Tuesday, July 30, 2013

July 2013: Detroit Files for Bankruptcy

July 19, 2013:  The City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy today.  It is a very sad day.  Many people, including yours truly, could see it coming for years.  I could see it coming for years.  Yet, it is still very sad.
I was really pulling for Mayor Dave Bing.  It seemed like he was a competent leader who might have been able to make a difference if he did not take over a city that was in dire straits (excuse the pun).  He seemed like he genuinely wanted to improve the city and that he wanted to make a difference.  He never got the support he could have used from just about everybody. 
On March 24, 2013, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency financial manager, Kevyn D. Orr.  The state had revised a law that not only allowed Snyder to make this appointment but provides the emergency financial manager with extraordinary powers over all of the city's finances.  The emergency manager could even recommend that the city file for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy.  Everyone assumed, with this appointment, that bankruptcy was inevitable.  It was not a matter if but rather when.  When happened today July 19, 2013.
I suppose there are those that are reveling in it for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps they are happy to see this happen because it supports some racial prejudice they have from the moment Coleman Young was elected mayor.  Maybe they revel because they are staunch capitalists and believe that bankruptcy is part of mismanagement and giving the city a chance to restructure can and will only be a good thing.
Someone had posted a photo on facebook this week.  It was contrasting Hiroshima in 1945, after the atomic bombing of the city, and in 2012.  Right next to it were images of Detroit for the same years.  In 1945, Hiroshima was rubble and Detroit was a bustling economic power.  In 2012, it was the opposite.  Detroit was in disarray with areas of rubble that look like it has been bombed. 
It is a complete decay of an American city.  I have wrote about my hometown ten months ago September 2012: The City of Detroit. 

facebook Opinions:  There was a recent posting on facebook about the Detroit bankruptcy filing.  It simply said, in white letters on a black square:

finally ran out of
other people's money.

There was no end to the comments.  Some folks blamed the democrats for the entire situation labeling them all as corrupt beginning, as noted above, with Coleman Young.  Others thought that was simply too easy a view to take and that the situation was more complicated than that.  Here are some of the comments:

·   I think you could make the argument that all cities run on "other people's money".
·   Disgraceful politicians.  Starting with Colman Young.
·   My family is very concerned about the Police pensions. Our folks are in their late 80 s and depend entirely upon my fathers pension for living expenses.  My father spent 37 years on the Detroit PD and paid into that plan for retirement. This is simply criminal.  My folks live very modestly and the Detroit city officials have squandered the savings of the people who risked their lives everyday to serve and protect. I am at a loss for words.
·   its all from Democrats they've run Detroit into the ground for 70 yrs.
·   We are all Monday morning quarterbacks. How many of us still live in metro Detroit or have contributed to the tax base? Our hometown has survived on the scraps from those who remained for decades
·   It is everyone's problem even though it might not be everyone's fault.

As this discussion (if you can call such things discussions) unfolded, it was clear people were trying to sum up the demise of Detroit in a short one reason sentence.  To me is way more complex than just blaming democrats, blacks, white flight, or the auto industry.  It is partially all of those and more. 

Pensions:  The worst thing about a company going bankrupt is that people could easily lose their pensions.  People work twenty, twenty-five, and thirty plus years.  They were under the implicit contract that they would get a pension.  City wages are good but, certainly at the worker bee level, not enough to save the funds needed to support a couple in their retirement.  People counted on their pensions.  What they counted on could be gone.
Does the same apply to a city?  Cities do not go bankrupt that often.  Detroit is the largest American city to ever file for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy.  They have about 30,000 retirees and the pension obligation is about $9.2 Billion. 
The State of Michigan Constitution has a provision that the unions believe guarantees the pensions and that the pensions not be cut.  The constitution states that "the accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system in the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby."
The "contractual obligation... shall not be diminished or impaired" sounds like pensions cannot be eliminated or reduced.  But, the State Constitution is a document enacted by humans that can be changed.  It is not clear nor predictable what a judge might say or do.  Ultimately, it is a question of what needs to be done to create a workable budget for the City of Detroit.  The amount of revenue, i.e. taxes, is fixed and clearly expenses need to be cut and they have to be cut from somewhere. 
It is a sad state of affairs.  It will no doubt hurt citizens of the city, current employees, and most certainly retirees.  Detroit employees and retirees could be in the same position their counterparts from Enron or Bethlehem Steel.
I currently live in Illinois.  We have per a Bloomberg Article from earlier this year "$97 Billion in unfunded liabilities." 
That is an astounding number which is ten times that of the City of Detroit assuming I am indeed comparing apples to apples.  There are rumblings, perhaps tremors, that Illinois will be next.

