Wednesday, December 13

Capitol Hill Mystery: What’s Next in Politics

So now that they’ve finally gotten it, what are the Democrats going to do with it? Ever since the Democrats won their squeaker majority on Capitol Hill, the nation has held its breath. Traditionally midterm elections have hurt the president’s party and have set the groundwork for change. But the question plaguing both sides of the aisle is just how much change is to be hoped for — or feared?

Andrew Busch, who has been analyzing national elections for the past quarter century, suggests many of these answers may lie in our past. Busch presents a free lecture, “The Midterm Election of 2006 and the Future of American Politics,” on Wednesday, December 13, at 4:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s Friend Center Auditorium. The talk is sponsored by the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Visit www.princeton.edu/ jmadison/events/htm.

Busch has written or co-written nine books on American elections, including “Horses in Midstream,” which traces midterm elections and their effects from 1894 through 1998. Busch grew up in Boulder, Colorado, with parents who were strongly political, but never party affiliated. Busch earned his bachelor’s from the University of Colorado in political science and history in l987, with an honors thesis in arms control and national security.

Busch then took his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. He currently serves as professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. His latest book project investigates the last presidential election.

Busch freely admits that he loves the intrigue of America’s elections. “Each one is like a mystery — the more you learn, the more interesting it becomes,” he says. Pondering the controversial Bush/Gore election of 2000, Busch says that “the entire thing was mishandled. They declared the winner too early, three times.” Surprisingly, though, he says that the midterm elections of 2006 may cause more of a long term re-direction for the country than did the hotly disputed election that began George W. Bush’s two-term presidency.

Leaning left? While a few party champions are trumpeting this recent majority as a dawn of new era that will return America to the liberal l970s and put a string of Democrats in the White House, Busch has his doubts.

Statistics are not indicating a huge shift in public placement along the traditional political spectrum. In the last presidential election George W. Bush won in an evenly split environment where 37 percent of the voters called themselves Republicans and 37 percent Democrats. During this last Congressional election, 38 percent of the voters claimed Democrat affiliation versus 36 percent who claimed Republican affiliation. The remainder of the voters claimed no affiliation.

“This is merely within the margin of survey error,” says Busch. “Certainly, it does not indicate any attitude shift. People considering themselves conservative as opposed to liberal still hold a comfortable three to two lead nationally.” However, these general leanings do not indicate support for specific policies and actions.

Ethical questions, discontent with the war in Iraq, and wallets being sucked dry at the gas pump created substantial anti-status-quo sentiment from voters on both sides.

Three party system. “Based on this negative referendum, we have fallen into three separate political parties,” says Busch. The first is made up of Congressional Republicans. Long after the Bush family has retired to its various ranches, these are the GOP faithful who will still have to continue pitching for public support.

As the current administration slips ever deeper in public opinion polls, Congressional Republicans have been racing to outdistance each other from the White House and its policies. Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican 2008 presidential hopeful, has shunned offers to share the presidential podium at Ground Zero, but continues to forge a strong GOP Congressional base.

“These Congressional Republicans have one major goal,” says Busch. “They’ve got to show the public that Democratic leadership of the Senate and House is a bad idea.”

Meanwhile the newly empowered Democrats, the second player in this political triangle, will have to change their tactics drastically in order to maintain power. In winning this midterm majority, the Democrats made an almost unprecedented leap into unity. Will Rogers’ old joke about never having belonged to an organized political party because he had always been a Democrat, finally got relegated to history. The Democrats played the Internet like a virtuoso plays a finely-tuned instrument, and created a nationwide grassroots movement. But it was a negative rallying point.

“Most Democrats were solidly agreed that they did not like the way Iraq was being handled. But they couldn’t unite behind one positive solution,” says Busch. The time for whipping the anti-Bush dead horse is past. Democrats are going to have to investigate attractive alternatives on several issues. And they are going to have to make bill-passing headway. Enter George W. Bush.

Sitting at the top of the triangle, the sitting administration still retains enough power to influence these congressional battles. Right now, as its term draws to a close, it ponders two possible roads. The president and vice-president may opt to grab what opportunities they can and run during their final days. The administration’s large corporate base will be fed with last-minute pet projects. Look for increased military items and security spending, plus the item at the top of the Bush wish list — Alaskan oil drilling — tacked onto every minor bill entering the House.

This could happen. But Busch says that, instead of going that route, the president may feel the urge to go legacy shopping. This is the Democrat’s fervent hope. To burnish his historical image, the President may turn away from military items and turn to traditional initiatives of the Democratic party, endeavors such as healthcare and education.

