Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Congressional elections are finally over and political junkies will have to wait several more months before the 2015 gubernatorial campaigns kick into high gear. With four candidates already announced and millions of out-of-state dollars looming to stoke the flames, there are sure to be plenty of fireworks to grate on our collective psyches by the time a successor to Gov. Bobby Jindal is chosen.

But for those who can’t wait that long, New Orleans author Steven Wells Hicks may have the appetizer as a prelude to the entrée of hard-nosed, in the gutter, take no prisoners Louisiana politics to which we have become accustomed.

Destiny’s Anvil (Pan American Copyright Conventions, 283 pages) is a rich mix of ambition, corruption, old money, oil and payback that keeps the action moving right through the final page.

The book’s title is drawn from a quote by German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “You must either conquer and rule or suffer and lose, be the anvil or the hammer.”

The story revolves around brothers Tucker and Carter Callahan and their boyhood friend Will Guidry, the sitting Louisiana attorney general who has the single-minded obsession of reaching one objective: the office of the governor of Louisiana. Guidry doesn’t let lifelong friendships stand in the way of his stated goal and everyone around him pays a hefty price for his political drive.

Carter is the protagonist through whom the story is told with skill and directness that lays bare the back room machinations of Bayou State politics.

Tucker is a political strategist who gets Will elected first as district attorney of Charbonnaux Parish and later as attorney general. Carter, meanwhile, stays home in New Acadia and takes over the family’s thriving oil exploration business.

And what story about genteel southern living would be complete without the obligatory love triangle? This one manifests itself in the person of Katherine Ormande (Kayo) Laborde who early on was in love with Carter but by the time we meet her, she is married to brother Tuck. But it is her deep-seeded and understandable hatred of Guidry that fuels this story.

All four are reared in Charbonnaux Parish and the political and legal conflicts that arise between Will and the brothers provides a sordid—and believable—backdrop into the free-for-all that has come to symbolize Louisiana politics right down to the inclusion of pigs in TV political ads (The pigs, by the way, will evoke memories among the older set of Earl Long once claiming that opponent Sam Jones fell into a mud puddle occupied by pigs. A passerby observed that one’s character could be judged by the company he keeps. “The pigs got up and left,” was Long’s zinger to the story.)

Hicks confuses the story somewhat by mixing real places like Shreveport and Baton Rouge with fictional localities such as Charbonnaux Parish and New Acadia but if you can get by that small inconsistency (and it’s easy to do), the book is an enjoyable read for those familiar with the uniqueness of Louisiana politics which at times passes for a contact sport which other states seem to be trying to imitate but are unable to quite duplicate.

As the story unfolds, events begin to spin out of control and the twists in the plot will transport the characters to the surprise ending in rapid fire fashion while leaving the reader wanting more.

There is one slight inaccuracy that can be attributed to a simple memory lapse or even a typo and is certainly forgivable.

On page 59, the political kingmakers of Louisiana are discussing the attributes of a candidate to whom they will lend their not insignificant support. Discussing the merits of a fictional senator from Louisiana, he is compared other powerful U.S. senators. “He was indeed a senator’s senator,” said J.X., “and a Southern gentleman to boot. Like John Stennis, Lyndon Johnson, and even our own Earl Long.”

Earl Long was never a U.S. Senator; he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960 but died 10 days after the election and never took office. Hicks, of course, may have intended his reference to Earl’s brother, Huey Long, who did serve in the U.S. Senate until his assassination in Baton Rouge or more likely to Huey’s son Russell who served 39 years in the Senate. “I don’t know how I managed to make a mistake like that,” Hicks said when contacted about the error. “I certainly knew better.”

But he more than made up for that gaffe with a most profound sentence that should (but sadly, does not) sum up what should be the required mantra of all who hold political office:

“The responsibility for building and maintaining our way of open and honest government belongs in the hands of those who elected our leaders and not the leaders themselves.”

That one sentence speaks volumes about how our political structure should function but sadly, does not and the ethical code to which it should strive.

And it, in and of itself, makes the book well worth the read.

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When Jeff Skilling took over as President and Chief Operating Officer of Enron in June of 1990, he did so only after insisting that the company convert from conventional accounting principles to a method preferred by his former employer, McKinsey & Co.

In 2001, hedge fund manager Richard Grubman said to Skilling, “You are the only financial institution that can’t produce a balance sheet or cash flow statement with their earnings.” By October of that same year, Enron had begun its death spiral in a historic collapse that would pull the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen down with it.

