Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


One of the selling points of Catholic schools is the way they are free to promote religious values. Dowling Catholic High School has found an interesting way to do this: by incorporating symbols of mass murder and athiesm into a marching band routine. The Des Moines Register reports:

Red flags of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will be on display Friday when Dowling Catholic High School's marching band performs during halftime of the school's football game against Mason City

Well, it's nice that they can let bygones be bygones:

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) The bodies of 190 people were discovered at a monastery in western Ukraine that was used by the Soviet secret police after World War II, investigators said Thursday.

The remains including those of 70 children, some less than 1 year old were discovered by monks restoring a Greek Catholic monastery in Zhovkva, 340 miles west of the capital, Kiev, said Mykhailo Pavlyshyn, a leader of a team of experts investigating the burial site.

In fact millions of Catholics were murdered under the Soviet flag - many starved to death as a matter of policy - and thousands of churches destroyed or defiled. This was part of the great historical experiment documented in The Black Book of Communism:

The breakdown of the number of deaths given in the Black Book is as follows: 20 million in the Soviet Union, 65 million in the People's Republic of China, 1 million in Vietnam, 2 million in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, 1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe, 150,000 in Latin America, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan and 10,000 deaths "resulting from actions of the international communist movement and communist parties not in power."

Back to the Des Moines Register article:

The use of flags from the now-defunct communist empire is aesthetic, not political, said Steve Holland, Dowling band director.

Well, that's just so aesthetic. Here's a suggestion for the next home game: a routine where the flag girls charge the field to "Ride of the Valkyries" wearing brown military uniforms and carrying Nazi flags. Or maybe Klan robes and burning crosses to the theme of "Deliverance". Remember, it's just aesthetic, not political.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Banana Republic of Polk County

Starting and running a small business is hard. There's a lot more to it than just selling something people want to buy. You have to pay and keep good employees and figure out how to get rid of bad ones without getting sued. You have to comply with nightmarishly complex tax laws. And it seems like everytime you need to do anything new, you need to get a permit from the city or the county.

What would you say if same county that holds the power to destroy your business by inspecting you to death or dragging its feet on a needed permit has decided to go into business as your competitor?

You could say, "Welcome to Polk County, Iowa."


A company called inPlay wants to set up an "entertainment center" in the old General Growth building off Second Avenue in downtown Des Moines. They have an unusual equity partner. From the September 12 Des Moines Register:

To make the inPlay project work financially, City Councilman Chris Coleman said, the city and county came up with an unusual incentive package that would work as follows:

- Polk County would make an interest-free loan of $1,875,000 to the city, and the city would make a grant of that amount to Nelson Development for the inPlay project.

- The city would repay the loan in 10 annual installments of $187,500, using new property tax revenue from the project to make the payments.

The most unusual part of the agreement is a profit-sharing plan.

"When inPlay's percentage rent reaches a predetermined amount, the county, city and Nelson will split every dollar above that amount equally," according to the proposal presented Monday night. "Exact details of this structure will be clearly identified in the final loan documents," which will be presented later, the proposal said.

What a great deal. The city and county combine to give a business almost $2 million to compete with every other recreational business in Polk County. Meanwhile Larry Smithson, the Hunter family, the Coppolas and all of the other entrepreneurs who spent years hustling and scraping to keep downtown Des Moines from dying entirely now find the same government that can shut them down by pulling their liquor licenses is now going into business against them. If you think the government would never abuse its power like that, remember how Archie Brooks crudely threatened ZZZ Records with condemnation so that the developers favored by the city could take its building. The rest of the city council and county board may have better manners than the Civic Thug, but don't count on them having better souls.


A story in the Des Moines Business Record gives a taste of how the county treats the businesses that it doesn't buy into:

Schaffer's owner Kari Smith would have to sell a lot of $3 cups of coffee at the café she wants to include in her new store to cover an expense created by a recent ordinance change in Greater Des Moines.

Recently, Smith learned that she is required to install a large grease catcher that could cost up to $75,000 for the 20-seat café at the building she plans to share with Boesen the Florist in the West Glen Town Center.

It's a cost she hadn't anticipated, and one that may cause her and her partners to change their plans.

Downtown a new coffee chain, Amici, is getting ready to open an espresso bar in the old Midland Building:

Greg Tornberg, president of Mille Miglia Caffe LLC, which owns the Amici locations, said his company is waiting to hear back from the WRA if the coffeehouse falls under the classification of a food service establishment and would be required to comply with the ordinance. He estimates that the cost to install the underground unit at the new store would be over $50,000.

Tornberg is hopeful that Amici will be excluded from the ordinance because the coffeehouses only prepare beverages, not food. The baked goods sold at Amici are bought from an outside vendor and baked offsite.

Bill Stowe, the bureaucrat in charge of the grease-trap police, doesn't sound eager to help:

"From our experience, a food service establishment can quickly expand from being just a coffee shop to a larger grease producer by adding items like croissants, sandwiches and French fries," Stowe said. "This is our method to be proactive with preventing sewerage overflows while meeting the EPA's requirements for keeping grease and contaminants out of the water."

