Monday, March 23, 2009

Bonuses? Audit the bastards

Corporate America, tax system
need new measures of fairness

You have to wonder about all those banker bonuses – or corporate bonuses in general – when folks are getting a million bucks or more on top of salaries already bordering on the ludicrous.

After all, the President gets a mere $400,000. But even if you add on the benefits, and his own plane and helicopter, and about $150,000 for various expenses, a fat lifetime pension, book and speaking deals, the dough being spread around corporate America is obscene in comparison.

But with all the shouting about AIG, the pendulum of pay seems to have reached its limit and now will swing back – at least a little bit – lest greed give capitalism a bad name. Wouldn’t want the word “capitalism” competing with “socialism” for worst national operating system. (Speaking of which, I hope the folks at Microsoft who jammed Vista down PC buyers’ throats were the first to see layoff notices there… along with the folks whose Windows updates screw up all manner of other software.)

While the bonuses have been generating so much anger, cooler heads in Washington have been pointing out that they represent a tiny fraction of the government bailout money in which AIG is awash. Let it not distract from the wider concerns of taking steps to avoid a total economic meltdown.

I think you can do both – be angry about the obscene compensation paid to all those greedy bastards, and work on the wider challenge of building a ladder to climb out of the incredibly deep fiscal hole.

I have no idea how to build that ladder, not a clue.

But I have an idea about executive compensation, at least for companies that are publicly traded. It’s called fairness.

My definition of fairness: A top executive’s salary cannot exceed that of the company’s lowest-paid full-time employee by more than a hundredfold. Janitors get $20,000? The CEO can make $2 million.

Bonuses? Scale them companywide starting at a 20 percent minimum differential, based on percentage of annual salary. If the CEO gets 50 percent over salary (in the case above, that would be $1 million), the janitor gets at least 10 percent over salary ($2,000). If there’s no bonus paid companywide, why should executives get one?

I recognize that a million-dollar bonus sounds like a lot. But we’re limiting salaries, after all, based on the lowest-paid worker – and rewarding everyone in the company a share of the pie.

That’s at least a start.

Stock options, pensions, health benefits, life insurance all need a level playing field. The million-dollar executive needs health insurance far less than the $20,000-a-year janitor, but you know who has the Lexus in health care and who gets the beat-up Chevy – if at all.

Private companies will, of course, do whatever they want. That’s a shame. But at least imposing a measure of fairness on those that are ostensibly publicly owned would be a start toward taking the greed out of a very screwed-up economic system that until (and maybe despite) the meltdown had seen the rich get ever richer and a widening gulf between them and the poor.

A couple of other ideas to throw around:

Junk the existing income tax system in favor of a graduated scale based on income, with only a few standardized deductions for dependents and disability. Pick a number – say, $25,000 annual income after deductions – where income tax would begin at a flat 2 percent or whatever. Then it increases by set percentages for every dollar earned over specified levels, maybe at $27,500, $30,000, $32,500, and so on upward, maxing out at 35 percent for earned income in excess of $300,000.

Declare or fight a war? Everybody pays a tad more. That’ll make presidents think twice about invading other countries. No free lunch for Americans, and no action without possible consequences for presidents or, for that matter, members of Congress. I seem to recall that the Vietnam war eventually brought a temporary income tax surcharge for many Americans.

But back to those ugly bonuses: I can’t help but wonder what dirty little shenanigans would emerge from IRS audits of executives who got million-dollar bonuses. Might be enough to more than offset their obscene gains.

And for companies that may be tempted but have not yet paid out inappropriate bonuses (and I stress, inappropriate, as in a million bucks), just say “no” – and if those managers and executives don’t like it, tell them to look for a job somewhere else. It’s a very tough marketplace out there in the unemployment lines.

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My pal Rafael Alvarez has a nifty economy-related story online at the Christian Science Monitor, reporting from the town where the fictional account of the Joad family's travails began in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Check it out at:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Movie reviews: Buddy flicks worth seeing

Adult comedy wins without
skin; indie documentary
plays to the heart

We’re back in gear with the movies again – two free screenings in less than a week, of “buddy” films that could not have been more different.

Wednesday night's screening was a Maryland Film Festival-sponsored peek at “I Love You, Man,” which I was fully prepared to dislike as a trite buddy comedy.

I was right about one thing: It is a buddy comedy. But it was very, very funny – better than the sense of it I got from the excerpts aired on late-night TV talk shows in recent weeks as its stars made the rounds promoting the film.

Basic plot is a guy on the rebound thinks he’s fallen in love, proposes marriage, then figures out to his dismay that while his prospective bride has lots of girlfriends to gab with (usually about him), he doesn’t have a real friend to be his best man and sets out, at first with hookups engineered by his gay brother, to find one.