Legislative landslide. Popular wisdom says that there will be a flurry of new legislation fueled by the White House, the war, and the new party in power. “Don’t count on it,” says Busch. “Traditionally the president gets stonewalled by the new controlling Congressional party.”

He places Democrats in a situation similar to that of Republicans at the time of President Clinton’s second term election. Do you send the president a welfare reform bill that he cannot sign, just to make him look bad? Or do you send him one he can sign, to get your goals achieved, even if it will hurt your party’s candidates? In l996 the Republicans opted for the later. What the Democrats will choose remains to be seen.

Senators as kings. The only sure prediction on which Busch will stake his reputation is that, as he puts it, “in this political environment, every senator becomes a king.” The slim Democrat majority in both House and Senate, coupled with the party’s traditional renegade nature, is going to make each vote count more than ever.

For the past several decades Democrats have shown themselves to be a party of individuals. They have not locked arms to push through major bills. At the same time, the congressional and senate Republicans are increasingly less committed to the party line as dictated from the White House. This means that both parties will be forced to work hard to woo individual votes from both sides of the aisle.

In the end, this new Congressional majority, rather than ushering in an era of minority revenge, may lead to a long-awaited bipartisanship. If that happens, this election will have been a real victory for the American public.

— Bart Jackson

Thursday, December 14

HDTV Has Arrived: Blu-Ray’s in the Lead

The journey of a technologically new product from “way beyond expensive” to “relatively affordable” to “moderately priced” can take a number of years, but it can feel like the blink of an eye if you’re not paying close attention. The early adopters, who are not as price sensitive and have more disposable income, glom onto the new technologies as they come out. There is, after all, a certain cachet to being the first on the block with a new toy. Others wait it out, figuring that by the time all the peripherals are ready, the new product won’t put such a strain on the budget.

I’m a waiter. Recently, after wandering through a big-box electronic store looking for a telephone that no longer existed, I slipped over to the television section. I had been thinking that it might be time to replace the one my in-laws gave us when my son was two to save him from his irresponsibly TV-less parents. That was a while ago, the toddler is now in college.

I was more than a little surprised to find that TVs as I had known them had nearly vanished. Only the screens (called flat-panel TVs) remained. Some of these are labeled HDTV, others not.

Clearly, by this time, even a relatively late adopter like me has to learn more than I may want to about what’s out there.

So far the football game I’ve seen in high definition hasn’t convinced me to put out the bucks. Sure the picture is pretty cool, with an almost 3-D effect, but I don’t watch television that much and almost never sports.

But I love to watch movies and the thin rectangle that a DVD creates on our inadequate television screen is smaller than that of our VCR, and my vision isn’t what it used to be.

It may be the right time to treat myself to something new. Sandra Benedetto, director of product management and sales engineering for the industrial business division at Pioneer Electronics USA, is deeply involved in the development of a new technology that is set to become an integral part of the HD picture, and is poised to make the switch to HD even more rewarding.

Benedetto and Michael Isnardi, a member of technical staff at Sarnoff Corporation, are speaking on “High Definition Goes Mainstream” on Thursday, December 14, at 8 p.m., at a free meeting of ACM/IEEE-CS at Sarnoff, at the intersection of Routes 1 and 571 in Princeton. For more information, call 609-587-1886.

Today we are sitting in the midst of an explosion in the HDTV market. Just in the last quarter, says Benedetto, there were projections that 3.2 million flat panel high definition television sets would be snapped up by consumers.

At the same time, more television shows are originating in high definition format and standard definition programs have been enhanced with a bit with of special processing. And right now high definition is moving beyond what we can glean from satellites and cables to optical discs that function similarly to DVDs but support high-definition signals.

Two formats for optical discs are now struggling for primacy in the market place, HD-DVD, developed by Toshiba and NEC, and Blu-Ray, jointly created by the Blu-ray Disc Association, a group of the world’s leading consumer electronics, personal computer, and media manufacturers.

Although both Blu-ray and HD-DVD are similar in many aspects, there are some important differences between them. Blu-ray discs have greater capacity and higher transfer rates. Perhaps as a result, more movie content is already available in Blu-ray, with seven out of the eight movie studios in the United States committed to using it exclusively for high definition content. Over the last four months, about 100 titles have come out in Blu-ray discs, says Benedetto.

Finally, the Blu-ray format has broad hardware support from the companies involved in its creation. “All but one of the major consumer electronic hardware companies are supporting it,” she says. “By the end of this year, we will see five different Blue-ray disc players.” The companies offering them include Samsung, Pioneer, Philips, Panasonic, and Sony.

