Wednesday, April 30, 2008

General Motors' General Pain

About this time last year, General Motors was chalking up an 11-cent/share gain for you. This time around, GM says it lost you $5.74/share in the quarter. What happened?
GM Is blaming the shortfall on problems created with the strike at American Axle.
I believe it is more fundamental than that.

I just returned from Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where the Texas Auto Writers Associated fielded its annual Spring Challenge—this is where all the auto manufacturers are invited to bring their new toys to show and tell for the journalists who shape public perception when choosing their next automobile.

I have posted more photos from the event on my Facebook site.

But here’s my fundamental impression: When GM is building one car, slapping two different decals on it, and trying to sell against itself, it’s wasting resources.
Case in point: The Saturn Sky (foreground) and the Pontiac Solstice (with raised hood, background.)
They’re the same car…and they have limited utility, unless you’re a die-hard rag-top fan like me.

But how many other duplicate products does GM—and Ford, and Chrysler, as well as Toyota and Nissan—make that could impact sales, profits, and public perception?


Notice there are no duplicate versions of the Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Corvette...and why should there be?

I get the premise of putting a premium label on a product to appeal to a more upscale consumer. All consumers are becoming more and more savvy, and as automobiles become more complex and more expensive, are the automakers creating problems for themselves by such duplicity?

As fuel prices climb past $4/gallon—and they will—the automakers have to make a more fundamental choice: will they stake their success on building two’s and three’s of a kind, or begin to pare the choices and direct their energies (no pun intended) towards better technology and higher fuel economy?

By the way, the government’s idea of an energy policy is to require all automobiles to get at least 35-mpg by 2021.

Gadzooks, what’s the rush, fellahs?
At that rate, we’ll be all driving cars with Flintstone power…
Yabbadabbadoooo...!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Houston Rockets' Red Glare


I just stayed up way past my bed time to watch the Houston Rockets wax the Utah Jazz in Game Four of the Western Conference playoffs. It was a 95-69 shellacking. It was worth what will surely be sleep-deprivation D-T's tomorrow.

I'm no sports junkie, but I do know theatrics when I see them. After Houston's national humiliation of Salt Lake City, we switched over to watch the Spurs-Suns game.

Along with the typically bad officiating by the NBA's crack team of court judges, we were treated to more histrionics and pratfalls than a WWE event. In fact, I wonder if that's where old NBA players go...or worse, where they may be coming from.

It's a one-point game with Phoenix barely holding on with 2:55 left in the 4th Period. Wait--two free throws by San Antonio makes it a one-point game in their favor. Now Tony Parker sinks another two-pointer with three-seconds on the clock, but the Suns sink a three-pointer to tie the game.
Wysteria Lane is all a-twitter.

Flops abound.
I am road weary...will read of the results tomorrow.
Maybe.
Go Rockets.

Monday, April 28, 2008

TAWA Spring Challenge

(Texas Motor Speedway) I am like a kid in a candy shop: This is the annual Texas Automotive Writers Association (TAWA) Spring Challenge, where the auto makers and marketers ship down their best offerings in aluminum, steel and composits to impress the writers who can make or break their image with Texas auto consumers.
It’s a heady task.

The Big Three have all assembled—Ford, GM, and Chrysler—along with the nameplates of their foreign competitors and wannabe’s: Toyota/Lexus, Nissan/Infinity, Mercedes Benz, Audi, BMW, Honda, Jaguar and Volvo. Kia is here too; Ray Lucia is not.

Collectively, the TAWA group will select this year’s best-bets for “Family Car of Texas,” along with the “most innovative,” “best new design,” “best use of technology,” and “best value.”
It’s a tough choice.

I don’t mind telling you now my overall favorite.
There are some cars here I cannot tell you about until later in the week…and other’s that I know aren’t going to carry much water with most of these writers, but which I like anyway.

I’ve been smitten with Mini Cooper fever. The stretched-version “Clubman” is here to be driven and evaluated. I actually caught up with a Dodge Viper on the track in the Mini “Coop.’” Of course the fact that the yay-hoo in the Viper spun out of control in the first turn might have something to do with that. Still, that driver never regained his feeling for that car, and I easily followed him closely around the track.