The state’s pension deficit increases by $17 million a day, including obligations to current and future retirees, such as judges, university workers and legislators. Illinois has the lowest-graded credit of any U.S. state by Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s partly because of the unfunded retirement plans. Moody’s, S&P and Fitch Ratings all have a negative outlook for the state
Illinois is paying for years of financial mismanagement and political gridlock, resulting in the worst-funded state pension system in U.S., with 39 percent of assets needed to cover projected obligations for five major groups of employees, according to the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonprofit research group that tracks government finances.

It sounds like Illinois could end up as the first state to declare bankruptcy if the state government is not able to better manage this moving forward. 
I was tough watching what the Greek people went through the last couple of years because of the financial mess their country is in.  It seems like, in both Detroit and Illinois, we are are experiencing the same.

Obama's Pledge:  In 2012, President Obama pledged that he would not let Detroit go bankrupt.  What happened to that pledge?  The State of Michigan easily went his way in both elections so much so that the Republicans decided not even to campaign there in the last election. 
I have seen a lot of diatribes and vitriol against Obama.  Most of them are simply more excessive than I believe they should be.  In this case, I am surprised more people are not complaining very loudly.  I cannot see providing any foreign aid, with the exception or famine and natural disasters, when we have a major city in such a predicament.  I would add Obama's home state of Illinois to that list. 
I will throw President Bush into the mix as well.  He started the wars in reaction to 9-11.  President Obama has tried to get us out but it has not been very successful nor very quick about it.
While talking about Syria rather than the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the message is the same.
How much could we have done here if we did fund and fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  Per a Harvard study, those wars have cost us between $4 and $6 Trillion.  That is a staggering sum and the results are nowhere near what it has cost in both dollars and human life.  There is a website, costofwar.com that has one of those continuous update windows that adds approximately $100,000 a second to the cost of the wars.  costofwar.com has the total cost of the wars at 1.46 Trillion.  The cost might be justified if we had actually accomplished anything.  My opinion is we have not.
While not referencing the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the message is directionally correct

No matter which estimate we might use, too much was spent on war and not enough on our own country.  Not enough was spent on fixing what is wrong in this country and that includes fixing places like Detroit.  We could have avoided adding to the deficit with half of what has been spend.  We would have still had plenty of money to use on fixing what is broken at home e.g. in Detroit, in education, and in job creation.
I am definitely full of... naiveté.  But, it is what I believe.

July 22:  It is a few days after the announcement of the filing.  What has changed in Detroit?  I am not sure as I no longer live there.  My suspicion is that there is not much difference in the lives of people in all of Metro Detroit today as compared to the day before the announcement.  People are just going about their business.  They have simply added worrying about what will happen to their daily routine.
I left Detroit in March of 1990.  I had lived in the city from the age of 2 though the age of 15.  Then I lived in the suburbs until I was 36.  I was part of the white flight from the city that decimated its middle class.  I was part of the migration of people out of Detroit and Michigan following the flow of jobs to other parts of the country.  i moved to take a job in New York City and lived in Connecticut. 
I did not stay.  I did not stay and contribute to the economy.  I did not stay and get involved in politics.
The city was not in very good shape when I left.  The worst was yet to come. 
Like many that left, and many that stayed, we lament the demise of our city that was once the gritty tough paragon of industrial towns.  Like many that left, I wish that I could do something, anything, to help revitalize the city.  Perhaps that is why I am in the Greater Waukegan Development Coalition which is dedicated to re-establishing a viable industrial and business base in the city of Waukegan, IL.  Waukegan is not nearly in the condition that Detroit is, but it can use all the assistance it can get.

