Archive | February, 2009

How to tell if you’re being recruited into a cult

28 Feb

I hear through the grapevine that a cult is doing recruitment in WNY. It’s being done under the guise of “inner development” or similar, vague-sounding feel-goodisms.

Here, from the Rick Ross Institute, are some ways to tell if you’re being recruited into a cult or something more legitimate.

Be aware, and be wary .

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Deep Thoughts

28 Feb

1. I guess I’ll have to keep repeating this over and over again for the next 4, hopefully 8, years, but anyone who says Obama is a communist is an idiot. If you’d like to read about life under communism, try reading Generacion Y.

2. It’s poignant for the right to complain about Obama’s coup and plot for armed revolution. It’s quite telling that, when encountering a democratic result with which they disagree, the radicalized ignorant right (read: Palinites, Malkinites, JoethePlumberites, Hannitistas) go for a third-world, undemocratic response.

Bonus – how many images representing Sean of Hannity can you find in that screencap?

An Epilogue of Sorts

28 Feb

When Buffalo finally gets around to building its Museum of Failed Plans and Abandoned Dreams, Bashar Issa’s aborted tower and failed Statler renovation will have prominent spots in the permanent collection.

I won’t recount how much hope and how many expectations Buffalonians laid on the shoulders of a young Briton of Iraqi heritage who promised to build big and renovate gloriously. Geek’s given a comprehensive retrospective in this post, after all.

After screwing up the renovation, Issa screwed up the simplest thing ever – selling the property to a willing and able developer with money and a plan. Now, he’s stuck in the British version of bankruptcy, he’s got a building he can’t afford to maintain, and very angry tenants who have taken him to court over the Statler’s deterioration and debt.

Bashar Issa isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, guy to come through town promising that his brand of elixir can cure all of Buffalo’s ills. But every story like the Issa saga helps to build upon Buffalonians’ huge and ever-growing cynicism.

Issa’s failure is a failure with good pedigree. Adelphia Tower. Peace Bridge. Outer Harbor. Bass Pro. From his own portfolio, we have Issa Quay. Sarah Tower. Canopus Tower.

We should have known, I suppose.

Bashar Issa’s BSC Group has ever finished only one major project – an apartment block in Manchester.

But in the end, Issa’s pump & dump, his mismanagement, his fights with the Laborers’ Union (while exposing his workers to asbestos), have only made that whole “hope” thing that much harder for Buffalonians to stomach when the next guy rolls into town selling his elixir.

Leaving on a Jet Plane…

28 Feb

I found this aviation blog through Buffalog, and spent a good hour this morning surfing through the various posts.

Bashar Issa and The Statler: A Lesson For Buffalo

28 Feb

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“Cherish the past, adorn the future, construct for the future” – Bashar Al-Issa

When Bashar Issa exploded on the scene in June of 2006, we were all pretty excited that one of the most beautiful buildings in Downtown Buffalo was to be renovated by an out-of-town developer with money and vision.

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Issa was exciting.  2006 was the peak of the “hopeful years” when it seemed Buffalo was ready to slough off it’s usual skepticism and embrace a project.  We were trying new things, we lost a few pounds and we were looking for Mr. Right.  Issa’s decision to buy the Statler and and invest $80MM to make it a world class hotel and condo project seemed a validation of the things we all knew about Buffalo.  Someone finally came along and told us we were pretty.  At first, even a cynic like me was taken with the guy.

By January of 2007, I started to have my doubts about Issa.  He hadn’t announced much of a plan for the Statler, and was immediately invested in drumming up national support for the project with his interest in buying the Central Terminal, his master plan for the City of Buffalo, his 48 Story City Tower and his Statler on The Sea.  He was trying really hard to look successful without accomplishing much.  I grew suspicious as the hero worship grew to a fever pitch with weekly updates from another local website as to the proclivities of Mr. Issa.  I thought we were investing too much in his mere presence.  We were like a girl who didn’t want to think that her boyfriend could possibly be a douchebag, even though she was starting to see his real self.  My comments from January of 2007:

When the Statler is completed and I see cranes in the air around the site for the Buffalo City Tower, I’ll thank Mr. Issa for his efforts. Until then I’ll applaud Rocco Termini, Sam Savarino, Carl Paladino, Ben Obletz, Paul Ciminelli, and Carl Montante for completing projects that make Buffalo a better place to live, work, and play.

