Monday, August 30, 2010

The Retread and the Rookie

Don't look now, folks, but there's an election coming up soon.

Nothing much at stake here, just the fate of a once vibrant state so awash in red ink and incompetent political leadership that it threatens to become a West Coast version of Mississippi.

And who will lead us out of the darkness?

Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman tell us they can do the job, but neither inspire a lot of confidence. There are no Kennedys or Reagans in this race.

What to make of Jerry Brown? He was a post-Watergate breath of fresh air when he became governor in 1975, a mixture of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism but who at times was so ethereal he was difficult to comprehend.

For all his high mindedness, he is at heart a career politician. Governor for two terms, mayor of Oakland, chairman of the state Democratic Party, state attorney general. He ran for president three times and the U.S. Senate once.

Brown was a political minimalist, who governed in what he called an "era of limits."

He was at the helm when Prop. 13 passed, a measure which has dominated the California economic landscape since 1978 for better or worse. He opposed it but couldn't prevent its passage.

Now, at age 70, he wants to be governor again. Whatever else he brings to the table, I remain astounded that the Democratic Party, with a chance to seize the statehouse from a badly flawed Republican, has pinned its hopes on a retread.

Is the salvation of our future to be found in our past? Or is it in an unknown who was so out of touch politically that she didn't vote for more than 20 years.

Republican Meg Whitman is throwing around money like the billionaire that she is, nearly $100 million of her own cash at last report, in order to get elected.

Forget that this former eBay CEO is by herself making this the most expensive gubernatorial race in history. Forget that playing princess to Brown's pauper may be a bad political decision in an economically depressed state with a soaring unemployment rate. Forget that she has hired 56 different political consulting firms.

What Whitman is buying here is exposure, lots and lots of it. She has so saturated the airwaves, it's impossible to watch TV or listen to the radio without exposure to a Whitman ad.

Does it work? Sure, people know her although I'm beginning to wonder if they aren't tuning her out, like one of those irritating Quizno commercials.

If you are still watching those ads, you know Meg is in attack mode. But her meat-cleaver approach does little to define her or her platform. And in her zeal to trash an opponent, the facts often get left behind.

Whitman's campaign ad, "Jerry Brown: A Legacy of Failure," is a case in point. According to FactCheck.Org. a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center:

The ad claims that "crime soared" while Brown was mayor of Oakland. That's false. The total number of crimes actually went down by more than 13 percent.

Also false is the ad's claim that Brown "damaged the school system so badly the state had to take it over." As mayor, Brown had almost no control over the school district, which was run instead by an elected school board.

The ad claims Brown worked to "send California jobs to China," but that's unproven. The claim rests on an 18-year-old newspaper story that Brown strongly denied.

Some of the ad's other claims lack context. For example, it's true as claimed that California had unemployment of 11 percent when Brown finished his time as the state's governor. But the ad fails to mention that the national unemployment rate was 10.8 percent at the time.

And what about Brown? Except for a few ads paid for by union interests, he remains largely silent so far, and it isn't a reflection of his Zen persona.

The fact is he doesn't have the money to maintain an indefinite media campaign. Instead, he'll wait until after Labor Day.

In the meantime, the Brown camp has started a website called Meg-a-Myths. Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford says it exists because "Whitman is either incapable or unwilling to tell the truth about Jerry Brown, California or herself. If she won't, we will."

Let us hope that we can dispense with the trash talking and hear real solutions for this state's massive problems. Let's hope that one of these candidates will rise to the occasion.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Motorcade Madness

Years ago, I stood at the corner of Second Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, returning to work after lunch.

Suddenly, a large limo pulled up not five feet away from the curb on which I stood and stopped before turning right.

I peered into the back seat and who should I see but President Jimmy Carter, who waved before his car sped away. A colleague criticized my sense of journalistic indifference because I waved back.

To be sure, it was a simpler time and Mr. Carter didn't often draw large crowds of adoring supporters in his travels.

But contrast that brief and simple encounter with the Old Testament gridlock that ensued this past week when President Obama commuted from LAX to attend a fundraiser in Hancock Park.

It was so bad, according to news reports, that residents of the area were calling for an investigation because they were caught in traffic for hours.

Only Michael Jackson's funeral could rival it for sheer unmitigated inconvenience.

"It was a beautiful thing," one resident was quoted as saying. "Young, old, black, white - everyone was pissed off."