Now a little about this “buddy” thing in movies: Usually they seem to be made for guys. Action and stuff, bullets flying even when it’s a comedy. Buddy films that are serious, too, and yeah, with bullets flying.

This is a chick-flick-for-guys buddy film, which is to say it’s really oriented for guys but women will likely love it as much, or more. And there’s not a single gun drawn or bullet fired, just great dialogue shooting back and forth across the male-female and male-male divide.

If the standard of recent comedy in film is “Wedding Crashers,” this is a little less outrageous and a bit more subtly intelligent. And there’s no nudity! That’s shocking!

Paul Rudd as the restrained buddy-seeking groom and Jason Segal as the outrageous and unlikely friend he finds are brilliant in their performances. Both can be found cast together in recent comedies, including Segal’s star-turning effort as lead actor in and writer of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

As for all the other silly details about director and other actors (hey – Jane Curtin’s back!), and ratings and running time, you can find that stuff elsewhere. From me, you just get this: See it. It’s a hoot!

Saturday night, Bonnie and I checked out a free screening of the other buddy movie, “Darius Goes West.”

The star and center of attention is a then 15-year-old Darius Weems of Athens, Ga., who we know will die just as his older brother did from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).
At a special camp program for the disabled, Darius was befriended by staff member Logan Smalley, who had worked with and become close to the boy’s late brother.

Darius had never been away from home, but a plot of sorts was hatched around the idea of a road trip to California to get the “Pimp My Ride” show on MTV to “pimp” his wheelchair. And around that trip in a large motor home, with Darius supported and carried and rolled by a crew of 11 young men including Logan, they filmed this amazing documentary.

Not everything that was planned or hoped for happens, but Darius experiences more living and love on the three-week journey than many people without disabilities will know in a lifetime.

A prize-winner at a variety of film festivals over the past two years, “Darius Goes West” has generated a new kind of road tour through public screenings and sales of the DVD at a modest $20 to raise money for the Darius Goes West Foundation aimed at finding a way to prevent the deadly genetic disease and to develop treatments for its victims. (From each sale, they say, $17 goes to the foundation and the rest toward making more DVDs.)

Darius and most of the crew, including Smalley, the film’s producer-director, attended the Baltimore screening at the quirky-artsy new bar called The Windup Space at 12 W. North Ave. (, fielded questions for half an hour, and sold dozens of copies of the DVD.

Their goal is a million sold by Darius’ 20th birthday in September. (That’s longer than his brother lived.) Nearly every dollar raised through the DVD sales goes to the foundation.

Interesting: They say the film was produced at a cost of just $70,000. To date, it has generated some $1.5 million for the cause.

To further another purpose, of educating children about muscular dystrophy and disability, the DVD has been sent to about 50,000 high schools and middle schools across the country, Smalley said.

Check out the Web site at

Even better, make a donation or order the DVD. Just watching it will make you feel good about a bunch of kids from Georgia, and that maybe there’s hope for America as a place where people care about being their brother’s keeper.

Who's that leprechaun?

Check out Bonnie's blog at for a view of Lucy's pub in downtown Baltimore on St. Patrick's Day. I could play the "Where's Waldo?" game and challenge you to find me. But I'll make it easy: Click on the photo to enlarge it, and you'll find me in a light sportcoat and greenish shamrock tie in the right corner of the right window. Nice bar, nice crowd, nice music, and the tender corned beef sliders were a bargain.

Monday, March 16, 2009

O’Malley rocks

Gov. Martin O'Malley (left) with fiddler Jim Eagan and accordion player Sean McComiskey, and, behind them, Ralph Reinoldi on electric guitar. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Governor jibes at Post reviews
as his Irish band plays on,
celebrating release of new CD

Two shows at Creative Alliance
raise money for the arts center

In a rare occasion for a politician, nary a word of complaint was heard Saturday night as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley fronted his O’Malley’s March band in a pair of packed shows at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance.

At least no one in the audience seemed to have a complaint. O’Malley himself voiced a few, with jibes at Washington Post reviews and reporting on his band’s CD’s, including the just-issued fifth – Galway Races – for which the shows also served as a huge release party.

To speculation that the title had something to do with Maryland’s racetrack woes, or problems delaying the award of slot machine gambling licenses, O’Malley said, “I just happen to like the song.”

“Galway Races,” a traditional song, is the first of the CD’s 13 tracks – all covers of songs recorded by others, including Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” which effectively helped close Saturday night’s show.

Introducing another cut, the Saw Doctors’ “Wisdom of Youth,” O’Malley became briefly gubernatorial in offering up praise for the nation’s young people, and movingly spoke of his honor in being with the families of those who return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “those who don’t.”

