Controlling Education

By Lloyd Graff.

For a century public education was the channel for students to access knowledge that would enhance their lives in many ways. It was the path to middle class lives for tens of millions, the Americanizer for immigrants, the building block of successful democracy.

But today the conventional model of top down primary and high school education is rightfully doubted by many in America. The doubt cuts across race, educational background and economic status. Public education with calcified Boards of Education, unionized teachers, politicized curriculums are doubted. With the doubt comes a determined counterattack from those who currently control most of the education money pool.

The rebellion against the status quo starts in daycare, graduates to nursery school, and gains momentum in grade school. Parents want more for their children than old school schools can give them. It may be as basic as more hours, or better lunches, or freedom to experiment with bugs, or snails, but for many parents yesterday’s education does not suffice for Little Johnny today.

The Charter School movement, which has blossomed, then withered, and mutated into home schooling and Co-op efforts is one aspect of shifting ideas about the public schools. Big educational institutions like city public school and large Catholic educational systems are struggling to compete for students and dollars. Charter Schools have been an end run around the stagnation. They are usually hated by unions and barely tolerated by entrenched educational hierarchies. Around the country there is ferocious competition for students and tax money. Charter schools are usually the enemy of the status quo. Wars are always being waged in Court and legislatures over them.

Home schooling, with the support of Internet initiatives like the Khan academy, are enabling parents to educate competitively at home, but the huge number of single parents and the need for two incomes makes home schooling a tough option for most people.

Education is generally controlled locally, and individually, but it strikes me that it could be an opportunity for a Republican presidential candidate to separate him or herself from the field by supporting “freedom of choice” in education vouchers to subsidize the opportunity to choose the education a parent desires for their kid. I would have no objection to these funds being used for parochial education, though purists and atheists will mount a gigantic fuss. Even if the funds were just for “secular” education, they could radically change the current stranglehold of calcified Boards and protective unions over American education.

I see businesses all over inject themselves into the vocational educational arena, because public schooling usually doesn’t “get it.” I see firms start training programs for machine operators and programmers because they want to develop talent to fit their businesses and understand what the best ways to bring along that talent.

Businesses will find a way to regenerate themselves or they will die. We have a client who is buying Hydromat rotary transfer machines to put into local technical schools where their factories are located to build their skills pool.

I do not see public education as a lost cause in the United States. It is just caught up in an enduring war between those who want control of the money and those want control of how their children gain knowledge of the world. It is a tug of war with each side winning a few inches and then losing it back. I wish the 2016 election would give voters a national forum to take sides on paying for education.

Question: Were you well-educated? Your kids?

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I’m Not Moving

By Lloyd Graff.

The house across from Lloyd Graff’s house. It has been on the market since 2012 for $182.500 and is currently pending.

It was refreshing to read about U.S. home prices rising 7.4% over the prices of one year earlier. Of metro areas, 22% showed double digit increases. The median family home price was $205,000 versus $191,000 one year earlier. Homes are selling at an annual rate of 5,000,000.

But not where I live.

I get to watch the best and worst of times as I observe the moribund market for the large beautiful homes in my village of Olympia Fields, Illinois, and compare it to my daughter’s neighborhood of small 60-year-old homes in Palo Alto, California, the center of Silicon Valley and home to Stanford University.

The contrast is amazing to observe. Directly across the street from my house two homes have lingered on the market for years, both spacious 4-bedroom houses on 15-20,000 square foot lots. Squatters lived in one before they snuck out in the dead of night 6-months ago.

In my daughter’s neighborhood, potential buyers launch campaigns to endear themselves to sellers to enhance their buying position. Houses usually sell in one week, often with overbids.

In my neighborhood a 2500 square foot house might sell for $175,000. An 1800 square foot house on a 7500 square foot lot in Palo Alto brings $2 to $3 million depending on location and amenities.

It’s supply and demand to the nth degree playing out. People from all over the world flock to Silicon Valley for high paying jobs. In Olympia Fields the baby boomers who bought 35 years ago are leaving for warmer climates, buying a condo in the city or just dying off. It seems like very few folks want to live in my community, even though it has lovely parks, good access to commuter trains and expressways, and minimal crime.

The simple answer is that affluent white people do not want to buy into an Olympia Fields that is comprised of about 50% African American people. But the interesting corollary is that not enough African American people want to live in Olympia Fields to fill the existing homes and push up the prices. It appears that upwardly mobile black people do not want to move to an area that seems “too black” for them.