Another resident complained it took him nearly three hours to travel one mile (which he could have walked in 20 minutes).

Others tried to politicize it. After all, only a socialist would take away our God-given right to drive wherever or whenever we want, or so the fringe chatter went.

Look, I feel their pain. I once was herded off the Golden State Freeway in Burbank to let a Nancy Reagan entourage pass. In addition to the inconvenience, it makes you feel like a ragamuffin who is pushed aside so the royal coach can pass by.

But let's have a reality check.

First and foremost, the Westside of L.A is unrivaled when it comes to beaches, posh neighborhoods chucked full of celebrities, ritzy restaurants and the worst traffic in our merry megalopolis.

Traffic in the San Gabriel Valley is no stroll in the park. But on the Westside, it's the stuff of legends.

You can cause a noteworthy traffic jam with a fender bender on Wilshire Boulevard. Throw a hubcap on the 405 and a SigAlert breaks out.

Try a leisurely trip down Pacific Coast Highway at morning commute time. Check out the Santa Monica Freeway eastbound some evening when the Lakers are playing or there's a concert at Staples. It makes you wonder why the auto industry has fallen on hard times.

Public transportation west of downtown is almost nonexistent. And this in a community that was ranked in a recent IBM survey as No.1 in "commuter pain" among American cities.

Drop a presidential motorcade into this cauldron and watch the smoke rise.

Many residents blamed what they saw as a lack of planning and advanced notification. But the Secret Service doesn't do advanced notification for presidential motorcades. If you don't understand why, stop reading now and go watch television.

Advanced planning? The president visited, attended his event and left without being assassinated. Mission accomplished.

When President Reagan was shot by a lovelorn loner named John Hinckley Jr. on a Washington street corner in 1981, it was clear the Secret Service needed to do better.

After 9/11, that mandate became even more urgent.

Now, with the nation's first black president serving in an era of political toxicity, the security surrounding Mr. Obama is unprecedented. When he was inaugurated, the Secret Service coordinated at least 40,000 agents and officers from some 94 police, military and security agencies.

It was accepted as the norm when President Bush traveled with an entourage that included 100 national security advisors, 50 White House political aids, 200 representative from other government departments, a personal chef and his team of four cooks, 250 Secret Service agents and 15 sniffer dog teams. I doubt if those numbers have declined.

There have been public relations gaffes to be sure.

Just recently, Vice President Joe Biden held up airplane traffic for hours when he dropped into town for an appearance on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

President Clinton was accused of shutting down two runways at LAX while he waited for his hair stylist on Air Force One, although the facts of that story are in dispute and it appears to be an urban legend.

Massive security for the president especially when he travels and the inconvenience it causes reflect the world we live in, unfortunately.

And when that world intersects with yours, expect delays.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Clamshell Combat

The fight was short, but brutal.

After five minutes of close combat, despite suffering several wounds and in complete disregard for my own safety, I defeated my opponent with a violent thrust from a pair of industrial-sized scissors.

Wiping the sweat from my forehead and the blood from my arms, victory was mine. I was finally was able to remove my new electric toothbrush from its "clamshell" plastic packaging.

Of all the outrageous slings and arrows visited upon consumers in the last several decades, impenetrable plastic packaging may rank close to the top. (Closely followed by "tamper resistant" caps that can be easily opened by a simple push-pull double reverse half-gainer twist.)

The "clamshell" packaging seems to be designed by people hand picked for their sadistic tendencies. They have created a product that lets you see your purchase but renders it unobtainable unless you carry a 3.4 amp powered handsaw in your pocket or purse.

According to one report, consumers suffer thousands of injuries per year, such as cut fingers and sprained wrists, from tools used to open packages and from the packaging itself.

Not to mention lingering anger management issues and physical exhaustion.

Consumer Reports even presents "Oyster Awards" for the products with the hardest-to-open packaging.

Lucky me, my brand new Oral-B Sonic toothbrush kit was a winner of the coveted Oyster. The magazine described the product thus: "A tight fit between the plastic skin and cardboard thwarted scissors. Our tester grabbed a box cutter but hacked up the box as an unavoidable result. After removing the clamshell and opening the box, she had to dislodge parts from a foam case, yank off one plastic bag covering the power cord and another protecting additional components, then pop perforations on smaller clamshells shielding the toothbrush heads. Her work table was littered with sharp plastic shards."

