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Potomac Confidential
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Potomac Confidential

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Marc Fisher
Post Metro Columnist
Thursday, March 19, 2009; 12:00 PM

Potomac Confidential fills the midday lull with discussion by Metro columnist Marc Fisher who looks at the latest news with a rigorous slicing and dicing of the issues that define who we are and where we live.

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Today's Column: Job-Search Centers' Abundant Offering: Time Spent Waiting

Fisher was online Thursday, March 19, at Noon ET to look at the lives of the recently laid-off, AIDS in the District and the civil war inside Virginia's Republican Party.

A transcript follows.

Check out Marc's blog, Raw Fisher.

In his weekly show, Fisher veers wildly from serious probing to silly prattle, and is open to topics local, national, personal and more.

Archives: Discussion Transcripts

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Marc Fisher: Welcome aboard, folks.

This week, we learned that the District has an extraordinarily high number of AIDS cases--on par with some parts of Africa, or worse. But some AIDS activists argue that this is actually not the nightmare it's been portrayed as: It's actually a reflection of good news--AIDS victims are living longer, thanks to successful drug treatments, and that is the main reason the number of cases is so high, they say. Do the city's AIDS numbers really represent a public health crisis?

Today's column visits unemployment centers in Virginia and the District to get a sense of how the recently laid-off are spending their time, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised to find a quite optimistic attitude among nearly all of the folks I spoke to. They don't believe the recession will drag on for years and they do think there are jobs out there, if you look hard and long enough. It may be that we're just too early in this sad economy for deep pessimism to have set it, but it was nonetheless encouraging to see how determinedly folks believe they can and will get through this. If a recession is in good measure a product of collective psychology, then there may be reason to hope for better news in the mid-range future. (Tell that to the folks at GM, Chrysler, newspapers, etc....)

The civil war within Virginia's Republican Party seems to deepen by the day, with party chairman Jeffrey Frederick clinging to his job despite a startlingly solid wall of opposition from the state's congressional delegation and many of its GOP legislators. Frederick is determined to hold onto power on behalf of those who believe that the Republicans' problem is that they haven't gone hard enough on the social issues and the bedrock conservative principles of the party, while moderates such as former Rep. Tom Davis from Fairfax see this as a chance to reclaim their party so it can try to appeal to middle of the road and independent voters. Is Frederick's ouster inevitable (sure looks like it)? Can he cling to office? And if he does, what impact will that have on the state GOP's chances in this year's governor's race?

On to your many comments and questions, but first, let's call the Yay and Nay of the Day:

Yay to the recession for accomplishing what legions of activists had not done in a couple of decades of trying: Stemming the tide of sprawl. As The Post's N.C. Aizenmann reports today, Census figures show that the rate of growth in the outer suburbs has slowed dramatically since the foreclosure crisis really took off, while population losses inside the Beltway have nearly stopped--in Arlington County, population is even growing. This is not the end of sprawl, but it is a sign that ever-more outward growth is not inevitable, and that life in close-in communities can attract more than the crowd that naturally gravitates to the urban core.

Nay to Maryland legislators who are suddenly talking about using big piles of state tax dollars to save the Preakness, the signature horse racing event that is now endangered because of the financial woes of Magna Entertainment, the company that owns Pimlico and Laurel race tracks. State Senate President Mike Miller is talking about Maryland buying the rights to the race and keeping it in Maryland, even if it means having the state build its own race track. Aside from the ever-shrinking horse industry, does anyone really care about keeping the Preakness or artificially propping up a sport that is dying before our eyes? What is the public interest in putting a sport on life support?

Your turn starts right now....

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washingtonpost.com: Job-Search Centers' Abundant Offering: Time Spent Waiting (Post, March 19)

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Woodbridge, Va.: Your thoughts on AIG?

Marc Fisher: My main reaction is to roll my eyes as columnists, pundits and editorialists whine on and on about how a deal's a deal and the sanctity of a contract and other such silliness in defense of the bonuses. Tell that to the millions of Americans who thought a deal was a deal when they put in decades of work toward a pension, only to find that the pension just...vanished. Tell that to the workers who thought there was a social compact in which working hard for the bulk of your life would mean that you could then retire at a decent level--nothing fancy. You don't see the pundit class ginning up any righteous arguments on behalf of those folks.

So yes, tax the bonus babies at 100 percent, but first, name them. You may have noticed that a New York judge yesterday ordered the Bank of America to release information about individual bonuses given to employees at Merrill Lynch just before the bank bought the brokerage company. So it is indeed possible to use the law to smoke out these greedheads. That's what the president ought to be doing. The poor babies at AIG are worried for their safety, according to today's Post. Well, obviously they ought not be tarred and feathered, but a good public shaming is necessary and effective, and if that means having angry folks protesting on their front lawns, then by all means, let's have that--they'll live.

