Friday, February 27, 2009

February 27, 2009--TP

This is a delicate but important subject. So I will be brief.

Environmentalists are attacking Mr. Whipple, claiming that his brand of TP and others like it—the soft, fluffy kind—is an ecological disaster.

Here from yesterday’s New York Times:

Fluffiness comes at a price: from millions of trees harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada. Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them.
Customers “demand soft and comfortable,” said James Malone, a spokesman for Georgia Pacific, the maker of Quilted Northern. “Recycled fiber cannot do it.” [Emphasis added.]

(Full article, from the front page, linked below.)

The US, which is by far the largest user of TP, is also the smallest user of recycled paper—about 2 percent of the fiber we use is recycled; elsewhere, it averages 20 percent.

And since the softness Mr. Whipple pushes and we demand comes only from standing trees—for example, one eucalyptus tree produces just 1,000 rolls (not that many considering that per capita Americans use 23.6 a year, though clearly no one gathering these statistics surveyed anyone in my family!)—this national addiction comes at quite an environmental price. Not to say the extra cost of these “premium” rolls.

So while President Obama is seeking to change our various wasteful ways, one place he should look, and invest federal research money, is how to produce softness (let’s face it, Americans aren’t ever going to be happy using the kind of cardboardy stuff Europeans seem OK with) from recycled paper and not from old-growth forests.

On the other hand, while other parts of the economy have tanked, in 2008 the market for fluffy brands of TP actually expanded—it is up an incredible 40 percent from 2007.

It used to be thought that women’s skirt lengths reflected the state of the economy. Maybe that is now an obsolete measure. It’s become all about how much Charmin we use. It must be that during these painful times we want something, anything that feels good.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 26, 2009--Bring In the Wall Street Clowns

It’s obvious that one of the hardest hit local economies is Wall Street itself. Not just the source of so many of our economic woes, the economy among traders, brokers, and investment bankers has been devastated. Lives have been threatened and ruined. And at all levels. For every million-dollar bonus grabber, at least a dozen lower-level employees have lost their jobs and often their savings.

Out of frustration, outrage, and fear it has been easy for politicians, late-night comedians, and even me to take pot shots at these former masters of the universe while not paying as much attention to the tragedies that have befallen more ordinary citizens.

But I can’t resist one last shot. I then promise to move on.

While Northern Trust executives, after receiving $1.6 billion in taxpayer bailout money, try to defend spending millions last week on an extravagant golfing junket in L.A. that featured entertainment by the likes of Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire and the ever-righteous Sheryl Crow, back in the Wall Street trenches former workers, not wanting to have to move back in with their parents, struggled to find new livelihoods.

The government of the City of New York, worried about the ripple effect of so many laid off workers, instituted a $45 million retraining program.

Michael Wilson, a local reporter for the New York Times, had a little fun with what that new program might include. (Article linked below.)

As with all such programs, job counseling will play a big part; and the first thing these kinds of counselors do is to see if the skills someone acquired in his or her former position can be transferred into a new field.

So, Wilson, suggests, since so many tourists still flood into the Big Apple and want tours of the sights, who better than former Wall Streeters to show people around the financial district? The founder of Big Onion Walking tours, in fact, says they have received résumés from the no longer-employed. It appears, then, that the new program is off to a good start.

Then there may be life serving as butlers for some after Wall Street. Yes, the still more-or-less rich do have them. They earn anywhere from $70,000 to $150,000 a year. Not big numbers by last summer’s downtown standards, but that was then as this is now.

Why might former banking executives have skills that would make them good butlers? I wouldn’t know never having had a butler, but Wilson assures that most important to the butler trade is having good management skills and thus the suggestion.

Though he mean-spiritedly points out that there might be some awkwardness in the situation—after being used to having others light one’s cigars, it wouldn’t be easy being on the other end of the match.

But then again, still in the realm of cigars, former brokers who enjoyed lighting up at the end of the day might seek work at a high-end cigar store, where expertise and connoisseurship should still be in demand.

There, however, may be problems with this facetious suggestion—the Times quotes the owner the Three Little Indians Cigar Shop in Little Italy: “If you smoke cigars, I would say you know a little bit about them. Professionalism is everything. ‘Dress to impress.’ That’s my motto.” But he adds, though they may know their cigars and have the clothes to sell them, one problem is that no one is buying cigars.

So that leaves either getting a job shredding documents (lots of experience with that) or hiring out as a clown.

The latter for some may actually be working out. Gary Pincus, who runs Send In the Clowns Entertainment Corporation, which specializes in children’s parties, reports that he has been getting lots of calls from Wall Street guys who want to work with them. “They want to change their careers.”

If you think this represents a dumbing-down of brokers’ skills and expertise, not true claims Gary. His business is more than walking around in paper maché shoes, Clarabell wigs, and putty noses. There are also positions for stilt-walkers, disc jockeys, and face painters.

Of course there are still what he calls the “marquee jobs”—clowns. He says, “We’ll hire clowns from Wall Street. No problem.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25, 2009--Dolce & Gabbana

The morning after Barack Obama delivered his rousing version of a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, in which he called upon all Americans to sacrifice in order to participate in the restoration and rebuilding of the American economy and spirit, I finally got around to looking through last Sunday’s New York Times Spring 2009 Women’s Fashion supplement. Their annual glossy magazine that follows on the heels of Fashion Week in New York City.