Another Consumer Reports winner was a Uniden cordless phone set: It took 9 minutes 22 seconds to unwrap completely and nearly caused injury to the person opening it.

Yet another prize went to "American Idol" Barbie and her packaging, which didn't require lethal weapons but took 15 minutes and 10 seconds to untie all the wires, rip the stitches from her hair and slice the thick plastic manacles off her arms and torso.

One shopper complained of buying a large kitchen knife that couldn't be separated from its package unless you used - drum roll - a large kitchen knife.

A British researcher complained that "we are still chewing through plastic like wild dogs."

In a survey conducted at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, almost 80 percent of households "expressed anger, frustration or outright rage" with plastic packaging. Consumers also tended to use words such as "hate" and "difficult" when describing these products.

My question: Who are the 20 percent who were apparently satisfied with sealed plastic products? Oyster shuckers? Orthopedic surgeons? Sushi chefs?

The idea behind this packaging is to intentionally make products difficult to open to reduce package pilferage and shoplifting. I know this is a big and costly problem for business.

But I wonder if the loses from those crimes is exceeded by the decline in business and goodwill from customers fed up with engaging in martial arts to open a package with a light bulb inside.

I ask because some merchants are responding to the cry of the wounded consumer. Wal-Mart Stores, Target and Sears all have programs to phase out clamshells, according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, as does Best Buy.

Amazon has begun a "Frustration-Free Packaging" initiative. Sony launched a "Death to the Clamshell" campaign.

Truth be told, many of these changes are being made for environmental and toxicity concerns rather than the mental health of their customers.

But if it will prevent me from looking like I just emerged from a knife fight after buying a new toothbrush, I'm all for it.

There is a loser in all this, and it's not the emergency room docs.

It's the cottage industry of clamshell packaging openers that sprung up over the last few years.

One such device, the OpenX, has sold in the millions, according to its inventor.

The irony of it is that if you find an OpenX in a store, it will probably be encased in hard-to-open clamshell packaging.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Water Water Everywhere

If we could take a group of folks from the 1950s and plunk them down in 2010 Los Angeles, the first things they'd say after looking around is: "Whatever happened to chrome on cars and hats on men?" followed by, "Why does everyone carry a bottle of water? Did those Commies poison our reservoirs?"

Well, we'd answer, bottled water is convenient. Also, water is good for you and bottled water is better for you than tap water. Not to mention that there's a lot of status involved taking a swig from your $20 bottle of Prix Eleve designer water, collected by hand in the Alps by an order of monks.

And, no, the Commies threw in the towel decades ago.

We'd be wrong on several counts. While it is healthy to stay hydrated, what we're drinking in a lot of cases is from the tap, sometimes filtered, sometimes not.

And the status factor has gone the way of bling.

Indeed, the popularity of bottled water is, in a word, evaporating.

Environmentalists loathe bottled water because they say nearly 90 percent of the bottles are not recycled and wind up in landfills where it takes thousands of years for the plastic to decompose.

Consumers, trying to survive a lousy economy, have come to realize that they're paying good money for something that can be had for free. Sales of reusable aluminum and stainless steel water bottles are up.

If that's not enough, some members of the religious community complain that clean drinking water, like air, is a God-given resource that shouldn't be packaged and sold.

Add it all up and you get bottled water sales that dropped in 2009 for the first time in five years. Yes, folks, bottled water is becoming the new cigarette.

We can trace this change of attitude to the Australian town of Bundanoon, a hamlet of about 2,500 south of Sydney. It seems the citizens there became angry a few years back when, according to published accounts, a beverage company announced plans to build a water extraction plant in town.

Residents faced the prospect of an outsider taking their water, sending it off to the big city for processing and then selling it back to them. The town became so incensed it voted to ban the end product.

About the same time, according to anti-bottle activists, "one of the dumbest moves in advertising history" occurred when high-end brand Fiji started a campaign intended to tout its water which is imported from the tropics.

The advertising copy read: "The label says Fiji because it's not bottled in Cleveland."

Well, the people of Cleveland, the victims of many slings and arrows over the years, did not take kindly to the campaign. So Cleveland Public Utilities director Julius Ciaccia had the local water tested against the bottled stuff. Fiji water had 6.31 micrograms of arsenic per liter; the city tap had zero. The company disputed the findings, but change was in the air.

The cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City have asked employees not to use bottled water or banned city spending on it. Chicago added a 5-cent tax to each bottle.

Famed California chef Alice Waters banned bottled water at her restaurant, Chez Panisse, according to a CNN report. In New York, celebrity chef Mario Batali's fanciest joint, Del Posto, banned the bottle. The idea became fashionable enough that an article in the online magazine Slate talked about the "reverse snob appeal" of tap water.

The irony of all this is that the largest consumers of bottled water are Americans, who need it the least. The great majority of our tap water meets EPA drinking-water standards, which regulate the levels of roughly 90 different contaminants, including germs such as giardia, heavy metals such as lead and dozens of industrial chemicals.

Like Hummers, 3-D TVs and infomercials, Americans are attracted to things they don't need. Bottled water is just another example.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

In One Era and Out Another

I never set foot in Edward's Steak House, which recently closed after 64 years, first in downtown Los Angeles, then in El Monte.

But I feel I know it well.

It was one of those meat-and-potato neighborhood eateries with faux turn-of-the-century decor and a wait staff, bartenders and busboys who had been there for decades. We've all hung our hats in someplace like Edward's.

Quality of food? Not gourmet but good. The drinks were stiff and the menu was as familiar as your every-day china. No pheasant in a cabernet reduction with sesame encrusted baby carrots here. Steak or prime rib or, if you must, halibut. Straight up, please, salad with blue cheese and a baked potato.

It was a place where locals celebrated births, held wakes, marked anniversaries and retirements.

Edward's was preceded in death by Monty's Steak House in Pasadena, which kept the grill fired up for 66 years and even in its final days had a lot of clients who I think may have been there on opening night. Regulars say in the old days that if they didn't finish a steak, the house would offer to take it off the bill. It closed in 2007.

Chances are, there's a place just like them in a neighborhood near you. If so, enjoy it while you can.

Some see sinister forces at work when a beloved institution closes its doors. One patron commented that "It's a shame that Obama has wrecked this country to the point that my favorite restaurant has to close."

That's slicing the baloney a bit thick. No one questions that we are in the throes of a precarious economy but its causes are numerous and widespread.

The owners of Edward's claimed dining room business was down 25 percent. But they also blamed the fact that big businesses in the area have given way to export/import operations, and the local work force is now largely single mothers who bring sack lunches.

It's the "there goes the neighborhood" explanation and a nice way of saying the ethnic makeup has changed. While that may be true to some extent, you can't always blame demographics.

El Monte's population has grown by 45,000 since Edward's moved there in 1973. Top employers, according to the city's website, include Wells Fargo Bank (operation center), Longo Toyota-Lexus (automobile sales and service), Vons Co. (distribution warehouse) and Saint Gobain Glass Container.

Besides, some of the oldest and most popular restaurants in Los Angeles thrive in what can politely be described as distressed neighborhoods that have changed dramatically over time.

Langer's Deli at 7th and Alvarado has been serving pastrami for 63 years next to MacArthur Park. Phillipe's has been going strong since 1908 near Union Station. Musso and Frank opened in Hollywood in 1919. San Antonio Winery by the L.A. River has been around for some 90 years. The Pacific Dining Car on West 6th Street in Downtown L.A. has been serving since 1921. None of these locales are garden spots.

The fact is that Edward's and Monty's had been around for nearly three-quarters of a century. They survived when better-known places such as the Brown Derby and Chasen's and Little Joe's went dark. By anyone's yardstick, that's a remarkable achievement, especially in a business known for a high failure rate.

But nothing, especially the clientele, lasts forever. You attract new customers or die.

In addition, both establishments were independent restaurants, which are on the endangered species list, being pushed toward oblivion by a combination of hard times and the growth of chain operations.

According to one survey by the restaurant industry, the number of restaurants in the United States has fallen by 5,204 since 2009. Independent restaurants took the hardest hits, while chains kept their unit counts relatively stable.

Those independents have suffered sales and traffic declines as prolonged high unemployment has weakened consumer spending. But the chains survive because the revenue of those that thrive help support those that struggle.

That's why you'll rarely see a Burger King close up shop. Yet New York's iconic Tavern on the Green in Central Park and Fraunces Tavern, which dates back to 1762, have shut their doors.

It's the Franchising of America.

And with places like Edward's and Monty's gone, the one-size-fits-all steak can't be far behind.