News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Damned lies and statistics…*

I decided to flip through the Massachusetts Voter Guide which reminded me that November 4th is coming up fast! First of all, it’s not too late to register to vote! The deadline is October 15. To register, go to City Hall, fill out a form and keep the receipt. Official acknowledgement should arrive in 2 to 3 weeks. Mail-in registration forms must be postmarked October 15.

Next, I read the arguments for and against Question 1, the proposal to repeal the State Income Tax. As we’ve mentioned before, this is a bad idea for many reasons (dramatic cuts in state aid which will drive up property taxes, drastic reduction in state funding for schools, police, fire protection, lack of funds for infrastructure, etc). Reading the arguments for the proposal as put forth by the Committee for Small Government, the claims, besides the obvious one of more money in your pocket, is that

    “Your “Yes” vote will NOT raise your property taxes NOR any other taxes.”
    “Your “Yes” vote will NOT cut, NOR require cuts of any essential government services.”

This seems ludicrous to say the least! Certainly, in Lowell we will have to raise local taxes just to maintain a minimum of services, and I don’t even want to think what will happen to the school system, which relies heavily on State money. Perusing their website (just search Question 1 and it will pop up on google), I couldn’t find anything to back up the above assertions. They also have a carefully worded statement in the Voter Guide: “‘41% waste in Massachusetts state government’ reveals survey.” The survey appears to be a web poll, which their readers respond to, and 41% is the “mean, average response.” What, they can’t come up with any real statistics? On government waste??? They then proceed to use this “statistic” to make their argument: “with 41% waste, a 17% cut isn’t enough to remove even half the waste in state government spending.” Isn’t this – using a biased sample to prove a point – a logical fallacy of some kind?

For more about this group, see Tony’s interesting post about their funding.

Quote above: attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and taken up by Mark Twain, who said:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

posted in In the News, Money Matters, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Flying without a net

Yesterday’s Globe had an article entitled A Crash Course in Credit that shows how the woes of Wall Street end up on Main Street. A seriously in-debt homeowner and two businesses are profiled, showing how hard it is becoming to get loans. The homeowner, already “awash in mortgage and credit card debt” is an example of the easy credit problems that led us to this point. The fact that he wants to borrow more money is a little scary; however, the pendulum is swinging too far the other way, illustrated by the two business owners who are also finding it hard to get credit and are putting projects on hold, scaling back and just trying to hold on. To quote the subheading of the article:

When lenders are afraid to lend, the economy stalls and uncertainty grows.

That was yesterday. Today, with Republicans pulling out of the bipartisan bailout plan (which their leadership helped to craft), there’s no deal. No one was 100% thrilled with the plan; however, this stalling and playing politics isn’t doing anyone any good. As I heard on Morningstar.com this morning, it should be called a Main Street Safety Net rather than a Wall Street Bailout. Why? Because if the big banks who hold the toxic loans aren’t stabilized with an infusion of cash and more importantly, confidence, the credit that fuels our economy becomes harder to get. Morningstar’s Pat Dorsey likens credit to the oil that keeps the engine running and without it, the financial markets, like an engine without oil, will seize up. Many businesses, such as the two mentioned above, rely on short-term loans for inventory, day-to-day operations, crafting deals, etc. Without these funds, they will grind to a halt, increasing business risk for themselves with a ripple effect out to consumers, employees and other organizations. Credit has been tightening since the subprime crisis began almost a year ago; but now we’re about to find out what happens to an economy when there is no credit. We might like the poetic justice of letting Wall Street twist in the wind, but we’re all going to feel the pain.

posted in In the News, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

Free things to do downtown on a rainy weekend

Maybe what I’m about to suggest is not what you intended to do this weekend, but sometimes you have to adjust to the weather (scratch yard work, apple picking and the Sox game). Before I recommend a few local events that don’t require clear skies or big bucks, please note that Lowell’s semi-annual Hazardous Waste Day has been rescheduled from tomorrow to Saturday, Oct. 25. Instead, for a fun and free daytime activity this Saturday and Sunday, check out Lowell Open Studios 11 a.m. – noon. This annual event, currently in its eighth year, allows visitors to get a taste of the diverse creativity that exists in the city; experience art work and different art processes in metal, fabric, paint and clay right in our own backyard. Shuttle buses will run between the downtown and Western Ave studios.