Each one of these has a title and theme of its own. This year’s was cleverly named “A Stimulus Package”; and I naively thought it would be replete with hints how to dress appropriately and sensibly during the Great Recession. You know, where to get what used to be called “investment clothes,” those outfits that were spiffy yet practical and would last for a while since they weren’t so fashion-driven that they would, by next year, make it look as if you were wearing last year’s clothes.

But I should have known better. A clear hint about what was waiting for me after all the ads for Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and Hermes (these literally fill the first 15 pages) was previewed by Rona’s excitement Sunday morning when a friend and I returned from a walk on the beach,

She had the magazine on top of the stack of the other sections of the Sunday Times.

Before we could wash the remaining sand off our feet she sputtered, “I’ve got to show you something.” She picked up the magazine. “Look at this these.” She opened the supplement to an “editorial” page and waved it in front of us.

“Slow down. Slow down,” I said, still pumping endorphins that were released by our walk in the sun and sea and air. “You’re shaking that thing so much that I can’t see what you’re point to.”

“These pajamas.”


“From Dulce & Gabbana.”

“What about them?” I asked. She had stopped shaking the magazine and I could see a photo of a pair of shorty pajamas—the top and bottom floating separately in the air. The spread, like the others I learned this morning, had the punny title, “Beddie Buy.”

“I want you to guess how much they cost.”

We knew from her agitation and tone that they cost more than we would have guessed on our own, if we had been so inclined. “And one hint to help you, each piece is priced separately.”

“Ah, that will make it easier,” Peter said. He lives in rural Vermont where everyone wears flannels and so I knew he was being ironic—what does he know from silk pajamas?

But, he smirked, suggesting that he felt sure of his over-the-top guess, “I’ll say $500 each.”

I on the other hand live in Downtown Manhattan, not that far from Dolce & Gabbana’s Soho store, and thus I self-confidently proclaimed, “$750 each.”

It was then Rona’s turn to smirk. “Wrong on both counts. Want to try again?”

Neither of us wanted to. “No.” I said. “Just tell us how much. We’re feeling too good at the moment and want to get this over with.”

“OK. Are you ready for this?” We both nodded. “The top costs $1,795; and the shorts $1,595.”

To tell the truth we were both stunned. “Before sales tax that’s nearly thirty-four-hundred freaking dollars for a pair of freaking pajamas!

With that, she slammed the magazine back on the pile of papers and stormed out the door for her own walk on the beach.

I knew she would come back in an hour all mellowed out. For me on the other hand, the morning was ruined.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February 24, 2009--The "Self-Entitled"

Because of the current economic meltdown, while we are in the process of resetting the value of assets--from real estate to stocks to appropriate corporate salaries and bonuses to Armani suits--there are other things that also need correcting and recalibrating.

Take college grades for example.

For decades concern has been expressed about grade inflation, a kind of academic bubble that has seen average grades for courses swell well beyond what a normal Bell Curve would suggest reflects normal variations in human potential and achievement.

I am old enough to remember when many professors graded us according to that curve, informing us at the beginning of, say, Organic Chemistry, that he would lay out all of our numerical grades on a curve and award those in the top ten percent A’s and those in the bottom 10 percent F’s. The rest, those of us receiving (he said “earning”) B’s and C’s and D’s would be sliced from the swollen center of the Bell Curve.

Unfortunately for me, since I tended to reside for the most part in that average middle, a few years later, under various forms of political, social, and parental pressure, grades began to inflate so that by the end of the 1970s Ivy League college professors and many others were giving so many students As that by graduation time fully 75 percent of graduating seniors were earning Latin Honors. Again, in my day, at my Ivy League college, only about 10 percent of my most-brainy classmates were thus magna or summa cum lauded.

But in spite of calls for professors to ratchet things back at least a bit, grade inflation, like the housing bubble, has continued to expand so that now even at community colleges, where one would think that the pressure from affluent and entitled-feeling students and their parents would not be so palpable, grade inflation is also a problem.

It is a problem because it reinforces that sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations that then later plays out badly as these students graduate and enter full adulthood, relationships, and the world of work. Being unrealistically evaluated, in truth all the way from kindergarten onward, does not prepare young people very well for the vicissitudes of what they will encounter when they have inevitably to face the “real world’s” hurdles, bumps, and worse.

So it is encouraging to see that the way college grades are awarded is again in the news. The New York Times recently wrote about an awkwardly worded but still well-titled study that says it all, “Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors.”

This University of California study found that a third of students said they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent felt they were entitled to a B for just completing the required reading. In effect, that a B should be the default grade. (Article linked below.)

According to the associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality . . . that ‘If I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’”

Confirming this, in the entitlement study, nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed claimed that if they tried hard, when grading them, professors should take that into consideration.

Summing up this attitude, one student asserted, “I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade. What else is there really than the effort you put in?”

I have an answer for that--How about evidence that you’ve actually learned something?

He continued, “If you put in all the effort you have [sic] and get a C, what is the point? If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves.”

And then, my favorite part, he adds, “If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Indeed there is. And doesn’t this sound very much like what we have been hearing from whiners on Wall Street about why the are entitled to their bonuses, their version of A’s, “I deserve them because I worked hard. Seventy hours a week. Isn’t that worth something?”