For the record, I haven’t heard any of O’Malley’s CD’s, and am waiting until after I finish this commentary to play Galway Races. Bonnie and I bought two copies (one for an eventual gift to some lucky friend, Irish or no) and stood in line to get them autographed by the governor and his six band partners.

I’d have to crank up the volume a lot higher than our equipment could handle to match the intensity of the band’s late show, which lasted two full hours without a break in the music. O’Malley had a couple of breaks, not only to duck backstage on a few numbers but when his guitar capo virtually exploded and again when one of the strings snapped in a dramatic musical moment. (The governor, not missing a lick, showed himself equally adept at five-string guitar while playfully whipping the dangling sixth at fiddler Jim Eagan.)

O’Malley’s March absolutely rocked the old Patterson movie theater, restored as home to the nonprofit Creative Alliance arts organization. From our front-row vantage, Bonnie had to deal with seat shake and what felt like floor shake from the music as she experimented with her new Nikon camera and took dozens of pictures of the show, whose proceeds at $25 a ticket benefited Creative Alliance.

What can you say about a band whose weakest link is, in fact, its leader. O’Malley has, at best, a very average singing voice (I confess to having the worst) and seems to be a good, but not necessarily great, guitarist. But he clearly knows how to surround himself with people more talented than himself. I view that as the mark of a smart politician. The seven of them together soared to musical heights in the performance. And how great a voice does anyone expect in a rock band, Irish or otherwise?

The other players are the multi-instrumental Jared Denhard (trombone, pipes, harp and whistle), Jamie Wilson (drums), Ralph Reinoldi (electric guitar), Pete Miller (bass guitar) and the great Billy’s son Sean McComiskey (button accordion).

Among those taking in the pre-St. Patrick’s Day show was a visiting (northern) Irish politician – Councillor Gerard Diver, or as he was introduced to draw the winning tickets in a raffle for a basket of shamrocks, “Mayor Gerry of Derry.”

He clapped and laughed throughout the show, and when asked afterward whether O’Malley could make a go of it musically in Ireland, Mayor Gerry in a broguish chuckle observed, “He’s got a lot of energy.” (According to the Derry Journal, Diver himself played in a well-known local band called Tie The Boy before entering politics. He was the guitarist. And the band practiced in the drummer’s basement… interesting, considering that the latest O’Malley CD was recorded in his drummer’s basement.)

At the show’s finale, I thought about exhorting an audience chant of “four more songs.” But artistically, it wasn’t the thing to do. The show started out strong, and ended even stronger. It was worth every farthing.

And what the hell, I’m not a newspaper journalist anymore. I may not agree with him or any politician on every issue, but I like O’Malley. He plays with passion.

Four more years, dammit.

O'Malley, in finale, bangs Irish drum while Jared Denhard plays trombone. (Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Newspapers then and now

Sun's 150th anniversary edition
looked into the future
without seeing own fate

I wasn’t looking for it. Bonnie sent me to the basement in search of an old newspaper I could pose with for a photograph. Just happened that the yellowing edition sitting on top of one of my many boxes of mementos and old newspapers was the 150th anniversary production of The Baltimore Sun.

Ironic headline:

News may be a passing thing,
but newspapers will last forever

That topped a Maryland front page column by then-Sun pundit Roger Simon, who expected that the commemorative edition would be found and looked at 150 years down time’s highway by “your great-great-great-great grandchildren” – who not only would be able to read, but “write and add and operate their fusion-powered VCRs.”

“And I also know,” Roger wrote, “that newspapers will still be around 150 years from today. If there is one thing I am sure of, it is that.”

The question he looked at was whether TV would replace newspapers. It was, after all, the edition of Sunday May 17, 1987, when the VCR was state-of-the-art and the World Wide Web didn’t exist.

On May 17, 2012, The Baltimore Sun will celebrate its 175 anniversary – if it still exists.

The differences between the 1987 newspaper and that of today in appearance and content are stunning. Today’s newspaper, now three inches narrower, is much more attractive visually. But even allowing for the inflated news hole created for the special 150th anniversary, The Sun now is but a mid-day shadow of the newspaper from 22 years ago.

The commemorative edition came almost at the mid-point of my 40-year stay at The Sun, and nearly every byline brings a memory of folks who don’t work there anymore. A few are now deceased, many I haven’t been in touch with for years, but some are still part of my life. Local readers of this blog might remember a few of the names, and some have become nationally known.

