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    “Drugs, Inc.” – the Most Important Show on Television

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st March 2015 (All posts by )

    “Drugs, Inc.” is a television show on the National Geographic Channel that focuses on the business of drugs, from producers to traffickers to users to police. I can’t recommend this show enough and I watch every episode that comes up on my DVR.

    Welcome to the $300 billion industry of Drugs, Inc., where traffickers pocket huge profits, addicts become chained in a vicious cycle and law enforces wage war across diverse battlefields – farmers’ fields, shady labs, urban street corners and suburban schools. How does this business work? Can it be stopped or should it be regulated? What impact does it have on those it touches?

    Drugs Inc somehow gets interviews with drug dealers and drug traffickers. They are always wearing a mask of some sort and often their voices are garbled electronically. It isn’t clear to me why they agree to be on TV or why the authorities don’t follow up on the leads from the program or subpoena their records. I can’t comment on the authenticity but it certainly seems real, especially the interviews with the users or “fiends” as they are described by the dealers on the series.

    The first thing that the show will do for you is change how you look at homeless people. All of the users on the show are either 1) drug dealers themselves likely far down the chain in order to support their habit 2) panhandlers or some sort of schemer / prostitute. There occasionally are recreational users or those with jobs but since they typically interview hard-core drug users many of those individuals can’t do a regular 9 to 5 job.

    The panhandlers are a relentless lot. They wake up in various places, sometimes in their cars, sometimes in a tent, sometimes in an abandoned building, or elsewhere. When they get up, it is time to make some money in order to buy some drugs. They always know exactly what they are doing and have a target amount of money to “earn” in order to score what they need to stave off dope sickness.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Film, The Press | 19 Comments »

    Sunset in Chicago

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st March 2015 (All posts by )

    Recently I visited my friend to see their new baby and they had fantastic views of the city looking west and north. Not a bad photo from my iPhone 6… my iPhone 5 and 4 cameras were terrible.






    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Chicagoania, Photos | 7 Comments »

    St. Patrick’s Day and Journalism

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 17th March 2015 (All posts by )

    I’m going to combine two posts here that don’t sound like they’d go well together – “Day Drinking” and lazy journalism. There was an article by Stanley Bing (the pseudonym of an executive who writes for Fortune magazine) who happens to 1) be an actual business executive 2) writes effectively (and hilariously). While I can’t find the exact post I am paraphrasing below:

    Whenever I see anything written about my company in the popular press, it is generally incorrect. Thus I must conclude that most of what I see written about other companies in the press isn’t right, either.

    Business Insider is a great resource that I read on my iPhone most days when I have a few minutes to kill. They have some original content and re-post from other sources. Recently I read about the “five biggest” St. Patricks’ day celebrations (parties) which was a typical “puff piece” article for them – you can see it here.

    The only problem with this article is… that it is lazy and wrong. Our own correspondent Dan happened to be on the ground in Las Vegas for St. Patrick’s day last year and he said it was “Chicago on an inter-galactic scale” which I believe since Dan has been at a ton of drinking events through being a sports fan forever. I am having trouble verifying this on the ol’ intertubes but it is the kind of event where “hey, the Chicago River is green, we can trot this story out every year, there we are done” but the massive scale of Las Vegas means that if you have a drinking event they can just pour out of the hotels and onto the streets (that they shut down) and go crazy and drink outdoors. Probably the only way to officially verify this is to send Art Mann out to Las Vegas as the ultimate decider…

    Onto Chicago for St. Patrick’s day… we had a beautiful day and so everyone was out in force. People were lining up per usual in the wee hours (many bars open at 6am) for a long day of drinking here in River North.

    I loved this outfit… a drunk gumby up at Paris Club!

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Chicagoania, Humor | 7 Comments »

    The Game “Doom” and Its Historical Importance

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th March 2015 (All posts by )

    The game “Doom” came out for PCs in the early 1990s. Playing that game was a formative experience for me and its contribution to computers and gaming is very under-rated.

    I recently picked up a copy of the game on my iPad. I immediately was re-immersed in the game, remembering the maps, the monsters, the tactics, and sweating and jerking in my chair as I tried to get through the levels alive.

    Doom was created by Id Software, and it was one of the most successful “first person” shooters. To some extent they invented the genre; their first game was Castle Wolfenstein which was a remake (far superior) of a top-down view game that I used to play on my old Apple II. That (ancient) game was famous for having the characters’ talk – I remember that they would yell “Schweindhund” when you shot the German guards.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Personal Narrative, Tech | 7 Comments »

    We’re Getting Closer

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th March 2015 (All posts by )

    In this post I described how Illinois could “fix itself” financially… however my more realistic post here discusses how Illinois is tilted precariously on the edge of a crisis and I believe that one major issue impacting a large entity could kick off the entire process of “going Detroit” and “paging Kevin Orr”.

    Recently the City of Chicago, facing ratings downgrades, almost triggered off some swaps payments that would come due if the credit rating was to fall down to a certain low level. Per the article:

    Chicago drew closer to a fiscal free fall on Friday with a rating downgrade from Moody’s Investors Service that could trigger the immediate termination of four interest-rate swap agreements, costing the city about $58 million and raising the prospect of more broken swaps contracts.