Well, yes, it is. But if and only if you and your bank actually made any money, rather than losing billions and then being bailed out at taxpayers’, sorry, my expense.

Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Nancy

I hadn’t seen my 100 year-old mother so upset since the Reverend Wright surfaced. At that time she wasn’t as much concerned about Barack Obama’s association with him as she was worried that it would derail his candidacy.

“What’s going on, mom? You seem so agitated.” We had driven down for a visit. My brother and sister-in-law were there as well. It was to be a relaxed family dinner.

“It’s Nancy.”

“Who?” There is no Nancy in our family or in her circle of Forest Trace friends.

“Nancy Pelosi.”

“What about her?” We all leaned closer to her to hear what was on her mind. She was speaking very quietly but with great agitation. It was good that my brother is a cardiologist in case her state of being turned into a medical emergency.

“Her junket to Europe. That’s what’s bothering me.”

“I did read that she was in Rome, visiting with the Pope and that he gave her a lecture because of her support for a woman’s right to choose.”

“Not that. I’m glad she’s in favor of that. And I know she saw the Pope. But I’m furious because she really went to Europe for a vacation. And flew there on a big government jet that the taxpayers paid for. And,” she added with some venom, “she took her whole entourage with her. At a time like this.”

“She doesn't have an entourage,” I said as calmly as I could, “I suspect that with her on the plane was a delegation of other congress people. Typically, during Congress’ Presidents Day recess they travel to other countries to find out what’s going on there so they can better represent America’s interest.”

“I don’t believe that for one minute. They’re all on a junket at our expense. I know this has gone on forever,” she was reading my mind—that’s what I was about to say, “but with so many losing their jobs and homes it is an outrage that she should be doing this. And I heard,” she was trembling with anger, “she doesn’t have to submit her expense report until after she’s back sixty days. I can only imagine what she’ll put on that report. Do you think if she goes skiing we should be paying for that?”

“I doubt that she’s going skiing, but if she does she’ll have to pay for that herself.”

“I heard that the airplane alone is costing more than $200,000. With that money we could help two families pay off their mortgages. If they want to go on these kinds of trips they should fly commercial, just like everyone else. This is just like the automobile executives flying to Washington in their private jets.”

“I don’t see that as the same thing.”

“Well, I do.” And she added, “Even if she and her entourage all flew first class it would cost a lot less than that.”

“But you know,” I tried to say, “constitutionally she’s next in line to become president if God forbid something terrible happened to President Obama and Vice President. They have to keep her safe. They do this with all Speakers of the House. That’s why she flies on a government plane.”

“You tell me they couldn’t keep her safe on a regular plane? I don’t believe that either.”

“But still it’s true.”

“She should stay home and do the job she was elected to do—work with Obama on fixing the economy.”

“Well, she did take the lead to put the stimulus bill together. There’s not much for her or Congress to do right now. It’s more up to the Obama administration to see that the money is spent wisely. You see that he met with the mayors and governors this weekend to talk with them about that?”

“I did see that and he was very good, saying—how did he put it—that he would call to them if they didn’t.”

“’Call them out’ he said, which means to hold them up to public scrutiny and criticism.”

“Whatever. He put it well and I hope he follows through. I don’t want to be hearing stories from the Republicans that the money is going to those bridges going nowhere.”

“But about Nancy Pelosi, don’t you agree that as the third highest elected official we have she should be visiting other countries to represent the new administration, to talk with leaders in Europe and elsewhere that America wants to relate to them in new ways? Isn’t that an important role for her to play?”

“We have Hillary Clinton and the people she appointed to do that. That’s what they’re getting paid to do. This is not Nancy Pelosi’s job. Not for the amount of money it’s costing for her to be gallivanting around. She should stay home and concentrate on her work in Congress.”

“Isn’t it important though,” my brother joined in, “that the United States shouldn’t cut back on all of its spending? Wouldn’t that give the signal to the rest of the world that we’re bankrupt?”

“Excellent point,” I added, happy to have him join the discussion. “And considering how many hundreds of billions and even trillions we’re spending on other things why should we be making such a big deal over only a quarter of a million?”

“I can’t believe what you’re saying. If we want to change the ways we do business,” my mother said, pointing at her two sons, “we have to change this too. We have to say this kind of irresponsible spending—no matter how much or little it may be—that it has to stop. Obama should tell her to stop taking these kinds of trips.”

“But mom,” I said, “he can’t tell her that. He doesn’t control what Congress does. The Constitution says that . . ."

“Please stop bringing up the Constitution. I know what’s in it. How the three branches of government are separate. That’s a good thing. But what she is doing is unnecessary and not a good thing. It’s an arrogant and greedy thing.”

“Where are you hearing all these things about Nancy Pelosi? From O’Reilly?” I knew that she watched him every night even though she says she disagrees with him. That she wants to hear what the Fox News people have to say. To know what the Republicans are up to.

“Never mind where I’m hearing this. If it’s true, it’s bad and has to be stopped.”

“They’re turning Nancy Pelosi into a political piñata,” it was my brother again. “They know how popular Obama is and are afraid to criticize him too harshly. So they’re trying to turn Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid into the enemy.”

“Exactly,” I chimed in again. “That’s exactly what O’Reilly and Limbaugh and Hannity are up to. They’re trying to demonologize them in order to attack all Democrats, including Obama by association.”

