Thursday, July 31, 2008

‘I’m Mad As Hell’

In the 1976 Oscar-winning movie “Network” Peter Finch plays a TV network anchor who, after reflecting on how the world works, tells his viewers, “I’m mad as hell … and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Well, count me mad-as-hell too – about the current state of affairs.

The housing industry tanks because a bunch of greedy suits at big mortgage lending companies take ridiculous risks to lend money to people they know will probably be foreclosed on … and, sure enough, they were.

Now it looks as if you and I – the working folks – will get to pay $25 billion to prop up the quasi-governmental private companies (“Fannie Mae” and “Freddie Mac”) that provide the foundation of the mortgage lending industry.

The suits won’t be paying this tab.

In fact, I suspect they’re busy shifting the money they made on subprime loans from stocks to commodities like oil as a defense against the plummeting U.S. dollar.

Of course, the huge influx of speculative investor money into oil is blamed by many for increasing the price of oil – and diesel and gas – by as much as 60 percent.

So what’s in your wallet? A bunch of commodities futures … or barely enough to fuel up the family car?

One could go on and on about the inequities of our world – the frightening price of groceries … the total lack of government regulation that allowed Enron to collapse and take the life savings of thousands of employees with it, etc.

I don’t know what the solution is.

But trust me. I’m mad as hell and I’m not …

… well, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Striking up the (lap) band

I have a confession to make. I have known several people in my lifetime that have had, or are going to have, or are just considering, weight loss surgery.

No, that’s not the confession. It would be a pretty boring one if it was. The confession is this: until very recently, I always thought of having surgery as the easy way out. A cheat. Just eat right and exercise. It may take a bit longer that way, but it will work. People who have band surgery or stomach staples are just taking a short cut. They just don’t want to do the work, right?


A recent conversation I had with Land Line Now listener Kevin Raines opened my eyes to the reality of something seemingly as simple as Lap Band surgery. Kevin had the procedure himself a few years ago. And hearing his story convinced me that there is nothing easy about it.

Kevin had to give up eating meat, bread, soda and a host of other things. The surgery helped him along, but he still had to work at it to lose weight. There was no short-cut about it.

There’s an entire industry out there that is centered around weight loss. And while many of the products in that industry – such as the Lap Band System – are legit, there are many others that are little more than snake oil.

Diet pills, creams, oils, weight loss contraptions (Thigh Master, anyone?). They all promise to help you lose weight both quickly and easily. And they all lie.

The truth of the matter is this: when it comes right down to it, there is no quick and easy way to lose weight. I’ve been on Weight Watchers since January and it has taken me six months to lose 30 pounds. And I’m still a long way from my goal.

But I’m willing to keep going. To work at it. And no matter what you do, that’s what it’s going to take. Things like band surgery and stomach staples and gastric bypass surgery will help. That’s been proven. But they aren’t overnight miracle cures, either. And they sure as hell aren’t the easy way out.

They can be powerful weapons in the battle of the bulge, but ultimately, a weapon is only as good in a fight as the person wielding it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Drilling is good, but we can do more

How to fix the oil price crisis has become one of the great puzzles we’re all trying to solve. Some have proposed drilling for more oil at home.

I think we all agree that more domestic production would be good. Controlling our own domestic supply prevents disruptions in other nations from affecting our economy.

But we’re looking at 10, 20 or 30 years down the road before any of that drilling would have an effect on the price of fuel.

Our government can, and we can, do several things in the meantime that will have a much more immediate effect on fuel prices and our economy.

We’ve discussed those many times on our program. Regulating speculation in oil markets and cutting demand are among them.

For example, many of us look at fuel economy standards as something that just involves the four-wheelers. But if the four-wheelers used 10 percent less fuel, that would significantly reduce demand for oil overall, which could in turn lower prices that truckers pay.

If we find affordable ways to make alternative fuels, if we cut demand for other products that use petroleum, if we find ways to power things electrically that are now powered by oil-based fuels – anything like that could lower demand.

And there’s another issue – the oil companies already have leases to drill on thousands and thousands of acres of land in this country. Why aren’t they exploring or drilling there? And if they’re not going to, should we allow someone else to try?

