The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Oil Slick

Award Congress another Brass Ball for doing its bit to make gasoline prices soar, then launching a witch hunt to nail someone else with the blame.

Because it takes a lot of brass for anyone in Congress to point fingers elsewhere, when Congress itself helped create, by its constant political and self-serving meddling, soaring gasoline prices and tightening gasoline inventories.

To appease the nation’s ill-informed greens and big-oil haters, Congress instituted a timetable that requires refiners to switch to ethanol from an additive called MTBE as the main component of clearer burning gasoline.

The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association pleaded with Congress: Don’t do it because that will increase the “likelihood of higher prices and a possible volatile market through 2006.”

Why? Among other reasons, there wasn’t enough ethanol capacity to replace the MTBE. The result: reduced inventories and higher gasoline prices, just as summer driving demand arrived. Along with other global factors, such as Middle East uncertainty and the impact on the industry of Katrina.

Never mind that the oil industry doesn’t have enough refining capacity to start with, thanks in part to overly rigid environmental and other regulations imposed by…Congress. Or that the clean air trade-offs of substituting MTBE with ethanol are debatable anyway.

The warnings were ignored, of course, even though they came from someone who might have known what he was talking about.

So turning from its own role in creating this mess, Congressional mops, such as my very own senator, Dick “the Lip” Durbin and others (i.e., Democrats) rushed to a gas station to stage a call for congress to “protect Americans from gas price gouging,” as if we got rid of some evil folks, our problems would end. Unconscionably, President Bush also added to the clatter by promising to do the same. All of which become bigger news than MTBE, federal regulations and timetables, gasoline refining capacity, market supply and demand, and that other boring stuff.

So, while we’re awarding Brass Balls, give one to media morons who focus on so-called price gouging and “outrageous” Big Oil salaries because they find the rest of the complex story all too difficult to understand, or who understand it, but don’t think the public will, so they just ignore it.

Executive salaries and anti-consumer conspiracies are standard scapegoats for liberals, the media and others looking for simple explanations for complex, bad news. But if they want to blame big business and their other bogeymen, they might keep in mind that one reason Congress helped create this mess was because of the involvement of the ethanol lobby, whose leading members include top ethanol producer ADM (whose political contributions are legend) and corn farmers. Their feasting on taxpayer subsidies is gluttonous and growing.

So, why don’t the politicians and media mention them? Is it because Durbin, for example, represents one of the biggest corn-producing states, which also is the home of ADM? You bet it is.

Ain’t no foie gras kind a town

Aldermen in that toddlin’ town, Chicago, have banned the sale of foie gras, the goose- and duck-liver delicacy. Or as one anti-fatty-liver blog puts it, the “delicacy of despair.”

Foie gras now joins smokin’ in public places, handguns and nuclear weapons as verboten in Chicago.

What’s next, a ban on not just the sale, but also the possession of foie gras? Carrying concealed foie gras? Second-hand foie gras?

Won’t the ban simply push the sale of foie gras into the suburbs? Just like Chicago’s decision to be a nuclear-free zone decade ago turned suburban Cicero into a nuclear zone?

At least Chicago’s aldermen will be able to boast: “Ain’t no foie on us.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dem Snow Job

A gleeful Democratic National Committee has discovered that Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary and former Fox News commentator, has in years past been critical of President Bush.

Obviously lying in wait for the happy moment that Snow’s appointment was made official, the DNC rushed out a jubilant press release quoting Snow’s past criticisms of Bush: The president looks guilty (Katrina), is “impotent," an “embarrassment,” and so forth.

This from a party that has criticized Bush for supposedly surrounding himself with yes-men. Imagine the DNC’s joy if Bush had installed as press secretary someone who had never uttered one critical word about Bush, or who had never encountered a single original thought.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Sorry State of Illinois

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune Op-ed Columnist

April 23, 2006

Why was there even mild surprise last week when a jury convicted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan of corruption? When Illinois juries get their hands on a governor, they tend to put him away.

Of our seven prior governors, three now have been convicted. In Illinois, jurors are batting .750. So, give jurors a chance and they'll take down corrupt governors. Which makes me wonder about any bewilderment that this jury convicted Ryan on all counts. Look at history: just three governors before Republican Ryan was Democrat Dan Walker, who served 17 months for fraudulently obtaining bank loans. But that was after he left office, so maybe he doesn't count; the governorship was only training camp.