Here’s a run-through of staff bylines from this 1987 edition, starting on the front page and turning through the paper, section by section: Vernon A. Guidry Jr., Phillip Davis, Deborah I. Greene, Mary Knudson, Charles W. Corddry, Anthony Barbieri Jr., John E. Woodruff, G. Jefferson Price III, Antero Pietila, Mark Matthews, Karen Hosler, Nancy J. Schwerzler, Lyle Denniston, Luther Young, Doug Struck, John W. Frece, Richard H.P. Sia, Michael Ollove, Michael J. Clark, Roger Simon, Michael Olesker, David Michael Ettlin (Me!), William F. Zorzi Jr., Peter Jensen, Rafael Alvarez, Katie Gunther Kodat, David Simon, Michael K. Burns, Joel McCord, Albert Sehlstedt Jr., Lynda Robinson.

And that’s just the front and Maryland sections.

In Sports, there’s Tim Kurkjian, Don Markus, Bill Glauber, Alan Goldstein, James H. Jackson, Dale Austin, Mike Littwin, Bob Maisel, Kent Baker, Mark Hyman, Vito Stellino, Bill Free, John Eisenberg.

In Business, Stephen E. Nordlinger, Brian Sullam, Thomas Easton, Jesse Glasgow, Ted Shelsby.

In People, A.M. Chaplin, Nora Frenkiel, Abby Karp, Laura Charles.

Sun Magazine has a note from its editor Susan Baer, and articles by Fred Rasmussen and Carleton Jones.

Perspective has a cover story on the newspaper’s 150 years, written by Washington Bureau Chief Ernest B. Furgurson, with a note from section editor and future Sun Pulitzer winner Will Englund. Inside are reproductions of Sun stories by old-time staffers including Drew Pearson, Lee McCardell, David Maulsby, and The Evening Sun’s H.L. Mencken. There’s opinion by staffers Jerelyn Eddings and Barry Rascovar. The names at the top of the editorial page are those of editor J.R.L. Sterne, publisher Reg Murphy and managing editor James I. Houck.

There. Now I’ve utterly bored you with about 60 names.

Oops. There’s more. I forgot to open the plastic-sealed 200-page commemorative magazine, “150 People Who Shaped the Way We Live,” most of whom were dead even then. Rip. Tear. Ah, here they are, the bylines adding these then-Sun staffers: John Dorsey, Scott Shane, Sam Fulwood III, Alice Steinbach (another Pulitzer winner), Tom Horton, Susan Reimer, Mike Bowler, Patrick A. McGuire.

Of all the bylined names, I count just four still at the newspaper. The Maryland, Business and Perspective sections are for all intents gone or reinvented with much less space for content. I didn’t pull out the old comics sections, which now are reduced in size and space, and hidden in back of the weekly TV listings.

So what does all this mean?

Both editions spread out across my kitchen were produced using computers, although the type and pictures in 1987 were not purely electronic. Just looking at the editions side by side doesn’t tell the story about what’s happening now to the newspaper industry, about why newspapers are dying – the latest biggie to fall being the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News last week.

A front-page story by Phil Davis and Deborah Greene on the party celebrating The Sun’s 150 years noted this about its far-flung staff: correspondents in seven foreign capitals; news bureaus in Washington, San Francisco and New York; and reporters throughout Maryland, “from Easton to Towson, from Bel Air to Westminster.”

From all that geographical spread, little exists today. If news happens in Easton, a reporter has to head out from Baltimore – or The Washington Post might agree to cover it for both newspapers. The Sun news offices in Harford, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are being closed to save on rent. The once-powerful Washington Bureau has two regulars left on staff.

The story across the top of the 1987 Maryland section, by science reporter Luther Young, examines the challenge of predicting the future, with the views of folks including a philospopher, business expert, planners, and even the late science fiction writer Jack Chalker, who was my best friend back in high school. I’d like to say no one foresaw the fate of newspapers, but that’s not the case.

Sun publisher Reg Murphy, who was hired by the A.S. Abell Co. and helped engineer the 1986 sale of its privately-held newspaper to Times Mirror Corp., was among those asked to look into the future.

“Information will be, if not the most important industry in the world in the foreseeable future, then one of the most important,” Murphy was quoted as saying. He added that newspapers “are not going away, although they may not be printed on broadsheet newsprint then. You never can guess what the new inventions will be, just that they will occur.”

It’s unclear what time frame Murphy was talking about as “then.”

But it seems clear today that “then” is coming quicker than he or any of us folks who were part of the 1987 newspaper might have envisioned, and for folks still in the newspaper business, “then” is not without pain.

I have another little memento of 1987" I just pulled from a kitchen cabinet. It's a white mug with the newspaper's front-page "vignette" logo in gold and the anniversary slogan: The Story of Our Lives for 150 Years.

Seems perfect for a cup of tea to go with my fortune cookie.

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Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.

Daily number: 599