I do think we need to tap our domestic reserves. But there’s a lot more we should look at as well.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Weighing in on heavier trucks

The ATA and their big business allies have once again started to push Congress to allow longer, heavier truckers onto our nation’s highways, pushing for increases in both size and weight.

While the push this time is portrayed as a “green” effort – one that will cut back on fuel use and emissions – in fact, the whole thing is once again all about allowing carriers to move more freight with one truck and not pay the trucker one extra dime.

On top of that, there are plenty of reasons to oppose it. One of the chief ones is the wear and tear that the larger, heavier rigs will put on our already overtaxed and undermaintained highways.

Our current highways were built with 80,000 pound trucks in mind, so we have every reasonable expectation that they can take that weight.

Even those that were initially built in an earlier era have been repaved and rebuilt since 80,000 pounds became the standard.

However, not one of those highways was designed with trucks as large as what’s being proposed in mind.

What’s more, those roads were not designed to accommodate those trucks in terms of safety factors.

What do they propose we do? Rebuild every road out there to accommodate the new, larger trucks? It’s bad enough that they expect every single owner-operator to buy new equipment – not only new trailers, but also tractors that have enough power to haul the larger load efficiently.

We’re fine where we are, and our current weight and length standards should stay as they are.

That is OOIDA’s stance, and the Association is working hard to get that message across to our elected representatives.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A damn fine reason

Plenty of truckers have called to complain about the shape some of our toll roads are in, including some that have been sold to foreign companies.

The public officials who are pushing the idea of tolling our roads say that this is a new way to fund highway building and maintenance. And many of those same officials say that private companies can do a better job than publically elected governments.

I say the proof is in the pudding. Or, to be more scientific about it, the best way to predict how people will behave in the future is to look at how those same people have behaved in the past.

I’ve heard from few if any people claiming that maintenance on Indiana’s Toll Road has improved under the private operators. One, I think, called to say some of the reports of how bad it is were exaggerated. But that’s the best call we’ve received about that road.

As for West Virginia, that state is pulling in more than enough money from its toll road to pay for keeping it in shape.

If the money coming in now isn’t enough to keep the West Virginia Turnpike in good shape, why would we believe a private company could take the same money, do better … and make a profit for shareholders?

I’ve heard people say private operators will have better efficiency, that they’ll find waste and cut it, and so on.

Well, we’ve had several roads go over to the private side, and I haven’t seen improved performance yet.

What I have seen is exactly what was predicted – the private companies cut back on service and increase rates.

So if we look at past behavior, what we see is poor performance on the part of the state, and poor performance on the part of private operators.

Want to know the difference between the two?

We can make changes in how the state is run. All state property is ultimately the responsibility of the legislature, which has to answer every election to the people.

Private companies don’t.

Beyond all the other good points made against privatization, that one point alone is a damn fine reason to keep our highway system in public hands.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Once again, large carriers and their representatives in our nation’s capital are planning a push to increase the maximum size and weight of the trucks on our nation’s roads.

Rod Nofziger revealed the effort during a conversation with Land Line Magazine Senior Editor Jami Jones on our show last week.

Todd Spencer, the executive vice president here at OOIDA, has said many times, the current rules on length and weight are fine just how they are. We’ve gone far enough, and we really don’t need to go bigger.

But something else about the situation stuck a chord with me. Does it seem to all of you that many of the issues we’ve seen raised in recent years are nothing more than a plan to save shippers money?

Truckers cost too much for your taste? No problem! Just let in some truckers from Mexico who’ll work for one-third the pay.

Shipping costs too high for you to pay it and build your new mansion? No problem! Just increase the size and weight of the truck. You can cut the number of truckers by half and make two shipments for the price of one.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Some might say that kind of thinking is the sign of a conspiracy theorist. I’d say it’s a possible sign of political savvy.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The nanny government and Big Brother mind control

Why does everything these days have to be about punishment? Why do we always see stick, but never any carrot?

Speed limiters are a particularly rotten example of this trend.

I know that for the most part, the speed limiter debate has centered on safety. But the fuel-saving and environmental arguments – that using limiters will decrease consumption and emissions – are part of the push for requiring these devices as well.

So once again, instead of encouraging people to do the right thing, we simply force them, control them, coerce them … with the rules all emanating from the ivory tower of the nanny government.

But at least one truck owner is doing things different. He called in recently, identifying himself only as “Mark.” (With a name like that, I already like the guy.)