Solution:  Enough whining already.  Most certainly, there is enough finger pointing and blame to go around.  No matter what caused the current state of Detroit.  It is the current state.  What should be done?  Hopefully, this inevitable filing for bankruptcy will allow for a plan that moves the city forward again. 
Here are my thoughts of what I would like to see come out of this.
Jobs and business:
First and foremost, there has to be a serious and seriously incentivized business development plan to bring jobs to the city.  A frank and stark reality is, if the plan includes unions, only start-ups will be attracted.  The trend is away from unions and the great union friendly city and state need to face that reality.  The city needs industry and jobs.  It needs the taxes that both will bring.  Seriously incentivized means modest taxes for businesses to relocate in Detroit.
Crime free
Second and almost equally foremost, the city needs to be a safe place.  There can be no room for crime or criminals.  This is heavily tied to the first point in that the lack of jobs make for an increase in crime, organized or otherwise.  Crime can often be the only choice for anyone enterprising.  It makes victims out of everyone who has not or cannot move out.  The police force needs to be bolstered.  Abandoned houses and businesses need to be torn down.  Mayor Bing had a plan of consolidating residents to begin recreating communities.  That idea needs to be explored.
Maybe you centralized everyone around downtown and raze everything else.  It sounds crazy and it is probably too expensive to execute.  But, it is time to think outside the box.
The Detroit Public Schools need a complete overhaul.  They need to stay public.  I used to be for vouchers, charter schools, and academies.  I have changed my mind.  A major strength of this country was the middle class and solid public education.  We have lost our way in both regards. 
How to fund the above
I have no clue how this will be funded.  This could be the real ugly part of this bankruptcy.  I am not for cutting pensions.  I am for Federal Aid.  Treat Detroit like a foreign war zone.  In a way it is.  Divert money from military and foreign aid.  We should not even think about helping anyone else if our own house is not in order.  I will even go so far as to suggest putting stipulations on the city government requiring a balanced budget and a payback of the aid.  The debt and other obligations have to be addressed and dealt with.  The debt has to be negotiated down.  Bankruptcy is a multi-edged sword that will hurt the city, the citizens, the retirees, and the creditors.  There is no way around this.
No one wants to sell whatever assets there are still in the city.  An article in the New York Times on the day bankruptcy was filed pondered the art in the Detroit Institute of Arts being sold off to pay for things.  That would be a sad thing to happen but Detroit is no longer an ars gratia artis kind of place.  Maybe it will be again one day.  Detroit is a place that has hit rock bottom and needs to recreate itself from the ashes of the industrial power it once was.  Detroit has lost many cultural and architectural icons already to either the wrecking ball or neglect.  Sell the art.  It is important but the well being of the people is more important.

Closing:  It is my great hope that the powers that be in Detroit, the State of Michigan, and the Federal Government help create a pathway out of bankruptcy that is as reasonable, fair and equitable as possible for all citizens, retirees, and creditors. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Picking Derev

Picking derev, grape leaves, is an old Armenian food tradition.  The leaves are used to in a variety of recipes, the most popular are the delectable grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and spices.  We call it sarma or yalanchi one or both might be words shared with Turks.  The Greeks call it dolmades.

The word derev simply means leaf in Armenian.  Some Armenians use the Turkish word for leaf:  yaprak.  Either way, most Armenians my age have images of their grandmothers picking leaves, bringing them home and making sarma with fresh leaves, and canning the bulk of the bounty to use throughout the winter.

In the old country, they used to pick them, I am guessing, on their own land.  In the US, only the Armenian immigrants that continued their farming heritage could pick leaves on their own land.  Most worked in cities.  When they needed grape leaves, they would have to find them in parks and on country roadsides.  Everyone has a story of driving someplace and hearing their grandmother yell "Devev!" when she spotted grape leaves.  As often as not, we had to stop the car and gather leaves.  Sometimes when grandma inspected the leaves she would call the whole thing off because the leaves had too many bug holes, were too thick (the tenderer the better), or bitter.  There are stories of this lady or that having a location where she would get the best derev... and then comments that she would never ever share the location of her secret spot.

In the past thirty years or so, it is possible to buy bottled leaves in the US.  The primary brand is Yergat (Iron) from California.  They are an Armenian owned company.   It is now possible to buy them also from Turkey.  Just this year, some Middle Eastern stores have been carrying vacuum packed leaves in addition to bottled leaves. The vacuum packed leaves are imported from Turkey.

Many Armenians use the bottled leaves as do my favorite sarma makers:  my mother and my wife Judy.  I have heard them complaining that the variation of leaf size and thickness from the bottled leaves is high.  There are just too many small, broken, and thick leaves.  The ladies at our church only use half to two-thirds of the leaves in the bottle.

I would always tell me wife that there are derev everywhere along the main bike trail and other routes that I ride.  We never seem to go and collect them.  A few weeks ago she was making sarma for my birthday festivities and really not happy with any of the bottled leaves.  I was just heading out for a ride and took a plastic grocery bag with me.  After logging about 20 miles, I stopped and picked leaves.  I think I picked a hundred or so of the largest and tenderest leaves I could find.  I brought them home and she loved them, they were perfect.  The sarma she made was the best she had ever made.  Everyone oohed and aahed over it. I think it was more about the stuffing but, being my birthday, everyone praised me for the leaves.  More likely it was a combination of both.  It takes both the leaves and the stuffing to make good sarma.