My favorite vehicle at this year’s event is the all new Lexus IS F, which you can see between movie trailers in every theater in America. The workmanship is flawless, in true Lexus style. The exhaust is ominous, and when the engine passes through the 3700-rpm threshold, a second set of fuel injectors kicks in to make this machine sound as if the very gates of Hell have yawned open.
I happened to set my highest track speed (90mph+) in this car.

A word about the track.
It’s in the infield of the Texas Motor Speedway, and it’s a one-mile loop set up for road racing; all right-turns except for two lefts. They told us if we made three left turns, we’d probably be in trouble. There is one, comparatively long straight away, that can’t be more than a quarter of a mile, and the rest of the track is turns, dips, and curves.

So Zero-to-90 before the first turn is pretty amazing—not even the Viper had that kind of nimbleness—especially when you know you’ve got to back off the gas and tap the breaks to negotiate a tight, 279-degree turn.
The Lexus IS F was the top choice on my ballot.

When I was driving the Ford Mustang “Bullitt,” another driver in the Lexus stayed glued to my tail. The Lexus is just that good.

In later posts I will tell you about the new Nissan Murano, and it’s high-falutin’ cousin, the Infinity FX-50, the Mercedes SL-Class for 2009, and a pair of Audi’s that were impressive.

I’ll also share with you the details of that other car, the enthusiasm for which dare not be named until after the Media embargo.

I have posted additional photos on my Facebook page.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Next Bubble: Hunger?

Could the Global Warming alarmists be falling behind as the Global Hungerians begin to encroach on their emotional territory?

Here’s the scenario: food prices are being driven up—particularly corn—in the quest for cheaper, “greener” fuel that allegedly contributes less to the warming of the planet.


By some accounts, 30% of the U.S. corn crop is now going to fuel, not food production.


The New York Sun is quoting this morning Economics and Law Prof. Ford Runge at the University of Minnesota: “I don’t think anybody knows precisely how much ethanol contributes to the run-up in food prices, but the contribution is clearly substantial.”


The paper also quotes a Washington think tank, the International Food Policy Research Institute, which has determined that at least a quarter of the run-up in commodities prices is directly attributable to biofuels.


Last year, Prof. Runge and Prof. Benjamin Senauer, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor.” The pair were criticized as being alarmists then. Prof. Runge now thinks their work was too conservative.


Remember, Ethanol was initially promoted as a way for the US to cut back on foreign oil. Most recently, biofuels have also been teased as a possible way to fight climate change, but the emerging food crisis may be taking the shine off the ethanol apple…er, husk.

Go figure: 400 pounds of corn makes 25 gallons of ethanol. That's a 400/25 ratio. What is that—an efficiency factor of 6%? 400-pounds of corn might not be a very good diet but that’s roughly enough to keep an adult person alive for a year.

(I dunno—I could live on corn tortillas, nacho’s and Dorito’s for a little while. That’s the Yellow food group, right? You also get cornbread in that food group. Twinkies are in the Yellow food group.
They don’t come from corn…but the fructose sweetener does.)

Those climate change advocates (a.k.a. Vice President Al Gore,) are probably going to want to put a little distance between themselves and ethanol now, to avoid tarnishing their efforts against global warming.

I’ve wondered what it would take to wake people up to the insane math that will eventually doom the government-mandated Ethanol Frenzy.

Professor Senauer said it best: “Crop-based biofuels are not part of the solution. They, in fact, add to the problem."

Noonan Nails It

Peggy Noonan is one of my favorite columnists, and as usual, she has "nailed" the sentiment of the country as we move from the promise of a political Spring into the Dog Days of a campaign Summer. Her column published in today's Wall Street Journal captures fairly the mood of the people as we are led like lemmings through our daily routines--especially when traveling.

I just spent a fast 20-hours in NYC.
Up one day, grab a little sleep, do the show, and schlepp the gear back to Houston the next. I'm not jet-lagged, but I am airport-weary, and Ms. Noonan is spot on in her observations.

Because you may not get to see her article, I am reprinting it-- without permission, but with my recommendation--below.
Amen, Peggy.


America is in line at the airport. America has its shoes off, is carrying a rubberized bin, is going through a magnetometer. America is worried there is fungus on the floor after a million stockinged feet have walked on it. But America knows not to ask.