He said he was offering a little carrot – for every ½ mile per gallon increase in fuel economy, he gives his truckers an extra 2 cents per mile that month.

I like this for a number of reasons.

First, I think it’s always better to encourage people to do the right thing rather than forcing them into a behavior.

Second, just moving slower isn’t likely to do the job. The truckers who really know how to do this are aware of that, and they’ve called us in droves to say so.

I remember a conversation I had with Frank Kennedy, a Life Member of OOIDA. He said a lot of his fuel mileage was derived from feathering up when he started, and feathering down when he came to a stop.

If you jackrabbit start and jam on the brakes to stop, and you do it frequently, I’m not sure it matters what you do in between … and that’s just one instance.

Another example: If you idle when you don’t really need to, you can use 10 gallons every night.

A system that encourages truckers to learn how they can increase mileage, and offers a reward if they do so, is far more likely to yield the results we want. I’d rather see that than all of these Big Brother mind-control-inspired attempts to control, coerce and punish truckers – a system that’s become all too frequent these days.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Nothing is perfect, but this is the best we have

The price of fuel has brought many other topics to the forefront, not the least of which is the fuel surcharge.

Right now, Congress is considering the TRUCC Act – a bill that would require any fuel surcharge paid by a shipper to be passed on to the person paying for the fuel.

Some truckers have claimed that this act won’t work. The typical concern I hear is that the broker will ask the shipper to not list the surcharge separately, and instead just include it in the rate.

At one time, I was concerned about this. But is the broker going to do this?

First, what is the broker going to tell the shipper? Hey, I know I was billing you for a fuel surcharge, but I was really pocketing that money, so could you roll it into the rate now so I don’t have to pay it to the trucker? I just need you to help me violate this federal law, so I can keep ripping off you and the trucker.

Does that sound like something the shipper is going to go for?

Let’s try this on for size.

We’re assuming that the shipper and broker have the same interests. But they don’t.

Shippers prefer a surcharge. If the rate goes up, it stays up … even if fuel prices drop.

But if the shippers pay a base rate plus a surcharge, then if the price of fuel drops, their cost drops.

The shipper gains nothing, no advantage whatsoever, by going along with some broker’s scheme to line their own pockets.

People in this kind of situation tend to act in a way that benefits their own economic interests. The surcharge is the best situation for the shippers’ economic interest. And the broker can’t make the situation you describe work without the shipper’s cooperation.

The TRUCC Act isn’t perfect. But it’s a good bill, and it’s the best shot we’ve had in many years to fix this situation. If we don’t act on this, we can count on truckers being ripped off for years to come.

And that is something that no one wants.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Some well-deserved Roses

Here’s one from our latest edition of Roses and Razzberries, heard on the air July 7. This was a particularly good story and some positive news about truckers for a change.

A pair of ROSES goes out to two truckers who are credited with saving the lives of two injured people trapped in a burning car.

The accident happened in Blendon Township, Michigan last week. The Associated Press reported that the victims were in a Lexus that collided with a Jeep and caught fire.

The two truckers – William Rozema of Holland and Derek Bockheim of Grand Rapids – came to the rescue.

Two of the people in the Lexus got out, but two others were still trapped.

The truckers used their fire extinguishers and a crowbar to pry the doors open and get the people to safety just as the car was engulfed in fire.

There’s a real crisis, and then there’s this …

Several politicians and candidates have been calling for more off-shore drilling as a way to alleviate the fuel price crisis.

But will that really help? I think that’s what some of the folks promoting the idea would say.

But scientists will tell you the best indicator of future behavior is how people behaved in the past. So let’s take a look at recent cases where the amount of oil available on the market increased, but the price didn’t go down.

First, when the government stopped putting oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that freed up 50,000 barrels a day and put that oil on the market.

The price did not go down.

In May, Saudi Arabia increased oil production by 300,000 barrels a day.

Guess what? The price didn’t go down.

In the past couple of weeks, the Saudis announced that in July – this month – they would increase oil production by an additional 200,000 barrels a day.

Again, the price didn’t go down.

Just this week, many media outlets reported that after a huge down period due to the war and sabotage, that Iraq was preparing to re-enter the world oil market. The country is looking at deals with Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and others. Up to 500,000 barrels a day – a half million barrels every single day – could become available on the world market after that deal goes through. And that’s just the initial flow. With security improvements in Iraq, it’s more likely than ever to happen.