Our friend Shoushan was very funny.  She learned that I had picked the derev.  She came over told me something that the old ladies used to say, "don't tell anyone where you picked the leaves."  I had to laugh out loud.  It was so old school and so funny.

Cycling around the past few weeks, I saw derev everywhere.  I was not sure if they were still good to pick or if they were too tough.  They certainly looked bigger than the leaves I had picked.  One day, I stopped mid-ride and checked.  The leaves were indeed huge, they covered my entire handspan, and they seemed tender.  But, what do I really know.  I had only picked leaves once.

I made a mental note of a few rich clump of leaves and went out a few days later to pick the leaves.  Usually, when picking leaves the technique is to pick them one at a time plucking them at the bottom of the leaf where the stem started.  The leaves are then put in a sack and then sorted upon returning home.

This time I did not want to be parked on the roadside for a long time while I picked leaver.  So, I took pruning shears with me.  Instead of picking leaf by leaf, I clopped entire sections of new growth vine one to two yards long.  I cut about thirty of these and three them in the back of my 4Runner.  I then returned home, set out a lawn chair, lit a pipe and began picking the leaves off of the vine.

There was another advantage of doing this at home.  I was better able to sort the leaves.  I made four piles of good leaves:  Small, medium. and large.  The fourth pile was leaves that were a bit torn or had a tear in them.  These leaves are used to line the pot or pan in which the sarma would be cooked.  I think this process was better than picking leaves one at a time off the vine.  I am not so sure this will catch on, I will have to check on that with Ara Topouzian who is the guru of grape leave protocol.

I am guessing there were approximately 250 leaves in this second harvest.  This should fulfill Judy's derev needs for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dixie Cream Donut Flour

It was 6:40ish on Sunday morning June 2, 2013.  I was taking the MetroLink light rail from Belleville, IL where we played a gig on Saturday evening to the Lambert Field to attend my nephew Kyle’s high school graduation in Milford, MI.  I only slept a few hours and was looking out at the passing landscape.  There were the numerous, actually there way too many, boarded up and abandoned buildings on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.  It was expected as that used to be a steel producing and heavy industry part of Greater St. Louis. 

I tried to take photos of interesting buildings and, of course, the arch.  None of the photos were any good.  Between being tired, the lighting, the reflection of the train window, and poor timing, the photos were nothing special.

There was more life and an interesting mix of new and old architecture as we trundled through St. Louis.  I did see a most interesting, at least to me, abandoned building on the western edge of downtown.  It was a modest four story brick building with windows that made it look more like it might have been an apartment building than a business.  I would have loved a photo of it, but by the time I noticed the name on the building and decided I would like a photo, it was too late to take even a bad photo of it.  We were past it.

What was the name of the building?  It is none other than the The Dixie Cream Donut Flour Company.  I would have never guessed a company could be dedicated to such a niche market.  I could see the people that make Gold Medal or King Arthur flour offering a variety of different kinds of flours.  I would not be surprised if I learned that they produced and marketed donut flour.  The Dixie Cream Donut Factory was created just for this niche.  Actually, per their name, they didn't just make regular old donut flour but the more exotic and special Cream Donut Flour whatever that may be. 

I wonder if they might have supplied the flour to the Krispy Kreme folks.  Maybe there is a difference between Cream Donut Flour and Kreme Donut Flour.  There must be a professor at some Ag School who is an expert on donut flour I could consult on this fascinating subject.

Or I could just google it. 

Googling is always a good idea.  There is, in fact, a Dixie Cream Donut company that is still in business.  www.dixiecreamdonuts.com They have the whole nine yards:  stores, menus, and, if I so desired, I could have a franchise.  I learned that a franchise would cost between $146 and $413 thousand.  I clicked on Locations to see if I could find a Dixie Cream shop anywhere near where I frequent.  Oddly, quite oddly the more I think about it, the only four locations listed are two in Saudi Arabia and two in Egypt.  OK then not really all that helpful.

On the About page of the website, I read the following:
Bite-for-bite, more delight

With more than 80 years of donut-making to our name, Dixie Cream knows how to make donuts that defy comparison. Notice that our donuts are a little taller than others. Notice, too, the golden band around the middle of a Dixie Cream. That’s our promise of light and creamy melt-in-your-mouth goodness that just gets better by the bite.

It must be that Dixie Cream Donut Flour that makes all the difference.  I wonder if there was a Dixie Cream Sugar or a Dixie Cream Filling and Frosting factory nearby.  As the factory is no longer in operation, I wondered where they get their donut flour these days.  I wondered if they still made it themselves or if they outsourced it.