For these reasons, Benedetto believes that the Blu-ray disc, which holds high-definition video on a disc similar in size to a DVD, is winning out. Blu-ray discs offer more than five times the storage capacity of a traditional DVD, according to the website blue-ray.com, and they were developed both to enable the recording, rewriting, and playback of high-definition video as well as to store large amounts of data. A single-layer Blu-ray disc (the correct abbreviation is BD) can hold up to 25 gigabytes and a dual-layer disc has space for 50 gigabytes. A 50 gigabyte disc can store more than nine hours of high-definition video and about 23 hours of standard-definition video.

Whereas DVD technologies use a red laser to read and write data, Blu-ray uses a blue-violet laser instead, hence the name Blu-ray. The shorter wave length of the blue-violet laser allows more precise focusing of the laser spot, so data can be packed more tightly and stored in less space. Despite the different lasers used by DVD and BD technologies, Blu-ray products can, and are, being made backwards compatible with CDs and DVDs.

One of Sony’s new products in the high definition arena is not simply a standalone Blu-ray disc player, but the latest incarnation of Sony’s popular gaming system, PlayStation 3. Following product launches on November 11 in Japan and November 17 in the United States, a half million Blue-ray disc players entered the marketplace in just two weeks. “People in New York are lining up and shooting each other to get them,” jokes Benedetto. “Sony intends to sell another 100,000 every week and claims there will be six million worldwide by the end of March.”

Benedetto suggests that, with the high price of high definition television, DVDs won’t go away quickly, and it will take time for Blue-ray to be adopted. On the other hand, she notes that DVD players, which were originally priced at $1,200 go for about $59 today. And blu-ray.com suggests that in the end the overall cost of manufacturing Blu-ray disc media will be no more expensive than producing a DVD.

Other products are also starting to jump on the Blue-ray bandwagon, for example, Blue-ray disc drives for computers and high-definition video cameras that will eventually record directly onto a Blu-ray disc.

Looking to the future, Benedetto cites year-old projections from Jupiter Research for HDTV, which says that by 2010, out of 25 million televisions sold, 70 percent will be high definition. She adds that she recently ran into someone from Jupiter who, after “black Friday,” thinks that his organization needs to revise the estimates for HDTV upward.

Benedetto grew up in Old Bridge, where her father was an executive for a jewelry manufacturer and her mother was a homemaker and a linguist who spoke five languages. “She is one of the typical women of her generation who gave up her future to take care of her brothers and sisters and then got married young,” she says.

Benedetto went to high school in the early 1970s when, she says, “young women were not encouraged to pursue other than traditional, stereotypical job and career possibilities.” To make matters worse, she had severe math anxiety. So, as an undergraduate at Ramapo College, she ended up with a joint degree sociology and women’s studies.

She doesn’t regret her studies in the humanities, she says, but was always interested in the technical side of sound and music recording. While working in social services and anti-poverty programs in Bergen County, she studied at the Institute of Audio Research to train as a recording engineer. “Once I got out,” she says, “I realized I’m really interested in this, and what am I going to do about it?” She decided to go to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she studied electrical engineering. She didn’t finish the full degree, because she didn’t want to take all the humanities courses again, and didn’t think that it would make a difference in her career.

Benedetto also got a master’s degree in educational communications and technology from New York University. She has been in the business of interactive video and optical discs for 20 years “since laser disc days with the 12-inch silver platters that were the grandparents to CDs,” first at Voyager and then at Pioneer. She sits on the Women in Technology International steering committee.

As for HDTVs, “the prices are coming down,” says Benedetto. “Black Friday was a real indicator — people were walking out with phenomenal sales.” In the end, it’s not just a decision about whether to buy an HDTV to capture a high quality television signal, but also about the other characteristics that Blu-ray offers: improved audio quality, interactive features, and networking capabilities.

Maybe this time, even if we’re not generally early adopters, we’ll try to buy into the new technology before it’s passe. Seriously behind the curve with other breakthroughs, we just bought our first DVD player this year. — Michele Alperin

The Holiday Gift With No Price Tag

What’s more fun that looking through a catalog? My favorite aunt used to tell a story about how her three young sons fell on the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalog as soon as they landed in their rural home. The family’s resources were limited, so she often had to remind the boys that they could not afford all of the things on the pages they were busy tagging. The children heard the word “afford” often, generally preceded by the word “can’t,” but had not yet learned how to pronounce it correctly. Upon issuing a cash crunch warning for the 100th time, Aunt Catherine heard the eldest reply, “That’s okay. We’re just de-fording.”

Flipping through the catalogs that fall deep and thick at this time of year, whether the goods are affordable or not, is a pleasant time waster. For some, despite the lure of the Internet, it is also a way to fill stockings. But the experience can be even better. What if you could choose one item — any item at all — as a gift for yourself?

