James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, January 16, 2004

Let 'em eat overpriced hotdogs

(Class War 3)

I am shocked – shocked and horrified, I tell you – to learn that Carl Pohlad does not believe in the free enterprise system.

For those outside the Upper Midwest: Carl Pohlad is the owner of a bunch of banks, some pieces of an airline or two and various other enterprises. Oh; he also owns the Minnesota Twins American League baseball club. He began his career in banking as a repossessor of property in Iowa during the Depression, and married the boss’s daughter. The most recent figures I’ve been able to glean from Forbes Magazine – widely accepted by journalists and business folks as an accurate source of such information – show that our Carl has a personal net worth of something over $2.1 billion. That’s with a “b.”

The United States Census for the year 2000, put the population of the country at 281 million. Of that number, only 84 individuals had more money than Carl Pohlad.

Surely this is a man who embodies the American Dream (as defined by bankers, stockbrokers and the like). This is a capitalist, a champion of free enterprise! During my years as a reporter specializing in finance and economics, I interviewed Pohlad several times, and kept an eye on what he was up to all the time. Talk about capitalists: I never knew the man to express an interest in anything other than money and the making of same. He was, and, well into his 80s apparently still is, a man totally focused on building his wealth. (Well, his grandkids say he’s nice to them.)

As the owner of the Twins, Carl has been pushing for six or seven years now to have the public build a new baseball stadium. The push is on again, big time, this year. And this year, Pohlad is joined by Red McCombs, a Texan who owns the Minnesota Vikings NFL team, AND some local rich boys who make a hobby out of telling the University of Minnesota how to run its athletic programs. McCombs and the latter group want new, separate stadia for the Vikings and the university football team. (It’s a long story, but the short version is that all three teams now play in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, which opened in 1982.)

That would be three new sports stadia, mostly or entirely financed with public money.

According to Forbes, McCombs is only the 185th richest man in America, with hardly more than a million or two above the $1 billion mark, and the U of M hobbyists generally have only a few million each, so we’ll stay focused on Carl, the real free enterpriser among them.

To give credit where it is due, Pohlad only briefly and early on claimed that his purchase of the Twins was anything other than an investment. There was a short period after he bought the team in 1984 when his flacks claimed he had “saved” the Twins from being purchased by someone who would move the team, but they dropped that act fairly quickly. These days he’s all business, in the way that the super rich are now: He claims to have lost many millions of dollars owning the Twins, but no one outside his family organization has ever had the teeniest peek at the books; we’re supposed to take that on faith. He says the team is a for-profit enterprise, and he won’t go on losing money on it indefinitely.

Indeed, in 2001 he worked out a deal with his bud, Bud Selig, who wears the title of baseball commissioner but in fact works only to enhance the wealth of team owners, leaving most of the once normal duties of that office undone. Major League Baseball was going to “contract” by two teams, one of which was to have been the Twins. The other big league team owners would have paid Carl about $150 million to shut down the Twins. Since Carl paid $36 million for the team, that would produce what most people would see as a fairly decent profit.

However, the public raised so much hell that the contraction plan was put on hold until 2006.

Carl continues to intone the mantra of big-league team owners in all sports: A new stadium is necessary to keep the team from bleeding money. (Repeat thousands of times.) And, of course, the public should pay most or all of the cost of building the stadium.

What keeps sticking in my head is that Pohlad and others of his tribe keep insisting that their sports enterprises are businesses, and ongoing losses can’t be tolerated. But when other businesses get into trouble, and the solution of their problems involves further investment, then the owners damn well make the investments. We, the public, do not build a new and larger shop for the jewelry store owner who must expand to continue operating profitably. The owners might borrow the money, but they’ll get it only if the business plan is sound, and they are on the hook to pay back the ENTIRE amount of the loans, with substantial interest.

Forget, once and for all, the claims that the public should buy the sports playgrounds because major league (or minor league) teams are good for the economy. Many independent studies have shown that sports franchises add little or nothing to any economy except the private economy of team owners.

But Carl and Red and the other guys don’t believe in the free enterprise system as I learned and monitored it as a business reporter over three decades. They also are not, as big-money conservatives generally claim to be, against spending huge amounts of public money for the benefit of private individuals or various segments of society. They just figure that they, not the poor, not the general public, not the schools nor the health care systems, nor anybody else, should be the beneficiaries of public largesse.