I grew up in the bad old days on the south side of Chicago next to Jackson Park where the new Obama Library may be built. I used to practice my 5 irons and putting on the 6th green of the golf course across from our house. It was a lovely neighborhood back in the 1950s and ’60s, populated by caucasians adjacent to an African American neighborhood. There were no integrated neighborhoods then. When black people moved in, whites moved out. I observed white flight dramatically. In my public grammar school, Parkside School, there were 48 kids in a class, taught mostly by veteran Irish lady teachers who assigned seats arbitrarily. Black kids were mostly on one side of the classroom, whites on the other.

My high school was the University of Chicago Lab School, a private school for the U of C faculty’s kids, which expanded to take in kids from the surrounding areas. Many students were like me–they had parents who would not send them to the almost all black public high school, Hyde Park, that my residence would require.

My wife, Risa, is from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she went to Myers Park High, an almost all white school, just before Charlotte became the test case for school integration in the South.

We both wanted to live in a place that was different than the places we came from, so we ended up in Olympia Fields, rated one of the best places to live in the Chicago area back in the 1970s. It was integrated racially, had a small but vibrant Jewish community, and good though not great schools.

We stayed. And we stayed. And now many of our neighbors are African American, homes are vacant, schools are primarily African American kids, and home prices are one third of comparable dwellings in Northern and Western suburbs of Chicago.

This is race and real estate in Chicago in 2015. As a writer it is a fascinating story that I have seen unfold. As a real estate owner it is depressing to see the values drop so low.

I know many of our friends who have left the area wonder why we stayed in Olympia Fields.

The simple answer is that we do not want to leave. We love our house. My wife has her practice in the house, I live 12 minutes from our factory. We have a gorgeous view of a leafy park and a soccer field. We still have good friends in the area, and Risa thinks the local Starbucks makes a darn good mocha Frappucino.

A condo in the city would cramp us and feel stale. We have lilacs blooming now and we’ll be planting tomatoes in a few days. And that condo would cost us three times what we might be able to sell our home for.

So we stay and see how it plays out. Race and real estate are permanently intertwined in Chicago. I accept it, even if I hate it. Maybe it will change in 50 years, although I doubt it.

Question: Do you wish you could move?

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Industry Scuttlebutt

By Lloyd Graff.

Mitch Liss, President of Edsal Manufacturing, being photographed by Today’s Machining World for an interview in September 2010.

Mitch Liss of Edsal Manufacturing, who I interviewed at length for TMW five years ago, is moving his shelving manufacturing company out of Chicago to beautiful Gary, Indiana. I was shocked when I saw the announcement because Liss is a lifelong Chicagoan, whose employees came largely from the city. But Gary provided incentives. Chicago taxes were brutal, and Liss needed room for expansion, which Chicago made prohibitively expensive. If you hit business people in the nose long enough they will eventually walk out of the ring.

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I spent a lot of time at the recent Columbus PMTS Show talking to people who have assorted Swiss-type CNC lathes. It struck me that allegiances to each manufacturer were surprisingly fragile and fluid. Star users were switching to Citizen, Citizen fans switching to Tsugami, Swisstek getting into Tornos houses, etc.

Loyalty was tissue thin. Usually the brand switching was not because of sweet deals by a competitor, but because of irritation over the old brand’s service. The friendly, efficient, knowledgeable service person who showed up on time and finished the job quickly was the reason to stick with a manufacturer. Repeated repair snafus killed relationships over time.

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The Mayweather Pacquiao story just gets worse and worse. It evidently was a boring fight for those who paid $100 for the privilege of watching two aged boxers jab each other for 12 rounds. But now we learn that Manny had a damaged rotator cuff that he neglected to report. Oh, the power of a $120 million guarantee. Pacquiao has already had surgery. Anybody want to watch the re-match?

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The candidates just keep on coming for the Republican primary race for president. Carly Fiorina just announced. She evidently thinks her business credentials as the head of Lucent and then Hewlett-Packard will propel her to prominence. Lucent stock dropped to $2 a share with her brilliant moves. At H-P she paid a fortune for Compaq Computer, which nearly wrecked the giant firm. Well, she has not committed a felony or inhaled, as far as we know, so I guess she’s a legit candidate for now.