America is guilty until proved innocent, and no one wants to draw undue attention. America left its ticket and passport in the jacket in the bin in the X-ray machine, and is admonished. America is embarrassed to have put one one-ounce moisturizer too many in the see-through bag. America is irritated that the TSA agent removed its mascara, opened it, put it to her nose, and smelled it. Why don't you put it up your nose and see if it explodes? America thinks.

And, as always: Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist, and you know I know you know I am not a terrorist? Why this costly and harassing kabuki when we both know the facts, and would agree that all this harassment is the government's way of showing "fairness," of showing that it will equally humiliate anyone in order to show its high-mindedness and sense of justice? Our politicians congratulate themselves on this as we stand in line.

All the frisking, beeping and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that common sense is yesterday. Another thing: It reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the phone. The middle-aged woman is the one spread-eagled over there in the delicate shell beneath the removed jacket, praying nothing on her body goes beep and makes people look.

America makes it through security, gets to the gate, waits. The TV monitor is on. It is Wolf Blitzer. He is telling us with a voice of urgency of the Pennsylvania returns. But no one looks up. We are a nation of Willie Lomans, dragging our rollies through acres of airport, going through life with a suitcase and a slack jaw, trying to get home after a long day of meetings, of moving product.

No one in crowded gate 14 looks up to see what happened in Pennsylvania. No one. Wolf talks to the air. Gate 14 is small-town America, a mix, a group of people of all classes and races brought together and living in close proximity until the plane is called, and America knows what Samuel Johnson knew. "How small of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure."

Gate 14 doesn't think any one of the candidates is going to make their lives better. Gate 14 will vote anyway, because they know they are the grownups of America and must play the role and do the job.

* * *
So: Pennsylvania.

As seen from the distance of West Texas, central California and Oklahoma, which is where I've been.

Main thought. Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama's problem. America is Mr. Obama's problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men's Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness.

Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter's Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There's gold in that history.

John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.

Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That's why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel. They wonder if it means something. Not that the presence of the pin proves love of country – any cynic can wear a pin, and many cynics do. But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it, and what did he learn was loveable, and what does he think about it all?

Another challenge. Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they're questioning its content, its fullness. Gate 14 has a right to hear this. They'd lean forward to hear.

This is an opportunity, for Mr. Obama needs an Act II. Act II is hard. Act II is where the promise of Act I is deepened, the plot thickens, and all is teed up for resolution and meaning. Mr. Obama's Act I was: I'm Obama. He enters the scene. Act III will be the convention and acceptance speech. After that a whole new drama begins. But for now he needs Act II. He should make his subject America.

* * *

Here's some comfort for him, for all Democrats. In Lubbock, Texas – Lubbock Comma Texas, the heart of Texas conservatism – they dislike President Bush. He has lost them. I was there and saw it. Confusion has been followed by frustration has turned into resentment, and this is huge. Everyone knows the president's poll numbers are at historic lows, but if he is over in Lubbock, there is no place in this country that likes him. I made a speech and moved around and I was tough on him and no one – not one – defended or disagreed. I did the same in North Carolina recently, and again no defenders. I did the same in Fresno, Calif., and no defenders, not one.

He has left on-the-ground conservatives – the local right-winger, the town intellectual reading Burke and Kirk, the old Reagan committeewoman – feeling undefended, unrepresented and alone.
This will have impact down the road.

I finally understand the party nostalgia for Reagan. Everyone speaks of him now, but it wasn't that way in 2000, or 1992, or 1996, or even '04.

I think it is a manifestation of dislike for and disappointment in Mr. Bush. It is a turning away that is a turning back. It is a looking back to conservatism when conservatism was clear, knew what it was, was grounded in the facts of the world.

The reasons for the quiet break with Mr. Bush: spending, they say first, growth in the power and size of government, Iraq. I imagine some of this: a fine and bitter conservative sense that he has never had to stand in his stockinged feet at the airport holding the bin, being harassed.

He has never had to live in the world he helped make, the one where grandma's hip replacement is setting off the beeper here and the child is crying there. And of course as a former president, with the entourage and the private jets, he never will.
I bet conservatives don't like it.
I'm certain Gate 14 doesn't.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Faux-mouthed Federales


(New York) Ooh: First-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell to its lowest level in two months in the latest week, according to the Labor Department’s crack team of bean counters this morning.

Thus sayeth the Oracle of Washington, “initial claims fell last week by 33,000 to 342,000,” which would indicate the lowest level since the middle of February." The Wall Street crowd of economists expected claims to rise by 3,000 to 375,000.

