foundation, donors can avoid having their identities made public, because these charities are not governed by the disclosure rules that apply to campaign contributions. And they can donate unlimited amounts to the nonprofit, which is not subject to contribution ceilings the way campaign accounts are, the Times reported. In addition, The protocol organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, also known as a public charity and donations to these groups are tax deductible- which may technically be legal but is a clear abuse of the purpose of non-profit organizations.

Governor Schwarzenegger stays in luxury hotels and flies in top-of-the-line private jets when he travels overseas. “That jet for those international jaunts is extremely expensive,” a source told the LA Times, “China was probably well north of $100,000.” The protocol foundation’s expenditures have exploded since Schwarzenegger began using it — from $55,000 in 2003 to $1.8 million in 2005 and $1.3 million last year. Nonprofit monitors say it is almost impossible to justify routine spending of charitable dollars on aircraft that can cost $6,000 to $10,000 an hour to lease.

A foundation spokesman told the Times that the returns are “sufficient to demonstrate how the foundation pursues its mission of relieving the taxpayers of the cost burden of certain government activities, especially those related to international trade and diplomacy.” That’s all well and good, but aren’t these trade missions supposed to be for the benefit of all California business- not just Schwarzenegger’s business associates and campaign contributors? Remember the guy who was going to be “the Governor for all the people” and who would “shun special interest money”. He now resides over a State government that has grown increasingly hostile to small business interests, and an administration that is almost completely closed to all ideas and input from ordinary citizens.

The times said that “most of Schwarzenegger’s foreign sojourns have been trade missions, though his critics say the trips really are little more than junkets designed to boost his international profile.” Count us now to be among them. While we were ecstatic when Schwarzenegger got elected, in the area of international business development his administration has become more and more corrupt. In fact, this abuse of non-profits to fund junkets is strikingly similar to the corruption scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now serving time in a Federal Penitentiary for his actions.

The California Governor’s economic development and international trade activities were not supposed to be focused on making Arnold Schwarzenegger the most successful and internationally known person in the world, they were supposed to be for all of us- and in that regard, he is failing miserably. Someone close to him needs to tell him he is on the wrong road- a very dangerous road.

Filed under California Government, Governor Schwarzenegger, Opinion, Philanthropy by

June 6, 2007

Schwarzenegger on HIB Visas- he gets it wrong again

Governor Schwarzenegger has written a letter to the U.S. Senate criticizing the proposed reforms of the H1B visa program.  His letter says in part:

Although I support the bill’s effort to increase temporary H-1B visas it is critical that the annual level be based on the actual workforce needs of these sectors and not an arbitrary cap. The current caps of 65,000 for skilled professionals and 20,000 for holders of advanced degrees have proven to be far less than what is needed. Future levels for these visas must be based on the demands of the market or this policy will strangle these important industries, forcing them overseas. The H-1B program must also be enforced in a way that does not impose unnecessary, costly administrative burdens on law-abiding U.S. businesses. I am concerned that the current bill may make the H-1B program harder to administer, especially for smaller businesses, such as technology start-ups, and force these companies to consider moving critical functions, including product development, to facilities offshore. My greatest concern, though, is with the proposal for a new points-based “green card” system designed to encourage the immigration of workers with training and skills in key areas. Replacing the current employer-based system, where companies can identify the specific skills needed and sponsor qualified immigrants, with an untested system run by the government threatens the very foundation of the program and must be amended. I strongly urge the Senate to retain an employment-based application process and consider authorizing a smaller points-based pilot program prior to any wider implementation.

This opinion could be expected from a Governor who takes all his consul from large Corporations and campaign donors, but he has absolutely NO right to claim that he is representing the opinions of small business. The current H1B Visa program is a modern version of indentured servitude- a throwback to this seventeenth century system that was long ago banished from our society. Naturally big Corporations love the current H1B visa programs as it gives them a ready supply of something akin to slave labor- employees that are completely beholden to them and under their complete control. Ask anyone who has worked on an overseas contract as a small business or independent contractor- you must completely shut down your life to work on one of these contracts and you are completely at the mercy of your “Corporate Sponsor”.

In 1999 and 2000, at the tail end of the dot com boom, I worked as a Program Manager in Silicon Valley. The firm I worked for imported large numbers of technical workers from a large Central Asian country. My job was to try to manage these poorly trained workers who were assigned to companies in California cities outside of the Silicon Valley, and I can tell you from first hand experience that any claims that these workers are more qualified then Americans- or that they can’t find Americans to do these jobs, is simply laughable. They want the cheap slave labor- it is as simple as that.

If we need to let people into our country to fill workforce needs, then they should be allowed to work where ever they want in our economy for some specified period of time, and a comparable number of Americans should be allowed to go to those countries to work. If these corporations really must hire foreign workers instead of Americans, then they should be required to provide at least some re-training of American workers. What we are seeing here is a sad example of what happens when big Corporations hijack our Government and political system. Governor Schwarzenegger probably doesn’t know any of this as he has closed himself off to all business opinions except those expressed by large Corporations and select business associations, such as the California Chamber of Commerce. As a result, he presides over a State Government that has become increasing hostile to small business interests, and is well on its way to becoming far more corrupt then the Davis administration ever was. Please call or write Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and tell them to that on this issue, Governor Schwarzenegger is once again sadly misinformed and his opinions in this letter represent Corporate interests, not the interest of the people of the State of California.

Filed under California Government, Governor Schwarzenegger, Immigration, Opinion, U.S. Politics by

June 1, 2007

Undisclosed doners finance Schwarenegger’s Canada Trip

The D-Day Blog has weighed in on the Schwarzenegger Canada junket- and if you thought what we wrote was harsh this guy nails it:

This is about the eighth time I’ve seen a report similar to this one that undisclosed donors are financing a Schwarzenegger trade mission… The excuse put forth by the Governor’s spokespeople is always the same: this SAVES taxpayer money because they don’t have to finance these trade missions! Really? What about all the corporate welfare checks that get cut as a result of this access? What about all the watered-down regulations that cost taxpayers, not only with money but with public health and quality of life? What about the state contracts that could go to lower bidders who don’t have the same relationships (read: bribery poke) with the Governor? .. It should frankly be outlawed for a private company with business before the state to finance the Governor’s travel, especially when it’s supposed to be official business. This is government for sale from the guy who was supposed to be such a big reformer because he was richer than dirt. This is also why I’ve been so adamant about the CDP-Chevron donation. Influence peddling in the capital is an epidemic that needs to stop.

Filed under Business Events and Trade Shows, California Politics, Canada, Governor Schwarzenegger, Opinion by

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