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California communities are faced with very hard decisions to make about the drought that has hit over the last few years. Weather patterns change. El Niño could switch quickly to La Niña, which could end the drought. Big snows later this year in the mountains could quickly rebuild the local water supply. The Greens are trying to capitalize on the dry conditions by proclaiming it a manmade event.

Some communities like Carlsbad, California, just north of San Diego, have decided to build desalinization plants. The one in Carlsbad will cost $1 billion. It may be money well spent, but 20 years ago Santa Barbara, California, spent a few hundred million to build one and then mothballed it a couple years later when the rain and snow came back. It could happen again. Water conservation, including holding back water from the enormous almond groves that were planted when the almond milk craze hit several years ago, might make more sense than huge capital investments in desalinization right now. I remember when Lake Michigan was going to go dry. Now it’s overflowing.

(Click here to read the interview from 2010 with Mitch Liss)

Question: Do you feel loyalty to your machine tool brands?

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The Europeans are Coming! The Europeans are Coming!

By Lloyd Graff.

Matthew McBride and Arnaud Clerc, of French firm, Bouverat Pernat

The economic numbers these days indicate a relatively weak first quarter of business in the U.S. The indicators I see in the machine tool business verify this, except automotive still seems strong.

The strength of the American dollar and the weakness in oil and gas account for much of the slack in manufacturing. At the recent Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Columbus, Ohio, I talked with several European machining firms who are searching for business here. Their reasoning is that the shift in the dollar over the last several months gives them the opening they have been waiting for to land business here.

Noah and I had a long talk with Matthew McBride and Arnaud Clerc, two representatives of a French firm, Bouverat Pernat, located in the Haute-Savoie region near Geneva, Switzerland, where the tradition of watch manufacturing has spawned generations of super skilled machinists and machining companies.

What I found fascinating in talking to these folks and other people from companies in Germany, Spain and Italy, who are also searching for work in America, is their confidence that they can compete successfully in the U.S., despite the impediments of distance, language, and high labor costs. They really view the American market as a goldmine if they can just find the “secret sauce” that allows them into America’s “machining club.”

We have discussed the barriers to entry in the U.S. with several machinery buying Graff-Pinkert customers. Like many clients they really want to discuss their equipment and skills. What we stress to them is that their prowess is a given. We know they are impressive machinists to survive and prosper despite high labor and ancillary costs in the expensive European manufacturing world.

American buyers are interested in price, reliability, and consistent follow-up. Being close to the buyer is helpful, because the supply chain is still imperfect. The long dock strike in California is a constant reminder to buyers who believe in a  “just in time” world, despite all of the impediments that the real world drops in their path.

Recently, we have been asked by several foreign firms to introduce them to big American turned parts buyers, as if we had a magical key to their purchasing departments, but there is no magic, no secret sauce. You work the phones, the Internet, knock on doors, build your network piece by recalcitrant piece.

The Chinese had a 15-year window to build market share here with killer pricing and slow-reacting American companies. Those days are definitely over. It feels like everybody is pretty even on pricing after the big washout of manufacturing firms. So when you have a sudden shift in the value of the euro and yen as we’ve had in the last six months, it feels like the gyroscope of business has shifted mightily.

I think the weak numbers of the first quarter reflect much more than the awful winter in the Midwest and East coast. The oil components folks have hibernated, pushing metals prices into the toilet. Oil and gas is not a huge piece of the machining world, but when it goes from hot to cold almost overnight it is significant. Agriculture pricing is soft, so the tractor makers are in the barn. Add in the aggressive and capable survivors in Europe and Japan who smell blood with the strong dollar and have connections with European and Japanese OEMs entrenched here already, and you have a more challenging environment on the ground in America.

The euro has strengthened a bit in the last two weeks, but we do not know if it will stick.

Meanwhile, do not be shocked if somebody contacts your company on behalf of a European client who is interested in buying a shortcut into the American market.

Question: Has business in the first quarter been good for your company?

Lloyd Graff is owner of Graff-Pinkert a used machinery dealership specializing in screw machines, Hydromats and CNCs, as well as the owner and chief space filler of Today’s Machining World.

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Overpaid?

By Lloyd Graff.

Jadeveon Clowney, Number 1 Draft Pick in 2014. Tore Meniscus in first game. Had 7 tackles for the season.

With the NFL draft taking place today and the NBA playoffs in full swing, I’d like to broach the topic of whether pro athletes make too much money.