Interestingly, the claims in the previous week were revised to show an increase of 20,000 to 375,000 compared with the initial estimate of a rise of 17,000 to 373,000. The four-week average of initial claims fell 7,250 to 369,500. This is like changing the answers on your test...or maybe turning in your book report early so you can fix it after the teacher's looked at it.

Meanwhile, those still receiving state jobless benefits fell 65,000 to 2.93 million in the week ending April 12. The four-week moving average of continuing claims rose 20,500 to 2.96 million…

Just a few thoughts about this…you have to ask yourself two questions: Where are these numbers coming from, and do they reflect reality, or the way the authors would like for things to be?

The government releases these figures.
They are representative of the world as viewed through Federal Bifocals. Jobless claims tapering one week over another do not a trend make; more than likely you’re seeing the effects of jobless benefits running out for some, and they’re falling off the rolls as they are forced to find work.
Any work.
Amazing how that works out.
The Federal teat goes dry, gotta find a gig.
It's an amazing incentive.

Also—this is a one week snapshot.
Notice how they like to go back and revise numbers?
And notice, too, how the four-week average continues to trend upwards?

Again, this is the language of the Federales, and it would appear they are speaking from both sides of their mouths. Could this be a prelude to the Federal Reserve slacking off on rate cuts, priming the pump, perhaps, and getting our collective mind-set re-oriented to accept the next Federal reality?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fuming Over Fumes

Gasoline is continuing its climb in parallel to increasing crude oil prices…and it’s not expected to taper off anytime soon as we approach the traditional Summer travel season.
The cheapest gas on the Lundberg Survey this morning is in Newark, New Jersey, which has an average price of $3.21. San Francisco drivers are paying the highest price per gallon at $3.88.

May I switch to a siding and rant for a moment?

As soon as I finish the show this morning, I am climbing on a flight to New York, where tomorrow we’ll be doing a two-hour extended-mix version of this show from the Equities Magazine Investor Conference on the oil and minerals sectors—I have about eight segments lined up for insight on gold mining companies, copper mining companies, and capital managers who are assessing the investment landscape.

Should be a pretty good show tomorrow from 9 to 11 Central Time, and I hope you're tune in.

So I am getting ready to go this morning, and I went downstairs before the show to put my bags in the company car, which I will drive to the airport. I was in this vehicle a last week and noticed there was only a quarter of a tank of gasoline in it. The power steering pump was making a horrendous noise—that f e e d m e e whine that power steering pumps make when they’re out of reservoir fluid.

I mentioned to one of the fellows in the office that the vehicle should be looked at, and the tank topped off, one week ago.

Do you think it got done?
No.

It was driven at least once more to Sugar Land (where there is no Equal), effectively expending the remaining fuel in the tank so that the low-fuel indicator light glowed an ominous orange on the dash panel. And even less power steering fluid remained in the pump system.

I know this because when I went down to put my bags in the car, the steering felt like those chintzy Driver’s Education simulators we had in high school—remember the one’s that were supposed to give you a sense of resistance in the wheel as you guided the sim through curves and turns? The power steering pump was squeeling like a stuck pig, because like the fuel pump, it was also sucking fumes.

So I stopped my routine this morning--interrupted my important work of collecting for you the latest information, innovative ideas, and valuable nuggets of wisdom—and drove this squealing, hard-steering pig out of the parking garage, and down the block to a gasoline station, to pump gas and plug a bottle of steering fluid into the reservoir because those responsible for tending to such details didn't.

Here’s the deal—and you may already have such a policy in place (the trick is getting folks to follow it): You drive the company car, you bring it back with enough gasoline for the next guy to get his errand run without running out of gas.
How difficult is that principle to understand, let alone execute?

You notice something’s amiss, alert those responsible for maintaining the vehicle so that they can follow up; and it may be in your best interest to follow up on their follow up.
Just un-believable how we treat our co-workers sometimes…

So gasoline’s at an all time high again for the second day in a row…I paid $3.48 to soothe the savage beast in our company car...still cheaper by the gallon than power steering fluid: 10-ounces of that stuff will set you back $4.00, which would price it somewhere north of $20/gal.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tax Freedom Day: Huzzah!

