Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Remarkable Year

2008 offered many "bests" and "worsts."

Posted By on Wed, Dec 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

What kind of year was 2008? A remarkable one, of course. They all are. But this one really was.

Best news: Most of us have enough stuff.

Worst news: Most of us have enough stuff. If they didn't make another car, flat-screen television, or pair of sneakers in 2009, would we really be worse off?

Best performance by a Memphis public company: AutoZone, hands down. The Fortune 500 company, up 12 percent, was one of four companies in the 50 "stocks of local interest" (Fred's, Gtx Inc., and Kirklands, all relatively tiny companies, were the others) that went up in 2008. Incredible.

Worst performance by a Memphis public company: Tie between Fortune 500 biggie International Paper (down 60 percent) and little Pinnacle Airlines (down 80 percent), but if you include companies with a big presence but no headquarters, then the casino (Boyd Gaming), retail (Macy's and Dillards) and financial (Regions, SunTrust, and First Horizon) sectors would place.

Worst trend: The growing acceptance of anonymous rumor-mongering, stupidity, and slander on the Internet in the name of free expression.

Best trend: Skepticism of all financial experts.

Biggest story: The astonishing loss of wealth in Memphis stocks, mutual funds such as Longleaf Partners (down 50 percent), bonuses and salaries (FedEx), and layoffs.

Most irrelevant thing: The zero, or the string of zeros in large numbers, such as the size of the bailout or the loss of wealth in Memphis. We are in the numerical realm of astronomers.

Worst movie release: The timing of the release of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a moving film about the Holocaust, at the onset of the holiday season. I saw it on Thanksgiving, spoiling an otherwise upbeat and festive day.

Best movie: Purely subjective — I don't see many movies in theaters because I resent the commercials — but I liked Memphian Bob Compton's Sole of a Hustla, which goes into general release in February. The story is about a venture capitalist's attempt to partner with street-smart Memphis dudes with big dreams. Shot in Memphis and China, it doesn't flinch from the truth and turns itself in and out a couple times.

Best move by a (former) public official: Bruce Thompson's decision to plead guilty instead of going to trial. He got a six-month sentence. Had he gone to trial he could have gotten several years, and the particulars of his "consulting" business as a Shelby County commissioner would have been explored in the detail they deserved instead of, alas, being left in limbo.

Worst move by a (former) public official: David Kustoff's decision to resume his role as local spokesman for the Republican Party a few months after resigning as United States attorney. By failing to lay low for a decent interval of at least a year or two, Kustoff gave credence to every suspicion that politics perverts the administration of justice, from Washington to Memphis.

Worst courtroom performance by a key witness: Joe Cooper in the Edmund Ford Jr. trial. Brave as he was to go undercover for the government, Cooper was an easy target for the defense despite the presence of incriminating tapes.

Best courtroom performance by a key witness: Edmund Ford Jr.'s wife, Myrna, as his business partner, loving wife, and mother of his children.

Most uncanny parallel: The undercover tapes of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the undercover tapes of John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, and Barry Myers in Operation Tennessee Waltz. "Show me the f****** money!"

Most dubious claim: That Illinois is the most corrupt state in the U.S. Shouldn't Tennessee at least get some consideration?

Most overexposed: Annual Memphis-centric "civil rights" games by the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Worst investment decision: MATA locking in a year of diesel fuel futures for $4.52 a gallon in August. Current price: $2.50.

Best investment decision: Refinancing your mortgage at the never-seen-in-this-lifetime rate of 4.5 percent.

Best crowd: Filling FedExForum for a meaningless game between Memphis and U-Mass with an 11 p.m. start.

Worst crowd: 15,000 or less for the U of M's last football game.

Deadest holiday party tradition: Willie Herenton and Pete Aviotti's $1,000-a-big-dog bash.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Away All Boats

Beale Street Landing is missing a key ingredient.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Beale Street Landing, the Riverfront Development Corporation's $30 million project at Beale Street and Riverside Drive, has a serious problem before it even opens.

The riverboat cruise business is disappearing. The Majestic America Line steamboat company in Seattle is going out of business. Two years ago, Majestic America acquired the New Orleans-based Delta Steamship Company and three steamboats — the Delta Queen, the American Queen, and the Mississippi Queen — that docked in Memphis en route to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. That leaves RiverBarge Excursion Line and its floating barge hotel as the only overnight touring boat on the river.

A statement posted on Majestic America Line's website says: "At this time, Majestic America Line has completed the 2008 cruise season. Several credible parties have expressed an interest in acquiring some and/or all assets of Majestic America Line and building upon our efforts in delivering unique cruise experiences that celebrate American history, culture and our magnificent waterways. Due to sale plans, Majestic America Line will not be operating cruises in 2009 or beyond."