Five years before Walker was Democrat Otto Kerner who was convicted in 1973 on charges of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, tax evasion and perjury. He was paroled after serving a year. Immediately before him was Republican William Stratton, who was indicted for federal tax evasion. He was acquitted. Not to worry; while the governor's suite at the federal pen is unoccupied, other top state officers often keep it warm.

Has any other Illinois office harbored such a high proportion of serial offenders? (Chicago aldermen, maybe, but doing the math gives me a headache.) In the face of such gubernatorial recidivism, you'd think that at least a few Illinois politicians might recognize the dangers and run the other way. How to explain such recklessness?

I think I know one reason, but obviously not the only reason. Once elected to high office, their lordships begin sharing the same rarified air that the rich and powerful heads of the town's big national and international corporations breathe. It's a long way from the humble work of hustling votes by ringing doorbells or holding someone's fedora. On MRI brain scans, it shows up as metastasizing clumps of self-importance. Governors, mayors, agency chairmen, department heads and even aldermen all display the symptoms. It makes them feel untouchable.

In fact, their egos are tolerated, if not cultivated, by the corporate power structure. It never hurts to have a few gofers who can change a law, ease a regulation or smooth over certain misunderstandings. Pols don't get it; they're grubby street urchins who are allowed into the ball to serve hors d'oeuvres.

But the corporate community also has large quantities of things that the Ryans and Daleys desperately want: power, access to money, endorsement, legitimization, to name a few. In this game of favor doing, the business leadership holds the high cards.

So, the corporate denizens are just the people to put the corrupt pols in their place. "George, we're running global businesses bigger than yours; don't hand us the same crap you give the voters about your pure heart and clean hands. We and this town can't take it any more. Cut it out, or we'll cut you out."

"Richie, your joke about not knowing about all the graft going on right under your nose makes us laugh. If we were running our businesses the way you run City Hall, we'd be out on our butts. Or, on trial, like those guys from Enron. You're through."

Instead, this town's corporate leadership gathers in well-upholstered clubs, patting themselves on their backs for their "civic involvement" with various booster projects. Or they issue studies telling us what the Chicago area ought to look like in 2020. They jabber on by "decaying infrastructure" and pony up millions for lakefront parks. And gratify themselves with their roles as community leaders whose names appear on the letterheads of visible do-gooder groups.

But get their hands dirty to clean up the swill--our state's most pressing problem--and where are they? Yes, they support such efforts as the Better Government Association and the Chicago Crime Commission, which carry on the fight, with quixotic-like determination. But the unwavering silence of the corporate suites about the costly and destructive system of graft inescapably suggests acquiescence, approval or even complicity.

This is meant to be a broad brush and harsh attack; it wouldn't be necessary if Chicago's and Illinois' business community were united in shutting down career criminals like George Ryan and some in Mayor Daley's inner circle. I don't mean that we should turn government over to a corporate junta. But the 12 honest jurors who convict the likes of Ryan sure could use some help.



Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

Monday, April 17, 2006

When Conficting Civilizations Collide

Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist

April 17, 2006

In H.G. Wells' "Time Machine," the helplessly fattened Eloi spend most of their time waiting around their pleasant surroundings to be snatched away by cannibal Morlocks. Those succulent pinkish Eloi who luckily aren't invited for dinner this time can only wait their turn, not so much in fear, but--simpletons that they are--in resigned ignorance.

Though he wrote it more than 100 years ago, Wells nonetheless had many of today's Americans nailed. Today's Eloi are Americans whose only "strategy" for dealing with the dreadful and grisly terrorist assaults on us is to pull back and wait for the next one.

The death sentence hearing of Zacarias Moussaoui, the "12th hijacker" of Sept. 11, 2001, has been a gory reminder of just what this non-strategy can produce. We relived it last week in the jarring words, sounds and sights of doomed people begging in the last seconds of their lives for help; screaming in terror as the World Trade Center collapsed around them; leaping in desperation and flames to a crushing death; or engaging in a final, fruitless life-or-death struggle with their murderers.