Later, if you’re in for some evening entertainment, stroll down Middle Street, which will be closed to traffic, and participate in the Community Empowerment and Solutions Fair at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The fair will include music, food, inspiring speakers, and the opportunity for folks to gather around issues such as the greening of Lowell as well as social justice and health concerns facing our community. After that, take in the Image Theater’s presentation of “City Stories” upstairs at the Old Court Pub, 29 Central Street. The free show includes short stories and essays dramatically performed by local actors and writers. The shows start at 8 p.m. both Friday and Saturday nights. What better way to spend a rainy night than sipping a brew and listening to stories? You may also enjoy a great meal at one of the city’s restaurants after visiting the art studios and before storytelling. (okay this part’s not free) We tried Blue Taleh on Middlesex Street last weekend and loved it; they had a kids menu too! (Don’t worry about missing the Red Sox or the presidential debate if they even happen, you can tape or devo them to watch later.) So don’t be a wet blanket even if it is raining. Get out and explore downtown.

posted in City Life | 0 Comments

More help in understanding the financial mess

Earlier this week, I tuned into UML Sunrise to hear Michael Goodman, of the UMASS Donahue Institute with his thoughts on the scary economic situation (I’m getting sick of the technical jargon and decided to call it how it feels, and that’s scary). Goodman is the Director of economic and public policy research at the Institute, and he was “shocked” that, as others have noted, the planned bailout of Wall Street has no oversight built into it. Apparently, though, Paulson is now admitting that oversight is needed for the $700 billion handout to failing corporations. It’s hard to keep up as the situation is changing by the hour! The conversation with Goodman also included a discussion of how Wall Street’s woes will affect Main Street: (1) businesses can’t get loans and only consumers with perfect credit scores and 20% down will be able to access capital, (2) as the government overspends to buy up the bad debt on Wall Street, the value of the dollar will continue to shrink, which affects each of us every day, (3) in Massachusetts, where the financial services industry is a big part of the economy, there could be shrinking employment, (4) the state also depends heavily on capital gains for revenue; with shrinking stock prices, this money will also dry up. Hopefully, the podcast will be up soon while this information is still relevant. Last week, UML Professor of Economics, Ravi Jain was on with a calm and logical survey of the scene which still provides valuable insights. His point about the bailout is that these companies gambled and to be bailed out because they lost the bet is not setting a good precedent. Some of these so-called experts were leveraging $30 to $1. The moral hazard is that companies may not learn a lesson and be encouraged to repeat the behavior. As host, Christine Dunlap, asked, referencing the dot-com boom and the last real estate boom, ‘why don’t we learn?’ Co-host and Head of the English Department at UML, Melissa Pennell, had the final word: “Maybe we need a psychology professor.”

posted in In the News, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

Doing what we can

Between the economy tanking, cancer everywhere, and worries about the environment and future leadership in this country, I’m feeling particularly blue today. In an attempt to “keepa go” as my grandmother used to say, I thought I’d share a story emailed to me: There is a terrible forest fire. All the animals are fleeing the conflagration except Hummingbird, who is flying back and forth, scooping up little slivers of water from a spring and dumping them on the flames. “What do you think you’re doing, stupid little bird?” the other animals ask derisively, and Hummingbird says, “I’m doing what I can.”

Let’s all do what we can: pay attention, VOTE, support candidates you believe in, get involved, recycle, reduce your energy consumption, volunteer in your community…whatever. Just add your cup of water to others as we try to quell the flames of destruction and greed that threaten our health, our communities, and the very earth we share.

posted in Just life | 1 Comment

Kudos to the governor

Congratulations to Governor Deval Patrick, who has been minimally successful in fulfilling most of his campaign promises for positive change, but at least has been able to make a dent in one area—that is, regarding police details for state road projects as the Globe reports today. I support Patrick’s compromise to keep police details only on busy or high-speed streets while also recognizing that my union friends will not be happy with his “disregard for collective bargaining.” Although the Globe article chose to focus on the negative angle as a loss for the police union, this change is good for the collective community to which we all belong for it will allow the state to save money desperately needed in other areas. I would even go so far as to support moving to blinking signs for truly less-travelled roads, as I saw in Ireland this summer, rather than paying flaggers.