The key to Enron’s failure was the mark-to-market accounting method, where anticipated revenues and profits are entered into the company’s books before they are ever received. The system allowed Enron to conceal losses and to inflate profits for nearly 11 years before its house of cards came crashing down.

On Thursday (Oct. 8), nearly seven years into his administration, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa, R-New Hampshire, R-Anywhere but Louisiana) rolled out a new accounting formula with an alarmingly familiar ring to it.

Jindal, like Skilling, is a McKinsey alumnus.

Commissioner of Administration/Surrogate Gov. Kristy Kreme Nichols announced that the state, instead of having a deficit of $141 million as claimed by State Treasurer John Kennedy, will suddenly have a surplus of $178.5 million, a gaping difference of $319.5 million.

Nichols did not reveal how the $178.5 million was arrived at but Kennedy said the administration is switching to a cash balance form of accounting instead of the modified accrual basis employed by state governments. “If we use the methodology we have always used,” he said, “we don’t have a surplus. We have a $141 million deficit.

“The commissioner says the calculation has been inaccurate for years and it needs to be changed,” he said. “They have to explain why we have been doing it wrong all these years and why the Revenue Estimating Conference is doing it wrong.”

Nichols, an appointed state employee, was less than deferential to Kennedy, a statewide elected official when she sniped back at Kennedy, saying, “I’m surprised the treasurer is not reporting this.” She added that Kennedy is obligated to report available revenue. “He should probably do a review of the accounts to ensure there are no more outstanding revenues he is not reporting.”

Kennedy and Jindal have been at odds for years over fiscal policy, so it was no surprise to see Kristy Kreme, with her super-sized ego, get a little mouthy with the state treasurer. After all, she bolted from a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the Office of Group Benefits on Sept. 25 to take her daughter to a One Direction boy band concert at the New Orleans Smoothie King Arena where she watched from the comfort of Jindal’s executive suite.

Just as Enron misrepresented its finances for years, it now appears that the Jindal administration may be attempting the same tactic, prompting one political observer to say, “If cooking the books isn’t malfeasance, what is? The bond rating agencies and others rely on the CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), where the year-end position is officially reported in decision making and they are not going to like this.”

Another Jindal critic asked rhetorically, “What happens when a state ends a fiscal year with a deficit of $141 million but the administration of the day pretends that there is actually a surplus of $178 million? I don’t think there is any precedent for such a thing ever happening anywhere. This is starting to sound like Enron!”

Odd as it may seem to make that comparison, the similarities between Jindal and Enron run much deeper than the latest developments surrounding the new accounting methods. Here are some points about Enron lifted from The Smartest Guys in the Room: the Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (Penguin Books, 2003), a probing book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind about the failed energy company: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/113576.The_Smartest_Guys_in_the_Room