I hope that issuing a simple “Welcome to Buffalo, Mr. Issa” will suffice…

I think we know that from this point, it was pretty much all downhill.  There were project delays, incremental progress and the completion of new elevator doors and discussion of new windows at the hotel seemed to be enough to throw New Buffalo into a near orgasmic fit.  “He loves me, he really loves me!!!”

While a Jake Halpern article in the Wall Street Journal seemed to upset many locals, Halpern turned out to be quite prophetic, the friend who finally sits you down and tells you your boyfriend is sleeping with six of your sorority sisters:

The danger is that Buffalo’s optimism regarding Mr. Issa will become a kind of clinging, desperate hope. This hard-luck city is always looking for redemption: redemption from poverty, from four straight Super Bowl losses, from the loss of the steel mills, from the bad stereotypes about the weather, and from the opportunists who, like myself, move away from the city in its hour of need.

This need makes someone like Mr. Issa more appealing because it casts him as a hero in the classic American storyline. He’s the sheriff sauntering into town who, in John-Wayne-like fashion, will restore justice, dignity and prosperity.

The problem is that waiting for a John Wayne figure can create complacency and obscure the reality that redemption will not come easily or at once in the form of deus ex machina.

Progress slowed to a crawl and whispers began that Issa was in way over his head.  By January of 2008, the bloom was off the rose as the progress had ground to a halt and Mr. Issa’s workers walked off the job site due to low pay and unsafe working conditions.  News began to leak from his properties in England that he was having cash flow problems and that someone had died on one of his job sites.  Allegations of poor working conditions existed there as well.  By the fall of 2008, Issa announced his intention to sell the hotel and sold the plot of land for his invisible skyscraper.

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After all of that, Issa had a deal worked out with a Canadian firm to buy The Statler, but he fucked that up, too.

Now, here we are in February of 2009 and The Statler Hotel will probably be put into receivership.  The catering and event planning company which occupies The Statler has outstanding claims, is losing business and the building is bleeding money.  In fact, the lights might be turned off next month if some sort of resolution can’t be arranged.

Day-to-day control of Buffalo’s floundering Statler Towers could be in the hands of a court-appointed receiver as early as Tuesday.

Longtime Statler manager John Gingher testified the Statler is running at a deficit of as much as $75,000 a month, with just $19,000 in cash on hand. He told the court there is a strong probability the 18-story Niagara Square landmark could “go dark” within 30 days due to a pile of more than $1 million in bills, including some $400,000 owed to utilities.

Quite the sordid tale, eh?

Did Issa set out to fail?  Of course not.  I’m sure he saw an opportunity to get a great building on the cheap that he could renovate and flip for cash.  He would create artificial demand by announcing big plans to an uncritical local press.  He would build public support working his PR through that uncritical press and either pump and dump the property for a short term gain or eventually finish it and hopefully break even by operating a hotel and selling a few condos.  I tend to think it was more a function of the former than the latter, but that’s just me. In retrospect, why did we think that a privately financed $80MM project could provide the necessary return in a downtrodden market?  Were we high?

Alan, Marc and I are usually mocked for being negative when new projects are announced.  While others tend to focus on the design of new projects and lend a critical eye in that manner, we openly wonder if the project is feasible.  Does the project have the right funding?  Does the market support the project?  In this case, we didn’t do it soon enough.  Would it have made a difference if we did?  I don’t know, but I think we overinflate our value if we assume we would have.

So, when projects are announced and pretty diagrams drawn in Google Sketchup are unveiled, forgive me if I am skeptical.  I think we all need to be skeptical.  We need to be supportive of new ideas, yet critical.  As a community we should not be cheerleaders because someone validates us.  We should hold people accountable, measure progress and demand results.  We shouldn’t play the patsy for a snake oil salesman who is looking to make a buck with his Daddy’s money.

The Dumbing Down of Discourse in America

27 Feb

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It’s been happening for years and it seems as if conservative talk radio has taken it to a whole new level in recent years.  The level of discourse about important issues in America has reached a new ebb.  Blogs and social media also play a role in why people seem to prefer snark and sarcasm to legitimate debate about important issues, so we’re guilty as well.