Barbara Hilton owns a company that makes this possible. The Princeton resident, whose business is B Inspired Associates (bhilton@patmedia.net, 609-430-1433), sells catalogs of 40 to 50 items, all falling within a specific price range. The giver knows the price range, but the receiver doesn’t, because the items in these catalogs contain no prices.

Hilton markets the catalogs, in part, as an alternative to gift cards. “They’re much more personal than a gift card,” she says, “and the person getting it doesn’t know how much you have spent.”

She sells many kinds of catalogs in price ranges from $20 to $500. Some are general catalogs, which contain a mixture of items, while others are more targeted. There are gourmet, wedding, new baby, and teen catalogs. The recipient pores over the photos and descriptions, picks out an items, and orders it by phone, through the Internet, or by filling out a postcard that is attached to the catalog.

In a general catalog priced at $200, choices might include a television, an Olympus digital camera, a basketball backboard, a grandfather clock, and a Craftsman drill set. In a $100 gourmet catalog, which, Hilton points out, could be a welcome change from yet another cheese basket, choices include a 10-piece cook set, a George Forman grill, game hens, salmon, cutlery, a toaster oven, and a Cuisinart blender.

The catalogs can be bought for friends and family or for clients and employees. Big companies already use the catalogs for awards, employee milestones, and retirements. Hilton says that major corporations generally have their own gift departments or outsource the function. In business just since last August, she thinks that small and mid-size companies will become a major focus for her company.

The catalogs can make sense. Speaking with Hilton, I thought back to last Christmas. We were staying with our son, who deals with dozens of vendors during the year. During the first few days of the big run-up to the holiday, he brought home one or two gift baskets a day. We thought it was pretty cool, and had fun examining the contents.

Then the pile grew. It was three and four and five baskets — big, big baskets — every day. Every surface in the house was covered. I took to piling gold boxes of gourmet chocolates and salted nuts into towers for my three-month-old granddaughter to kick over late in the afternoon when all of her rattles had lost their appeal. My daughter-in-law tried harder and harder to think of relatives who might like another basket. My son got heavy into re-gifting.

A catalog or two would have been huge hits well before the pile of gift baskets, lovely as they were, began to reach for the ceiling.

Vendors dealing with Hilton’s two biggest clients, trucking companies in northern New Jersey, will probably be getting catalogs during this holiday season.

Hilton, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, learned quite a bit about client relationships from her background in fundraising. Self-taught, she rose from secretary to director as she worked for a number of non-profits. She most recently worked for the Special Olympics, where she was director of law enforcement sponsorship worldwide. She left that job because she was needed to tend to an ailing relative. When that responsibility ended, she re-thought her career direction, and decided that she would like to own her own business. Turning to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development for direction, she was referred to the Self-Employment Assistance Program at Mercer County Community College.

“It was all free through unemployment,” she says. “They had me make up a marketing plan, a business plan. I hadn’t been to school in years. It was a great experience.”

As part of the course, she did research on gift and incentive programs. She settled on Quixtar (www.quixtar.com), a Grand Rapids, Michigan, company that has been in business since 1999. It offered her a turn-key business with no up-front costs. The company prints the catalogs and ships the items her customers choose. Her only job is sales. She networks extensively with other Quixtar sales reps, and finds their input helpful.

Hilton says that her major marketing tool so far has been the U.S. 1 Business Directory. Published once a year, the directory puts all area companies into categories, gives contact information for key executives, and provides information on just exactly what each company does and how many people it employs. “I went through the directory and mailed out 300 letters,” Hilton says. (One came to our offices, which is how we found out about her business.) “I’m doing follow-up calls now.”

She is also getting involved in networking groups. The Self-Employment Assistance program recommended chamber of commerce meetings, and she says that she will probably try them, but for now, the groups at the meetings seem too big to navigate. She is trying Business Network International (BNI) as an alternative. She like the fact that BNI franchises accept only one member per industry, so she will be the only gift and incentive sales representative at meetings. She has been to one meeting so far, thinks that it will be a good place to make contacts.

She has already learned that less formal networking can be productive, too. She landed the trucking company accounts through a friend who bought a catalog and gave it as a gift to an acquaintance, who, it turns out, not only loved it, but showed it to her husband, the guy who owns the trucking companies.

It’s better to give than to receive, of course, but using gift catalogs has the potential to make both sides of the holiday ritual more rewarding. They even take away the stress of wondering whether the giver could really “de-ford” the gift. Like the restaurant menus without prices that used to be presented to dates and clients at upscale eateries, there are no price tags to distract from the fun of choosing a gift.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

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