  • The Deutsche Bank once described Enron as “the industry standard for excellence.” Jindal boasted of instituting the “gold standard for ethics” in Louisiana.
  • When the chief accounting officer of Enron Wholesale expressed concern about wholesale electricity sales, she was reassigned. When another employee questioned Skilling on his claim that Enron was going to make $500 million, she was laid off that same day. When state employees or legislators complain or do not vote with the administration, they are teagued.
  • Pollster Frank Luntz said instability and chaos were defining features at Enron and the six company reorganizations in just 18 months were a “running joke” and that Enron’s lack of discipline was “destructive and demoralizing.” Jindal’s penchant for reorganization and reform has created a similar atmosphere within state government.
  • Enron sold assets and booked the one-time proceeds as recurring earnings. Nearly 40 percent of Enron’s 1998 and 1999 earnings came from sales of assets rather than from ongoing operations. Jindal over the past several years has sold state property, buildings, and entire agencies and turned state hospitals over to private entities.
  • Both Skilling and Jindal are alumni of the blue-chip consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., which wrote the Enron business plan and as far back as 1986, advised AT&T there was no future in the market for cell phones. McKinsey also was an advocate of mark-to-market accounting practices.
  • Both Skilling and Jindal thought—and think—like a consultant. Skilling felt that a business should be able to declare profits at the moment of the signing of an agreement that would earn those profits. But just because traders were reporting earnings under mark-to-market accounting, it did not necessarily follow that the money was in hand. See this link: http://theadvocate.com/news/10494146-123/jindal-budget-surplus-questioned
  • A Wall Street banker said of Skilling: “He’s either compulsively lying or he’s refusing to recognize the truth.” Another banker worried that Enron executives were not carrying out their fiduciary duties and questioned “sweetheart deals” negotiated by them.
  • Skilling believed that social policies designed to temper the markets were “wrongheaded” and counterproductive. “Wrongheaded” has been a favorite term invoked by Jindal whenever he has suffered setbacks at the hands of the courts on issues ranging from education reform to a revamp of state retirement plans.
  • When asked a question he didn’t like, Skilling, in a tactic learned from his days at McKinsey, responded by dumping “a ton of data on you.” Jindal’s one outstanding skill is to spew statistics and factoids in rapid-fire fashion that can overwhelm and confuse challengers.
  • Skilling, like Jindal, was considered brilliant and extremely articulate. He, like Jindal, always seemed to have the right answer and whenever he was asked about problems it was always someone else’s fault.
  • Skilling displayed no remorse for his own actions, nor did he have any sense that he hired the wrong people or emphasized the wrong values. (See above.)
  • Enron founder Ken Lay saw himself as a business visionary, much as Jindal portrays himself as a policy guru. Lay traveled the world to offer his wisdom on everything from energy deregulation to corporate ethics to the future of business. (Ditto)
  • At the end, Enron employees’ accounts were frozen even as top executives were walking away with fortunes.
  • Efforts by Enron and Arthur Andersen to avoid reporting $500 million in losses “only pushed the problem further off and added another tangle to the fragile web of accounting deceptions.” Do we really need to elaborate here?
  • Enron executives accepted the argument that wealth and power demanded no sense of broader responsibility which in turn led them to embrace the notion that ethical behavior requires nothing more than avoiding the explicitly illegal, that refusing to see the bad things happening in front of you makes you innocent and that telling the truth is the same thing as making sure no one can prove you lied.
  • Enron’s mission was nothing more than a cover story for massive fraud, much as Jindal’s administration is being exposed almost daily as a sham. The story of Enron, like that of Jindal, was a story of human weakness, of hubris and greed and rampant self-delusion, of ambition run amok, of a business model that didn’t work and of smart people who believed their next gamble would cover their last disaster—and most of all, of people who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—admit they were wrong.
  • Enron once aspired to be “the world’s greatest company” but rather became a symbol for all that was wrong with corporate America, exposing Lay’s flaws as a businessman that could no longer be hidden behind Enron’s impressive but misleading façade and Skilling’s glib rhetoric.
  • Despite Enron’s efforts to camouflage the truth, there was more than enough in the public record to raise the hackles of any self-respecting analyst (read: reporter). Analysts (read: reporters) are supposed to dive into a company’s financial records, examine footnotes and even elbow their way past accounting obfuscations. Their job, in short, is to analyze (re: report).

In the end, of course, Enron crumpled under the weight of its own corruption and mismanagement, destroying thousands of lives and even taking down one of the big five accounting firms in the process.

The Jindal administration with each passing day, with every revelation of some new scandal (the Edmonson Amendment, CNSI, the Murphy Painter fiasco, et al) and with each new flawed policy (the Office of Group Benefits debacle), is looking more and more like a train wreck that will adversely affect Louisiana citizens for years to come.

Just call it Enron East.

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“…My purpose is to dismantle the dismantlers. As such, my words are not kind. My words expose, and that exposure is harsh. The individuals and organizations profiled in this book have declared war on my profession, and I take that personally.”


—Mercedes Schneider, writing in the introduction to her book A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education.

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A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of America’s Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 404 pages) is a new book by St. Tammany Parish high school English teacher Mercedes Schneider that should be required reading by both proponents and opponents of the current drift in education from public to private, from non-profit availability to all students to for-profit institutions available to the select few.

Before we get too far into our review of this book, there are two things you should know about Mercedes Schneider:

  • The emphasis is on the first syllable of Mer’ Ce-deez; she’s not a car, nor was she named for one.
  • Don’t ever make the mistake of trying to schmooze her with B.S., especially when it comes to issues involving public education. She will call you out the same way she called out an ill-prepared Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President (BESE) Chas Roemer following his debate with Diane Ravitch in March of 2013. Ravitch had already run circles around Roemer in their debate and he was simply no match for Schneider in the question-and-answer session that followed. It would have been comical had it not been for the position of such serious responsibility conferred upon Roemer by voters in his BESE district.