    The city was able to re-negotiate one of the swap agreements and was in talks with Wells Fargo about the other swaps agreement per this article. Apparently the date of reckoning has been pushed out a little further.

    The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) debt is now just one grade above “junk” status per this article.

    In making the downgrade, Moody’s cited the school district’s reliance on reserve funds for “operating expenditures, particularly pension contributions, which will steadily increase in the coming years.”Moody’s also maintained its “negative outlook” on the district’s debt, again citing the rising pension costs. From 2013 to 2016, annual retirement costs will increase to $688 million from $197 million, Moody’s stated in its rating explanation.

    Note that the budget that Rauner proposed for the state of Illinois had additional cuts for state and local government, at a time when each of them are crying to the state for relief. These cuts are also due to Rauner’s choice to let the state income tax surcharge expire rather than renewing it (as Quinn certainly would have done). Per this article:

    Governor Rauner’s office released a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying: “Governor Rauner had to make some hard decisions to balance a $6 billion budget shortfall caused by years of fiscal neglect and bad practices. The amount of money transferred to local governments has ballooned by more than 40 percent in the last decade and the reduction to local governments proposed in the budget puts Illinois in line with neighboring states. In Governor Rauner’s budget proposal, Chicago’s overall revenues are reduced by less than 2.5 percent. Through the local government task force, Governor Rauner is committed to working with local communities to reduce costs and give them increased flexibility. Additionally, as part of his Turnaround Agenda, the governor proposed empowering local residents with tools to control costs at the local level and get more value for their tax dollars.”

    It will be very interesting to see how this all plays out. Today the various governmental units and branches of our legislature and the governor are circling and eyeing each other to see who blinks first.

    Some day hopefully we can move beyond the “funding” discussion into a real discussion of how we can get our state in fiscal order; by encouraging our government to be more productive, by scaling back our obligations to unions, and by unshackling entrepreneurs in the state to create jobs and companies. No one is talking about that yet… except Rauner.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Chicagoania | 3 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Training and Learning on the Job

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th March 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    When I started out as an auditor I actually had to attend a 2 week class to learn how to create audit work papers.  This was my first “real” job out of college and I was very motivated to do well.

    Looking back, the “teachers” were mainly auditors with a few years of experience.   This worked out fine because they were still immersed in the details while the top executives had long since forgotten about the details of day to day existence.

    I shared a room on their “campus” with another first year auditor.  I was astonished when he brought two pairs of work shoes (wingtips) – he said if you switched every day, your shoes lasted longer.  I never had considered something like that.

    The training was very stressful and I had “dreams” about how to create work papers.  Many of the other students had been interns previously so this was old hat to them but for me it was difficult because it was meticulous and seemingly pointless work.

    At various points we went into formal classes on specific industries; I was in the regulated practice so I attended a one week course on how utilities set their rates and recover their costs. The class was good and I will never forget when I walked up to the guy teaching it afterwards and introduced myself and said my name and he said

    “Who gives a f&ck about who you are?”

    It was a good lesson because from his perspective (and the client’s perspective) we were just low level auditors there to do a job and we should put our heads down, fill out the paperwork, go through the same tests as last year, and get the heck out (and on to the next job).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 5 Comments »

    A Fantastic Article on Greece

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st March 2015 (All posts by )

    At Business Insider (an app I read every day) I found this great and interesting take on the events in Greece.

    Basically the article says that

    1. The Greeks don’t pay taxes (tax evasion is chronically high)
    2. The Greeks don’t keep their money within Greece (they move it to havens both to protect it from taxation and to earn higher returns)
    3. The Greeks don’t invest in their own governmental debt (it is Euro-zone and international entities)

    The article compares Greece with Japan – while Japan has much higher levels of debt, the Japanese debt is funded by Japanese individuals, companies and government entities and they have only 5% of their debt in the hands of outsiders.

    I never thought about the issues in this manner but it makes sense; the Greek people “know” that it will turn out badly if they trust their poorly run and corrupt government and make their own individual decisions about how to hold their money. Why would other countries and investors “invest” in a government that their own people have no faith in (when it comes to “putting your money where your mouth is”, so to speak).

    Posted in Big Government, Europe | 11 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – The Difficulty of Verifying Cash

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 25th February 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    For a long time many governmental entities did not have audits from outside firms.  Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s it became common-place for them to have to open up their books and bring in third party professional audit firms to review their accounts.  If they had not been audited before, we called it a “first time through” audit because the amount of work was exponentially maybe one and a half to two times higher – you had to document the controls, figure out who was who at the client, validate the opening balances, etc…  Typically after the first audit it was much easier because the 2nd year audit just followed the work papers of the prior year auditors (unless you were like me and asked a lot of questions, which is a story for another “25 stories about work” article).

    Recently I thought about my experience when I read this article about the state of New Mexico while reading this article from Bloomberg (a fantastic news source) titled “New Mexico’s $100 Million Accounting Error”. From the article:

    New Mexico can’t balance its checkbook.
    Cash in the state’s bank account is at least $100 million short of what’s recorded in the finance department’s ledger, pushing officials to adjust reserves by that amount, to about $650 million. The blame, the current administration says, lies with the introduction of a new accounting system in 2006.