Such evidence, as well as Moussaoui's affected disinterest in the carnage, kindles a deep yearning for revenge. Creative revenge. Not simply execution, but just compensation. Suffocation in toxic smoke. Slow immolation. Drowning in blood gushing from his slit throat. A shove out the 86th floor. Release to the public at high noon on ground zero.

Maybe it's a measure of a civilized America that such suggestions are only newspaper column babblings and, thankfully, not a widespread sentiment. Even more, I sense that many folks, even in the face of the horrific evidence unveiled last week, aren't really that outraged anymore. At least in Chicago, it seemed to provoke less indignation than the news, revealed in the Chicago Tribune, that Sun Myung Moon, the head of the "controversial" Unification Church, is a lurking force in the sushi business.

As much as Moon's involvement bothers some, it serves an additional purpose by illustrating the relative importance of things. For example: What's worse, a religion that calls for arranged marriages or one that publicly stones women, but not men, for infidelity? A religious leader who says offensive things in the name of God, or adherents who invoke God's name as they murder thousands of innocent people? As much as it repulses some, Moon is trying to buy world domination, not grabbing it with terror and violence.

Thankfully, in America those offended by Moon only call for fish boycotts, not beheadings.

The Moussaoui trial should underscore the fact that we're fighting brutish enemies over more than power and money. We're fighting over values and beliefs. Moussaoui unapologetically claims that the Koran requires Islamic world domination and that non-Islamic nations must pay tribute to Islamic ones. "We have to be the superpower. You have to be subdued," he said. And in pursuit of that goal, his only regret is that he couldn't fly a planeload of innocents into the Capitol.

Moussaoui understands it better than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and others who see little of global import in our conflicts and counsel a vague sort of withdrawal. Moussaoui sees beyond the gotcha politics of the Beltway and correctly regards this as an engagement of fundamentally conflicting civilizations: One more advanced and compassionate against another--violent and monstrous--that still is fighting in the Dark Ages, against Crusader spooks.

The fight over how and why the Iraq war is being fought is a legitimate one. But Iraq is just one part of the larger and more important debate. That bigger debate should have been settled by now.

To all you naysayers

Speaking of Iraq, some readers, in response to my April 3 column, explained that good news from Iraq isn't reported because there's no good news to report. None. Period. So, in response to their challenge to come up with some, I give you the liberal Brookings Institution and its "Iraq Index."

The index (, brought to my attention by blogger Jim Bowman, is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive statistical compilation of Iraqi conditions, tracking economic, public opinion and security data. While partisans make sweeping assumptions about what are factual questions, the periodic report lays out such comparative data as pre-war and current levels of telephone and water service, unemployment, Iraq security forces, troop facilities and coalition strength.

I won't try to characterize the report one way or another, except to say that those blind to any good news will be surprised.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Illegal Immigrants: Just another unit of economic measure

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune
April 10, 2006

Long ago, that supposed "giant sucking sound" of American jobs heading south to Mexico began to be muffled by a stampede of illegal immigrants coming north to grab away more U.S. jobs.

Now, if you're of a free-market mind, you might think that this is just ducky. Just as goods, services and capital should flow freely across borders to allow the market to work its magic, so should people. After all, isn't a person just another unit of economic measure, and if illegal immigration depresses the living wages of Americans and legal immigrants, well, it all works out for the higher good of economic efficiency.

As callous and daffy as this sounds, some posturing politicians actually believe it. Or act like they believe it. They don't see much difference between a person as a unit of economic activity and a person as a human being. They talk about the "collapse" of the American economy that would follow if we turned off the ready supply of cheap units of labor. Americans, they argue, would never tolerate a better paid, domestic and legal workforce to pick their veggies or mow their lawns because they would have to pay a few dollars more.

We should be scandalized. Arguing that economic necessity demands that we have a ready supply of cheap, exploited labor sounds like something that apologists for slavery would say. Yet, the argument has been so shamelessly expounded by liberals and conservatives that I've come to worry about the state of our national soul.

Think about it: Under the mislabeled "guest worker" program, official government policy actually would endorse and enable the exploitation of human beings. Years of struggle to make the workplace more humane--the minimum wage, no child labor, work-week standards, health requirements and so forth--would be diluted.

