Saturday, April 25, 2009

Junk in the Trunk

As I pointed out on 8 October and again on 14 January, Zions Bank is feeling the pain.  It seems I'm not alone in that assessment.  Moody's has downgraded Zions' senior debt to junk status.  S&P cut the credit rating to the bottom of investment grade, but how long that will hold is a good question.  Zions simply has too much garbage on its books, both self-acquired and forced on it by the FDIC.  Zions has had to acquire several of the FDIC's regional problem children; Zions could well be the next problem child.  Perhaps Utah needs to get used to not having an independent, local bank.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes. Wah!

I realize nothing lasts forever, especially not in an economy like this.  When I was a kid, the auto industry drove the American economy.  Now GM and Chrysler are headed to bankruptcy court to be parted out.  Every week another icon collapses into the dust.  As I tell my kids, life is hard.

But Sam Weller's!  I know, it's not closing, just relocating.  But that relocation is part of a larger malaise.  The purpose of a bookstore was not merely to have the book you wanted; it was to have the book you could stumble across.  And then have a corner someplace where you could flip through it.  And then have other books by that author.  It was a place to get lost in on a rainy day.  Sam Weller's was that kind of place.

Now it's downsizing because it simply can't fill that space any more.  It can't have high shelves of stumble-upon books.  It can't have side aisles and corners to tuck away in.  The market simply won't support it, the same way the market won't support a newspaper you can sit at the kitchen table and read.  Oh, the new store will still have an excellent selection of books.  But it won't be a place to get lost in.  It won't even smell right.

The owners of Sam Weller's are making a smart business decision, and I don't begrudge it at all.  If you want to keep the doors open, you need to stay out in front of shifting customer demands.  I don't expect business owners to subsidize my peculiar passions.  But at some point society must ask itself what it loses when it decrees that immersing oneself in the language is an unaffordable luxury.  How impoverished must a society be when it has so devalued its ultimate form of exchange?

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Speaking of the Rule of Law

Magna is a peculiar institution.  For decades it has been run by two entities: the Town Council and the Community Council.  If you wanted to do something that required a land use decision, you needed the approval of both.

That's the problem.  While state law gives such authority to the Town Council, it gives no such authority to the Community Council.  The Community Council is simply a private entity that has been allowed to wield authority as if it were public.

I will readily admit that the Community Council has done a lot of good things for Magna.  That's not the point.  Suppose you wanted to develop some property or build a facility for your business, and you were told you would have to get the approval of the local Chamber of Commerce or Lions Club or Shriners or American Legion Auxiliary or whatever.  A group that can meet and decide in private.  Or not meet at all; a few, key members could simply get together at a church potluck and decide the fate of your proposal.

Why should any private group have that kind of power?  It shouldn't.  That's why such decisions need to be made by entities that are established and controlled by law.  The laws are there to protect you, and if you don't believe it, imagine the fate of your business hanging on the decision of the local ladies' book club after they've finished discussing Twilight.

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Lowry vs. Rule of Law

As an attorney, I have a vested interest in the rule of law.  As a human being, I do too.  I believe that citizens are considerably better off if their lives are governed by a set of laws that remain set unless changed in certain, prescribed ways than they are if their lives are governed by the arbitrary edicts of a Great Leader.

Which is why Matt Lowry's take on the torture memos disturbs me.  He wants to characterize them as a shining example of a nation ruled by laws taking the time, in the midst of a national security crisis, to debate the legality of its response.  The memos may ultimately have been wrong, but the fact that we did not strike without first thinking through the legal issues means we remain a nation that respects the law.

There's a teeny-tiny problem with this argument, namely that the memos were condoning conduct the U.S. had tried and convicted people for after World War II, and the people "debating" the legal issues knew it.  They also knew that the laws against "enhanced interrogation techniques" had become more stringent over the intervening decades, not more lax, so the only reason to reverse our previous position was political expediency.  Which means those memos weren't part of a debate.  They were pre-ordained to justify an already decided upon course of action.  They were about as respectful of the rule of law as any of Hitler's or Stalin's show trials.

No, Mr. Lowry, the torture memos are not a shining example of our belief in the rule of law.  They are damning evidence of our readiness to abandon it.

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