    While it would seem astonishing that in this day and age, when you have on-line bank statements and immediate access to data for personal accounts, that a governmental entity could be that far off the mark, it wasn’t shocking to me. As a new auditor at this first-time through audit, I was given what was thought to be the simplest of tasks – auditing the cash on the books and reconciling this cash balance to the bank statement.

    How you and I and almost everyone else operates is that you have a checkbook balance and as you make a payment (write a check), you deduct that amount from your available cash and you then know how much money you have left in your account. Since deductions can come in many forms (ATM withdrawals, auto-payments, and manual checks) you need to balance your checkbook periodically to make sure you don’t miss anything, but other than that it isn’t that difficult conceptually. The same process obviously works in reverse for deposits.

    The governmental entity I was auditing in the early 1990s, however, used a totally different philosophy. They assumed that they HAD the cash forever until you proved that the check was cashed by whomever they sent the payment out to. Thus when you started to look at the bank balance “on the books”, it showed hundreds of millions of dollars. When you looked at bank statement (from the bank), you saw a few million dollars. Thus my nearly insane task was to reconcile out the hundreds of millions of dollars in payments that had been made over the years to get from all the cash deposited back to the few million dollars left on hand. To be fair, staff at the governmental entity had taken a “crack” at this task and there was lots of manual records attempting to bridge the gap, but it was still a giant effort. New Mexico apparently uses the same “model” today – per that Bloomberg article:

    Officials commissioned a study on the variances between the state ledger and its bank accounts from fiscal 2007 through February 2013.
    Contractors could match only 2 percent of 160 million entries to a corresponding bank transaction, according to a Jan. 19 memo to lawmakers from Legislative Finance Committee staff.
    Hundreds of thousands of transactions totaling more than $836 million are absent from the system, the study found. It estimated that the state could have from $76 million to $400 million less than its records reflect.
    Clifford said he requested $3.4 million to create processes to properly record cash balances. It will take about two years to achieve a “clean” annual financial report, he said. Should the imbalance exceed $100 million, the gap would come out of reserves, he said.

    I still remember writing up memos attempting to explain this situation to the partner on the engagement. We did not have a lot of time set aside for auditing cash, which is supposed to be simple, and when you bid out these governmental jobs we were already doing the work at a loss (compared to standard billing rates) so there was little or no tolerance for spending extra work at this unprofitable client. Thus I was not only handed an impossible task my own firm was not pleased with my careful documentation of this situation which caused them to have to spend even more time writing memos to provide credence to the numbers so that we could complete the audit.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Big Government | 21 Comments »

    The Liquidation of Markets

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 22nd February 2015 (All posts by )

    Every weekend I read Barry Ritholtz’s recommended reading and there are a lot of gems in there. Recently he posted this Credit Suisse graphic about markets at the turn of the 20th Century by market share and compared it with 2014 on the topic of global equity investing.

    US_stocks

    In his article he mentioned the fallacy one might fall into as a UK equity investor in 1899… why bother investing in the USA when the UK market is so much larger? And then this line of thought ends up missing the huge growth in US market share over the next century.

    However, the real issue here isn’t the relative change in market share by the different countries; it is the fact that almost all of these markets were entirely extinguished at one time or another by political, economic or military events that wiped out the investors.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Investment Journal | 11 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – “Don’t Run” and Rental Cars

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 22nd February 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, late 1990s

    Along with air travel, renting a car is part and parcel of the traveling business person’s experience. Over the years I have rented hundreds if not a thousand rental cars at airports across the USA.

    In the earliest days we’d always get a map from the rental car agency and then use it to navigate our way around town. Rental cars are typically near the airport and kind of tucked away often with lousy signage, so you need to know how to find your way out and how to find your way back. Nowadays most of the airports have a “single system” for rental cars where all the buses drop you off at the same facility, but back in the day each one had their own pros and cons.

    The big innovation in rental cars came when Hertz implemented “Neverlost”. Neverlost was the first in-car navigation system that I was aware of and we started getting it in their cars in the mid to late 1990s. Neverlost spoke to you as a woman in an English accent and she was forever telling me to

    Return to the designated route

    In her peeved manner whenever I made a wrong turn or disobeyed her orders. Any sort of new directions took a long time to take effect, and the system was remarkably clunky compared to what’s available on your smartphone, but back then it seemed like an enormous leap forward. One negative element of this is that I started listening to the machine rather than learning the cities I drove through – in particular Memphis is a city I should have explored with a map but instead sat like a zombie and was told what to do by machine.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Tech, Transportation | 9 Comments »

    Our Need For Categorization

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th February 2015 (All posts by )

    I am an enormous fan of “top lists” and almost any sort of categorization. If it is the top 100 guitarists, the greatest bands, a type of warship, or anything else – I like to see it in a category and classification that can explain trends and try to cut through complexity by organizing the data into different groupings.

    Sirius XM radio stations are a great example of categorizations. Recently on a trip with Dan and our friend Brian we had the station stuck on “Hair Nation” – and then we started thinking through the different stations and how Sirius has chosen to allocate music across each of them.