If Jameis Winston, the number 1 overall draft pick, signs with Tampa Bay and the team wins seven games next season with him slinging the ball, how much is he worth to the team? He will likely sign a three or four year guaranteed contract, with a club option for one more year. Tampa Bay will risk the future health of the franchise on a 21-year-old immature athlete. Winston will get financial security in exchange for being locked into a contract for the next four or five years.

The deal that Winston will get is basically prepackaged by the union agreement negotiated between the players and the owners. Young players coming out of college work relatively cheap. The average career for an NFL player is four years. They often get hurt and sometimes sustain life threatening head injuries. Leg injuries, which happen to almost every player to some degree, will lead to hobbling arthritis over time. The players are gladiators who choose this life, but the health costs are substantial.

The NFL wage structure has worked out famously for the owners of the teams. The TV money has escalated rapidly despite terrible publicity about wife and child abusers, concussions that lead to early dementia and even death, and the fact that there are fewer than 10 quarterbacks worth watching.

The NFL cartel has a built-in free pipeline of players coming out of college programs. College is a free minor league system. What a deal. Most players do not have guaranteed contracts. The elite players get some “guaranteed money,” having been vetted for several seasons. The NFL’s TV money keeps going up because live broadcasts of sporting events tend to defy the use of the DVR, making the endless commercials still be deemed worth the money.

If wimpy Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL, can make $44 million in 2013 (we know this because the NFL was a “non-profit” group) should we feel bad if a free safety is working for $500 grand? Is a free safety really supposed to work for FREE?

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The NBA, or the “Association” as the players call it, is a little different than the NFL. We got a glimpse of the value of an NBA franchise when Steve Ballmer, former president of Microsoft, ponied up $2 billion to buy the Los Angeles Clippers in a sale forced by the NBA cartel. Ballmer bought the franchise, beating out Oprah Winfrey’s group, because he’s a pretty smart business guy. Franchise values almost always go up over time. Mark Cuban, who sold his tech startup at the peak of the dot.com bubble, invested $285 million for the Dallas Mavericks in 2000. The team is currently valued at $1.2 billion by Forbes.

The 400 current NBA players average $5 million per year in salary. The average time in the league for a player is four years. LeBron James makes $20,644,400 this season, 7th most in the NBA. He only signed a two year deal, which entitles him to a little less money per year according to current NBA rules. I think LeBron can reasonably argue that he is underpaid compared to what he brings to the Association.

LeBron has agreed to become the lead player for the NBA players union, which is interesting because he is moving toward the latter stages of his remarkable career. The NBA players got rid of Billy Hunter, who led the strike that sacrificed 16 games of the 2011-12 NBA season for a modest gain in a player earnings.

The Union recently hired Michele A. Roberts to lead them. She is an African American woman who grew up in a New York housing project to become a top partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in the country, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager & Flom. She fervently believes the players she represents are underpaid. She believes players should think more like a Mayweather than a TV weatherman. She argues that the NBA is nothing without the players and that theoretically the players could start their own league.

This is probably just posturing on her part as she prepares for the next big negotiation with the owners. She wants the players to think like capitalists. In Europe, there is no draft for the soccer leagues. Top players move from country to country for the best deal.

The current NBA union structure aids the marginal players. A good example is Nazr Muhammad, the second backup center for the Chicago Bulls. He barely plays in a game. He makes $1.5 million this season as a practice player. A player like Muhammad needs the union. LeBron does not.

Question: Are professional athletes in the United States overpaid or underpaid?

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Industry Scuttlebutt

By Lloyd Graff.

Rex Magagnotti, Lloyd Graff, Noah Graff at Graff-Pinkert PMTS booth

Just got back from the Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Columbus, Ohio, organized by the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA). I collected a lot of scuttlebutt and impressions. I’ll share a few that bubble to the top for me.

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The PMPA is a small but surprisingly useful and effective trade organization. It has active members who share information and help out fellow members with valuable, hard won knowledge. The Columbus show has grown into a nice magnet for folks involved with machining. It is not an extravaganza like IMTS, but for the tens of thousands who attended, filling the 70,000 square feet of the downtown Columbus convention center, it made good economic sense. People were looking for little specks of knowledge to bring back to their factories gleaned from exhibitors, presentations and chance encounters in the aisles and hotel lobbies. If folks were open to the event they come back with those crucial tidbits of knowledge that cannot be found online or in courses, because “inside baseball” stuff in any field is derived from personal interaction. The question you would never think to ask comes up when guards are down at a show like Columbus.