I also found out that there used to be a Dixie Cream store in Chicago about fifty years ago.  This made sense especially considering the current state of their donut flour factory.  More googling revealed a youtube video Let's Face It:  Dixie Cream Donuts about a location in West Frankfurt, IL.    So, there are domestic locations despite the shortcoming of the website.
  • Still curious, I googled “Dixie Cream Donut Flour” since in the course of using google I have learned to be more specific.  Here is what that search yielded:
  • There is a blog, dixiecreamdonutflour.blogspot, with only one posting dated January 25, 2009 that has nothing to with Dixie Cream Donut Flour.
  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/8553497012/ by Paul Sableman 3-9-13
  • There seems to a Dixie Cream Donut Flour Company based in Bowling Green, KY.  The listing was unclear if it was just offices or if the factory had relocated there.  If there is a factory there, I just know it has none of the charm of the one they abandoned in St. Louis.
  • Lastly, there are pictures of the factory that I passed by.  Each of them are better than any photo I might have taken in a moving train.  I picked my favorite to use in this posting.

The other good thing about riding trains and being in airports are the conversations you overhear.  I was having a cup of coffee, no donut mind you, in the food court trying to get rid of the cobwebs.  There was a young girl, maybe seven years old, at the airports who was traveling with what I guessed was here aunt.  The young lady was quite chatty.  I overheard a lovely snippet of conversation.  

The girl asked, "Have you ever been in a power outage?"
The aunt plied, "Yes I have."
The girl continued, "Well, we had one the other day.   It was the worst day of my life.  There was no TV.  There was no internet.  I had to just play with my dolls."

Ah the modern era, how I long for an earlier, simpler time, like when the Dixie Cream Donut Flour factory was in operation.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ancient Aliens in Modern Times

There is a show on the History Channel called Ancient Aliens.  The show premiered on April 20, 2010.  The show, while criticized for promoting pseudo-science and pseudo-history, is in it's fifth season.  Apparently there is a following.

I never watched the show but my sister Nancy is a avid fan and viewer.  Nancy has always been interested in the paranormal, the interpretation of dreams, the spirit world, and life beyond our planet.

Having spent the last two Friday evenings with Nancy, I had the chance to watch the show and, during the commercials, get her commentary and views on the subject covered in that weeks show and as well as the whole concept of aliens having visited this planet and helping us to either build perfect building, astronomically aligned, and on scopes and scales that seem out of place for when they were built.  Think pyramids and the like.

I gave her my standard skeptics arguments regarding the creation of such structures.  First, labor was plentiful and cheap in ancient times and even more so if slavery was involved and it often was.  With an army of cheap labor, there is no limit to what can be done with even the crudest tools.

As for the alignment of the structures with perigees and equinoxes and other astronomic pivot points of the year, the answer to me was equally simple.  They had no TV, internet, phonographs, tapes, CDs, iThese, iThose, or even crystal radios.  They did have one thing:  a total lack of ambient light at night.  Thus there was nothing to mute the stars.    And there are lots and lots of stars visible in such circumstances.  The curious and clever would watch them before falling asleep and no doubt noted their motion and patterns over the years.  The motions and patterns were noted with the changing seasons and passed down as lore.  There is no surprise to me that Egyptian and Aztec pyramids and other edifices including Armenian churches are aligned to mark or take advantage of significant astronomic events.

So, there is no surprise that in ancient times there were these grand human creations built on slave labor and taking advantage of the geometry and engineering that was available in the great empires of the day.  It is not like there are hundreds and thousands of these ancient edifices.  There much fewer as compared to our modern skyscrapers and other magnificent architectural gems that are all about us these days.

Something else struck me while watching this show.  I understand how aliens might have come and gone back in the day.  They would reveal themselves to a select few and disappear.  They might kidnap some of us for tests while giving advanced technology to others.  They had their reasons.  But, today, with the vast array of electric gizmos and gadgets all connected to the internet, why aren't they sending us emails, broadcasting their own commercials during the Super Bowl, rigging elections, and such.  They are, after all, advanced beings and have been ahead of us for ages.  Why not just take over every channel on the planet, every radio station, send everyone a tweet and an email, post on everyone's Facebook, and do it all simultaneously in every language on the planet.

What would they tell us?  Whatever they want.  I guess that would depend on if they were benevolent and helpful or mean and nasty
intelligent life forms.

If they exist they could do this.  Any explanation of why they wouldn't or have not?  Perhaps aliens extremely introverted and thus very shy.  You would think years of watching Dr. Phil would have helped them.

Well... this
is my humble contribution to this pseudo-science.