There is no reason for optimism, however. The 80-year-old Delta Queen, which is made out of wood, is forbidden by federal regulations from making overnight cruises. And the recession has hammered tourism companies and the stock market. The parent company of Majestic America Line is Ambassadors International of Newport Beach, California, a publicly traded company whose stock has fallen from $16 to 74 cents in one year.

"Our investment in the domestic riverboat business was a very bad investment," Ambassadors CEO Joe Ueberroth told reporters and analysts recently. "We flat-out got it wrong. Our investment in the domestic river cruise business has caused deterioration of shareholder value and has put a real strain on the other three good businesses within Ambassadors."

The Delta Queen, American Queen, and Mississippi Queen are now docked in New Orleans. Could one of them find a new home in Memphis as a floating museum and day-tripper at a bargain-basement price?

"I am obviously concerned [about being able to sell the vessels] due to current economic conditions, the state of our financial markets, and the lack of available financing," Ueberroth said before he resigned as CEO. "We're preparing to lay up our vessels for an extended period if necessary."

The man had obviously never been to Memphis.

The Majestic America announcement means the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) is building a giant dock when there are no replicas of steamboats, which is sort of like building an airport when there are no jets. Beale Street River Park would be a more accurate name than Beale Street Landing. Beale Street River Pork would be even more accurate in light of RDC officials' repeated insistence that the oft-criticized project made sense because of $10.5 million in federal and state funds.

Local taxpayers are footing $19.5 million of the cost of the project, which is under way at the north end of Tom Lee Park.

From the inception of the RDC, steamboats were a fundamental part of its vision and reason for being, as evidenced by renderings on its website that show paddle wheelers next to the dock. At one time, the RDC hoped to lure the headquarters of the Delta Steamship Company to Memphis. When that fell through, the RDC continued to hold out hope for steamboat traffic.

"Because the Beale Street Landing project is under design, the former Delta Steamship Company has increased its dockings in Memphis by 40 percent," says the RDC website. "They are trying to build their market here in anticipation of the docking facility."

The RDC website also says "approximately 50 stops are made by three major vessels each year ... a modern docking facility is needed along our waterfront."

The lone survivor, RiverBarge Excursion Line, has been docking at the Mud Island River Park boat ramp in the Wolf River Harbor. The company touts its Memphis-St. Louis trip as an adventure "From the Arch to the Pyramid":

"Two monuments, standing like sentinels on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, represent humankind's ability to tame harsh environments and build impressive civilizations."

Not to mention wasteful and failed projects.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mandarin, Anyone?

Bob Compton says U.S. must learn from China and India.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 11, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The three most commonly taught foreign languages in American schools are French, Spanish, and Latin. The three languages spoken by America's global competitors and enemies — Farsi, Arabic, and Mandarin — are virtually impossible to find in public or private schools.

And that's both a problem and an opportunity, says Memphis entrepreneur Bob Compton.

"The main reason we teach French," he says, "is because we have French teachers. But maybe it is also because our economy is starting to look more like France, with the government stepping in. Maybe knowing French will be an advantage as we slowly become the French of the 21st century."

Two years ago, Compton produced a documentary film, Two Million Minutes, that contrasts the amount of time America's top students spend on athletics, part-time jobs, and social activities with the emphasis that students in China and India put on math and science. The title refers to the total amount of time students spend in high school.

The film had a modest commercial release but has sold 20,000 DVDs. Recent headlines have given urgency to its message.

"We should teach Mandarin for economic competitiveness," Compton says. "Farsi and Arabic we should teach for national security. The problem with all three of those languages, and probably any language, is that they are best taught to us when we are young. You and I could probably learn Farsi if we had to, but we would really struggle. If you are 6 years old, Farsi is fun."

If nothing else, Compton believes that making even a token gesture to teach Mandarin and Farsi would be wise at a time when the news is dominated by stories about terrorism in the Middle East and the U.S. losing jobs in the global economy.

"My kids know more about Spain because they study Spanish," he said. "If my kids studied Arabic and Farsi, they would know more about the Middle East, which I think works to their benefit. That is going to be a trouble spot all their lives. The more we understand will allow us as a voting public to make more informed decisions on who we elect to deal with those problems."

Any public or private school in Memphis that added Mandarin, Farsi, or Arabic would immediately stand out as an innovator. Bill Haltom, a Memphis attorney, tried unsuccessfully to find a school that would teach Mandarin to his son Will, who is now 22 years old and living in Japan, where he teaches English.

"We found out when he was 12 that he had an interest in Asian languages and a proclivity for it," Haltom said.

His son took Japanese at White Station High School and studied Mandarin with a Chinese tutor from Rhodes College before attending Wittenberg University.