And when she does call you out, that caustic and at the same time, delightful St. Bernard Parish accent comes shining through like a lighthouse beacon slicing through a foggy night.

The publisher of an education online blog called At the Chalk Fence, She has moved her debate from her ongoing fight with Gov. Bobby Jindal and Superintendent of Education John White to a national forum and is now calling out such self-proclaimed education experts as former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, whom she calls “the viral host of the corporate reform agenda,” Teach for America (TFA) founder Wendy Kopp, disgraced Washington, D.C. school chancellor and later founder of StudentsFirst Michelle Rhee, vagabond school reformer and former Superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) Paul Vallas, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the “Big Three Foundations: Gates, Walton and Broad.”

A thorn in the side of Jindal, White, and Roemer of long-standing, she turns her attention to the national educational debate in Chronicle. With an appropriate nod to Ravitch as her mentor and the one who was always available when needed for advice, Schneider peppers her targets with a barrage of statistics that refute the unrealistic theories advanced by the Waltons, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and TFA who insist meaningful education reform can be accomplished with inexperienced teachers and administrators, for-profit charters, vouchers, and the idea that throwing money at a problem is not the answer (despite their propensity to pour billions of dollars into their own idealistic agendas—at best, a philosophical oxymoron).

A product of the St. Bernard Parish public schools (P.G.T. Beauregard High School), Schneider’s attempt to drop out of school at age 15 somehow morphed into a B.S. in secondary education (English and German), a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the State University of West Georgia, and a Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado.

She taught graduate-level statistics and research courses at Ball State University. It was at Ball State that she first took on the task of challenging the issues related to No Child Left Behind, teaching students “how bad an idea it was to attempt to measure teacher performance using student standardized test scores.”

In July 2007, only months before the election of Jindal as governor, she returned home and began a new job teaching high school English in St. Tammany parish.

Her introduction contains a brilliant metaphor for the corporate destruction of public education: she describes what she calls a “detailed image” of an abandoned building being imploded and collapsing upon itself. She envisions the building (public education), “not ornate, not without need for repairs, but sturdy,” as men in yellow hard hats (corporate reformers, we are told) watch, knowing what is about to transpire “because they have orchestrated it from the inside.” She describes the men as “responsible for the impending structural failure” and “who have planned the failure but are removed from its consequences.”

In her blog, she recently launched a withering attack on White’s embargo of the LEAP summary public report, saying the state superintendent had “apparently found himself in an unfamiliar fix regarding his characteristic ‘water muddying.’” She accused White of “collapsing” categories within the LEAP grading system in order to conceal variation through report “groupings” that she said concealed the precision of the standard five levels of LEAP achievement (unsatisfactory, approaching basic, basic, mastery, and advanced).

“Collapsing ‘basic,’ ‘mastery,’ and ‘advanced’ into a single, generic ‘passed’ serves to conceal achievement nuances that might make Louisiana Miracle RSD appear to be ‘less than’ locally-run districts—the ones operated by those pesky, traditional local school boards,” she said.

“After all, a test-score-deficient ‘miracle’ is harder to sell,” she said. “If the data reflect poorly on privatization, then the troubled corporate reformer could alter the data, or alter the reporting, or alter access to the reporting, or employ some combination of the three. Gotta love corporate reform ‘transparency.’”

Jindal, White and Roemer may heave a collective sigh of relief that they have been spared the glare of the spotlight in Chronicle as she concentrates her argument on the glaring weaknesses of the major education reform movers and shakers at the national level.

But perhaps they should not be too comfortable at being spared just yet.

After all, certain matter, they say, flows downhill.

A Chronicle of Echoes is a must read for anyone who is or ever claimed to be concerned about the perpetual political tampering with public education in America—by those least qualified to do so.

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If you think you’d like a novel about an industry that destroyed a state’s coastline and wetlands with impunity (while parking their fortunes in offshore bank accounts), then Hydrocarbon Hucksters is not for you.

If you like fiction about politicians who will do whatever it takes to get their hands on dirty campaign contributions, don’t bother reading this book. What Ernest Zebrowski and his niece, Mariah Zebrowski Leach, have written is not fantasy, not the product of fertile imaginations; it’s real.

If you already have high blood pressure you will not want to read about how ExxonMobil made $35 billion in profits in 2009 and filed a 24,000-page tax return showing it owed zero dollars in taxes.