Today is Pennsylvania Primary Day.
Paxutauny Phil voted early this morning, saw his shadow outside the voting booth, and predicted six more weeks of intense campaigning.

Today is Tax Freedom Day.
It’s also Earth Day.
Somewhere, someplace, there is something perversely poetic in that crossing of the stars.
I’m sure some candlestick chart reader will be able to come up with an appropriate pattern, the double planet cross, or something like that.
It's not easy being green.

Tax Freedom day means, basically, from today onward, you’re working for you. The wages you earn will actually accrue to your benefit, as opposed to the earnings you’ve amassed over the past 112 days of 2008, which are equal to your Federal tax bill for the year.

Mwahahahaa!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Congressman Brady Comes to Call

Thanks to U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (The Woodlands)
for dropping by to spend some time on the show Monday.

Danica Patrick Energy Policy

I just returned from New York for the 57th Anniversary celebration of Equities Magazine, where we spent a couple of days rubbing shoulders with small cap companies looking for funding for their next great ideas, and venture capitalists and investors willing to take a chance bringing the next great idea to market.

I would characterize the mood in the room as cautiously optimistic—in contrast to the constant dosage of gloom and doom that’s being shoveled out the front doors of most mainstream media outlets.

Just this morning, that paragon of journalism, the New York Sun, in an never-ending quest for greater readership, printed this sobering headline:


Food Rationing Confronts Breadbasket of the World

(insert Dr. Evil minor-chord here)

Staff Writer, Josh Gerstein, breathlessly posts from Mountain View, California, “Many parts of America, long considered the breadbasket of the world, are now confronting a once unthinkable phenomenon: food rationing."

Gerstein writes that “major retailers” on both coasts are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.

Hold that thought as I share with you this headline from the Associated Press over the weekend:

"Danica Patrick became the first female winner in IndyCar history Sunday, taking the Indy Japan 300 after the top contenders were forced to pit for fuel in the final laps.

"Patrick finished 5.85-seconds ahead of pole-sitter Helio Castroneves on the 1.5-mile oval after leader Scott Dixon pitted with five laps left and Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan came in a lap later," said the AP.

"It's a long time coming. Finally," Patrick said. "It was a fuel strategy race [italics are mine], but my team called it perfectly for me.”

Why is auto racing so important?
Where is the payoff from the huge amounts of money that are poured into the cars and the teams that sustain them? Why is NASCAR rapidly overtaking more traditional sports as the number-one fan attraction?

From a purely entertainment perspective, there’s always the expectation of something spectacular that’s about to happen, maybe just around the next bend.

Secondly, we can all identify somewhat with the modified stock cars that are out on the track---at least they more closely resemble the cars in our garage than the Indy cars do.

But the fundamentals are still there, whether you’re watching NASCAR or Indy racing…and Danica Patrick’s quote underscores a strategy we should all employ: Fuel Strategy.

Where did we ever get on the track of hoarding?
Each of you understands the destructive mentality of hoarding…and the viral effect such behavior can have in an economy.
Did Danica Patrick hoard her fuel?
No.

She and her team precisely calculated the weight, speed, temperature and track conditions to determine what it would take to beat her competitors…by 5-seconds over a 300-mile race.

We’re in a race for survival in a global economy.
This is not a sprint.
Could Danica Patrick have won the race, towing a trailer with an extra 100-gallons of fuel?
No.

So why do these people in California and New York believe hoarding rice is going to pay off for them in the long run?Instead, the prudent thing to do is measure carefully the consumption of grain, just as Patrick measured precisely the consumption of her fuel.

America will continue to be the “bread basket” of the world because we continue to have the ability and technology to out-produce anyone else on the planet so far. How long we can continue to do so depends upon how well we integrate policy and planning, not hoarding and stocking up…. especially with commodities like grain which are perishable.

The people we talked with last week at Equities Magazine’s investor conference are cautiously optimistic: They’re looking for reasons to invest. They’re looking for the next great idea that can carry American business, ingenuity, and influence on the global stage to the next level.

We’re competing with China, India, South America, Europe…for funds, food, and energy. It’s like a 300-mile race, where everything you do will count or detract from the outcome. It’s a long-distance race, not a sprint, and the race will belong to the swift and the wise, not the slothful and greedy, looking to hoard instead of consume intelligently.