As for Farsi or Arabic, there is little opportunity for a high school student to study them, short of dropping out of school, joining the Army, and going to Iraq.

Meanwhile, bilingual graduate students from India, Pakistan, and China are welcomed at American universities, including the University of Memphis, where they claim a hefty share of the degrees awarded in math and science.

"India and China have a few top universities in engineering, but they don't have the depth," says Compton, who has revisited those countries with two American students for a follow-up to his documentary.

"Both governments have realized that to match the U.S. college and graduate school system would cost billions of dollars and take 50 years. So they encourage their best and brightest to come to America. We not only welcome them, we give them scholarships."

Compton, who has two daughters at St. George's High School, was inspired to make his film after traveling through India and China on business in 2005. He was "stunned" at the differences.

"My daughters' education was about the same as my education 34 years ago and my parents' education 60 years ago," Compton says. "When my parents were coming into the workforce after World War II, America's toughest competitors were Switzerland and New Zealand. Europe and Russia were bombed to the ground. When I got out of high school, Japan and Germany were our competitors. In 30 years, look what they have done to our auto industry."

In our sports-crazed society, Compton uses a sports analogy to drive home his point. The U.S., he says, ranks 23rd or 24th in global academic performance.

"If our Olympic team finished 24th, the president and Congress would mobilize our country and never allow it to happen again."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Want a Stimulus?

Think you understand the bailout? Try this simple test.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 4, 2008 at 4:00 AM

What exciting times. A new president-elect. A new administration. An official recession. And the federal government's new reality game, to be hosted by the Internal Revenue Service, called "Bailout Stimulus."

It's easy. Just answer the following questions to determine your eligibility. Ben Bernanke will call if you win.

How far is it in meters from planet Earth to planet Pluto? If two spaceships left those planets going in opposite directions at different speeds, where would they meet and how long would it take? If you cannot answer this question, then why do you think you can understand the bailout? Go directly to the final question.

How many credit cards do you have in your wallet or purse and what is the outstanding balance? If your answer is "zero," you lose. If your answer is "don't know" or "more than my monthly income," you may continue.

Do you own an SUV? Would you trade it for four season tickets to the Grizzlies? For two tickets?

Does "going green" better describe your approach to savings or to the environment? If you answered "savings," you may continue.

Do you own a hybrid vehicle? Have you stopped smirking and do your friends make fun of you now that gas is $1.55 a gallon? Aren't you glad you are not MATA, which contracted last August to buy diesel fuel for $4.52 a gallon for one year even though the current price is $2.52 a gallon?

Do you wear a tie to work? A pantsuit? Does your daily wardrobe cost more than $200? If so, you are eligible for a stimulus.

Do you have a mortgage? Are you paying it off on schedule to a bank or mortgage company without incurring late charges? Are you crazy?

Do you belong to Sam's Club? Do you belong to a country club? If your answer is "yes" to both those questions, you may be eligible for "club swap," the government's new reality television series in which contestants swap memberships and credit cards for 30 days.

Do you have a job connected to cars, newspapers, or lending money? Bailout, babeeeee!

Are you a white supremacist, horny, or one of the Olsen twins or Justin Timberlake? It doesn't matter, but if we use those words, more people will see this on the Internet. In journalism this is called a BUSINESS PLAN.

Are you proficient in Algebra I as required by No Child Left Behind? Please demonstrate by use of a pizza pie and two spaceships traveling between Earth and Pluto. Show your work.

Do you have any employment skills? Do you know anyone who does? How does $6.50 an hour sound?

Do you have any experience in debt collection or telephone solicitation? Are you in India? Are you busy? Report to Washington.

Do you have any coupons? Declare their cash value and deduct it before putting your bills in the bill acceptor.

Do you have any children under 18, accounts receivable, farm property, real property, or items stored in layaway? If so, send them to the United States Treasury, Department of Wealth Redistribution.

Would you rather have a flat-screen TV, a condo in Destin, or your 401(k) account?

Have you ever declared bankruptcy? More than five times? It's okay. Report this on Form JZ-256 and report to work Monday at the United States Treasury.

Do you have any bumper stickers on your car that declare your child an honor student? If so, you are ineligible.

Do you own golf clubs or a pink shirt? How about overalls and a four-wheeler? If so, put tab A into slot B and return form to box C, as explained in the IRS instructions on page 734, footnote K.

Do you have a pension? Are you over 65? Are you over the Kansas game?

Do you own a business? Does it make MONEY? Are you HIRING?

Measure the square footage of the granite countertops in your kitchen and bathroom. If the answer is "over 100," you are eligible.

How often do you regift? Do you believe that "regift = thrift"? Report to the United States Treasury.

Do you think we are living on a doomed planet? You're right.

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