It was remarkable the exhibition came off so well, with the PMPA professional leadership a mess for more than a year. I met Mike Duffin, who retired as the head of the organization after a decade of stewardship. He told me about the short stints of his two successors, the first one brought in from outside the group, the second a long-time employee. Both men had good credentials and legitimate track records. Unfortunately, they flunked out of the top job of the PMPA within months.

The group’s Board of Directors is probably a bit in shock after two bad picks in a row following long runs of previous heads. Miles Free and Monte Guitar, two long-time employees of the organization, have held things together, but they have to be getting a little worn out from the turmoil.

Mike Duffin appears happily retired and seems to have no desire to return. It seems like the PMPA is sorely in need of an outside search firm to vet a few legit candidates. An organization can run well only so long without an active, respected leader.

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Just before the show started, a big piece of news came out about the Pfiffner Group in Switzerland, which manufactures Hydromat rotary transfer machines. The company was sold to FFE Group of Taiwan, which owns Leadwell Machine Tools, Feeler, and several other Asian and European builders.

The scuttlebutt was that the banks, who had lent Pfiffner a lot of money through the years, were pressuring the company’s owner Karl Pfiffner to pay it back or sell the company. Karl Pfiffner may not have wanted to sell the firm that he had built, but the FFE deal was one he could not easily refuse.

The Taiwanese firm owns Witzig & Frank, which also makes big transfer machines, so it was familiar with the market. The relationship between Pfiffner and Hydromat has had its ups and downs through the years.

Bruno Schmitter, CEO and President of Hydromat Inc. in St. Louis, relies on Pfiffner to build a good portion of Hydromat components, but Hydromat in St.Louis has established its own engineering and rebuilding capability. The two companies need each other, as Hydromat is Pfiffner’s biggest customer, but their interests do not always converge. Pricing in Swiss Francs can be problematic with that currency so strong. The possibility of some of the manufacturing being done in Taiwan or elsewhere was being discussed by Hydromat users at PMTS, but nobody knows how FFE will run Pfiffner. It does appear likely that significant changes will be coming.

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There were a lot of metal companies at PMTS. There is definitely turmoil in the metals market, though the bar producers put on a good front that they are not discounting heavily. One thing is certain, the scrap market for steel and to a lesser degree, aluminum, has plummeted. The strong dollar, weakness in China’s manufacturing, the oil sell off, and reduction in drilling has really whacked the market. Warehouses are loaded with material, so they are not buying much. Scrap prices for heavy melting steel and cast iron are off 40% from a year ago. The value added producers of extrusions and tubular goods are trying to hold prices, but it seems to be a tough battle for them.

But they are not the only ones who are discounting. Most machine tool builders of lathes and mills are cutting prices to make a deal because they have slack built into their margins with the soft yen and euro. Haas has allegedly cut prices to compete. Business is generally good for machine tool buyers and sellers, but everybody is under pricing pressure in the cut throat world market.

Question: Do you belong to a trade organization? Why?

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Rememberance

By Lloyd Graff.

Majdanek concentration camp is within the city of Lublin, Poland.

Yesterday, April 16, was the day Jews call Yom Ha’Shoah, the day to remember the Holocaust.

The Holocaust has shaped my life, which may sound odd for an American born in Chicago who never lived through the horror. My parents did not experience it either, and we never talked about it at home.

But I became emotionally involved with the horrific killing of Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals and political complainers by the Nazis in high school, from movies, books and television. I internalized the images of bodies piled up like cordwood and emaciated living corpses in striped uniforms walking around bedazed. When I could bare it I imagined myself walking into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

I had thought of going on a concentration camp tour, yet I could never find the stomach to do it, but in 1999 my wife Risa and a friend had the opportunity to go to Poland with a sophisticated guide. I engineered a business trip to Europe and caught up with them the day before they were going to Lublin, the site of the Majdanek camp.

We rode the chartered bus through the snowy countryside. We arrived at Majdanek around 6pm. It was empty. We were the only ones there other than the caretaker.

All the folks on the bus walked into the “welcoming” room, but I lingered outside. I took off my winter coat, sweater and shirt because I wanted to feel the icy cold chill in my bones. Then I put my garments back on and joined the others.

I read the signatures on the roster. The Nazis kept proper records. There were bunk beds of sorts for the inmates. Men and women were separated in each building. The building was clean, but I tried to imagine what it must have been like filled with people waiting to be killed.