However, we are at a critical juncture in our collective history.  A time in which we need to be re-evaluating our consumerist culture, our massive reliance on credit and other issues too numerous to mention.  One of those issues is whether or not the continued prohibition of marijuana in this day and age makes sense.  It has become a hot issue because California sees legalization as a way to raise new tax revenue as well as reducing the cost of arresting, prosecuting and housing marijuana criminals.

In December, I wrote about the legalization of marijuana as a potential remedy for the budget ills of both New York State and the federal government.

Leading financial minds and economists such as Milton Friedman, Nobel winner George Akerlof, George Soros, and Howard Margolis put out a study detailing the economic impact of legalization. They estimate that if just the same people who use marijuana now continued to use it once it was legal, the legalization would generate/save $12BN annually.  The study does not even account for the anticipated increased uses of medical marijuana, the industrial adoption of commercial grade hemp or the likely increase in recreational pot smokers/users if it were legal.  If you factor in those things, it pushes the numbers tenfold higher. Basically, it is a $120BN, annually renewable resource waiting to be tapped.

That’s a big pot of money that is available and state and federal governments would be foolish not to consider tapping it.  This isn’t an issue of weed smokers wanting to get out from under the man, it’s a global economic issue which deserves serious consideration.

The war against drugs is failing and the U.S. government should break with “prohibition” policies that have achieved little more than cram its prisons and stoke violence, three former Latin American presidents said on Wednesday.

The respected former presidents urged the United States and Latin American governments to move away from jailing drug users to debate the legalization of marijuana and place more emphasis on the treatment of addicts.

The presidents’ commission released a report calling on governments to refocus policies toward treating users, move toward decriminalizing marijuana, and invest more in education campaigns. It said current policies were rooted in “prejudices, fears and ideological visions” that inhibited debate.

So, the discussion we need to have in this country is about the public health costs, taxation, changes in drug enforcement funding, changes in employment law, legalization or decriminalization and a multitude of different factors related to this change in public policy.  And what do we get instead?  Watch this.

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Now, I know that Glenn Beck is the Sideshow Bob of Fox News, but this interview defines exactly what is wrong with our country.  We’d rather boil things down to anecdotal, bullshit talking points in order to win arguments rather than have a meaningful discussion.  Our inability to talk to one another without ideology getting in the way is incredibly frustrating.

Ideological xenophobia is the basis for any discussion in this culture and it’s time we start to reconsider everything.  Starting here.

FDIC Troubled Bank List

27 Feb

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Yesterday, the FDIC released an updated list of “troubled banks”.  As you might assume, the data are not good.

Commercial banks and savings institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reported a net loss of $26.2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008, a decline of $27.8 billion from the $575 million that the industry earned in the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarterly loss since 1990.

For all of 2008, insured institutions earned $16.1 billion, a decline of 83.9 percent from 2007 and the lowest annual total since 1990. Twelve FDIC-insured institutions failed during the fourth quarter and one banking organization received assistance. During the year, a total of 25 insured institutions failed. The FDIC’s “Problem List” grew during the quarter from 171 to 252 institutions, the largest number since the middle of 1995. Total assets of problem institutions increased from $115.6 billion to $159 billion.

The rising trend in troubled loans persisted in the fourth quarter. Insured institutions charged off $37.9 billion of troubled loans, more than twice the $16.3 billion that was charged-off in the fourth quarter of 2007. The annualized net charge-off rate of 1.91 percent equaled the previous quarterly high set in the fourth quarter of 1989. The amount of loans and leases that were noncurrent (90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) increased by $44.1 billion (23.7 percent) during the fourth quarter. At the end of 2008, a total of 2.93 percent of all loans and leases were noncurrent, the highest level for the industry since the end of 1992.

As Tracy Jordan said on 30 Rock last night, “I’m no expert, but I have strong opinions.”

So, there are 252 banks on the troubled list with assets of $159.4 billion?  How much does the FDIC have on hand to insure those assets?  According to the 2008 annual report (the most current), roughly $53 billion.  Of course, that was before the FDIC guaranteed $18 billion in assets from failed banks last year.  According to CNN, the FDIC intends to raise an additional $15 billion through one time fees to member banks.