“That may be true; but in the current situation with so many Americans suffering and angry about everything and with everyone in government and in business, Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t be prancing around the world spending our money. And for that matter, even Barack Obama himself should think about things he can do to be more responsible about his own expenses. He needed to have such a fancy dinner last night at the White House for the governors? I heard on the news--not on Fox but CNN--that some Americans don’t have enough money to buy food for their dogs and cats. This should not be. While this is happening to people, they shouldn’t be spending tens of thousands on unnecessary black-tie dinners. Maybe when the Queen is here. But not for those governors.”

“Well,” I tried again, “we don’t want to send the world the message that we’re too poor to afford things of this kind. As we said, considering how much we spend on other things this is . . .”

Totally exasperated with me she cut me off in mid sentence. “Listen to yourself,” she said more calmly, pronouncing each word separately in order to underscore her point, “you sound like someone who has become so disenchanted and cynical about the way things are that you’ve lost your ability to feel offended by this kind of outrageous behavior. Actually, you sound like someone who no longer has the ability to be outraged. This is very dangerous in a democracy.”

“That’s not fair. I do . . .

Ignoring me she continued, “You’ve become very good at rationalizing things and making excuses for behavior that has no business being excused.”

“But mom . . .”

“Don’t ‘but-mom’ me. You know better than this. At least you used to. If we lose our ability to be outraged about things like this, nothing will change, and what Obama’s election represents, or promises, will be lost.”

“But as I was trying to say, like Len said, these attacks on Pelosi are just partisan politics. The Republicans playing politics at the expense of the country. Just trying to get reelected and back into power. That’s really what’s going on.” I thought this would end the debate and win her over. She knew this was true. She has been around more than 100 years and seen things of this kind. Much worse things.

“This is not a partisan issue. It’s bipartisan. I know we’re supposed to forget bipartisanship now that the Republicans are doing whatever they can to undermine Obama. But we have to be bipartisan in our criticism, in holding both Republicans and Democrats equally responsible. That’s true bipartisanship. If Democrats behave badly, like Nancy Pelosi is, we have to hold them as accountable as we would Republicans.” She paused to let her point sink in. And then added with finality, “It’s as simple and as complicated as that.”

For a minute no one said anything further until Rona whispered to me loud enough for all to hear, “You know she’s right.”

And that ended it. Rona was right: my mother was right.

Friday, February 20, 2009

February 20, 2009--Day Off

I will be back on Monday.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

February 19, 2009--Behavioral Diplomacy

Like the new fields of Behavioral Economics and Behavioral Finance, I have been thinking about a new diplomatic field, one I here tentatively name Behavioral Diplomacy. A new approach that I am sensing the Obama administration is rolling out.

Like its economic brethren, Behavioral Diplomacy owes much to the field of psychology. Thus, rather than just focusing on traditional aspects of diplomacy—the step-by-step building of political, economic, military, and cultural relationships—it seeks to engage other countries, especially those that have traditionally defined as our enemies, psychologically. It recognizes that the leaders of countries, like all individuals, do not always behave rationally—according to what would appear to be their best self-interest.

Why, for example, would Iran and North Korea, both with deeply troubled economies (in North Korea’s case many people live on the brink of starvation), why would they invest so much in ambitious nuclear programs? On the surface, it “makes no sense.” But in Behavioral Diplomatic terms they are both being guided by a national emotional logic that actually makes perfect sense.

They both feel respect-poor and thus seek to expand their military power, at least the threat of it, to gain the attention and regard of other countries in their region, but especially the western powers. Read, particularly, the United States.

Behavioral economics and behavioral finance are closely related fields that have evolved to become separate branches of economic and financial analysis where they apply research on human, social, cognitive, and emotional factors to better understand economic decisions by consumers, borrowers, and investors; and how these affect prices and the way consumers and institutions allocate resources.

For example, applying traditional economic theory to the ways in which people make decisions about what house to buy, it is assumed that they think about it rationally—checking comparable prices in the neighborhood, analyzing the performance of local public schools, making a careful assessment of their capacity to get and pay for a mortgage, having an engineer inspect the property to see if there are any structural or mechanical problems--smart things of this kind.

But behavioral economic research suggests that other, less rational factors are at work—real estate agents call it the "Ah-Ha Factor": If clients open the front door and are hit by a wave of feeling that makes them feel that this is the place for us, this feels like home, they are more likely than not to overlook practical issues and make every effort to buy the place.

In diplomacy, if the Obama foreign policy team can successfully appeal to countries sense of national and cultural pride—as Hillary Clinton was attempting to do yesterday in Islamic Indonesia—thus showing them the respect they seek--perhaps they will begin to look at America, begin to reciprocate, by also relating to us in new ways.

A dramatic example of this is the remarkable turn-around in Libya’s behavior. For years Libya, under the dictatorial leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, with a well-developed nuclear weapons program, was a state sponsor of terrorism, which included the attack in 1988 on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that murdered nearly 300. Libya began to change its behavior and accept responsibility for the bombing of the Pan Am flight and slowly emerged from international scorn and economic isolation after a controversial 1997 visit by Nelson Mandela in which Mandela literally put his arm around Gaddafi and called him his “African brother.” And in 2003, Libya voluntarily began to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The traditional diplomatic weapons of economic sanctions and international isolation certainly brought Libya to the point of openness to Mandela’s form of behavioral diplomacy; but I suspect without the latter it would likely have been decades more before we would have seen any dramatic changes in Libya’s posturing on the world stage.