Then I walked alone into the shower room where the gas had once wafted in to quietly exterminate the captives 70 years ago. I looked up at the showerheads. I tried to imagine what it was like, but how do you imitate terror? You feel it or you don’t. It was one-dimensional, derivative horror for me, nothing like the real thing.

I paused for a couple minutes to absorb my feelings, and then I walked out. My 45 minutes of Majdanek were over. I left the building, walked to the bus and saw that the camp was right in the midst of the city of Lublin. I had thought the concentration camps were in the country, hidden away, but Majdanek was right in the city neighborhood. And they say nobody knew what was happening.

We left Majdanek and headed for a hotel and dinner an hour away. We ate little and slept little under the covers.

Today, I remember my concentration camp experience. I mentally return to it on days of remembrance like Yom Ha’Shoah, but I don’t dwell on it. I never lived it. I can only occasionally grasp at a distant synthetic horror.

Most of the survivors are dead now. Europe’s Jews are going through another siege of anti-Semitism, fueled by Muslim hatred and indifference by the general population. The cover story in this month’s Atlantic magazine is a brilliant and terrifying piece entitled “Is it Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” by Jeffery Goldberg.

I read the article and I couldn’t sleep all night. Seventy years after Auschwitz, and Jews are still being killed in schools and supermarkets.

Why do they stay? Have they forgotten?

I cannot.

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Election Hope

By Lloyd Graff.

I have been reading so much lately about income inequality in the United States, how poor young people of color are doomed to unemployment or french frying at best, and if kids don’t hear 30 million words by the time they are three their opportunity to thrive is all but dead.

The do-gooders want to remedy matters with tuition waivers and government assistance and a variety of other schemes.

I’ll admit it, the game is rigged for so many people in our country.

And then there is Marco Rubio running for President, and he might just win.

His future didn’t look so hot when he was born. Mom was a hotel maid, Dad was a bartender. They were immigrants from Cuba living in Miami. They came to America with nothing, worked hard and still didn’t exactly accumulate wealth. Marco Rubio, however, bought into the American Dream. Ambition, drive, chutzpah, the “I’m getting somewhere in my life” passion, set him apart.

He was a good enough athlete to get a football scholarship to an unknown Christian college, Tarkio, in Tarkio, Missouri, which went out of business soon after he arrived. He bounced back to a junior college in Florida, graduated from the University of Florida, and then picked up a law degree from the University of Miami. He accumulated $100,000 in student loan debt in the process.

He talked his way into internships with prominent Miami area politicians and started to learn the game. He ran for city commissioner in West Miami and began to catch on to the nuts and bolts of running local government and getting elected.

He honed his speaking talent and got to know the important players in Miami and the state of Florida. Jeb Bush became his mentor and helped grease the way for the ardent Marco to become known as a comer in politics. If you are a politician it never hurts to have a beautiful wife. Super Marco married a Miami Dolphins cheerleader and they have four children today.

Marco’s ascent to prominence is not unlike Barack Obama’s in Illinois. A shrewd assessment of the opportunities, taking advantage of weak opponents, the ability to attract influential friends and donors, and develop the persona of a leader are attributes of both men.

I have heard Rubio speak and have been impressed by his ability and appearance of conviction and sincerity.

I love his personal story. His conservative politics are interesting though he has vacillated on immigration reform.

His feelings about restructuring college debt reflect his own difficulty dealing with debt overhang.

I don’t know if Marco Rubio will be a legit Presidential candidate, but I like his bio and many of his policies. He speaks perfect Spanish too, which can’t hurt.

America somehow keeps coming up with intriguing self made people who defy the negativity of their background and society’s downcast view.

It’s enough to give me hope in this election.

Question: Does a candidate’s biography influence your vote?

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Going Like 88

By Lloyd Graff.

Vin Scully, play-by-play announcer for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Baseball is more than just a game for me. It is woven into the fabric of my life. When I was about to be wheeled into heart surgery 6.5 years ago my entire immediate family regaled me with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for encouragement before being pushed into the operating room.

When Harry Caray, the great Cubs announcer, died, Noah and I journeyed to Wrigley Field to place baseball memorabilia at his makeshift memorial.

As Garrett Morris used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Baseball’s been berra berra good to me.”