    Some bands are solidly “Hair Nation” – Poison, Warrant, LA Guns, and everything else with spiky hair and all about having a good time. While Dan is more “Hair Nation” – I am more on the “Boneyard” station, which has a big overlap with Hair Nation but a whole host of songs that aren’t on Hair Nation, such as UFO and older heavy metal like Judas Priest.

    We started to have a mock “debate” in a snooty English style of “Dear Sir – I beg to differ with your classification of the band Skid Row. “Monkey Business” is more of a hard Boneyard song while their ballads of course could reside properly within the confines of Hair Nation.”
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Humor, Music | 4 Comments »

    The End of An Industry

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th February 2015 (All posts by )

    When Best Buy first moved into town maybe 15-20 years ago I was excited. I could spend hours in there looking at gadgets, components, routers, TV’s, and had thoughts and dreams of tying them all together. Later, Fry’s opened up, and you could walk through the aisles and buy all the pieces to build your own PC out of parts and make it the hottest gaming platform in town.

    Recently I saw this article in Business Insider (I really like that app / site / etc…) about how to upgrade your MacBook pro (the machine I am writing this blog post on). If you have an earlier model (2011-2), you could spend less than $200 to upgrade your RAM and install an SSD drive (one without moving parts, essentially a big memory chip) and pull out your old (mechanical) hard drive and your machine will then give you many more years of excellent Apple service. Apple’s integrated operating system / hardware plan means that my older machine takes advantage of all the new features in every software upgrade of the operating system (now my Mac “rings” when I get an iphone call and that is a bit annoying but who’s complaining) as long as it has the horsepower to keep up.

    So I took the (minor) plunge and went on Amazon and bought an SSD drive and upgraded RAM and it arrive in a couple of days for less than $200. I am going to take this over to my friend Brian’s house since he’s better at this than me and we are going to take apart the machine and put in the new drive and memory.

    The real point of this story, however, is that the implicit industry of “taking apart devices and rebuilding them” that existed on the consumer side for the last 30 or so years (that I have been part of, at least) is dying. You can’t take apart newer Apple machines and upgrade them. While you can theoretically “jailbreak” your iPhone, fewer and fewer people I know even think of that and instead they are part of the world that views them as integrated devices that you can either use, take to a tech, or replace.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance | 11 Comments »

    The Rise of the Dollar

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th February 2015 (All posts by )

    When I was growing up as a kid I remember they had TV commercials against Jimmy Carter explaining how the dollar declined vs. other currencies over the decades. In the late 1980s the Japanese Yen soared in value until their market crashed in 1989. The Euro was originally near parity with the dollar, then fell to 70 cents on the dollar (I happened to be in Europe at the time, it was great), then rose to over $1.30 against the dollar.

    In general if you keep your portfolio all in US assets you are essentially “100% long” against the dollar. A few years ago the dollar effectively fell almost 40% vs. many of the world’s major currencies – this is the time when the Canadian and Australian dollar almost reached parity with the US dollar. For US citizens who traveled frequently across the border into Canada, it seemed strange to think of the Loonie as being just the same as a US dollar, since for years it was worth substantially less. Thus if your portfolio was all in US dollar denominated assets, your value fell 40% that year vs. the worlds’s currencies, even though you couldn’t “feel” it unless you traveled abroad or tried to buy imported goods.

    Recently, however, this has all turned around. The dollar is soaring vs. most of the world’s currencies, which is good news for travelers and makes imports cheaper. However, those who own foreign stocks are looking at losses regardless of how the underlying stock performs (often many of the underlying foreign businesses IMPROVE when the US dollar rises; for instance Indian outsourcing firms who are paid in US dollars find that this money stretches further when paying their Indian based staff in rupees), just because of the rising dollar.

    Rise_of_dollar

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance | 16 Comments »

    How To Fix the State of Illinois

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 19th January 2015 (All posts by )

    In a previous post I discussed the high probability of there being some sort of major fiscal calamity in Illinois in the next two years. Here I propose how to solve the issues in the state. I realize that the chance of any or all of these solutions to be put into place is near zero without unthinkable changes, but in fact they are all obvious and will likely be part of the ultimate solution.

    Consolidate Governmental Entities – Illinois has over 8400 governmental entities, the highest in the USA. These entities need to be drastically curtailed and likely should number in the hundreds, and each should have professional management, strict caps on borrowing capabilities, and an inability to sign up for long term unfunded obligations (pensions, retiree health, etc…) without stringent oversight.

    Eliminate Pensions and Defined Benefit Plans and Move to Defined Contribution Plans – Illinois’s pension and benefits woes are myriad and well documented and extend through every city and county due to firefighters and policemen and governmental workers. Regardless of the one time pain, strikes, protests, and society-shaking impacts of these moves, these unfunded obligations are an impossible burden on the state and it must move to a 401k-like plan (similar to what Nebraska did)

    Reduce State and Local Employee Compensation Pay by 25% or More – The government faces a simple choice between paying its employees what they think they deserve (ever more) and the government’s obligation to provide services to its citizens at a price that does not drive excessive taxation. This deal is broken and a large part of the burden will have to rest on governmental employees. If they do not like this solution they will be free to find employment in the private sector where it is unlikely that they will be able to match the same package of benefits and compensation. We will know that the model is in balance when the turnover rate of government is equal to that of the private sector.