By the way, if you found this Blog in a search for Danica Patrick, hoping to find photos of a scantily-clad Danica on websites hoping to capture page views, sorry.
Get your mind out of the infield.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: JetBlue

(Somewhere between Little Rock and Memphis, 37,969-ft.)
I am sitting over the starboard wing root of an Embraer 190 airliner operated by JetBlue, enroute from Houston to New York’s JFK. The sun is streaming through an over-sized crystaline window, framing a scene of brilliant, blue sky padded by a fluffy layer of clouds below. The wind is whispering past at over 500-mph.

This is my first time on a JetBlue flight, and I must admit I am favorably impressed. I bought the seat over the wings because it promised extra leg room.
Boy howdy, this is nice.

I’m a fairly compact dude, reaching the ground a little more than 5 ½ below my noggin, and no longer the contortionist I once was as a young, flat-belly. The last time I flew a commuter “puddle-jumper” jet, it took an hour to unfold me.

The seats are arranged in pairs, nice, wide, comfy chairs “in rich Corinthian leather,” as the pilot joked in his pre-flight remarks.
Real or faux, they’re nice and wide.

The Captain stood in the aisle before we pushed off from the gate, extolling the virtues of the aircraft.
By the way, he’s north of 6” tall, and had plenty of headroom above him to the cabin ceiling.
This jet is no flying cigar tube.

We left the terminal and taxied quickly to the runway, and lifted smoothly into the sky. On the seat backs, a crisp LCD TV screen with DirectTV, and my favorite channel, the electronic map showing speed, altitude, and general position of the aircraft on a Google-branded color map.

The other remarkable thing about this trip—it’s cheap.
Okay, inexpensive is a better word, perhaps.
But I climbed aboard with my luggage and three additional boxes of Radio gear for significantly less than my ticket from Houston’s hometown air carrier was going to cost.
My CFO is pleased.

The only semi-negative with JetBlue for me is that I must fly from a less-convenient airport, and they don’t go all the places I might need to go. But…with a co-worker dropping me off at the curb, inconvenience is a relative thing.
JetBlue may be onto something.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Math for the Masses, Part Tres

Would gasoline costing 18-cents less per gallon help your monthly budget?

That’s the outcome of a proposal by Sen. John McCain, who is suggesting suspension of the Federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel this summer.

The bigger economic question that should be answered is whether the loss of Federal revenues, which fund highway maintenance, would be worth the momentary lessening of pain at the pump, and what would it take to recover the momentum lost on existing infrastructure projects that are dependant upon the Federal fuel tax for sustentance?

Remember the math exercise we went through a few weeks ago, showing how driving a little further to save a few pennies on the price of a gallon of gas was actually counter-productive?
Perhaps Sen. McCain should try that word problem on his own.

I burn about 28.5-gallons of fuel a week in my car.
That’s roughly three fill-ups each week.
In a four week month, I’ll burn through 114-gallons of gasoline.

If the cost of fuel is $3.23/gal, that’s $368.22 in fuel costs for the Silver Bullet. Lop-off 18-cents a gallon from that price, and the difference to me is a little over $20/mo.

Now if given the choice, any one of us would rather have an extra Jackson in our pocket than not…but at what cost?

Example: If a highway construction project that employs 100 workers is suspended for the summer because there’s no funding, multiply that by 48-states and you’ve just put 4,800 workers out of a job, just to save everyone else $20 a month at the pump.

The idea of suspending gasoline taxes might sound appealing, especially on the campaign trail where lots of promises are made, but this is one idea that is ill-founded. The math does not work in McCain’s favor…nor does it address the two core problems from which $3.23 gasoline has come, and from which $4/gal fuel will surely emerge: Supply and Demand.

Sen. McCain and his brethren in Congress would do better to allow more domestic production of oil and gas deposits, lessening our dependence upon imported sources from megalomaniacs like Hugo Chavez (fortunately, we don’t get that much from Venezuela…) and create incentives for expansion of current refinery capacity and ease the process for bringing cheap, clean nuclear energy on line quickly.

That would be called an energy policy…of which we currently do not have much of one in this country.

Robert Schroeder at MarketWatch.com chimes in with this column.
Thomas Kostigen also chimes in with this commentary.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Common Tater

What food crop can be grown at almost any elevation or climate… requires very little water, matures in as little as 50 days, and yields up to four times more food per acre than wheat or rice:
Potatos.