Gaddafi and Libya have gone so far in their rehabilitation that even the Bush administration used them as an example when urging North Korea to amend its ways, and Gaddafi today is serving as chairman of the 53-nation African Union.

Currently, Richard Holbrooke, newly named to be our representative in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, has been speaking openly about how Iran can be helpful there to our mutual interests. Ours are obvious; but Iran, which shares to its east a lengthy border with Afghanistan, across which almost all Afghani opium is smuggled, has its own reasons to be concerned about a return to power of the Taliban and a resurgent al Qaeda.

Again, then, there are traditionally-defined national security reasons why Iran might want to be involved in helping in Afghanistan (they actually have been since 2002); but it is unlikely that they will expand that participation until and unless the United States begins to treat them with the respect to which they as a nation feel entitled. When they were Persia they were recognized as one of the great powers of the ancient world and want now to be regarded accordingly. The move toward the development of atomic weapons is perhaps as much to underline that point and, as with Libya, to get world’s attention. In that regard it is certainly working.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been talking about using all aspects of our power as we attempt to find new ways to navigate our way among nations—not so exclusively deploying military power as in the recent past.

They speak about the power of economic development, the example of our values, and utilizing the tools of diplomacy. They will succeed, and we are already seeing evidence that they understand this, if that diplomacy is nuanced and includes the unique power that can be mobilized only by engaging others in the realm of behavior.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18, 2009--Dow 7,000

Last week when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced the outline of the Obama administrations financial institutions restructuring plan, it fell on more than deaf ears--the Dow Jones average plunged about 400 point. Yesterday, while President Obama was signing the recently passed stimulus bill, it fell another 300 points. (See New York Times article linked below.)

In both cases, chatterers on CNBC and elsewhere were unanimous in saying that "Wall Street was delivering a vote of no confidence” on the economic policies of the less-than-month-old administration.

I say, "Phooey."

It was a vote of no confidence on Wall Street itself. Since when has the Dow been the arbiter of macroeconomic policy or, for that matter, anything meaningful?

In fact, it is fundamentally self-referential, more a report about the state of Wall Street itself as the world's largest and most manipulated gambling casino.

Tell me how when you buy a stock you are “investing,” as it is claimed, in a particular company? Isn’t it true that you are purchasing that stock from another so-called investor rather than from the company itself? The only one who did any investing is the person who bought that stock when it was first issued by the company. After that, it passes from hand to hand among traders. Not investors. So let’s clear up that fantasy.

And the price one pays for a stock many years after it was first offered is rarely pegged to the current fortunes of the issuing company. If it were, Proctor and Gamble, which is still operating about as profitably as in the recent past, would not have seen the “value” of one of its shares drop from $75 each a year ago to just $50 yesterday. So let’s also clear up the claim that the value of stocks is pegged to a company’s performance.

What we’re left with then is the fact that stock market “investors” who, since they are not trading anything of intrinsic value, are in fact gamblers and hustlers who would have been run out of town long ago if they had been operating on the streets of my old Brooklyn neighborhood.

Not part of the change we need are economic policies that will make the Street happy, but rather those that will make it unhappy. Unhappy and diminished sufficiently so that they will be exposed for what they really have been up to and as a result scaled back in size and stature so as to no longer serve as the bellwether for the larger economy.

I’ve been hit hard too and know there will be a further price to pay if and when the Dow continues to plummet. But it will be a price worth paying to flush out all the corruption and excessive greed that has been part of what has infected our economy and place in the world.

On CNBC yesterday, though I forget who it was, a CEO of a large investment firm was decrying the restrictions on executive compensation that were written into the stimulus bill at the last minute. He was moaning that if these remain in effect, it will drive all “the talent” out of Wall Street and the banking community and won’t that be a bad thing.

I had two reactions—if in fact all these folks leave on their own momentum (sure), just where will they next deploy that talent? On shovel-ready projects in their hometowns after moving in with their parents, assuming they haven’t lost their house to the bank?

And, if these guys (mainly guys) are so talented, how come they made the mess we’re in and from which we are desperately trying to recover?

It’s time to redirect our economy toward more productive work and real ventures. We need to exorcize from the system those who have puffed up and then live high on the bubbles they create out of insubstantial air. Let’s create some real businesses. Let’s build some things.

Things are ugly and will get uglier still, but what radical surgery isn’t?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 17, 2008--Don't Stop the Muzak

Not to be lost in an era of iconic business failures, when a Lehman brothers and a Bear Stearns slip away, is the recently announced failure of a company that has been with us as a part of our public consciousness for many decades: Muzak, the New York Times reports, that ubiquitous supplier of elevator music, has filed for bankruptcy. (Article linked below.)

Like many other tottering firms, Muzak has run up so much debt that it cannot pay its creditors. Most of these are music companies that license the rights of the music Muzak provides to those elevators but more and more to retail stores and shopping centers.