    Outsource 33% or More of Governmental Jobs – There are large opportunities for efficiencies in the governmental sector, through use of the Internet, changes in processes, and injection of competition into areas traditionally done by the government. Even within areas that are generally governmental functions (like the police), a significant portion of the functions such as administration could be done by third-party or online vendors.

    Reform Purchasing By Use of Modern Techniques and Focus on Outcomes Not Political Concerns – Our procurement systems in Illinois are riddled with favoritism, opaque decision methods, and a focus on aiding politically connected firms. In addition, payment of vendors is very slow which rules out many smaller and less capitalized vendors. We need to focus on market based outcomes (quality of service, cost reduction, speed to market), and reward vendors with consistent and timely payments rather than focusing on political connections and long term relationships which favor a few incumbents.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance | 15 Comments »

    Illinois Government, Broadly Defined, Will Have A Major Crisis by 2017

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 19th January 2015 (All posts by )

    The fact that the State of Illinois has dire fiscal problems is well documented. If you just type in headlines like “Illinois is broke” into your web browser and you can spend hours reading. One of the best is Illinois Policy.org which brings together articles from various news sources into a coherent theme. We have a new governor, Bruce Rauner, who is wealthy and thus unlikely to be entangled in corruption, who is pledging to take on this giant mess, which is a cause for optimism.

    The issues, however, are much larger. It isn’t just the state of Illinois which is in deep crisis – we have an interconnected set of entities all of which are on the verge of facing fiscal woes, who in turn can tip other entities off the fiscal cliff. The city of Chicago also has very significant financial problems, mostly from pensions as well, which it has been papering over for many years with debt and by allowing its unfunded pension issue to get ever larger. Cook County, too, which is one of the largest governmental counties and entities of its nature in the USA, is also facing dire challenges.

    Once you get beyond the state, the city of Chicago, and Cook County, you encounter myriad minefields from our plethora of governmental units. Illinois has more governmental entities than any other state, 8400, as you can see from this article. Most of them have various taxing powers, debt they’ve raised, and liabilities like pensions and health care for workers that are not funded. Look near O’Hare, where the (tiny) city of Rosemont has funded huge shopping malls, convention centers, and even a casino by floating debt. In the end this debt is substantially backed by the state whether that guarantee is implicit or explicit; a city of a few thousand residents can’t normally fund this sort of largess.

    But the challenges are much deeper than this. These entities, much of which are overseen on a local level, invite vast opportunities for institutional corruption. We saw this on Metra, where the scandals caused the prior president to commit suicide (by standing in the way of a train, no less) and cast a light on the squalid pay-for-play decisionmaking process of a typical entity in our state.

    The situation has become so bad that even in a time of record low interest rates, when there are many buyers of debt with any sort of return, that Illinois and the city of Chicago often cannot take advantage of municipally funded debt (which carries a lower interest rate because individuals are not subject to Federal taxes on the interest) because this debt has to be used for capital purposes and can’t just be used to pay day-to-day bills. Thus they are forced to issue “taxable” debt, and pay a higher interest rate. Many of the issues are essentially “scoop and toss” where we just take the entire principal and interest of expiring debt, refinance the whole thing, and just throw it out into the future, growing ever more indebted.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Chicagoania, Illinois Politics | 11 Comments »

    The Failure of State Sponsored Capitalism

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 31st December 2014 (All posts by )

    It is my assertion that over the last few decades since the fall of communism a lack of understanding of how markets actually work has become commonplace around the world. When it was capitalism vs. communism (or socialism, or even fascism), you generally knew where you stood. To wit:

    • Capitalism said that the free market would provide the best outcome for society, while communism / socialism felt that capitalism had to be tempered and / or that key assets should be owned by the state 
    • Capitalism said that government should be small, and stick to a few areas of logical focus such as security and foreign affairs, while socialism / communism celebrated government and government jobs as a way to employ the citizenry and achieve social goals

    Subtly, the growing attraction of jobs that were primarily in the government sector (environmental jobs, education jobs, health care jobs, and outright government work) and the basic thought that you could build a nice, steady career there with assured benefits and pensions while “doing right for the world” became commonplace. These jobs were often seen as “nicer” and “better” than the ruthless corporate jobs that are continually vilified or parodied on television (such as “The Office” or virtually any thriller set in business).

    On a parallel scale, the idea that “State Owned Enterprises” (SOE) could be a significant part of the world economy, and compete effectively with private sector companies, became widespread. Let’s leave aside the companies that fell into the US governments’ hands during 2008-9 like the banks and car companies; I am focusing on the world wide companies, often country “champions”, that are in our midst and whose performance has now been hit with the usual causes of failure of these sorts of entities, including:

    1. Politically motivated investment
    2. Forced government subsidies or protectionist behavior
    3. Corruption
    The “poster child” for this negative outcome is Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, which is 64% owned by the state.  Petrobras was briefly the 4th most valuable company in the world after their 2010 IPO; now it is barely in the top 100.  Petrobras hits all these typical failure points with a vengeance.  The government forced them to purchase goods and services from inefficient Brazilian suppliers, subsidized their citizens with Petrobras funds, pushed them to invest in deep offshore finds which were risky relative to the company’s capabilities, and finally just engaged in simple corruption to fund their political party candidates.  All of these actions weakened the company and now a downturn in oil prices and a heavy debt load put the company in a seriously bad state.