If a bureaucrat can be this difficult just by being his usual official self, imagine how much fun he could be if he was one of your competitors.

The best that can come out of this deal is that existing businesses are paying taxes to lure and subsidize their competitors. If the government decides to squeeze its new competitors, things could get far worse.

Anytime a government looks ready to dump money into a business, two simple rules should apply:

1. If the business were sound, it could line up private equity and debt financing.

2. If it's not a sound business, the government shouldn't pour our tax money down the rathole.

But in the Banana Republic of Polk County, your government may soon be your competitor, too.

Monday, September 11, 2006

'We can't let them stop the music.'

I was working in Bettendorf five years ago today. I had scheduled my annual trip to the client, which typically took three days, around a concert in Iowa City by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I planned to head to the show - a one hour drive - after finishing the day's work at the client office.

It was a gorgeous day, and I was listening to the NPR news on the five-minute drive from the motel to the client office. Nothing out of the ordinary. When I reach the client office, though, I'm told "Did you hear two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center?"

Puzzled, I asked "How could two airplanes hit the World Trade Center?" I didn't get it. One airplane - a freak accident. Two?

My client is a very smart man. He was the first I heard to suspect Al Queda. When Flight 93 crashed, he correctly suspected that the passengers took the plane down. We watched the towers collapse on his little office black and white TV. He shooed everyone out and got us back to work. Might as well; even in the top floor of the tallest building in Bettendorf, the terrorists probably weren't after us.

That left the concert. At the end of the day I called the University of Iowa ticket office, and they said the show was still a go. I had a half tank of gasoline, which was handy, because there were panic lines at the gas stations -- I thought it was moronic, because the hijackers didn't bring down any oil refineries or anything. I also thought the gas operators who raised their prices to $5 a gallon were doing the right thing - it was a way to slap some sense into the panic buyers - but the politicians cried "price gouging."

It was a great concert. I think I was the only male in the crowd with both short hair and no beard or mustache. I was probably the only accountant, too. The band started with one of their best songs, "Big Country," which now always says September 11 to me. During the concert Bela Fleck, whose family lives in lower Manhattan, said his family was all right. The Flecktones bassist, Victor Wooten, has his birthday on September 11 (happy birthday, Victor!). The band rocked, but I was strangely agitated and couldn't relax. The music was great, but I was preoccupied trying to sort out the days events and my mind kept drifting away from the music.

A year or two afterwards, Bela was touring with another great bassist, Edgar Meyer, doing a classical tour. They did a little seminar thingie during the day before the concert, and I had a chance to chat with Bela. I asked him about the September 11 show, and he said that they weren't sure whether they should play. Then Victor Wooten settled the issue when he said "We can't let them stop the music!"

That works as a battle cry, for me. The Islamists of September 11 were of the same ilk as those in Afghanistan, who literally stopped the music. They still want to. They've been trying since at least 1993. They're still at it and they'll keep at it. Nothing but our death, their death or our conversion to their death cult will satisfy them.

We can't let them stop the music.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Experiencing Oatmeal

The newspaper this morning came wrapped in one of those plastic bag that has ads and a free sample. It promised more than I think it is likely to deliver.

I thought it was appropriate, though, in that it enclosed the Des Moines Register, itself an oatmeal experience, in its own way.

I think this ad slogan also sums up the election for me. I know that voting is supposed to be a civic duty and all, but I'm really not happy with the selection. The partisans do their best to get us excited, but it's still just another oatmeal experience.

Governor: Culver v. Nussle

Iowa is one of the least dynamic states in the country. We have the same structure for delivering government services that we had 100 years ago. We have high taxes, 99 county sheriffs, 99 county attorneys, 99 little self-preserving political machines dedicated to keeping 99 sets of public employees employed. Our leaders attempt to grow the economy by taking money from our current businesses and using it to lure and subsidize their competition. And what do our leaders want to do?

Chet Culver wants to raid the public employee pension fund to lure and subsidize competition for existing businesses.

Jim Nussle wants us to grow and burn corn.

It's as if we're doomed to choose between Terry Branstad and Tom Vilsack forever.

The only reason Chet even gets on the ballot is because his father used to be Senator - and one of the most self-righteous and bombastic ones ever, on a level with Ted Kennedy. Oh, and because the Iowans voting in the Democratic primary decided he was the "electible" candidate, with the same keen insight that gave them the same idea about John Kerry.

And to think they could have had Ed Fallon. What were they thinking?

Nussle is running because it's his turn. That's how it seems to work with Iowa Republicans. Doug Gross had his turn last time, and Lightfoot had his turn before. I suppose Latham or somebody like that gets the next try.

I will vote for Nussle mostly because he's not Chet. He's shrewd and unlikely to really screw up anything. He's also unlikely to do anything worthwhile.

Come to think of it, comparing this choice to oatmeal isn't right. I actually like oatmeal.