Some critics have long decried the environmental pollution Muzak emits via its soporific adaptions of otherwise well-regarded popular music, seeing it as contributing to the dumbing-down of American culture. I do remember wondering about this myself when back in the 1970s even Beatles’ tunes such as easy-listening versions of Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, which in themselves to me felt sacrilegious, showed up on the Muzak playlist.

Calming this indictment down a bit, if mildly offensive, Muzak did at least seem benign. What real harm could come of this usurpation?

Populist that I prided myself in being, I even found myself trying to make the case that bringing the Beatles to the masses this way, at a time when they were still seen to be divisive and even subversive, might be a good thing. There was very much a generation gap that not only separated the young from the values of their post-Depression parents, often revealed in the interests and tastes of youth, that might be good to attempt to bridge. Perhaps Musak, I took a deep breath and struggled to articulate, might help with that.

My friends, of course, shot me down, arguing that if America and the world were going to change, which we agreed was desperately needed, if other more significant gaps were to be closed—in wealth, in race, in gender—about which we also agreed, then the disruptive, some said revolutionary, popular culture of the young needed to be declared off limits to the encroachment of unbridled commerce.

They were right. How right has been underlined for me as I have recently been thinking about the possible demise of Muzak,

It come into existence in the 1920s when Major General George O. Squier secured a patent to transmit signals over electrical lines. He quickly saw this as a way to distribute music without the use of radio technology, which at the time required elaborate and expensive equipment. But by the 1930s radio transmission had become so much more practical that the general realized the best opportunity for his company (its name derived from the brand name Kodak) was to sell subscriptions to commercial customers of the music from the records it played at a central location and transmitted, still via electrical circuits. Thus the music soon heard in factories and retail stores all over the country.

World War II saw a further increase in the popularity of Muzak, as manufacturers pushed for ever-greater production to support the war effort. Muzak began to conduct its own psychological research, and soon customized the pace and style of the music provided throughout the workday in an effort to increase productivity (a technique it called ‘’Stimulus Progression’’). It also began recommending that the music be played at low volume levels, and discovered that alternating blocks of music with periods of silence increased production.

After the war, this approach to motivating workers quickly spilled over into white-collar workplaces and retail businesses, designed either to increase corporate output or stimulate sales through an early form of subliminal motivation. Flashing quick images of Coke and popcorn at movie theaters was not far behind.

Still, even knowing what I now know about greed, I hope they emerge from Chapter 11 since, I must confess, when you live on the 14th floor, in these times, a little Muzak goes a long way.

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16, 2009--Explain This One To Me

The other day Rona had a good point. Let me see if I can remember how she unfurled the thread. It had to do with the votes in both the Senate and House to pass Barack Obama’s stimulus plan. More specifically why so few Republicans voted for it.

She began by asking if I knew the precise vote in Congress. I had to look it up. 246 to 183 in the House and 60 to 38 in the Senate.

“And how many Republicans?” No need to look that up. It had been widely reported, over and over and over again that none voted for it in the House and only three, an essential three in the Senate.

“So much for bipartisanship,” I said.

“I think you’re wrong about that,” Rona said. “To get those three Republican senators to vote for it the Democrats, including the White House, had to include quite a few specific Republican kinds of things in the language of the final bill. There are many more tax cuts than Obama or congressional Democrats would have liked. Like there are quite a few tax breaks for corporations. I read that Senator Olympia Snow slipped in a provision that cut corporate tax rates retroactively. Since there are not that many profits now to tax, one of her amendments will allow them to get retroactive reductions for the past five years when there were profits. But this is not my point.”

“What is it then?”

“Again, about who did and did not vote for the bill.”


“Let me add another element.”


“We listened to Senator Gregg on Thursday when he withdrew his nomination for Secretary of Commerce and both of us were struck by how honest he seemed when he said that he had been a senator for 30 years and liked being his ‘own man,’ I think that’s how he put it. And that he wouldn’t be comfortable being in Obama’s cabinet or, he added, in anyone’s cabinet. That he was too independent for that.”

“Yes that’s what he said, but before that he had issued a written statement in which he said that he was withdrawing because of ideological differences with Obama. That he couldn’t support the stimulus bill—in fact he voted against it the next day. Two very different kinds of statements—one political and one personal.”

“Yes, more flakey than independent.”

“What’s the New Hampshire state motto? ‘Live Free or Die’?”

“Exactly my point. Forget for a moment all the bipartisanship talk. Though I think it’s a good idea to try to govern that way and I’m sure Obama will keep trying to do so, as long as good things get done I don’t care how many Republicans vote for something. But aren’t people in Congress famous for claiming that though they are elected by their constituents they consider themselves to be independent minded, especially on critical issues when the fate of something important hangs in the balance?”

“Yes, they do say those kinds of things.”

“Again, how many Republicans are there in Congress?”

“Let me Google that. Give me a moment. All right, a total of 219. 178 in the House and 41 in the Senate.”

“So all of three of those 178 were, quote, ‘independent’ enough to vote yes. Including the dozen or so Republicans who have already announced they are retiring from Congress two years from now, including live-free-or-die Senator Gregg, who in his schizophrenic press conference was full of praise for the stimulus bill. Even six Democrats in the House voted against it.”

“It is hard to explain especially since the Republican alternative for how to get the economy moving is more tax cut and less government spending.”

“We know how well the Bush tax cuts worked. And the Republicans for the past eight years were the biggest spenders in history.”

