Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Unfragrant World We Live In

The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs. ~Charles de Gaulle

I haven't been blogging much lately because a) I'm lazy and b) even I get tired of being a curmudgeon all the time. Sadly, current events continually reinforce my surly lack of faith in mankind.

A long time ago, I wrote about Ray Ray McElrathby, a find young man who had escaped his drug-addled mother and gambling-addicted father through football, getting a scholarship to play at Clemson. If that wasn't impressive enough, he got guardianship of his then sixth-grade brother to get him out of the environment, too. Aside from wanting to give credit to a man working hard to do the right thing, I also wanted to smack down a smartaleck sports talk show jock who claimed that the evil NCAA was working to keep Ray Ray from getting financial support from voluntary donations being made by South Carolinians.

Of course, it turned out that the NCAA did nothing of the sort, and the McElerathbys got to use the donations and accept the help of coaches. All's well that ends well, right?

In a pig's eye.

Clemson, in a show of classlessness that beggars belief, has taken away Ray Ray McElrathby's athletic scholarship. Did they do this because his academics were poor? No. Was he inspired by the Alabama football players and get arrested at 3 AM at some bar? No. Did he do anything wrong? Not in the least.

It seems that Clemson signed more players to scholarships for next season than they have available. Now this is not an unusual state of affairs; teams routinely sign more players than they are actually allowed to because some will not meet academic requirements, some will leave early, and some just haven't done well enough on the field. Evidently, Mr. McElrathby was deemed to be one of those expendable for on-the-field performance, so they docked him his scholarship so they could give to some hotshot incoming freshman.

Note that they weren't cutting him from the team. If he wants to pay his own way, he can still be a member of Clemson's football factory. Clemson is more than happy to have him; they just don't want to pay his way any longer.

One could say that Clemson has the right to give scholarships to whomever they wish, and one would be correct. But, when you have a truly deserving individual who has to be contributing to the character of the team and is doing some very tough things in his life, one would also think that Clemson could have sacrificed the 25th-best incoming player. In this instance, one would be wrong.

The irony is that, back when Clemson was portraying itself as such a good Samaritan, one of the coaches was quoted as saying,
"I know we have to abide by the rules and everything. But someone in a similar situation not involved with the NCAA can get all the help they want.” As I pointed out in my earlier piece, this is bullpuckey. the help available to those not fortunate enough to be in a big-time football program have far less resources available to them than Ray Ray would.

Now, Clemson is essentially letting him find out how those students would fare. Hopefully, the donations he received in 2006 allowed him to set some money aside until he can get his brother through high school.

What brings this sort of thing into stark relief is the sad fact that people with loads of money who could come to the aid of those who need help seem to think that squandering it on nonsensical ventures is a more sensible thing to do. For example, some noodlebrain with more money than brains named Marcus Katz decided that it would be a wise use of his resources to start yet another football league, the All American Football League. The brilliant plan here was to place teams in big college stadia because college fans, used to watching teams like Alabama and Michigan play for national titles were going to be enamored of watching players who never made it to the NFL playing semipro-level ball.

The league has "suspended operations" prior to opening its first season. This is a fancy way of saying that the league has folded. The likelihood of coming back from tanking your opening season is somewhere between slim and none. To achieve this state of affairs, Mr. Katz has flushed $29 million down the proverbial toilet.

Does anyone care to speculate how many people could be helped by a contribution of $29 million? The city of Birmingham, Alabama, which was going to be host to one of these pitiful AAFL franchises has 2500 homeless people. What would an infusion of $29 million do to the agencies that help these people get work, find housing, and get off the street?

It's easy to pick on Marcus Katz because he's such a visible fool being parted from his money. I could have picked on many successful professional franchises giving millions to guys to play kids' games, or I could have chosen to pick on Warren Buffett who's willing to part with his fortune when he dies by giving it to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Mr. Gates, whatever I may think of Microsoft, is parting with his money while he's still alive, assisting libraries and schools and providing medical assistance to places that never see doctors.

Unfortunately, for every Bill Gates, there's a bunch of Paris Hiltons. Or Clemsons.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Telecommunications Irony

Monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked, by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price, and raise their emoluments, whether they consist of wages or profit, greatly above their natural rate. ~ Adam Smith
I regularly check out the RSS feed from Paul McNamara's blog because he manages to come up with something interesting almost daily. Today he confused me a little.

He quotes the following bit of stuff that used to be found at variation Bell Telephone locations back in the 1980's:

There are two giant entities at work in our country, and they both have an amazing influence on our daily lives. . . one has given us radar, sonar, stereo, teletype, the transistor, hearing aids, artificial larynxes, talking movies, and the telephone. The other has given us the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, the Great Depression, the gasoline crisis, and the Watergate fiasco. Guess which one is now trying to tell the other one how to run its business?
Then he adds a short comment: "Priceless. And timeless."

Now I regard Mr. McNamara as an astute observer, but, in this case, I would have expected him to note the irony of AT&T's self-agrandizement.

For example, how about all those wonderful things Ma Bell gave us? Radar and sonar came about because of one of those wars they decry, and a lot of the money to develop them came from the government they're bad-mouthing. I'm not sure when AT&T gave us talking movies, but if they want to claim it, so be it. The transistor came out of Bell Labs, which AT&T dumped long ago because it didn't generate immediate profits. And, of course, the ultimate irony is that the telephone company was not responsible for the invention of the telephone. The telephone invented the telephone company.

I find any self-portrayal by the regenerated telecommunications oligopoly to be disingenuous at best. Yes, the government is a highly imperfect instrument, which has gotten a lot more imperfect since the AT&T's and Exxon's have virtually bought and paid for our leadership. But on it's good days, it gave us rural electrification, a national pension plan, and greater opportunity for all. The phone company has given us charges for the Korean War tax for decades after the war ended, a surcharge for "universal broadband access", and increased rates in the form of various cute little surcharges.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about trying to find someone at Bellsouth who could tell me if and when DSL was coming out to my neck of the woods. I did get a reply after filing my complaint with the FCC. A very polite lady called to tell me that, basically, DSL would come to my neighborhood when it could reliably be determined that Hell had frozen over.

The only difference in the situation now that AT&T has nearly completed their reassembly by purchasing Bellsouth is that the cost of my dialup has been increased. AT&T apologized profusely for this but advised me that I could always upgrade to DSL -- which is not, of course, available in my area.

There's no cable here either, if you were wondering. I guess a hundred or so families who live a couple of miles outside of the limits of coverage don't count - even if we do pay a monthly surcharge to AT&T for "universal broadband."

So I can pay through the nose for satellite access, pay through the nose for wireless access, or stumble along at 56K.

Y'know, one of the things the government used to do is either bust monopolies or regulate them. There were rules about how much a utility could charge and what was expected in the way of improvements to the system. That's why Bell used to moan about "being told how to run their business." They were responsible to their customers. They don't have to be anymore because their customers don't have much choice.

My electric bill is over twice as high as it was a couple of years ago. Today, in my bill, there was a little flier touting the utilities efforts to use "green" power. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they would generate power using recycled trash, and the entire environment would benefit. If I wanted to participate it would cost me $2 per kilowatt-hour.

I wonder when AT&T will mandate some sort of environment-saving surcharge on their bill.

Without giving me a choice of whether I want to pay or not, of course.