posted in In the News, State Concerns | 8 Comments

Speaking of poetry

In honor of the upcoming Massachusetts Poetry Festival, taking place in Lowell and the Merrimack Valley, October 10-12, we’ll be talking more about poems and poets than usual. And why not? I continue to believe in the importance, the relevance, nay, the necessity of art and poetry, music and literature, even during, especially during, hard times. I’ve been enjoying the poetry posts by Lowell poet Paul Marion over on Richardhowe.com and am excited that this great event will be taking place here in our own backyard. Sure, the economy is tanking, the election is all-consuming, the leaves are falling, but ponder this famous short poem by William Carlos Williams (I’m sure you already know the one I mean):

It is difficult
to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

So, turn off the news, put down the paper, step away from the computer and immerse yourself in some poetry for a day or two. You’ll find it wonderfully refreshing!

posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

Poetry trivia

I’ve been reading a rather strange and difficult book, The Sea by Irish writer, John Banville. As you follow the fractured progress of the plot, moving back and forth through several time periods as it does, the one thing that quickly becomes apparent is the brilliant, unique, obsessive style of his prose. At once lush and, as another reviewer put it, pungent, he strings his words along like a spider does a web, around and around each other and the narrator, characters and reader, until all are caught alike in this predicament we call life.

Getting to my point, one of his many obscure references was to the “Bard of Hartford.” Once having lived in that fair city, I was immediately intrigued but not sure who it was. Any takers? (No fair googling, although even that doesn’t get you too far at first). For the answer: more »

posted in Books, Poetry | 0 Comments

Who’s to blame?

Last year as the first wave of foreclosures was hitting the news, people were blaming homeowners who didn’t read the fine print or those who speculated that real estate prices would keep going up; next in line were the subprime lenders who were handing out adjustable rate/no-money down loans, often without any discretion whatsoever (no income, no problem!). Further up the food chain, we find the big money financial institutions like Merrill Lynch and Lehman and others, the ones who bought the risky loans and repackaged them as securities with attractive rates selling them to investors and holding them in their own portfolios and for awhile earning nice returns. Earlier this week, a Wharton School of Business Professor, Jerry Siegel, wrote in the Wall Street Journal (“The Resilience of American Finance,” September 16, 2008) that the cause of the downfall of these giants was “leveraged risk.” He adds that

Their demise was caused by bad risk management, and a failure to understand the high risks of an overheated real-estate market, the root cause of our current problems.(my bold)

(Gee, sounds a bit like the hapless homeowners everyone was blaming last winter!) Siegel adds:

So, Siegel traces everything back to the overheated real estate market, and certainly home prices rose to giddy levels in recent years, but that is like a rapist blaming the victim for being too attractive. The rise in home prices (fueled, I believe, by low interest rates) attracted those who wanted to make money off of the boom, and they found a way to do so through sub-prime lending and the following securitization of the loans. As Barney Frank said in April “It was not just the housing bubble,” said Frank. “People made housing loans that shouldn’t have been made.” (The blog Civic Boston has an insightful account of Frank’s appearance last April at the JFK Library).

You still have those who blame the consumers, those who tried to buy homes they couldn’t afford (was anything affordable in recent years?). Some are calling for mandatory financial education for potential homebuyers; but until we have mandatory ethics classes for corporations, let’s let the government protect us, not just from terrorists, but from greed and the ravages of the too-free market as well.

posted in Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

Early risers hear Ali on local radio

For those of us who miss talking to Mehmet Ali, he’ll be on WUML Sunrise this morning at 7:05 a.m. If that’s too early for you, my source informs me you may also catch him on WCAP at 8 a.m. Ali, a well-known, civic-minded Lowellian, is serving as cultural affairs liaison for the U. S. Department in Baghdad. He’ll be discussing his work in Iraq, which should be interesting. If you don’t catch him real time, check back for a link to the podcast. 

posted in Local People | 0 Comments

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