Monday, November 19, 2012

The Twinkie Mafia

When Elvis died, I was shocked and saddened. Shortly afterward, I mourned the demise of Overton Square. I internalized my pain when they closed Borders Book Store, but I can't live in a world without Twinkies. The Hostess Company made a surprise announcement that after 82 years, they were going out of business and liquidating their assets. Perhaps underestimating the popularity of their products, Hostess caused a Black Friday type rush on grocery and convenient stores across the country. Every cupcake and Ho Ho in sight were crammed into grocery carts and whisked into the vaults of end-of-the-world preppers and panicked mini-muffin addicts. I would say the snacks were flying off the shelves like hotcakes, but they're not hot, and the percentage of what constitutes actual cake is questionable. I wanted to pick up a case of Donettes, but the hoarders beat me to them. And that shrill, wailing sound you heard last week came from stoners all over Colorado and Washington who just got gobsmacked by Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. What an evil karmic trick: to finally legalise recreational marijuana and then eliminate your Ding Dongs.
The general panic that gripped the public looked like food riots in impoverished countries, fed by rumors of a growing black market where fortunes could be made in discontinued Hostess products. I found it ridiculous until I found that sellers on eBay were offering Twinkies for $5,000 each. One optimistic entrepreneur was offering a box of Twinkies for $200,000, no doubt looking to finance a summer home. Being a person who occasionally enjoys an orange frosted cupcake, I lurched for the kitchen, plundering through the pantry, thinking that if my wife bought a pre-bankruptsy announcement box of Twinkies, we could pay off the mortgage and tell Bank of America to kiss our ass. I use Twinkies for medicinal purposes, so the nutritionists are wrong to say they have no reason to exist. If I have medicine that is not to be taken on an empty stomach, what's better than a Twinkie to soften the blow. I can recall times in my wild past when I was awakened with a queasy stomach due to too much fun and drink the night before, and the only conceivable thing to eat was a Twinkie. The soft, vanilla cake can absorb anything, not to mention the delicious cream filling that's never seen a cow. However, I must have eaten the last box, never imagining that I was consuming diamonds and rubies with every bite. Now, I'm conflicted over whether to eat this last loaf of Wonder Bread, or vacuum-seal it, put it in a display case, and see if it appreciates in value.
Hostess' management blamed the Grain Millers Union who have been on strike since November 9. Immediately, right-wing propagandists heaped scorn on those selfish workers and their uncooperative union bosses, and conservative bloggers and social media trolls followed suit. Their message is, "If you miss your Ho Hos, blame the unions," but like Paul Harvey used to say, "And now for the rest of the story." Hostess is owned by a private equity firm, Ripplewood Holdings, and two hedge funds, Silver Point Capital and Monarch Alternative Capital. Since 2002, Hostess has had six CEOs. When Hostess emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2004, the unions agreed to concessions that saved the company $110 million dollars. Rather than investing in modernization, the company's board voted to raise the CEO's salary to $2.55 million per year, tripling the compensation payed to the previous executive. In addition, other executive salaries were increased by as much as 80 percent. According to the New York Times, "private equity backers loaded the company with debt, making it difficult to invest in new equipment." In 2011, the company again filed for bankruptcy, unilaterally imposing wage and benefit cuts and ceasing pension payments for their employees. When the union went on strike, management demanded more concessions and gave workers a deadline to return to the job. Hostess employees responded by saying there wasn't a "Sno Ball's" chance in hell they would return under those conditions and filed a complaint with the NLRB. So management announced liquidation, filing papers prepared well in advance of their demands to the union.
This was a real Mitt Romney/Bain Capital kind of deal. The new CEO is a liquidation specialist hired months ago while union negotiations were still underway, and although Ripplewood Holdings wanted to preserve the brand, the hedge fund boys refused to put up any more cash. In the event of bankruptcy, the equity partners and their investors walk away with millions of dollars, leaving 18,500 workers unemployed and 33 plants shuttered. If they can place the blame on the unions, they'll get away clean. One laid-off sacker who had worked for Hostess for 35 years said, "The people who are running this company are not interested in making bread." At least, not in the sense he means. Hostess revenues are estimated to be $2.5 billion per year, with Twinkies alone earning $68 million so far this year. The brand is so popular that a petition has been circulated urging President Obama to "nationalize the Twinkie Industry." If Hostess is allowed to go the way of Kay Bee Toys, the black market underground in sugary treats could give rise to a Cupcake Mafia, with Twinkie the Kid as the cappo di tutti capi. I would hate to see bloodshed and violence erupt over contraband Dolly Madison cakes, even though some are to die for.
All is not lost for the Twinkie Nation. Hostess has a suitor from Mexico named Grupo Bimbo who tried to buy the company after their first bankruptcy. At first, I laughed at the thought of mothers sending their kids off to school with Bimbo cakes, but as it turns out, Bimbo Bakeries own Sara Lee, Entenmann's, Ball Park Buns, and Thomas' English Muffins. Here all along, those pesky Mexican job-takers were making our delicious breakfast pastries right under our noses. I hope Grupo Bimbo succeeds in their efforts to purchase the company. I would hate to see an iconic American brand like Hostess, serving up empty calories for eight decades, fall victim to vulture capitalists, even if they have to move to Mexico. I'll volunteer to be the first to try a Mexican Twinkie, or even a Hostess Taco. It's often been said of the spongy treat that archaeologists in some future millenia will stumble across a once vital civilization that has crumbled into dust, and the only thing remaining entact will be the cockroaches and a box of Twinkies. In fact, the shelf-life of a Twinkie is about a month. But if a buyer doesn't step forward soon, before the private equity firm sells of the company in small lucrative pieces, the entire Hostess product line may have finally met its expiration date.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Sandy In My Shoes