The majority of Americans know what this is about, and it's why they strongly oppose having immigration "reform" shoved down their throats by President Bush and Congress. "Reform" is really about special interests. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, put it well when he laid this outrage at the feet of Big Business, Big Politics, Big Labor, Big Media and Big Academia. Big Business for bigger profits. Big Politics to demagogue some votes from a growing segment of the population. Big Labor to bag more dues-paying members. Big Media because, well, that's what the media do. And Big Academia because its elites know what's good for the average American mope.

Krikorian also threw in Big Church, referring to clergy and laity angered by the possibility that their acts of charity, such as feeding, clothing and hiding illegal immigrants, would become a serious crime. I somewhat agree; it's too much like criminalizing the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, the faithful also should ask themselves if the kind of servitude they are abetting conforms to church teachings about social justice.

You'd think that the Kennedys, Durbins and Obamas would be furious at this betrayal of their party's historic principles. They aren't. So, irony of ironies, it is up to conservatives such as me to remind them of it. Not that I expect it to make any difference.

It won't, because Washington creatures are hellbent on feathering their political nests and doing big favors for their friends in business, labor and elsewhere. Never mind that the pols know that they are engaged in a charade by passing a joke of an unenforceable law. Ask yourself: If you have been here illegally for years, would you turn yourself in for some vague promise that some day you might get a chance to become legal? Why bother? Why trouble yourself with paying fines and back taxes, patiently standing in long lines waiting for a bureaucratic stamp of approval, suffering background checks and learning English--all to get something that you already have? You know it and the hypocritical pols know it: It won't work. It's worse than doing nothing at all.

We know so because it didn't work 20 years ago when the government offered amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants, at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars, only to have a fraction of those eligible apply. It was such a disaster that another 9 million or so have arrived and stayed illegally since this last "solution."

At this pace, in 10 years we'll be asking what to do about the 24 million people here illegally.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Maybe the NY Times Figured We Wouldn't Notice

OK, I admit that when I saw a lengthy and prominently played New York Times story this morning about a congressman who "used his powerful perch on the House Appropriations Committee to funnel $250 million into five nonprofit organizations that he had set up," I assumed that the paper was going after another Republican.

True, that assumption was my own bias against a paper whose liberal bias is reaching legendary heights.

As I read the story, I didn't even notice that the story failed to identify the political affiliation of the congressman, Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, in the first paragraph. Nor in the second. Nor in the third.

By now, I noticed this omission, because standard journalistic practice calls for a politician's party to be identified, if not in the first paragraph, at least pretty damn quick.

I read on. Fourth graph, still nothing. Fifth, sixth and seventh. Nothing. The New York Times must figure that everyone knows who Mollohan is. Only us rubes wouldn't.

Finally in the eighth graph I find this:

The case has led several Republican leaders to call for Mr. Mollohan's removal from the House ethics committee, where he is the senior Democrat. [Emphasis added]

That's 315 words into the story. Before the first mention that Mollohan's a Democrat. And, it turns out, an important one.

Maybe someone has a logical explanation for why it took so long. The choices are:

• Incompetent and careless writer and editors.
• Biased writer and editors.

Or maybe the Times figured that political affiliation--this time--was of no consequence.

Actually, it is of significant consequence, as you might gather from the straight news story, which broke in the Wall Street Journal on April 7:

Congressman's 'Earmarks' Spur Federal Probe

April 7, 2006; Page A1

FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- On a mountaintop above old coal seams that once fueled West Virginia's economy, a gleaming steel-and-glass research center is taking shape, its winged design and 120-foot data tower visible for miles.

The $136 million building is being built with taxpayers' money for the Institute for Scientific Research, a nonprofit group launched by the local congressman, Democrat Alan Mollohan, and funded almost entirely through provisions he put into annual spending bills.

A 12-term congressman, Mr. Mollohan sits on the House Appropriations Committee, a panel that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff dubbed the "favor factory." Working with fellow West Virginian Sen. Robert Byrd, Mr. Mollohan has steered at least $178 million to nonprofit groups in his district over the past five years using "earmarks" -- special-interest provisions that are slipped into spending bills to direct money to pet projects.