They’re not against public money creating private wealth; they don’t want to share.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

As widely unreported in your local press....

The original excuses offered by the Bush Administration for invading Iraq were quickly shown to be lies, so the focus these days is on the belated claim that the real reason for the invasion was to rescue the Iraqi people from evil and present them with democracy and a peaceful life.

Oh yeah?

The Dec. 19, 2003, issue of The Guild Reporter, monthly publication of the Newspaper Guild, the union representing reporters, editors and others at many larger U.S. newspapers and magazines, carries an article you’re not likely to see in your daily newspaper, let alone on television. It speaks directly to the question of what “democracy” means to a Bush-led government.

The writer is freelance journalist David Bacon, a member of the Guild’s Northern California local, who spent some time late last year traveling and reporting in Iraq. He says flatly that U.S. forces in that country are being used by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) – the occupation government run by Americans – to forcefully suppress labor unions and any attempt to organize Iraq’s workers around causes, such as the establishment of unemployment benefits, that would improve their miserable lot.

A little aside: Seventy percent of the country’s work force is unemployed, Bacon says -- though some sources put the unemployment figure at only a bit above 60 percent -- and a high percentage of the jobless are homeless and without any regular source of income or even food.

On Dec. 6, 2003, Bacon says, U.S. troops conducted a series of arrests against would-be organizers. “A convoy of 10 humvees and personnel carriers descended on the old headquarters building of the Transport and Communications Workers union, in Baghdad’s central bus station,” which since last June has housed the Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions. Twenty U.S. soldiers dashed into the building and handcuffed and hauled off eight members of the federation’s executive board. The place lacks even basic office furniture and machines, but the soldiers took what files there were, and ripped down the anti-terrorism posters in the offices, Bacon says.

The eight who were arrested were released the next day, but have never been told why they were picked up. The CPA has refused to explain the arrests, Bacon says.

He reports that two other trade union leaders were arrested Nov. 23 by U.S. troops, held a day and released, and another leader has been arrested and released twice. There’s more, but you get the idea.

One of the things that is driving Iraqi workers to organize is the widespread belief among both managers and workers that there will be massive layoffs among those who are employed when now government-owned enterprises are sold off to foreign buyers, Bacon says.

Another thing the American press isn’t bothering to tell the public is that the Bush Administration has a list of Iraqi state-owned enterprises – mines, pharmaceutical factories, fertilizer plants, the country’s one airline and others – that it intends to hawk to foreign companies. There have been a number of by-invitation meetings for potential buyers in Washington and London.

And another story your local newspaper almost certainly hasn’t told: By decree of Saddam Hussein in 1987, workers in Iraqi state-owned enterprises are forbidden to form or join unions. Our army, under Bush and the CPA, is enforcing that law, Bacon says, and people who try to organize either those or other enterprises are being threatened with detention as prisoners of war.

Bacon notes that under the Saddam regime, the workers made about $60 a month, on average, but they also got bonuses, profit sharing and food and housing subsidies. Under the CPA’s oh-so democratic rule, they still make about $60 a month, but the bonuses, profit sharing and subsidies have been eliminated, meaning that workers have much less than they had under Saddam. They’re still working the 11-hour or 13-hour shifts they did under Saddam, however. There are no unemployment benefits for Iraq workers so quitting isn’t an option, and layoffs are greatly feared.

The writer concludes, reasonably, that the pressure is being kept on the workers, and that unions are being suppressed in order to make the state-owned businesses more attractive to potential buyers, who will be much more interested if they don’t have to deal with unions, and can pay starvation wages to terribly overworked employees.

The Guild Reporter headlined Bacon’s article thus: “Is Iraq a dress-rehearsal for U.S.?”

But that’s far-fetched.

Isn’t it?

(Coming soon: Why the American press has become so feeble...)

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Alas, Poor George

This item passed on by a friend in Florida:

A tragic fire Monday destroyed the personal library of President George W. Bush. Both books were lost. A presidential spokesman said the president was devastated; he had not finished coloring the second book.