There is an International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, which is working to heighten the profile of the ‘tater…the Director of the center is a woman by the name of Pamela Anderson. Bet people take her phone calls.

I’ve already figured out a smashing PR campaign for the Potato:
"This Spud’s for You."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Crazy Carter

Speaking of things that make you go, “Hmmmm…” What is up with former President Jimmy Carter? Hugging Hamas leaders, and paying “respects” at the grave of PLO thug Yassir Arafat??

Has anyone checked the former President for early stages of Alzheimer’s, perhaps?

Remember, this is the President who so enraged our enemies in Iran that they purposefully held US captives until after he was out of office, so that Pres. Ronald Reagan could enjoy the political benefits of winning their release during his watch.

I heard a comment from a former Navy Seal who suggested we take away his Presidential pension and exile him to Plains, Ga.
Not a bad plan…

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Math for the Masses, Pt. Deux

According to Reuters, a nationwide survey suggests “Americans would prefer more money be invested in technology to solve the nation's energy ailments than to cure cancer or other diseases."

Given the fundamentals of supply and demand, that’s one way to drive down demand—attrition of consumers by consumption by cancer. But that’s not a very palatable solution, nor does it solve the root causes of either problem.

I have just returned from a few days in Washington DC, lobbying on behalf of the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society for funding of various research projects that can ultimately discover the cure for blood cancers.

The Department of Defense has some pretty amazing stuff going on… or they did, until Congressional budget cuts put them on the shelf for a year.

The National Cancer Institute also is doing amazing research, but they took the equivalent of a 13% funding cut last year.

There are two trends about to collide, and you and I will bear the brunt of our fiscal myopia:

First--We’re getting older as a nation.
The older we get, the more of us are coming down with various illnesses and maladies, and cancer is most prevalent in an aging population.

Second, the lack of funding for research means fewer young scientists are being encouraged to do the work. The average age of cancer researchers in the US is in the 50’s. With fewer and fewer young scientists entering the field, there will be less and less brains working on the problem when the current group of researchers retire.

Coincidentally, the lack of funding for cancer research also means fewer potential therapies—and possible cures—are in the pipeline for development.

So, if more of us contract a cancer type, whether it be blood, bone, or tissue, and fewer scientists and researchers are working on solutions (and drug companies turn to more lucrative diseases to address), then you can deduct that we’ll solve our energy demand by simple arithmetic.
Doesn’t have to be that way.

In fact, I was encouraged to learn that Mass. Sen. Ted Kennedy and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison are collaborating on cancer legislation what would address these concerns.

There is a lot of government waste in Washington.
There are a lot of worthy causes that deserve to be funded.

Tell your Congressman how you want the money spent, while you still have the energy to respond.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Flights of Fancy on the Road

Flying in the springtime can be just as indefinite as it was back in the days of the Ford Tri-motor “airliners.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather sit on the ground for two hours in a Boeing 737 than a 10-passenger Ford Tri-Motor.

But it’s not an enjoyable experience, especially if you're sitting over the wing in a seat that won’t recline.

I once took a ride in a Stearman bi-plane.
It was part of a flight of five such aircraft, touring the country on behalf of Red Barron Pizza. I think the pizza sucks.
The Stearman, on the other hand, was like no other sensory experience I have ever had.

The bright red plane was an open-cockpit aircraft, with the seats positioned in tandem, pilot sitting behind the passenger.

We took off on a day that was threatened by a few random puffs of clouds forming up regiments in the sky, getting ready to rain later in the afternoon. No sitting on the tarmack for two hours.

We lifted off the runway at a speed slower than my car can negotiate a freeway connecting ramp, and I felt the gentle sense of increased gravity tugging on my body as the plane slipped away from the ground. I could feel the updrafts in the wings as we flew over pastures and farm fields, warming in the morning sun.

We flew straight up until the plane stalled, and then dipped gracefully on one wing to point back towards the earth. We did barrel-rolls, we flew in a tight circle, opposite another Stearman, and we flew inverted.

If I ever get a pilot’s license and buy an aircraft, it will be a Stearman.

You learn a lot about people sitting with them for two hours on the runway.
People who can sleep anywhere.
People who shouldn’t try to sleep anywhere outside their own beds.