A couple days ago I had the privilege to hear Vin Scully do the Los Angeles Dodgers versus San Diego Padres game. Scully has been broadcasting for 66 years. At the age of 88 he sounds great and his knowledge and recall seemed right on. I was thrilled to hear him, but I couldn’t just listen to the play-by-play. I wanted to vet him, to see if he was all there, if he had lost something.

I do this with older people. I don’t want them slipping and holding on with their fingernails to former glory. I did it with Ronald Reagan when I had a sense he was losing it in his second term, but I didn’t want to believe it. I did it with my own father as I saw him fade physically. Thankfully he kept his mental faculties until he died, but I was always searching for signals of diminishment.

One of the hurtful things about aging for me is not just the sagging skin and aching joints, but the fear of not being on my game, mentally.

I feel solid in every way except one – name recall. I know it has slipped a tad in recent years. More than I want to admit, a person’s name will elude me for a few seconds as I urgently search my mental desktop for a clue to retrieve the name I seek.

So when Vin Scully flawlessly went through the lineups it was reassuring. Scully goes back to Jackie Robinson, Roy Campenella, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. He was mentored by Red Barber who did radio in the 1930s.

Scully grew up in the Bronx, solidly Irish and Roman Catholic. His father sold silk in the garment district, which seems beautifully appropriate with his silky dulcet tones. He graduated  from Fordham in 1949 where he played center field on the baseball team and did football play-by-play on the school radio station. He sent out 150 letters looking for a radio job after college and found one live job in Washington DC. His big break came after doing an NFL game when the press box was filled. He broadcasted the game from the stadium rooftop in freezing weather without a hat and coat. He never indicated that he was cold in the broadcast. Red Barber was particularly impressed with his performance and the fact that he never injected his personal feeling into the play-by-play. It launched his career.

The beauty of Vin Scully is that he found his perfect career and then spent his life perfecting his work.

I don’t root for the Dodgers, but I love the wonderful delivery of Scully, the consummate pro who just keeps on going and going and gives me hope for my future.

Question: Would you like to work until you’re 88?

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More than an Oil Change

By Lloyd Graff.

A dirty car air filter

I recently took my car for an oil change at the local Jiffy Lube, whose many slogans include “More than an oil change,” “Only what you need, guaranteed,” and “We don’t want to change the world, we just want to change your oil.” I had vowed to myself never to patronize the chain because every time I’ve gone there the service was slow and they tried to up-sell me products I didn’t want.

But it had been a year since my last oil change. I saw a sign at the car wash I was visiting, also for the first time in a year, for a $25 oil change at the Jiffy Lube next door, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone on a chilly March Sunday morning.

I drove into the Jiffy Lube, where I happily saw I was the only customer. I maneuvered my 12-year-old Toyota Avalon into position, got out of the car and proclaimed that I “just want an oil change, nothing else.”

The young fellow, who was the only other person present, agreed and showed me to the waiting room. Soon after, he motioned me to come out into the shop area where he showed me the car’s air filter, which looked rather grey and dirty. He asked me if I wanted it changed.

“How much?” I asked.

“$14.95,” he said.

My moment of decision.

“Ok, replace it. But don’t try to sell me anything else,” I said with resignation.

He replaced the oil and then came into the office to ring me up. The bill was too high. I told him the reason I came to the store was because I saw the big sign for the promotion in the carwash lobby next door.

“Oh, that promotion is over,” he said.

“No way I’m paying the higher fee. This is why I don’t go to your stores,” I said.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ve got a coupon I’ll give you to take the price down,” the young attendant said.

I paid the lesser amount and left as usual with disgust.

I thought to myself, this is a terrible business model. Falsely advertise the price for your primary product, the oil change, try to sneak the higher price by the customer but provide a “coupon” if he squawks. Then display the dirty filter to attempt to fatten the bill on the visit.

I usually patronize the Pennzoil shop a few miles away, but they have moved or gone out of business. They never used such tactics, but I usually bought wiper blades from them, which they had on display but never pushed on me.

I believe the Jiffy Lube store’s tactics were unscrupulous and counterproductive. I will never go to one of their outlets again. No wonder their store was empty while the car wash next door was thriving.

But maybe I’m naive.

The reputable Pennzoil guys are gone, and the Jiffy Lube is still standing. Is playing the customer for a sucker the only way to make an oil change business survive? Was I a fool to replace a dirty air filter that could have been vacuumed?

I know it’s hard to be in a commodity service business, but does it have to be run like this?

Question: Do you feel like a sucker when you get an oil change?

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