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    Posted in Business, China, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Education | 20 Comments »

    Renting Vs. Buying

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 29th December 2014 (All posts by )

    In the 2007-9 real estate boom and debacle here in Chicago there was a wave of newly built condominiums that swamped the market in River North, River East, the South and West Loop, and even Downtown. For a while the new buildings could do no wrong and then that disappeared into a pool of foreclosures and difficult times for condominium associations as they had to deal with vacant units and those that refused or were unable to pay assessments.

    In the 2012-5 period, that same area of Chicago has seen an enormous influx in new buildings, but this time it is different – they all seem to be rental units. Everyone seemed to learn the same lesson; condominiums can be hard to unload in a down market and the prices are highly variable (units sold for fire-sale prices during the nadir and condominium developers lost their shirts if they were holding inventory during that time), so let’s go with renters instead, who derive consistent returns for the building owner and lender.

    For a bit I even thought I’d try to put my condo on the market since prices have gone up. I figured I’d just rent for a while and not be exposed to future downturns. But as I looked around for equivalent value to my current condo in terms of location, views, bedrooms and bathrooms, I noted that I’d be paying $4500+ / month for an equivalent space, if I could find it at all (inventory of larger condos in modern buildings in good walkable areas was in fact very low). That just seemed crazy.
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    Posted in Chicagoania, Real Estate | 10 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Unions in the Service Sector

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 24th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    When I was first starting out as an auditor I worked in Wisconsin at an electric utility. In your initial jobs as an auditor you were given the least interesting assignments, such as plant accounting. Assets like generating plants don’t usually change much in value from year to year so reconciling the plant assets was a job for the lowliest accountant.

    At the time the records for this plant were kept on what we called “13 column” yellow paper. I never thought about it until today but 13 columns was obviously chosen so that you had 12 individual months plus a thirteenth column for totals. The client’s records were partially computerized but some items (such as the plants built in the ’70s) were done manually.

    The guy who ran plant accounting was old, irascible, and disliked a young kid like myself who asked a lot of questions. They also were frustrated because ever year a new guy (or girl) took a look at the plant accounting records, since it was an entry level job, so they had no continuity and had to re-explain everything (badly) each year.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 18 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – the Henpecked Guy

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, Illinois, early 1990s

    One of the clients that I had was a (rare) financial services firm in downtown Chicago. This was a great client because I didn’t have to travel or do anything strange like audit a maximum security prison.

    The job was also interesting because the firm we were auditing took in investor funds and turned around and invested in myriad hedge funds. As a result, during audit time (year end) we had a lot of work to do because in order to complete OUR audit, we had to receive reports from all the individual hedge funds that the firm’s clients invested in. Back then we were barely computerized and used lots of paper, and all the audited financials came in at the last minute, so we worked non-stop to attempt to meet customer deadlines.

    At lunch we went out as a group and they brought the auditors along. Most of the time it was just me since I was fairly competent by that time so my manager usually left me on site to do all the work and just checked in on the results periodically. I was a workhorse, charging in hours from early morning to late night every day and on weekends during busy season. Since this firm made a lot of money, they didn’t care much how many hours we billed, they just wanted to complete the audit on time so that their clients felt confident in investing with them.

    The manager from the client was interested in hiring me. This is typically how you got a job as an auditor – you impressed the client with your intelligence and work ethic, and then they hired you to join their internal audit staff. Since most of my clients were in government or distant utilities in undesirable (at the time) cities, this was an unusual circumstance for me.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business | 9 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Working in a Maximum Security Prison (Part II)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison. Here is Part I of the story. This prison is where the Blues Brothers movie was filmed along with “Prison Break”.

    After I got acclimated to the prison, it was time to select the assets that I would audit during the summer. Typically you “randomly select” assets from the asset listing, take a statistically significant sample (perhaps 20-50 items), and draw conclusions about the whole pool of assets based on whether you were able to find the selected assets in the location where they were said to reside. I did this at first and the results came up with many assets titled “XXX-780″ and I asked the accountants working for the facility what they were. The accountants said that these were individual prisoner beds and that was the cell number and the way to audit those assets would be to go in and unlock the cells and I could flip up the bed and check the number. I thought about this for a few minutes and then said “f&ck this” and decided that I would use “judgement” to select my assets instead of the random method and I selected 30 assets myself for my project.

    The quest to find the assets took me throughout the facility. If it was a gun that I selected, I would go past the guard into the armory, through the tunnels under the building, and up the ladder into the tower to manually check the serial number of the rifle or other weapon that was picked to be audited against the building records.

    I selected what turned out to be a sniper rifle. These guns were kept in storage at the armory, and they brought out the sniper to show me the weapon himself because they didn’t let other people touch it after he had calibrated the scope. The sniper asked me a question:

    Do you know why they pick snipers out of the staff in the prison?

    No, I said.