“In fact, in this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman writes about the results of the latest Survey of Consumer Finances, a once every three years report on the assets and liabilities of Americans where the bottom line is that there has been basically no wealth creation since 2001. That the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was then.” (Article linked below.)

“So much then for Republican credibility and the economy. Though I suppose most wouldn’t be unhappy that the wealth of those at the top, until a few months ago at least, did increase dramatically.”

“What then is your bottom line?”

“Calling themselves independent-minded is obviously hypocrisy. What this is all about is plain and simple: the party whose campaign slogan during the last elections was ‘Country First’ put politics first. They hope the stimulus plan fails, that things get worse here for Americans in order to regain control of the Senate and House so they can reclaim their committee chairmanships and get the tax cuts and earmarks rolling again.”

“That sounds about right to me.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13, 2009--Paraskavedekatriaphobia

The fear of Friday the 13th (thank you Wikipedia) is called Paraskavedekatriaphobia, a word derived from the concatenation of the Greek words Paraskeví (Παρασκευή) (meaning Friday), and dekatreís (δεκατρείς) (meaning thirteen), attached to phobía (φοβία) (meaning fear). This is a specialized form of triskaidekaphobia, a simple phobia (fear) of the number thirteen, and is also known as friggatriskaidekaphobia.

Now that you’ve got that memorized, we can proceed.

One theory states that Friday the 13th is a modern amalgamation of two older superstitions: that thirteen is an unlucky number and that Friday is an unlucky day.
In numerology, the number twelve is considered the number of completeness, as reflected in the twelve months of the year, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve hours of the clock, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Apostles of Jesus, twelve gods of Olympus, etc., whereas the number thirteen was considered irregular, transgressing this completeness. There is also a superstition, thought by some to derive from the Last Supper or a Norse myth, that having thirteen people seated at a table will result in the death of one of the diners.

Friday has been considered an unlucky day at least since the 14th century's The Canterbury Tales, and many other professions have regarded Friday as an unlucky day to undertake journeys or begin new projects. Black Friday has been associated with stock market crashes and other disasters since the 1800s. It has also been suggested that Friday was the day that Jesus was crucified.

Now of course I do not believe any of this. If, for example, 12 is such a good number, why isn’t 11 the problem? Or nine?

How about Monday the 9th? What’s so good about Mondays? You like having to go back to work?

In March we will have a Monday the 9th. Let’s see how good you do that day. One thing I can tell you, I’ll be getting what remains of my money out of the stock market by then before Black Monday.

And just to be safe today, I’m going back to bed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12, 2009--Typed Out

I'm needing to refresh my brain and so will take the day off. But I will be back tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 11, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Definitions Republican Style

“I’ve only got a minute.” It was my mother calling.

“Me too. Are you OK?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. But I have to run in a moment. It’s one of the girls 100th birthday and they’re having a pizza party for her this afternoon. I want to get a table in the back so I can sneak out without being noticed. I don’t have all day for these things.”


“Did you see Barack Obama’s town meeting in Ft. Myers?”

“I did.”

“So what did you think? Good, no?”

“I thought he did well but not as well as the day before in Indiana and then at his press conference. I thought he was a little more articulate then, but he did do well today.”

“I’ll get to that in a minute, but did you also listen to that new head of the Republican Party Sunday on Stephanopoulus?” I told her I hadn’t. “Well, you sure missed something. They got into a big fight about the difference between work and a job. He was attacking Obama’s stimulus plan saying it was going to create work but not jobs. Staphanopoulus couldn’t help himself from almost laughing at that, saying there wasn’t a difference. But this man, whose, name I’ve forgotten. . .”

“Michael Steele,” I said, “I think he was the lieutenant governor of Delaware or Maryland.”

“Whatever. Can you believe this? They’re doing it again. Just like during Bush. Making up their own definitions of things. If this is the best they can come up with, they’ll never become the majority party again. As we saw earlier today in Ft. Myers people are hurting and angry and the best they can come up with is this.”

“I agree. It sounds pathetic. I think Steele’s point must have been that Obama and the Democrats don’t believe that private business is the best way to create jobs, which is what the Republicans keep saying, even though these businesses are laying off tens of thousands of workers, and that the government jobs are really ‘make-work,’ and don’t add anything to the economy.”

“Exactly. But isn’t it true that if a government decides to fix a bridge and has the money to do it they hire a private contractor to do the job? Government workers don’t do it.”

“That’s my understanding of how this works.”

“So they’re just playing politics again.”

“I agree with that too.”

“But what I really called you about is another definition, like with ‘work’ and ‘job.’”

“I’m listening.”

“Did you see today who introduced Barack Obama?”

“I missed that. I was on the phone when he began.”

“Charlie Crist. You know of course who he is now that you’re spending the winter in Florida.”

“Yea I do. The governor of Florida. I’m hearing that he wants to run for president in four years.”

“You’re making my point for me. So what was he doing introducing Obama? He’s a Republican. Republican members of Florida’s congressional delegation didn’t even come to the meeting, but Crist was not only there but introduced Obama and said he supported the stimulus plan.”

“That is interesting. I’m sorry I missed it.”

“Well, to me this was the same thing as that Steele was saying on Sunday.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you.”

“This time I’m talking about bipartisanship.”

“Again, I’m not . . .”

“The definition. Of ‘bipartisanship.’”