Some basic math shows that the FDIC does not currently have the reserves to support a sudden wave of bank failures.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be raised if needed through further injections of liquidity and Congressional intervention…but, it might be a good idea to keep money coming in from homeowners by letting them refinance their loans, eh?

It also might be a good idea to let some regionals fail if their Texas ratios are out of whack.  We need a mix of intervention and failure.

The full quarterly banking report can be read here.

State Senate Rules Reform

27 Feb

Having not made it to Western New York, The State Senate Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform has set up a website and YouTube channel to update people on what it’s doing and also to solicit your feedback.

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It might be the most boring YouTube channel ever, but it’s more important than the one you subscribe to that shows animals doing silly but hilarious things.

The bi-partisan State Senate Temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform, co-Chaired by Senators David Valesky (D-Oneida) and John Bonacic (R-Mt. Hope), will hold its final two public hearings this week in New York City and Long Island. The hearings will be broadcast live via the Web (www.senate.state.ny.us) and among those scheduled to testify in New York City include former state senators, as well as representatives of organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice, New York City Bar Association and the Sunlight Foundation. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi will be among those who testify on Long Island.

Following the final hearings and prior to April 13 th, the committee will introduce a comprehensive rules reform package that will fundamentally change the way the Senate operates, increasing openness, fairness and accountability, and leading to a more participatory and transparent legislative process.

The committee hearings, two of which have already taken place in Syracuse and Albany, have each drawn dozens of witnesses. They have marked a significant break with practices of the past by allowing experts and the general public alike to testify on important pieces of legislation and actions of the Senate. Prior to these hearings, common practice in the State Senate meant most agreements and major legislation were taken up behind closed doors, shutting the public out from the process.

In keeping with one of the goals of this process, the complete video of past hearings, witness testimony and transcripts are posted on the Temporary Committee’s website: www.senate.state.ny.us/sws/reform/index.html.

Significantly, Andrew Stengel was hired by the Senate Democrats from the Brennan Center, which has been in the forefront of criticizing the state legislature for being a dysfunctional if not undemocratic cesspool.

Obama’s Iraq?

27 Feb

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Most sensible analysts say the Bush Administration made their biggest mistake in Iraq when they entered into the conflict without a discernible strategy beyond the invasion and a striking lack of an exit strategy.  Is President Obama making similar mistakes in Afghanistan?

In a statement, the president said he would reinforce U.S. forces in Afghanistan with two brigade-sized forces — a Marine Corps unit this spring and an Army one this summer, plus supporting troops. The additional forces would number more than 12,000 and would supplement the current force of approximately 38,000, a senior Pentagon official said. The president might add further to the buildup in subsequent months, perhaps ultimately nearly doubling the current force, officials have said.

In unveiling the long-anticipated start of a shift in forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, Obama acknowledged the need for a change in strategy in Afghanistan, which his aides in the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Central Command have been developing.

Saying the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan “demands urgent attention and swift action,” Obama said the strategy is under construction. The troop increase could not wait for the strategy, he suggested.

While the Obama administration says a new strategy is in the works, it is counter-intuitive to supplement troop levels without a plan for their use or their exit. Can we learn anything from the history of Afghanistan?

The Soviets have painted a fairly simple lesson from which we can learn.  They had 500,000 troops in Afghanistan and could not control the peace.  The British might also have something to add seeing as how they also lost their ass in this country.

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Some simple questions:

  • What is the goal?  Are we there to defeat the Taliban?  Win hearts and minds?  Defeat a counterinsurgency?
  • What are the measurable metric against which we will measure progress?
  • What is Plan B?  Plan C?
  • What international support can we rely upon?

Seems like we are re-committing ourselves to an open-ended conflict.  Can we afford it?

Seeing as how Obama has agreed to draw down combat forces in Iraq yet has still agreed to keep 50,000 troops in country as a “transition force” for an undetermined time, do we have the troops to support this two phase conflict?  I once studied under a political science professor who liked to say that empires are beasts that are always hungry.  Empires need to be fed and keeping the troops in Iraq and doubling down in Afghanistan is a way to keep the right wing off Obama’s back and keep the empire humming.

Sugaring Season

26 Feb

HT Marquil at EmpireWire.com