    Because in Attica there was an uprising and the prisoners took over the yard and then the prison brought in outside marksmen to ensure they could not escape. During the melee the marksmen shot many prisoners but it turns out that the prisoners had changed clothes with the civilian hostages, so some of the individuals gunned down were actual guards or workers. Thus the snipers were prison guards from that facility because they could pick out the inmates from the guards and workers.

    I said that if he ever saw me in his scope wearing an orange outfit, please don’t shoot. It wasn’t a joke.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Working In a Maximum Security Prison (Part I)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 4th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison

    When I was an auditor I worked with utilities and governmental entities. These were the least popular clients because they often required a lot of travel and if you left the public accounting firm you generally worked for a client (or a different firm in the same industry) and this would pigeonhole you into working in regulated industries.

    When I thought I’d seen the least appealing clients possible, a new low occurred – I was assigned to a maximum security prison. The Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. The prison hired an accounting firm to do an audit of their property records and my job was to inventory the physical assets deployed throughout the facility.

    The only guards with weapons were in the towers or overlooking the prison walls. Once you were inside the facility the guards had nightsticks but no guns. This was to prevent the prisoners from overpowering the guards and taking their weapons. The prisoners could seize control of the facility at any time and hold the guards hostage but they could not exit the facility because the guards in the towers had rifles and would be able to fire back and would be difficult for the prisoners to overcome.

    You entered the facility and went into the armory. From the armory you could take tunnels under the facility and then you could go up into the tower via a ladder. Only within the armory and up the tunnels were the guards armed. This facility was built in the 1860s and it was disgusting in the tunnels underneath with standing water and rats. I would go through the tunnel and yell up and then they would let me into the tower via a ladder and I would climb up a couple stories in my suit with my briefcase. I remember distinctly that the guards seemed somnolent and they had a picture of the warden with a hand drawn mustache and graffiti on it; probably because there was no way he could sneak up there for a “sneak” audit. The guards in the tower always knew that you were coming.

    I took an initial tour of the prison with an assistant warden. She was an African-American woman perhaps in her 50s and the predominantly African-American prisoners treated her with great respect. They spoke to her politely and stayed out of our way rather than glaring and intimidating you to move out of their path, which would happen to me later when I walked alone throughout the facility.

    The first thing you noticed in the prison was how LOUD it was; everyone was screaming the word “motherf&cker” in about 250 variants. It was a cacophony of yelling and noise and very disconcerting. The prison cells were very small with 2 inmates each; one stood menacingly at the bars and one was usually on a bunk bed (there wasn’t really enough room for both of them to stand). If you walked too closely to the cell they might spit on you; if you walked below the high tiers they might throw urine down on you.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 7 Comments »

    On Russia and Ukraine

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 30th November 2014 (All posts by )

    For many years I’ve studied the Russian front during WW2, where the Germans and their allies battled the Russians (and their empire) in some of the largest and deadliest battles on earth. The war went far beyond the battlefield, with the Russians taking over the ancient German capital of Prussia, evicting / killing all the (remaining) citizens, and turning it into today’s Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This is fair desserts; the Germans planned to turn Moscow into a reservoir. That war was about annihilation, a complete extermination and permanent subjugation of their foes.

    In recent years I’ve tried to turn away from this focus, since I didn’t think that this conflict, ancient by modern standards, had much to teach us anymore, and just following along a well-worn narrative was teaching me nothing. And I did move on, reading about more modern conflicts, and today’s volunteer and high-tech military as opposed to the “old world” of conscripts, artillery, heavy armor, utter destruction of cities and the civilians trapped inside them, and political control superseding military objectives.

    The Russian armed forces also seemed to be gliding towards irrelevance, other than their ubiquitous nuclear weapons. Their performance in Chechnya was poor until they basically razed (their own) cities into ruin with heavy artillery fire; to this day I don’t understand why this wasn’t called out as a giant atrocity. In Georgia they were able to beat a tiny, poorly armed adversary, but their motorized divisions seemed to be driving by compass and they did not cover themselves in military glory. Their military transitions from conscript forces with older weapons and tactics also seemed to be foundering in the face of objections from old-line military-industrial complexes.

    When Ukraine slipped out of Russia’s orbit and the vast presidential compound of the ex-president was paraded on TV worldwide, Putin obviously viewed this as a direct threat to his authority. The Russians historically had been at odds with the Ukrainians over natural gas prices and on other topics, but it wasn’t obvious that this was going to move into a warlike situation. Ukraine is rich with agricultural resources but these resources aren’t prized by the Kremlin; they need easily extractable resources like oil, natural gas and various iron ores that they can pull out of the ground and sell for hard cash overseas. John McCain’s recurring joke that Russia isn’t much more than a gas station with nuclear weapons in fact has a lot of merit. Other than around Moscow, parts of St Petersburg, and in “showplace” locations like Sochi and Vladivostok Russia in fact was falling into ruin and shambles.