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Outra, GE: Okay -- AIG execs getting bonuses is beyond the pale. Same with Fannie and Freddie. So what's the story with the auto execs? Are they getting bonuses too? Where is the public outrage against the unions? Their demands are outrageous so why isn't the public making a fuss about them? Is it because it's not politically correct to go after unions? UAW workers are taking their bailout $$ and laughing all the way to the bank.

Marc Fisher: Could be it's because the auto unions--unlike some others--are making big concessions and are working with the employers to come up with some strategy for survival.

Not that that's necessarily the right path--it makes more sense to let failing auto companies fail. The need for cars will still be here, and some companies will either expand or rise anew to serve that need, most likely more efficiently than the current automakers have bothered to.

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Del Ray, Va.: After 350 job applications over 3 months, I just today accepted a job offer. I will never take my job for granted again. I learned not to rely on Internet job boards -- my only responses came from companies I e-mailed or called directly for postings on their Web sites. You can find the openings on job boards, but apply directly with the company.

Marc Fisher: Good advice, and that fits with what a lot of folks at the unemployment centers told me--they spend way too many hours on those job boards, emerging with a strong sense that they are just mindlessly going after the very same phantom jobs that all the other laid-off folks are trying to get.

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Gettysburg, Pa.: I've been volunteering six hours a week with the local Literacy Council since I lost my job in November and it's been a great experience. I feel useful, I still have plenty of time to job search, and I hope I stand out to a future employer. Use his time to help others!

Marc Fisher: Also good advice, and it's advice that quite a few people are taking. I am hearing from a number of community groups that they are getting lots of new, highly-skilled volunteers, mainly folks who have lost their jobs and are looking for a way to get out of the house, be of some use to others, and keep their minds agile and away from the depressing news on the job-seeking front.

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DC 20008: I am outraged beyond words at Mayor Fenty's overseas travel at foreign governments' expense, which was actually okay'ed by some sort of ethics agency? Is it possible to impeach or recall him? If so, how do I get the ball rolling?

And, while we're at it, has Peter Nickles moved into D.C. yet?

Marc Fisher: Wow--quick on that recall button, huh? Ok, but I'm sorry to inform you that there is no impeachment mechanism in the D.C. code. There is a recall provision, but it specifically excludes any recall during the first or last year of an official's term, and Fenty is less than a year away from entering that safety zone, so you'd have to act quickly.

Details here: 3 DCMR Chapter 4: Hearings (District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics)

As for Nickles, nope, still living in suburban splendor in Virginia. His deadline for moving into the city is creeping up on us, so you might expect to hear something soon.

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Washington, D.C.: Your recent chats have included a lot of commentary about voting rights in the House for the District. Everyone seems to sneer at the alternate idea of making D.C. part of Maryland, but as a long-time D.C. resident, I say, why not? D.C. statehood just isn't going to happen, nor should it. Merging with Maryland would be better. Income taxes, sales taxes and real estate taxes all are lower in Maryland, public services are generally better, aspiring politicians and public servants have numerous career paths -- city government, county government, state legislature, state executive -- that attract a broader range of more talented people, and the voters get to elect (and reject) many hundreds of public officials. (How many people actually run the District? Maybe a dozen?) Making D.C. part of Maryland would shrink the D.C. government by transferring state functions to the existing Maryland offices, and it would also reduce the federal role in day-to-day city life. The main constitutional justification for creating the national capital was to prevent any one state from holding sway over the new, relatively weak federal government. Those days are long past. It would make a lot of sense to carve out a federal enclave, basically running along the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and make everything else part of an independent city, like Baltimore, within the state of Maryland. The only D.C. residents would be the president and his family, and for legal purposes they could be considered residents of whatever state they came from (as they probably are now). Everybody else would have the same rights and privileges that every citizen of every state enjoys now. I don't see the downside.

Marc Fisher: I join you as a fan of the concept of retrocession into Maryland, but I do so largely theoretically, because the political reality is that this is extremely unlikely to happen. For the longest time, Maryland's political center has been Baltimore, and any move to accept the District into the state would probably shift that political center permanently to Washington and its suburbs. There's no way the Baltimoreans who dominate state politics are going to let that happen. In addition, it would be difficult to win support for the idea within the District, either among politicians or many voters. But as you say, it makes an awful lot of sense.

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13th St S.E.: Congrats Marc, you were actually right about something. The NIMBYS in Tenleytown should move to the suburbs if they want the feel of the suburbs. What do you think the chances of development actually being built over the new library are?

Marc Fisher: Close to zero. Even if the new library is being designed to accommodate an additional development perched over the building, the neighborhood opponents who carried on a relentless and effective campaign against any additional density at that Metro station are now emboldened to stand firm against any such effort.

Obviously, this is not the time for such a development effort--the credit and the imagination are just not there these days. But whenever the economy does come back, this corner will now sit there for a very long time as a glaring example of foolish investment--billions of dollars went into Metro, mainly as a development tool for shaping where and how we live for many decades to come, and most communities have used Metro stations as a gold mine. Those that refuse to take advantage of it are only assuring that their community will be a dead zone, a gap that lags in attractiveness, property values, and contribution to the larger region.

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Arlington, Va.: I am curious about the Tenleytown people fighting progress on Wisconsin Avenue. When I lived in the area, it was a commercial strip of no particular distinction, pretty much like Wilson Boulevard in Arlington before gentrification and commercial development occurred. Arlington made the trade-off of commercial development on the Metro route in exchange for leaving the residential neighborhoods alone. I think it is better for this change with an extremely lively street life day and night. I'm sorry that the Tenley people don't see the advantage of this type of development.

Marc Fisher: That's a great comparison, and it would be easy enough for the Wisconsin corridor residents to win the same kind of deal--trading additional density along the avenue for guarantees to lock in the single-family residential nature of the blocks back behind the commercial strip. But the D.C. politicians have proven much easier to force into a total cave-in, so there's little incentive for the hardcore anti-development group to compromise.

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Washington, D.C.: Fenty was on Channel 4 today (as he is every Thursday) and Barbara Harrison asked him questions people sent in about his travel to Dubai and China. Not one question asking "why" he went. Do we know why? He seemed evasive on the other questions he was asked also (my observance) and he made it all sound like it's the normal way of running a business. But I was stunned that Harrison didn't ask him why he went.

Marc Fisher: Initially, he said it was a place he'd always wanted to visit. Then he said it was none of anyone's business because it was a private, family trip. The mayor has been unusually snippy and unhelpful on this matter--this is the only issue I can recall on which he seems not to care how he comes off to the voters. It's very strange and certainly worthy of more reporting.

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Washington, D.C.: Marc -- I am considering canceling my subscription because I am so annoyed at the poor coverage of public transit issues by the Post. Is there someone there who I can express my annoyance to? The Post seems to just be a mouthpiece for Metro, publishing their statements and press releases without question. Even in the transit chats when chatters post information contradicting Metro's (and therefore the Post's)statements, WP reporters dismiss it. (There are many examples, but one is that extended Yellow Line service does not happen and therefore delay Green Line service during rush hour. It does daily and a half-hour at a metro station between 9-9:30 would confirm this, if WP does not want to believe chatters. And I'm not even asking that WP investigate the merit of the expense to extend the least traveled line to duplicate exisiting service.)

Marc Fisher: I'm surprised you don't like our coverage of Metro--we have a terrific and aggressive reporter on that beat, Lena Sun, who has broken story after story about Metro's budget problems, safety issues, and management shortcomings. In addition, you'll find coverage of traffic and service issues in Dr. Gridlock's work in print and online. If there are specific stories you think we ought to be doing, please get in touch with those reporters.

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D.C.: Marc --

I'm disappointed in the Post's coverage of the recent AIDS report. In 2006, the Post reported that the HIV rate was 1 in 20; that's 5 percent. Now, the new report says the HIV rate is 3 percent. That's a 40 percent decline! But, all the reporting is that the rate has gone up, not down.

Okay, maybe they are improving their reporting system. And, it is a huge problem either way. But, if they don't know the problem is getting worse, why do they claim it is getting worse?

In fact, the only way for an HIV rate to decline is for the survivors to die or move to the suburbs. I'd love to stop new infections, but if there were no new infections, the rate would remain about where it is.

I wonder if these bureaucrats understand the data that they are reporting, or just like to use it to support a point that is not substantiated.

Marc Fisher: I have to say, I reacted to the city's report very much as you have--as one of The Post's most knowledgeable experts on AIDS policy, our former Southern Africa correspondent, Craig Timber, has argued on his blog, the higher numbers in the District are evidence of success, in that they represent AIDS patients who are living far longer than they had in past years.

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Reston, Va.: Thank you! My dad lost his regular pension when United went bankrupt. He worked for them for 45 years. He does still get money from the quasi-federal group that took over the pensions, but it's not as much as he was supposed to get and he and my mom lives in fear that it will be cut. (A legitimate fear.)

It seems a contract is only binding when it's held by someone making many times my father's very modest salary.

Marc Fisher: That's certainly the message we're getting from all the pundits who are appalled at the idea that the millionaires at AIG won't get an extra mill or two to add another house or boat to their collections.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Marc: I must admit, I'm kind of torn on the AIG bonus thing. As a citizen and a taxpayer, I'm completely horrified that they would be using my tax dollars to pay bonuses (and also that so much of the stimulus is going to foreign banks) but as a Human Resources (specifically compensation) professional, I can understand the argument for attracting and retaining top talent. Granted, these people who got the bonuses let everything fail in the first place, but in general, how can they rebuild if they can't compensate at the level they need to in order to get the top tier people? And if they can't rebuild, how do we get our money back? It's a quandary...

Marc Fisher: Sure, any company wants to have a good strategy for winning and keeping top talent. But the idea that only the precious few people who are getting these bonuses at AIG can possibly understand the tangled financial mess that they created is just preposterous. There are plenty of smart economists out there--indeed, more now than probably ever before--who would be happy to have those jobs. And wait a minute--the same folks who say these bonus recipients are totally vital and must not be permitted to become unhappy and leave are now also telling us that the really bad guys are already gone from AIG. Well, you can't have it both ways--either the really bad guys are still there and are needed to unwind the bad deeds they committed, or they're gone, in which case no bonuses are necessary.

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AIG: While I respect your opinion on AIG, I disagree with it. Congress should have done more to void the contracts when they considered giving AIG bailout money. But, because they didn't, there's a whole lot of political posturing to align themselves with the court of public opinion.

I mean, if a company decides to pay me a six-figure bonus, am I wrong to accept it, or is the company wrong to offer it?

Marc Fisher: If you get offered a bonus, obviously, you take it. (I once got a bonus, in 1982, at The Miami Herald. It was an attendance bonus, for not taking a day off that year. I got $100. I was thrilled. It hasn't happened again.)

But if you then commit misdeeds and your actions are in part responsible for the company going south, it's entirely fair for the company to say, you know that bonus we promised you, well, you really don't deserve it anymore, so, sorry, no can do.

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re: AIG: So now these guys are going to either get a big raise (What? Should the feds regulate salaries too?) or they will go elsewhere. If you really think that there is a large pool of people who can do whatever it is those who got bonuses do, well, there isn't. No matter how many people are out of work.

Of course, they might have helped run a company into the ground (might have -- or, these people may have helped some divisions do well, or not as bad as it could have been -- I have no idea...) - and the U.S. govt SHOULD NOT have given them a penny. But they did -- and they should deal with it.

Marc Fisher: Even if you're right that there's no one else who knows how to do what these folks do, others can learn. After all, the folks at AIG figured it out.

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Dog parks: Why not turn cemeteries into dog parks? Who's to complain?

Marc Fisher: Great idea--no conflict with kids (or adults) playing ball, no NIMBY issues. You sold me.

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Washington, D.C.: First, let me say that you are 100 percent right about the Tenley NIMBYs. I would love to see that area developed. But don't the developers share some of the blame too? My understanding is that when concerns were initially raised about the plans -- particularly the encroachment onto Janney Elementary property -- the developers kept re-submitting slightly different versions of the same plans. It doesn't seem like either side was willing to compromise and get this thing done right.

Marc Fisher: Yes, absolutely--the developer failed to come up with a plan that would satisfy all the competing interests for that property, and the city also failed to push the plan toward something that might be politically palatable. There's plenty of blame to go around on this, but the ultimate reason why that corner will now be a wasted space at a key Metro station is the community opposition--without those uncompromising and selfish voices, the rest of the plan would have fallen into place, if very imperfectly.

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McLean, Va.: I'm concerned about the enduring problem of corruption in local govt. D.C. Tech office is just the latest example of this problem. I'd hoped that Mayor Fenty would be able to bring change, but now he seems no better than Barry. Will change in the White House bring improvements to local residents?

Marc Fisher: Well, the Fenty folks would argue that they've pushed hard to reform agencies and that the corruption we've heard about in the Office of Tax and Revenue and now in the Technology office predated the Fenty administration. But of course all administrations blame their predecessors for the bad stuff. So, is the city any more honest and efficient under Fenty? There hasn't been a big emphasis on rooting out corruption, but there has been a big push under Fenty to get rid of incompetents, and perhaps the two go hand in hand. Corruption arrests are a lagging indicator, of course, so it will likely be some time before we can really judge how effective Fenty has been at reducing corruption.

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Queens, N.Y. (raised in Virginia): Mr. Fisher,

I am very captivated by the recent developments in the movement towards D.C. finally gaining congressional representation. Yes, there is the snag with the gun laws, but it feels like history is right around the corner. That soon the 591,833 people of The District will have something [like] the rest of America.

My question for you is about the Post's coverage of the proceedings. I have been surprised with the lack of front page coverage (on the Web site, I don't get the 35 cent edition here in New York) on the issue. I looked on the Metro page today (3/17/09) and there was nothing.

Is it simply because there isn't anything new to report? Or is it because The Post doesn't think this is any different than other attempts (1978, 1985, 1993, etc.) that it seemed D.C. was close to representation?

Marc Fisher: Well, I think this is likely a matter of when you may happen to be checking the web site more than any lack of coverage. We've had stories on the D.C. voting issue nearly every day for quite some weeks now, and they've actually gotten better play on our web site than in the newspaper. You might check to be sure that you've set your washingtonpost.com home page to the Washington page rather than the National page (there are two versions of the site's home page, the former of which includes a couple more local stories than the other one.)

There's not much new to report on the D.C. vote front this week--talks are continuing among Hill Democrats about how and when to move forward on a vote without the provisions to strip the city of its gun regulations, or with a less onerous version of those provisions, but little if any progress has been made on that front.

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Arlington, Va.: I feel it is wrong for the Obama to party (she running around D.C. with her pals) and him showing us how to play the basketball pools, during this time of really bad economic news. Mind you, I don't think they should hole up in the White House, but merely hold back just a bit instead of having such a good time, during the bad times.

Marc Fisher: I don't get the sense that the prez or his wife are exactly yukking it up while the nation burns, though it will be interesting to see how jocular he is on the Tonight Show tonight. That's a curious venue for a president to choose in the middle of an economic crisis. And any president in times like this will keenly feel the need to model behavior that encourages the populace toward normalcy--I wouldn't be surprised to see him visiting a mall one of these days....

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Fatal Distraction: Marc, I know you've covered this already, but I have one last question about this issue. You've said you read Gene Weingarten's article, so you know that he has a personal experience in this -- namely, that had his then 3-year-old daughter not said something at the right time, he would have left her in the car in a Miami parking lot.

You've also said that the people to whom this happens are not just good people who are tragically unfortunate, they are irresponsible people who shouldn't be parents.

You know where this is going: Do you think that Gene Weingarten, your friend and colleague, shouldn't have been a parent? If and when his children become parents themselves, should he be forbidden from ever driving his grandchildren around without supervision?

I know I'm putting you on the spot, but I hope you'll answer anyway. (BTW, I don't think you are less evolved for having a differing opinion, but I am very interested in your answer.)

Marc Fisher: I've known Gene for nearly three decades and so I've seen his kids grow up to be splendid and humane citizens, and I happily grant Gene a good chunk of the credit for that (though he would give the kudos to his wife, who certainly deserves much of it.) So no, I do not contend that he is unfit for parenthood. What I do contend is that Gene has drawn the wrong conclusion from that incident in which he nearly left his daughter in the parked car. In retrospect, that moment may feel like a near-death experience--especially after Gene immersed himself in the reporting for his excellent Magazine story. But I don't think Gene would have left his child in the car--he might have come close, but that instinct we talked about last week, that powerful parental drive to protect the young, would have kicked in. Gene thinks I am delusional for believing this, but I think most parents would agree that there is a deep and strong instinct that allows parents of babies to do extraordinary things even when under unusual stress, and that, more than anything else, explains why the events Gene described in his piece happen so very rarely.

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Re: AIDS: The AIDS numbers may seem a success, but there are two sides to everything. Yes, drugs and treatment are helping people live longer, but that in turn is cultivating the notion that AIDS is manageable, just an STD, and increasing unsafe sexual activity... which will in turn increase the AIDS rate.

Don't celebrate just yet.

Marc Fisher: Quite right--the danger is by no means behind us. It's just that the spin put on these numbers didn't seem to take into account that it's not just new cases that are driving the numbers up, but also the longer survival rates among those who've been infected for a long time.

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AIG outrage: You should read your own paper. According to the Post, the people who are left are 'not' the ones who caused the losses. A public "shaming" is not appropriate, never mind protesters on their lawns. (Think about protesters on your lawn, harassment of your kids, and death threats, for an editorial position the Post that you disagree with. You'll live -- probably.) These guys were given (some probably way too high) bonuses because they could leave and would have left without them. They're the ones trying to clean up the mess, and without them the taxpayers would be on the hook for millions more.

Marc Fisher: They're all replaceable parts. Let them go.

Are these actually the people who caused the losses? We keep getting conflicting accounts on that, which is another reason why their names ought to be released, so that the proper reporting can be done to determine whether these are indeed the original culprits.

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Re AIG: Me again... the guy who disagrees with you about AIG. Anyway, I don't think you deserve a bonus if your misdeeds led to the problems at the company, assuming your bonus was performance-based.

It sounds like these were not performance-based. Thus, AIG was contractually obligated to pay them, regardless of performance. So, that brings me back to my question, am I wrong to take it, if it isn't based on performance, or is AIG wrong for offering it, independent of performance?

Marc Fisher: Good question--seems to me the company is wrong for offering a bonus that's not tied to performance. After all, the concept of a bonus is a payment for something above and beyond the work that is covered by salary. Now that the company is not really the company that it was pre-bailout, the rules are changed, and the rules governing bonuses should be every bit as subject to change as those determining whether the company survives.

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AIG: The bonuses should be wrapped in a pink slip. Take the bonus, OR keep your job -- your choice.

Marc Fisher: There's an idea.

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"Why not turn cemeteries into dog parks?": "Marc Fisher: Great idea -- no conflict with kids (or adults) playing ball, no NIMBY issues. You sold me."

Wow -- something you and Weingarten agree on!

Marc Fisher: We agree on a lot, actually. We're both Bronx kids who grew up when the Yankees were awful and nobody's idea of a dynasty. So we're both molded by constant defeat, and we both have an inexplicable soft spot for Lindy McDaniel.

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Why not turn cemeteries into dog parks?: Digging dogs and buried dead people don't seem compatible to me

Marc Fisher: Depends on how deeply the dogs dig, no?

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Potomac Overlook, Va.: I think someone needs to shed some light on the proper role of Animal Welfare officers. Yes, one of their official duties is to enforce leash laws. But they have far more important work, namely to ensure that dogs and other domesticated animals are protected and that they have the liberty to grow in a positive and loving manner. Unfortunately, these tasks are sometimes contradictory if you follow the letter of the law. That's why the officers have so much latitude in pursuing what's best for the mammalian community, ensuring that canine mammals are treated with respect while human mammals learn to live with them rather than to fear them.

Marc Fisher: I didn't know there was such a thing as an animal welfare officer--is this a public position?

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re: Naming bonus receivers: The bonuses are a damn shame. However, are you telling me that if your employer handed you money, you'd hand it back on principle? I'm a fed, I think that our raise this year was not in line with the current economy, but I'm sure not going to give it back. It's the bosses that APPROVED the raises that need to be named.

Marc Fisher: I don't know that we can rightfully expect workers to hand back a bonus merely because it's the right thing to do. That's why some mechanism is needed to force their hands. A punitive tax is a weaselly way to do it; the more direct and honest way is to just take it back by decree, as part of the government's condition for allowing the company to continue operations.

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Re: AIG: I'm sorry, but the idea that these guys are the only people in the world who can do what they do is ridiculous.

As they say, the graveyards are full of "indispensable" people.

Marc Fisher: Right--I learned that on my first job, when the boss who was in charge of the care and feeding of the creative talent said that although we really want to attract the best and the brightest, in the end, they're all replaceable parts.

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AIG bonuses: Marc, You said it would be fair for AIG to stop the bonus payments because the company was doing poorly. The problem is that the bonuses were not structured for performance, they were based on retention.

My wife received a mid 5-figure retention bonus in a health care field that was front loaded as long as she works three years for the company. Would it be fair if she was forced to pay it back if she worked for them for three years just as the contract stated?

Marc Fisher: Sure--she has a right to expect to get the money as long as the conditions under which it was promised remain reasonably the same. But if her company took a nosedive and the choice was to honor the bonuses or save people's jobs, it would behoove everyone involved to try to keep the jobs.

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Vienna, Va.: What struck me in reading the AIG employee profile article this morning is that we don't know what these people make. The federal employees who deal with AIG make perhaps $170K per year, tops. So pay the AIG people what their federal counterparts get paid. If you can't live on a gross salary of $170K per, I can have an imaginary string quartet play a requiem for your lifestyle.

Marc Fisher: Ooh, can I come to that concert?

Seems reasonable that any company getting taxpayer dollars should conform to a federal pay scale.

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Re AIG : Is there actually a way to tell who is responsible for AIG's problems? Even if the names were revealed, how would we know who was to blame?

Also, were the people knowingly creating problems for financial gain, or were they just incompetent? Seems to me, if you were bad at your job, you shouldn't be punished as if you were doing a bad job on purpose.

Marc Fisher: They weren't doing a bad job on purpose, they were trying to do anything they could to make more money. Did they know that what they were doing was unsustainable? Obviously, if they're the geniuses their bosses now portray them as, they knew. Everyone at one level or another knew. So would it do us good to know their names? Absolutely--they, like all of us, ought to be held to account. No firing squads, not even jail, but a fair and square public accounting. If they were in the government and had taken down a nation's economic system, there would be reconciliation sessions and the like, as we've seen in East Germany and South Africa and so on--a chance for victims to see who did this and to confront them and talk to them.

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Washington, D.C.: I had an interesting experience at the D.C. DMV today. Interesting because it was good! I was in and out in 30 minutes, people were courteous and prompt. I was also pleased the renewal period has been lengthened to 8 years -- I think it used to be three. Last time I was in there I had to wait like two hours, so I applaud any effort that has been made to improve this critical service.

Marc Fisher: Indeed, good things are happening in some parts of the city government. I was in and out at the car inspection station the other day in 12 minutes--my all-time record. And I cannot recommend highly enough the online appointment system for car inspections--zero waiting!

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Regarding retrocession of D.C. into Maryland -- no offense, but we really don't want you. It's not just people in Baltimore who would be opposed to this. We're having enough trouble balancing our own budget without trying to work with D.C.'s finances. I'd be willing to bet, too, that a majority of people in the District wouldn't want to be Marylanders, either.

Marc Fisher: You're probably right on both fronts, but that doesn't mean it doesn't make sense as a concept and as a fairly elegant solution to the voting rights problem. This is exactly the kind of situation that justifies having a republic rather than a direct democracy--but then your representatives have to develop the spine to do the right thing.

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Obama "running around town with her pals": What a nice way of describing Michelle Obama's public meetings/meals with local leaders, rather than secretly in the White House. Nice way to describe her speech at Howard, her volunteering at a Miriam's Kitchen and her efforts to interact with the real folks of DCPS, students and teachers. Nice way to describe her actually interacting with the people of this city, as she said she would. What a jerk that person is, and you should call him or her out for it.

Marc Fisher: I thought I did. But now you have. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Marc -- Who do you have winning your bracket? What did you think about ESPN covering Pres Obama's bracket?

Marc Fisher: I thought it was terrific that the prez put out a bracket rather than some blather about how they're all wonderful teams and we're rooting for each and every one of them. That said, his picks were like his staff and his Cabinet--lots of very safe choices. Not exactly Mr. Change.

I believe he has three #1s and one #2 in his Final Four.

I refuse to write a bracket without at least one team from a #4 or below making the Final Four. That said, and since I hate betting on a #1, I'll go with a #2--Michgan State.

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I think most parents would agree that there is a deep and strong instinct that allows parents of babies to do extraordinary things even when under unusual stress, and that, more than anything else, explains why the events Gene described in his piece happen so very rarely.: But Gene pointed out the increase in these events since it was mandated that baby seats be in the back seat of the car rather than the front. Doesn't that do anything to your belief in this instinct?

Marc Fisher: The numbers are so tiny, so low that the shift he's describing doesn't seem statistically significant.

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That's why the officers have so much latitude in pursuing what's best for the mammalian community: After I stopped laughing at learning I'm part of the mammalian community, I had to respond! Yes, the dog catcher (as we'd called him back in the day) does check animal welfare and can remove a dog if the owner is mistreating him. HOWEVER, protecting humans from any dog, be it dangerous or not, is the overriding function. No, animal officers do not let dogs run free, it is illegal and it is protecting the dog to catch him and put him in a safe place. Dogs running free are at risk of getting hit by cars, or bite by dangerous dogs. It IS protecting the dog to catch it and put in in a safe cage. Dogs running free are a danger to themselves and people.

Marc Fisher: Nicely said. Ah, that's what the poster meant--the dog catcher. I've never actually seen a dog catcher--do they really exist or only in stories?

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Animal welfare officers: Isn't that just the newer name for the proverbial dog catcher? There are several shows on Animal Planet that follow such officers in several cities -- sort of like "Cops" with heartwarming and heartbreaking follow-ups as the rescued pets are treated by vets and either rebound, or don't.

Marc Fisher: So they exist on TV....

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Forcing businesses to federal pay scale: Not all banks had a choice. the Wells Fargo CEO ran his bank with less risk and therefore did not need a bailout. But the federal government forced one on them. Why should a company like that be forced to then use the federal pay scale?

Marc Fisher: Right--and no company should be forced to take a government bailout. If they don't want it, they should be allowed to go their own way, and fail if that's what happens.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm sorry, but I don't want dogs doing what dogs do on MY family's graves!

Marc Fisher: Yes, I thought there might be reactions along this line, and I know some folks are emotionally attached to gravesites. But what's the statute of limitations on that? Over the years, I've written a bunch of stories about office buildings and houses and other facilities (highways, especially) built on top of old cemeteries. At what point are we comfortable with cemeteries being declared a finished and no longer needed memorial site?

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Re: Arlington: Uh, dude, Michelle isn't exactly yukking it up around town with her pals. She spent a day serving food at a soup kitchen, and today she's bringing celebs around DC schools to highlight educational issues. She's not downing Kamikazes at Smith Point.

Marc Fisher: True. But would it be so bad if she did? Wouldn't you go a bit nutty having to stay in one building all day every day for several years, except for vacations and the occasional out of town trip?

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Dogs in cemeteries: It already happens, no?Congressional Cemetery leaps to mind. Actually the dog owners cleaned up the cemetery, pay a fee to use it for their dog runs, and now that the cemetery is safe and clean again and worth visiting, apparently some families with deceased members want to curb the dogs.

Marc Fisher: See, every story's already been done.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Marc, thanks for fielding the AIG bonus questions -- though hey are obviously not metro-related. My take -- what good is the Treasury's 80 percent ownership stake in AIG if We the People can't set new compensation rules? I was always taught that companies fall all over themselves to make their biggest shareholders happy.

I'm just sayin . . .

Marc Fisher: Nice spin--I like that. Thanks.

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Herndon, Va.: If you're outraged over AIG bonuses, be outraged at Congress, not the execs. Congress could have and should have stepped in and eliminated the bonus contracts prior to giving AIG bailout money.

Marc Fisher: Excellent point.

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Re: They weren't doing a bad job on purpose, they were trying to do anything they could to make more money.: Um, isn't everybody?

Marc Fisher: Um, no, many people work as much for satisfaction, creative outlet and social connection as for the bucks.

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Yes, they exist.: I once adopted a cat from a small, publicly funded suburban shelter. He had been picked up as a stray by the dog(and cat)catcher, who was a municipal employee.

Marc Fisher: We have live confirmation.

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almost doesn't count: Gene saying he 'would have' forgotten his child if... proves nothing. We don't know if he would have forgotten her because HE DIDN'T. We tend to dramatize the "what ifs" for the sake of a good story or to put more importance in events "it was fate!" Gene NEVER forgot his daughter, so he is NOT like those other parents and my original hypothesis still stands: No, it can NOT happen to anyone.

Marc Fisher: Exactly my point. Thank you.

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Baltimore, Md.: While I've gone back and forth on whether I think D.C. should come back into Maryland, I disagree with you that Baltimore City residents would oppose it. As a life-long city resident, I can see how having D.C. as a part of Maryland would help us in the urban vs. rural split in the state and it would be helpful to have a whole new group of citizens and legislators concerned with urban issues and needs.

Marc Fisher: Interesting--would a D.C.-Baltimore alliance really result, or would we see the more typical split between regions of a state (think of upstate/downstate in Illinois or New York, or NoVa/RoVa in Virginia, or South Florida vs the rest of Florida)? I can see many issues on which the two cities might find common ground, but politically the key would be whether Montgomery and Prince George's aligned with the District or with demographically similar populations in Baltimore County, Howard and Anne Arundel.

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'Hang them with piano wire': Did you listen to the AIG CEO in Congress yesterday? When Barney Franks asked that the Committee be given the names he said this was reasonable but he was reluctant for safety reasons. He read some letters they'd received -- one said that that the people given bonuses should be 'hung with piano wire.' There were also severe threats against these people's families. There is justifiable anger out there, but it's liable to explode into a feeding frenzy as everyone's anger and frustration at the economy is focused on these bonuses. We need make sure they give back their bonuses and we need to make sure something like this never happens again but I do think naming names here is dangerous.

Marc Fisher: We're not much for hanging with piano wire in this country--we prefer to talk about it, which is fine. More likely, if we got the names, we'd put those folks on TV and with a little sappy background music, soon enough many folks would be feeling sorry for the greedy millionaires.

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Washington, D.C.: "contractually obligated bonus" should be an oxymoron. The dictionary gives the first definition of "bonus" as "something in addition to what is expected or strictly due." If it's in a contract, it shouldn't be called a "bonus." Maybe we need a new word. It's bad optics for a company that's practices led to disaster -- so much so that it needs public funds to stay afloat -- to be distributing what most people would consider to be awards for good work.

Marc Fisher: Sounds right to me.

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Marc Fisher: That has to kick things in the head for today, folks. Thanks for coming along and for all the good thoughts.

No show next week--we'll resume here two weeks from today. But the comment boards are always open over on Raw Fisher, where the conversation today is about unemployment. Tomorrow, please join me at noon, when I'll be guest hosting The Politics Hour on WAMU (88.5 FM). Back in the paper on Sunday....have a great weekend.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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