You also probably would not want to know that Wall Street futures speculators, those suits who never owned so much as a gas can, are responsible for adding about 30 percent to the cost of a fill-up at the pump.

Inspired by the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent 4.9 million-gallon oil spill that devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines, Hydrocarbon Hucksters: Lessons from Louisiana on Oil, Politics, and Environmental Justice (University Press of Mississippi, 193 pages) is a new book scheduled to hit the bookshelves in early 2014 which takes an unflinchingly critical look at the sordid relationship between Louisiana politicians and the oil industry and how the state’s environment has paid a heavy price for that illicit romance.

The Zebrowskis are certain to rankle more than a few power brokers in Baton Rouge and on the corporate boards of major oil companies like ExxonMobil, BP, Marathon, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron.

Ernest Zebrowski of Baton Rouge, a former Southern University professor, collaborated with Ruston Ph.D. Judith Howard on the 2007 analytical study Category 5: The Story of Camille, Lessons Unlearned from America’s Most Violent Hurricane (University of Michigan Press, 304 pages) a book that was as gripping as it was informative.

This book is unique in that it takes on giant corporations and high-profile politicians like Gov. Bobby Jindal, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, and President Barrack Obama without favoring one political party over another.

It tells, for example, of how Congressman Jindal backed renewable energy until he lost his 2003 bid for the governorship because oil and gas was not behind his campaign and how he converted and knelt at the altar of fossil fuel, became the industry’s darling and won in his second try in 2007. Jindal even called President Obama’s attempt to impose a 60-day moratorium on drilling in the outer continental shelf after Deepwater a “second disaster” on a par with the devastation of the oil spill itself—something of a stretch, to be sure.

It tells how Mary Landrieu took thousands of dollars in oil and gas money and defied Obama even though the moratorium affected only 33 projects in the Gulf (not a single oil-producing well in the Gulf was ever shut down) and even though only a few hundred jobs were in danger of being lost despite the claim of a federal district judge in New Orleans who ruled against the moratorium with the claim that it could eliminate up to 150,000 jobs.

(That same judge, by the way, failed to disclose that he had significant energy investments—an apparent conflict of interest that should have resulted in his recusing himself.)

The Zebrowskis also debunk certain claims about the negative effects of Obama’s proposed six-month moratorium on new outer continental shelf drilling; the share tax secrets about oil companies that they would rather you did not know, and reveal how the state’s elected officials depend on oil money and obligingly reciprocate with oil-friendly regulations.

The Zebrowskis, backed by painstaking research, take you on a 183-page historic tour of the petroleum industry in Louisiana that will leave you shaking your head in wonder that a state so rich in oil and natural gas could rank so high in poverty, so low in education and so smarmy in its political leadership. Republicans and Democrats alike are subjected to critique in Hydrocarbon Hucksters. No one is spared the Zebrowskis’ critical examination. Once you read Hydrocarbon Hucksters, you will never feel the same again when you fill your gas tank—about oil companies, Wall Street, Congress, or the Louisiana Legislature.

But the Zebrowskis don’t stop with simply criticizing oil companies, Wall Street and politicians. They offer solutions, however improbable it may be that any of them will ever be implemented as long as oil money flows. Among those proposed solutions:

  • Designate oil companies as public utilities, a step already taken in Canada and other countries, so as to regulate profits;
  • Ban speculative profiteering by Wall Street futures traders;
  • Require oil companies to restore the environment to its natural state;
  • Revise the corporate tax codes;
  • Get serious about the development of electric wind-powered, synthetic and hydrogen-based energy;
  • Develop high-speed electric rail mass transit projects as an alternative to air travel;
  • Expand recycling.

At least one of these, a high-speed rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was already attempted but rejected by Gov. Bobby Jindal who spurned a federal grant to fund the project over the objections of Baton Rouge business leaders.

(Subsequent to the manuscript’s completion, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority filed suit against more than 100 oil and gas companies in an action that could run into the billions of dollars for restoration of the Louisiana Gulf Coast, a move that came under harsh criticism from Jindal.)

So long as oil money can continue to purchase politicians, there is little to no chance of any of the Zebrowskis’ recommendations ever becoming reality. Hydrocarbon Hucksters, however, is an eye-opening read that you should plan to purchase as a handy reference as soon as it hits the shelves next year.

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