The money has brought more than jobs and building projects to his district. It has formed and financed a tight-knit network of nonprofit institutions in West Virginia that are run by people who contribute regularly to Mr. Mollohan's campaigns, political-action committee and a family foundation. One of these people also invests in real estate alongside Mr. Mollohan and his wife. The network of contributors also includes private companies that get contracts through these nonprofits.

Such a pattern raises questions about whether the donations or deals might be a way beneficiaries of earmarks could influence the legislator's actions. Now, federal prosecutors have opened an investigation of Mr. Mollohan's finances and whether they were properly disclosed, according to people contacted in the inquiry. Mr. Mollohan hasn't been accused of wrongdoing. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, whose public-corruption unit is conducting the inquiry, declined to comment....

Here' how the UPI reported the story:

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- A Democratic congressman has fueled five non-profit groups in his West Virginia district with $250 million in earmark funding, The New York Times reports.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Let's have good news from Iraq, please: Criticisms of a liberal media bias seem valid

By Dennis Byrne

April 3, 2006

Is The New York Times going bi-polar, or what?

The nation's imperial paper recently said it wouldn't engage in off-the-record sit-downs with President Bush, an invitation that other papers have accepted with no twinges of conscience. Not so the Times. Explained a top executive to Editor & Publisher, a newspaper industry publication: "As a matter of policy and practice, we would prefer when possible to conduct on-the-record interviews with public officials."

Oh, come on.

The Times--like many newspapers--feeds off anonymous sources, especially if the leak trashes the Bush administration. A Times reporter spent months in jail for refusing to reveal an anonymous source, and the newspaper happily ran leaked, classified information about the wiretapping of international conversations with terrorists.

So, save us the baloney. The public knows that anonymous sources usually spill information that benefits the spiller or his interests. Yes, the public understands that an occasional unnamed source is useful in exposing wrongdoing. But it also understands that the many "high purposes" the media use to justify the unabashed spread of "spin" (it used to be called propaganda) under the cloak of secrecy is just bunk.

Yet, the Times and others continue to embarrass the business with this kind of transparent nonsense. It's one reason that newspaper circulation and the viewership of evening network news are declining. Like a gravely ill patient that refuses to listen to a glum diagnosis, too many of my colleagues greet criticisms of a liberal media bias with a closed-minded, "I'm sick of hearing it."

Just like they did after Bush recently joined in the criticism. "The kind of progress that we and the Iraqi people are making in places like Tal Afar is not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news," he said. "Footage of children playing, or shops opening, and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion, or the destruction of a mosque, or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured."

Editor & Publisher followed up with a story, "Iraq reporters hit back at claims they are biased on war coverage." Taking the offensive, they replied that the administration itself fails to come up with enough good news stories, and when it does, reporters don't get enough protection to go out and safely cover the story.

Those of us who haven't been in a war zone criticize the work of war correspondents at our own peril. Yet, for all the assertions that little or no good news is to be found in Iraq, it is simple to find some on the Internet from, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is helping rebuild Iraq. (Why is it called "rebuilding" Iraq, when it was a sorry state before the war? Shouldn't we be talking about "building" Iraq?)

Billions of dollars of highway and other public works projects; new safety nets for the poor and vulnerable, entrepreneurial opportunities, a free press, leadership training--all requisites for successful self-government. For all the stories about power shortages, for example, how many explain that they are partly the result of exploding demand, a good sign of economic progress?

Oddly, some journalists give little credence to such official, attributable reports. In today's upside-down world, official government reports don't carry the same weight as whispered, unattributed reports.

News often is defined as something that didn't happen before, or rarely happens. So, if indeed little good is happening in Iraq, every piece of (rare) good news ought to be reported with the same fervor as every act of violence--which we're to believe is an increasingly common occurrence. And, logically, less deserving of reporting. Or does the absence of reporting "good news" in a country the size of Iraq actually mean that reporters can find absolutely nothing good?

If all this is confusing, it's nothing compared to the confusion shared by the American public about what actually is happening in Iraq. The media's credibility has become so strained that partisans on both sides have to admit in good conscience that they're unsure of what's real. Obviously, this isn't good for a democracy.

So, the media might give more thought to being less defensive, and more objective, not just in covering the news, but also in evaluating their own performance. The public would appreciate that kind of good news.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and consultant.


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune