The Wish List
Gifts we wish we could afford
Most years we use this space to stoke the annual holiday gift-giving economy in our own peculiar way. But 2009 isn't most years. In past Gift Guides, we've focused on cheap gifts, on home-made gifts, on charitable gifts, on all kinds of gifts, but it seems a little weird to recommend ways to spend money when there's so relatively little of it around.
Don't get us wrong. We've got a shopping list full of people we love, just as you do, most likely, and there'll be something under the tree for them. We plan on economizing, but what money we plan to drop, we plan to drop as close to home as we can--i.e., with Baltimore businesses--and we urge you to do the same.
But seeing as so many reasonably priced items are out of our grasp this year, we decided to think big and ask ourselves what would we stuff stockings with if money was no object? The answers varied from social programs and local landmarks to the kind of car Tawny Kitaen would rub herself all over. Most of these things won't fit down a chimney, but they would certainly spread some cheer.
Gift Guide 2009 written by Michael Byrne, Edward Ericson Jr., Lee Gardner, Tim Hill, Chris Landers, and Bret McCabe.
Whether mandated by law or circumstance, private insurance is over budget and undercovering us, you, and almost everyone else. Other countries manage to insure all their citizens fairly easily, often with a taxpayer-funded one-size-fits-all health plan that lets anyone see any doctor and pay little or nothing for the visit and for any medicines prescribed. But no--that would never work here, because too many people depend for their livelihoods on the waste, fraud, and general irritation engendered by our system of thousands of private medical-insurance plans, plus two big public plans, and all the "choice" inherent in that system. So no public option for you, even though the Congressional Budget Office estimates the public option in the bill just passed by the House of Representatives will have no measurable effect on the nation's federal debt, and even though the overall plan is, in fact, projected to cut the debt by more than $100 billion. The bill itself is weak tea when compared to the health-care deal available in actual civilized nations, but it could be a start. But no. We can't afford it.
Admit it. You've admired it from afar--that fake-brick beacon of commerce jutting up incongruously along the city's southeastern waterfront like a (17-story, 475,000-square-foot) tower of bubble excess. Conceived in 2000 and made possible in part by city officials' agreement to remove a nearby city garbage dock, the tower is nestled in what was to be a classic over re-development scheme featuring 500 condos, a hotel, shops, a marina, and lots and lots of too much office space. All of the housing (except one special unit) and most of the shops are as yet unbuilt, of course, and the hotel is on hold. But a two-story office building there is leased up, and the main tower was reasonably occupied. And now it's foreclosed, turned over to its lender, Corporate Office Properties Trust of Columbia, its opulent penthouse soon to be vacant of CEO/mastermind Ed Hale's most treasured and showy things (and possibly turned into more boring office space). Would someone on your list enjoy the biggest Monopoly piece in town? Too bad. It's overpriced at the $125 million COPT paid. Save your money and wait five more years. It'll likely be available again, cheaper.
According to the Ticketmaster-managed NFL Ticket Exchange, the most affordable ticket for this weekend's Ravens game against the Indianapolis Colts is $118 for seats in the upper deck; lower deck tickets could set you back between $300-$400 each. Of course, that's a game versus the undefeated Colts, who hightailed it out of town in 1983. Surely tickets for the Dec. 13 game against the lowly Detroit Lions might be a little easier to come by--and they are, with tickets starting in the $80-each range and going up from there. A Sept. 10 Baltimore Business Journal article claims that the average family of four will spend $481.69 to attend a Ravens home game, the fourth-most expensive outing in the league. We love the Ravens as much as the next fan, but at roughly $100/head to see a game, we'll stick with the TV and radio and maybe wrap a knock-off jersey for under the tree.
There was a time when a sailing ship might set sail from the harbor of Baltimore, ferrying goods to far off ports. That time was a few years ago. The sailing ship was the schooner Clipper City, and the goods were, well, drunken tourists, carried out to the exotic Key Bridge and back three times a day, seven days a week. The Clipper City has changed hands, and she's up in New York now, where she's been sailing the harbor all summer. Eric Husher, president of Topsail Yachts (and the broker for the Clipper City) assures us that although $1.5 million is the asking price, there is "a fair amount of flexibility in that." The 158-foot steel topsail schooner has gone through extensive maintenance, but it still needs a new interior. As Husher points out, that just means the recipient can build it to suit their needs, whether running passenger charters in the Caribbean, booze cruises in the harbor, or maybe piracy.
You want the good stuff for holiday blues-cum-Seasonal Affective Disorder-cum-crippling depression, right? Spare no expense. And at around $100 for a standard prescription (without health insurance), Lexapro is the current Cadillac of anti-depressants. Worth it, however, because the pill, the seventh most commonly prescribed drug as of 2007, must be so much better than its predecessor, right? Well, no, according to a growing chorus: Lexapro, the mere existence of it, is one of the most glaring examples of drug-company shenanigans out there. The thing is that you can get generic versions of Celexa, Lexapro's closest ancestor, and, as The New York Times reported in September, "The FDA views the two medicines as so interchangeable that the agency recently approved Lexapro's use in depressed adolescents based in part on the results of a study Forest conducted using Celexa." Indeed, five years earlier, a group of Swedish researchers had found that claims made by Lexapro's parent company, Forest Pharmaceuticals, of the new drug's superiority over Celexa were "unwarranted." How does Forest get away with it? Basically, when a drug gets to the end of its patent, the field is open for generic copies, so, in this case, Forest removed an inactive ingredient from the pill, gave it a new name, received a new patent, and marketed it as a next-generation drug at name-brand prices. It's all perfectly legal so, really, this is a gift from the FDA to big pharma.
Does traveling to D.C. ever feel like a trip to the big city to you? More restaurants, better shopping, an elaborate and convenient subway network? Indeed, Washington's Metro system is one of the best in the country, and it's in a city with about 50,000 fewer people than Baltimore, with its embarrassing and not-terribly-functional subway. Once upon a time there was a plan for Baltimore to have a comparable system, shuttling people quickly and cheaply around the city, getting cars off congested streets, and linking disparate neighborhoods--according to a plan adopted by the state of Maryland in 1965, it was supposed to comprise six lines radiating out from the city's core, adding up to 71 miles of track. Today, it's one line, at about 15 miles of track, with only the vaguest hope of extending that a few miles from the Johns Hopkins Broadway campus to Morgan State University. In today's dollars, it's hard to estimate what the completed subway system would cost, but going by the MTA's estimates for a subway version of the light-rail Red Line, we're looking at a bare minimum of $13 billion. But, hey, we're maybe getting a light-rail version of the Red Line, so there's that, though that's kind of like getting a squirt gun for Christmas when you asked for an air rifle.
We'd love nothing more than to help mom and dad replace that rust-colored shag carpeting with lovely and sustainable bamboo flooring. And wouldn't it be nice to cut back on the drafts in their 1940s-era rowhouse with some proper windows and well-sealed doors? Oh, and it would be so nice to remodel the kitchen and replace the worn Formica counters with recycled-stone countertops, the linoleum with natural cork flooring, the conventional oven with a convection oven. We could also buy them a solar-powered water heater, and while we're at it, maybe some solar panels for the roof--and hey, why not a planted green roof, to help insulate the house and refurbish the planet's oxygen supply, too? Well, the fact of the matter is that mom and dad are probably perfectly happy with their old-fashioned, inefficient home. Which is good because we really don't have the spare $50,000 or so to drop on making their home the environmentally sound refuge we--erm, we mean they--have always dreamed of living in. We know, tax credits, good of the planet, future generations. Maybe we can swing a rain-barrel kit.
If you've seen one, you can only gawk. Pure sex, pure power, pure animal grace. The Lamborghini may pack a more powerful punch, but leave those to the video-game entrepreneurs who struggle with their testosterone count. We'll take the Gran Turismo S over one of those boy toys any day, its 4.7-liter V8 engine wrapped in a completely realized package of muscle and elegance only Italian designer Pininfarina could produce. After years of well-regarded but boxy sports sedans, Maserati has re-emerged, and this is the car for which we'd sign over your severance package. If we were derivatives traders looking to blow a $140,000 chunk of bonus on someone besides ourselves, this would be the plaything. Even with the local Maserati dealership's $1,600 a month lease package, though, no one we know's going to be revving his or her engine in the economic gridlock in one of these.
In all sincerity, it's great being a Johns Hopkins alumnus, as a Homewood undergraduate experience provides an exceptional education and exposure to people and ideas. Borrowing tuition adds up quick, though, even when bolstered by Pell grants, Perkins and/or Stafford loans, a National Merit scholarship, work-study aid, and part-time jobs. Of course, in the early 1990s, nearly $20,000 per year didn't sound like a huge amount. Fifteen years since graduating, the bill for that education persists, and will for the foreseeable future--which is what makes Hopkins current undergraduate tuition, at $39,150 a year, incite heart palpitations. That's a large sum of money--you need to make at least $47,000 per year to clear that after taxes if you're filing single--and Hopkins isn't alone in this price range. For fall 2009, a year at MICA or Goucher College runs about $33,000. The 2006 USA Today/ABC News "Young and in Debt" six-week report showed that balance on student-loan debt is rising, alongside late payments and growing credit trouble. And at 2009 tuition prices, college loan payments start to resemble a monthly mortgage.
Honestly, if you didn't already get your bid proposal in for this prime chunk o' Baltimore real estate, you may be out of luck, but the auction for Pimlico isn't supposed to happen until Jan. 8, so maybe there's still time for a dark horse to enter the bidding race. It comes with some strings attached--notably, you have to keep the Preakness Stakes in Maryland--but really, just because the horse-racing industry couldn't figure out how to make money at this doesn't mean the horse-player on your list shouldn't take a crack at it. (Has anyone suggested monkeys riding the horses? Because we would totally go see that. Just sayin.') Sure, you'll probably be in a bidding war with some of the deepest pockets in the state, but we hold out hope that a little creative thinking and some chutzpah will not only win the day, but usher in a new era in separating people from their entertainment dollars. How about robot horses? There's really no humane way to do a demolition derby without robot horses.
Isn't this something any American of any political leaning would be happy to see on Christmas Day? (Except maybe defense contractors, that is.) The previous administration got our nation and its servicemembers entangled in poorly thought-out conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the current administration is pondering sending more troops into the former. Something about not giving up, and, oh, not further destabilizing a region that includes at least one country with possibly poorly secured nuclear arms. Pulling all our people out right now would save billions in the short term, but the cost down the line is impossible to imagine. So U.S. forces, from Special Forces teams to quartermaster divisions, have now spent eight Christmases somewhere in the Middle East/Central Asia, choking on dust and dodging IEDs instead of loafing around the mall and complaining about It's a Wonderful Life being on again. This is going on our list for next year, too, looks like.
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