Surely, that brought down the price.

Nope. The price didn’t go down.

The idea that increased production will lower the price depends on the idea that the futures market is based on reality. Even the Saudis themselves say that if the price were based on real demand, oil should be about $70 a barrel. Yet it hovers around twice that level.

I do think we need to increase production. I also think we need more domestic supplies of energy of all kinds, including oil. I think we need to increase alternative energy production to take some of the pressure off oil.

But I don’t think that the amount of oil on the market has anything to do with the current price crisis.

In 1973, we had a real shortage. People couldn’t buy enough fuel to get a truck more than a few miles down the road.

Have you had any trouble buying fuel? No. That’s because there is no shortage.

The oil market has been manipulated. And it needs to stop.

Monday, July 7, 2008

What is a professional?

A trucker recently called in and said the dangdest thing.

He objected to folks referring to truckers as professionals. His reason? He said he was taught that a professional knows everything, and since he and other truckers don’t know everything, then they aren’t “professional” drivers.

First off, I’ve never heard the word “professional” defined as someone who knows everything.

In fact, if you use that definition, there’s no such thing as a professional. As that trucker pointed out himself, no one knows everything.

Here are a few definitions I found looking at various dictionaries.

One says a professional is someone who “follows an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain, as in a professional builder.”

Well, truckers definitely use trucking as a livelihood, and hopefully, they’re gaining a living out of it.

Another says a professional is “a person who belongs to one of the professions.” It then goes on to define profession as “an occupation that requires considerable training.” And, of course, they mean require not in the legal sense, but in the sense of skills you need to have in order to be able to perform the job.

I think trucking qualifies. And I would add that there’s a difference between a professional trucker and steering wheel holder.

As to what that difference is … well, that’s a separate discussion. But suffice it to say, I would bet that the trucker who called that thought in to us meets the definition of professional, as would most truckers I’ve met.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Blame Game

Terry Scruton has been keeping a close eye on Congress and how they’re handling the fuel price crisis.

One recent hearing dealt with the folks who trade in oil futures, and the government agency that regulates them. During that hearing, members of Congress questioned officials from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission pretty hard.

A trucker who listened in to that segment said it sounded like more of the same – just a bunch of bureaucrats and politicians blaming each other.

I know it may look like the blame game, but the fact is, if trading isn’t being properly regulated, and it’s the job of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to perform that regulation, then they are to blame.

I don’t like the blame game any more than anyone else. But when someone has a job and they fail to do it, either because they can’t or they won’t, then they should face the consequences.

What would happen to a trucker if he or she simply chose not to deliver a load? You’d face some pretty nasty consequences.

That being said, I don’t just want to see talk and finger pointing. If Congress is going to investigate this, I want them to do something – really do something – to fix the problem.

Otherwise, it really is just a blame game. And that is pretty much a useless exercise.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What has the government done to draw down the price of oil?

For the most part, the Bush administration has shown little interest in doing anything to bring down the price of oil beyond asking Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to increase their daily production. The administration, along with the Republican congressional leadership, believes the price of oil is being driven up by increased global demand and lower global supplies. It’s purely a supply-and-demand issue to them.

Congress has essentially been spinning their wheels on this matter. Though there have been numerous congressional hearings related to oil and fuel prices, they have not been able to come together to pass any significant legislation. Pressuring the White House into ceasing shipments of oil into the already well stocked Strategic Petroleum Reserve was a good start, but only goes so far. For the most part, time and energy is being wasted on Republicans blaming Democrats for oil prices and Democrats pointing their fingers back at the Republicans.

Generally speaking, Democrats believe that conservation, renewable energies, and reining in commodity market speculation are the answers to lowering fuel prices and reducing our nation’s dependency on foreign oil. Republicans tend to believe that increased domestic drilling and oil exploration as well as increased oil refining capacities are the way to go.

Most likely for any legislative effort to have a significant impact on oil or fuel prices, it will have to use, to some extent, all of the aforementioned strategies. For that to happen, Congress and the White House will have to set aside the election year political maneuvering that currently rules their collective mind-set. And for that to happen ... well, that’s not likely to happen.