    But something was happening; the Russian forces that invaded the Crimea (even though they were never formally identified as Russians) appeared to be well organized and well armed. It was not the “Keystone Cops” group that I might have expected. They handled themselves with relative distinction, fulfilling their objectives with limited civilian casualties and using discretion against the Ukrainian military forces they encountered. This was the complete opposite of the blundering incursions into Chechnya.
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    Posted in China, Economics & Finance, Military Affairs, Russia | 59 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Small Unit Cohesion

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th November 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, 2010, at a Shooting training center

    In 2010 my dad and I went to an all-day class to learn how to shoot properly. The first four hours were in a classroom and the last four hours were outside when it was a brisk fall day and we learned various techniques of how to shoot and spent over 800 rounds.

    In the beginning of the class, the instructor asked everyone about their background. My dad and I said we were complete amateurs. When the others talked about their experience I didn’t fully understand what they were saying until later but many were ex military who were now contractors in Iraq or elsewhere with very extensive experience. They were attending for what must be some sort of required periodic classroom time.

    The reason that this is interesting is because the instructor went through firearm basics that was all news to me but must have been the most banal and simplistic discussion that these guys have ever heard. It would be like sending me back to school for mandatory training and showing me a balance sheet or explaining the very basics of systems technology. In five minutes of this I would be agitated and distracted and frankly a bit insulted that someone wasn’t properly valuing my corporate and career experience. Because that is how a corporate or business person would view the process, but not a military person. Each of the military guys sat in their seats for four hours and if anything they constructively helped the instructor, who was ex-military himself. In hindsight no one was joking around or making a mockery of anything.

    When we were shooting the guys all helped each other and the team immediately without asking. We had a lot to cover so they leaped up and changed the targets and moved and anticipated and everyone was part of a larger mission. After a while it was completely obvious to everyone that me and my dad (who was in his late 70s at this point) were behind the game so they subtly starting helping and coaching us in addition to what the instructor was doing. Sometimes you had to shoot multiple targets to clear a level and I think a few times guys helped me by shooting my targets too.

    Only in hindsight did I recognize the “cohesion” concepts that SLA Marshall talked about in his famous book. He talked about the value of leadership and training in motivating and getting the best out of the men under your command. While these sound like commonplace lessons, and ones the military has likely long since learned in its recent brutal wars overseas, these lessons are usually nowhere to be found in corporate America and most private businesses.

    I watched “The Last Patrol” (highly recommended) last night on HBO and they had a similar observation. The protagonists are walking across America (even in Baltimore, I was scared for them) and asking people what is great about America. These ex-military guys and ex-combat photographers (with 20+ years in the middle of all of it) were trying to wind down and find their bearings without the adrenaline rush of combat and surviving possible death. They met a woman in an American flag bikini and she said she worked in an old folks home for veterans and she said that they all helped and looked out for each other. However, she said, it wasn’t like that once you left the facility – it’s not like that outside in America today.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Military Affairs, Personal Narrative | 7 Comments »

    Ed Paschke Art Center – And Steve Schapiro Photo Exhibit

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 23rd November 2014 (All posts by )

    We watched an episode of “Chicago Tonight” the PBS news program where they discussed the Ed Paschke Art Center, a museum highlighting the work of the vibrant visual artist Ed Paschke, a Chicago native who died in 2004. They also have other artists featured at the museum, and when we went it was photographer Steve Schapiro, who photographed Warhol, Reed and Bowie among many others.

    The museum is easy to reach – by car you can take the Kennedy and get off at Lawrence, and it is an easy walk from the blue line or the metra (if you take that line). Here is the outside of the building, which is painted in the style of his work. The museum is free (we made a donation) and the docent working there was friendly and interested if you had any questions.

    We talked to the museum employee and the building used to be a call center; they redesigned it to hang his big art canvas projects and set it up so that the light illuminated everything properly. Downstairs they had his paintings, and upstairs they re-created his studio, including the last painting that he was working on at the time of his death.
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    Posted in Arts & Letters, Chicagoania, Music, Photos | 3 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Building a Web Site, Then and Now

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 17th November 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, around the year 2000, before the dot-com bust

    Back around 2000 I worked in an “incubator” that was a digital design agency. At that time everyone was moving onto the web, and it was a giant land rush.

    This was the first time I worked in an office with any type of serious amenities. They had free coffee, lounge areas, and the occasional foosball table. Previously I had been a buttoned down consultant, auditor, programmer and project manager – and all of the sudden the world changed and we engaged with a whole host of “creatives” and designers on joint projects.

    Back then we all wore suits. I remember one day very clearly; one of the designers sat immediately in front of me. I was looking up and I saw “Victoria’s Secret” – she was showing off the new style where women were wearing their pants so low that their underwear was showing. To a consultant that charges hundreds of dollars an hour (not like we collected it, but that’s a different story) this sort of behavior and style just screamed WTF.

    When we bid on a client our clashing styles were immediately evident. I started out the template to respond to the RFP (request for proposal), and was tasked with estimating the cost to reply to this opportunity. The creatives didn’t seem to understand any of my questions, which seemed pretty simple to me:

    What are we delivering, and how many hours will it take to build it?

    They couldn’t be pinned down. Were we making a logo, or a web site? Would it allow them to run transactions? At the time that was just a tremendous amount of work and seemingly an insurmountable task.

    We ended up bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for what, I still am not sure. The company who was “buying” our services was VC funded and was just about bled dry, without having even launched anything substantial. The era of the dot.com companies had petered out and we were entering a recession.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 4 Comments »