Woody Allen used to tell a story about his father who had a concession on the Boardwalk where passing men tried to knock down a pyramid of milk bottles in order to win a prize for their girlfriends. One season, a hurricane struck, tearing up the Boardwalk and destroying every edifice in sight, and the only things left standing were those little milk bottles. Woody's dad, Mr. Konigsberg I believe, never saw anything like Hurricane Sandy. For that matter, none of us have ever seen anything quite like this. Sure, there have been a history of hurricanes on the Eastern Seaboard, but none 700 miles wide. The storm destroyed affluent and poor neighborhoods alike, turning both beachfront mansions and inland row houses into rubble, proving that a hurricane has a definite liberal bias. Everyone shared in the misery and news footage from residents in New Jersey pleading for help from their government were really not that much different from the cries of people left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There was sufficient warning of the storm's severity, so at least people had the chance to find a spot and hunker down. The most surprised creatures in the area were the tunnel rats in New York City's subways. As usual, a Pennsylvania evangelical minister, John P. McTernan, blamed the storm on gays, but faulted both Obama and Romney, claiming, "both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda...the Holy God of Israel is systematically destroying America right before our eyes." I would imagine the God of Israel is busy with Syria and Iran right now, and here I've been told that it was Obama who was destroying America. 
Students of psychic phenomenon will recognize that all this was predicted by the great clairvoyant Edgar Cayce over 90 years ago. Cayce, known as the "Sleeping Prophet," said in a 1936 reading about climate change: "Portions of the now East Coast of New York, or New York City itself, will in the main, New York, Connecticut, and the like. Many portions of the East Coast will be destroyed." Cayce also predicted a catastrophic pole shift in 1998 and Japan under water. However, the psychic also claimed that the Messiah would appear in Israel in 1999, so Cayce's prophesies are not entirely dependable. If Cayce was known as the "Sleeping Prophet," I wish to be known as the "Slumbering Seer." Although I'm writing this two days before the election, I pretty much know what happened and I don't believe they'll be remodeling the Oval Office any time soon. So, unless states with Republican Governors, like Ohio and Florida, succeed in their plans to suppress the vote, it's the same as it ever was. Or, to quote The Who: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Speaking of "The Boss," it's worth noting that in the final week of the campaign, Obama was touring with an impassioned Bruce Springsteen, while Romney's opening acts were Kid Rock and the Oak Ridge Boys. My heart's on fire for Elvira.
There's nothing like a mammoth, killer hurricane to focus your attention on what's important. The government's response was praised by elected officials from both parties, and to his everlasting credit, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suspended partisanship to work with the president on behalf of the storm's victims. Christie and Obama made an odd-looking duo, like a multi-racial Laurel and Hardy with the Governor asking the President, "Why don't you do something to help me?" For Christie's co-operation with Obama, he was roundly criticized by members of his own party, when only last week he was their golden boy. I'll bet a lot of Jersey Boys, and girls, were glad that he put aside politics to work in their behalf. That's his job. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made an unexpected endorsement of Obama after his post-Sandy performance, and he could give a damn what people think. I'm sure it ruffled Donald Trump's bouffant to see bi-partisanship working on behalf of the needy. FEMA's role in the disaster was night and day when compared to the cronyistic agency it had become under the Bush administration. These storm victims need shelter that only FEMA can provide. This restoration is going to take a long time and people will get frustrated along the way. Can you imagine the neo-Reconstruction era that would result if Romney got his wish to divert disaster relief to private business? His quote about disassembling FEMA came back to bit him on the ass right at the wrong time.
A second Obama term looks brighter than the first, even though the wolves await to excoriate him over the attack in Benghazi, Libya, and believe that he is leading a cover-up about the murders of American diplomats. Fox News hysteria claims that members of the CIA made urgent requests to defend the American Embassy but were ordered to "stand down." Even though the Washington Post's David Ignatius has refuted the claim with point-by-point solid evidence, the torch and pitchfork brigade still want their licks in on Obama. So they speak of impeachment before the votes are even counted. My hope is that some Republicans will emerge, like Chris Christie, that will put country before partisan ideology during the next four years, shed their shackles to Grover Norquist, and actually try to help in the recovery from the Bush Recession. They have failed in their primary mission to make Obama a one-term president; they have failed to wrest away the right of a woman to choose what is best for her own body; and they have failed in their obstruction to prevent the progress the Obama administration has made on the economy and unemployment. Perhaps a new approach, like compromise, might seem attractive in a second term. Mitt Romney can return to venture capitalism and ultimately fade into obscurity, like Bob Dole, minus the character and dignity.
Ironically, the Supreme Court's asinine Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for unchecked and a untraceable amounts of corporate money into the political process, probably ended up serving as a second stimulus to a still ailing economy. This was the most expensive race in history with estimates that total expenditures will reach $6 billion. The Koch Brothers and their Americans for Prosperity PAC coughed up $35 million. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife gave $20 million to the Romney campaign. And Karl Rove's American Crossroads PAC surrendered $100 million, 93 percent for attack ads. The Democrats had their Superpacs too, but lacked the large donors like the NRA, which gave $10 million, mostly for attack ads against Obama for some future fantasy confrontation between government agents and groups of armed "sovereign citizens." That money went to ad agencies, consultants, and home-town TV stations, indirectly helping local economies and employing scores of field representatives. Who says the government can't create jobs? The major problem now, after the clean-up not just from Sandy, but from a second major storm that is churning up the East Coast, is the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. When Democrats lose an election, as in 2004, they agonize over it, re-group, and prepare for the next political battle. When radical extremists, like those hiding under the Tea Party imprimatur lose, they become dangerous.