And people who should really think twice before getting that tattoo at the base of their spine…and wearing undergarments that reveal their taste in body art and underwear brand when they get up and down in their seat on an airliner.

My own personal travelling tips are these:
Take along things you could throw away if you had to—older shirts, socks, and those aforementioned unmentionables.

I like to slip my cell phone into my carry-on bag before going through the security check point.

Those hourly-wage TSA people will see it on the X-ray, recognize it, and let it pass…instead of asking you to take it off your belt, power it up and down, and maybe giving them an excuse to conduct a random body cavity search, etc,. wasting your time in line.

My Bride confided that those paper seat covers in the restrooms are great blotters for excess facial oil. Be sure to do that before the liner is placed on the toilet seat.

For my money, the best shoe shines in the world are obtained at the airport.

I believe the shoe shine crew at Houston ‘s Bush International Airport are among the best, although you may have your own favorites elsewhere around the country.

Still, $4 plus the tip, is a hard value to beat, and you come off the plane looking like a million bucks no matter how long it took to get there!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Math for the Masses

When I was in grade school we used to have to do Word Problems in math.
I hated that stuff.

"A train leaves New York City at 11am travelling 70-mph, and another train leaves Los Angeles at 3pm, travelling 50-mph. What time do they serve lunch?"

Who the flip cares?
Put me on the red-eye to LA, and I'll have the rib-eye tonight.

I have used Algebraic equations to solve everyday problems at work exactly ONCE in my lifetime since graduating from school. Maybe it was just the way the Word Problems were written...

So I get this e-mail this morning from a sweet, sweet lady at church, and it’s for a website where you can punch in your zip code to find the cheapest price on gasoline. Fill-Me-Up.com, or something like that (not the real URL).

How important is a couple-cents’ difference in the price you pay at the pump? I’m not talking 30-cent/gal variations—no one’s going to ignore that—but how many of you will drive past a station selling fuel at $3.14 to look for gas at $3.11? That’s a 3-cent/gal difference.

Let’s suppose you fill-up with 15-gallons of fuel…that 3-cent difference in the price nets you 45-cents on the purchase. If you drive 5-miles to save three cents on the price of a gallon of gasoline…you’re actually costing yourself $2.52 to drive the extra difference.
Plus the time and irritation of another 5-miles worth of traffic.

We have allowed ourselves to become caught up in the mythical, mathmatical mindset that a few-pennies saved can make our day—and that’s not wrongheaded thinking. However, you cannot become overwhelmed by that one aspect—cost per unit—and make all of your decisions based upon that sole perspective.

Same thing when you’re considering whether to get rid of the car you’re driving and trade up for a newer, snappier model. The car manufacturers are really insidious about making you think you need to buy next year’s model this week…and I admit, this is one of my personal weaknesses.

I love new cars.
I love the smell, I love the tightness in the steering wheel, I love to hear the soft purring of a freshly-assembled engine with only 5-miles on the odometer. And I will sit here and tell you all the virtues and attractions of the next new car, because I am a car nut.

I should go to Automobiles Anonymous meetings…
Hello, I am Brent.
I am addicted to cars.

If they had a 12-step plan for weaning me off the new-car addiction, it might include this mental exercise (which is not too unlike the word-math problem we went through on gasoline prices:)

If your car is paid for, and still runs safely, you’re probably better off sinking a few hundred dollars a year into it in maintenance expenses than going into hock up to your gill slits for a show-room fresh model.
Do as I say, not as I do.
I am guilty, guilty, guilty, of not following my own advice sometimes.

Look at it from this perspective: If you’re not making car payments (the average monthly payment in America is somewhere north of $375/mo for an average term of 63-months) you should be able to afford $100 for a new battery, $500 for new tires, $400 for a new brake job…let’s throw in a new, crack-free, stone-pit-free windshield for $275…over the course of a year.

Do the math: $4,500 for a year’s worth of car payments vs. $1,275 for the maintenance list I just suggested. Add $100 for a good hand wax to restore your automotive self -esteem.

If money is no object, go ahead, take the plunge, and drop 5-G’s a year for new car payments. Remember—the most expensive element of car ownership is not the operational cost, however. You take the biggest hit in value when you drive that new buggy off the lot, often owing more than the car is worth fifteen minutes after you seal the deal at the dealership.

I still like new cars, though.
Not quite reformed…yet.