“Go on.”

“You’ve been hearing all the people on TV talking about this. How Obama is trying to act that way but no one in the House of Representatives voted for it and only three I believe it was in the Senate.”

“Yes, three.”

“They keep saying how this bipartisan thing is not working. Maybe, they claim, the Republicans are trying to see how much they can get Obama to compromise and agree to put in the bill for them; but then when it comes time to vote no one vote with him.”

“Yes, I’ve been following that line of argument.”

“So what then do you make of Charlie Crist? Or Arnold what’s-his name in California? Aren’t they Republicans?”

“Schwarzenegger. And yes they are.”

“And aren’t there other governors who are Republicans, and mayors too, who are supporting the president on this?”

“Yes, there’s Jodi Rell in Connecticut and Governor Daniels in Vermont and, can you believe it, even Sarah Plain. Your favorite. And Governor Daniels from Indiana and . . .”

“I told you I have to run so you don’t have to tell me all the names since I’ll promptly forget them. At 100 you lose your short-term memory.”

“You seem to be doing pretty well to me.”

“I’m lucky if I know what I had for dinner yesterday.”

“You’re doing great mom. And you always tell me how bad the food is in the dining room.”

“So it’s a good thing then that I can’t remember what I had.”

“Please, finish your point. You told me you have only a few minutes.”

“You see, I forgot that too!” She chuckled at herself. But added, “It’s again about definitions—‘work-jobs,’ ‘bipartisanship.’ It’s not just about how many votes he gets in Congress. Isn’t it also about the support he gets from other politicians? Governors and mayors too? And what about the people?”

“Again I’m not . . .”

“Well, if 75 percent of the people think he’s doing a good job, since he got only 53 percent of the vote in November, this must mean that lots of Republicans now are supporting him. Isn’t that also bipartisanship?”

“I suppose . . .” But she had already hung up. She had to run. The pizza would be getting cold.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10, 2009--Not Getting By On $500K Per

It distressed me to learn from a recent article in the New York Times (linked below) that some folks in Manhattan will have a hard time living on only $500,000 a year, the compensation limit Barack Obama spoke about last week for executives of financial institutions receiving taxpayer subsides. Now I know that New York is expensive, but give me a break.

To be fair, assume you’re a married couple, have two kids, live in a condo with a mortgage, and send your children to private school. What’s your annual nut?

Tuition will run you about $30,000 per kid; if you’re living on the Upper Eastside (west of Third Avenue, which is the only place to be) in a three bedroom apartment your likely mortgage will be $95,000 a year; condo maintenance fees another $95,000; and since you’ll need a nanny that will set you back in the vicinity of $45,000 (if you pay the required taxes!). This brings you to nearly $300K and we haven’t yet gotten to federal, state, and city taxes (not a killer thanks to George Bush, though still for certain at least $150,000) or food or vacations or transportation, shopping, Pilates, hair, nails, or the always-hard-to-calculate “incidentals.”

Now, assuming one of your children is “average,” in spite of the fact that no child living in Lake Wobegon or between Fifth and Madison is ever thus defined, and you want to make sure he has all the advantages, in addition to all the résumé-building you have to subsidize from age three to assure that he gets into a good college (chess lessons, violin lessons, soccer lessons, Latin lessons, etc.) when the time comes you’ll also have to spring for tutors and SAT coaches. The former will run you about $125 an hour while the latter will cost upwards of twice that.

Your “gifted” other child will need to have her Mandarin lessons in addition to her Latin and from at least age 12 will need to spend time during summers, not in the Hamptons with the rest of you, but in Europe polishing up her French and Spanish accents and being immersed in early Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, which might serve as good matter subject for one of her college application essays.

I do not just mean to mock this, though I haven’t thus far resisted, because being able to provide these kinds of extras for one’s children is a wonderful thing. But it is the disproportionality of how such advantages have been distributed in America that is what is truly distressing and which are being glaringly exposed now that the economy has hit everyone hard, very much including many high-fliers who have been the primary beneficiaries of the various bubbles that have up to this point enriched them.

There is so much frustration and even populist rage out there that many want to see brought down those who have been living at the expense of rest of us. In addition to whatever sense of justice that might provide and how much the gaps between the very rich and the middle class might be reduced, there may also turn out to be some other social benefits.

It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, would it, if that “average” Upper Eastside high school senior, without being artificially pumped up by expensive tutors and coaches, wound up at a state college (nothing wrong with that) and his place at NYU went to someone more deserving. Or if he had to go to public school in the city, which would help diversify it and help make the place better for everyone. Or if a few of the fancy Greenwich Village and Soho stores went out of business and as a result the rents were to come down so that young entrepreneurs would have a chance to bring back some funky texture to the city. And if the price of housing were to decline, after the Sex and the City crowd were flushed out, perhaps we’d see the return of struggling artists to the Big Apple.

The woman down here who served me coffee yesterday morning has been working seven days a week at three jobs for the past 18 months to keep her house from foreclosure and to pay off her college debts (she was trained to be an EMT at the local community college). Thus far, she has maintained her optimistic spirit and positive energy, but when the guy sitting next to me who runs a small tow truck business began to rail about Bernie Madoff and all those “Wall Street fat cats,” her ears perked up and I could see she was paying attention.

Monday, February 09, 2009

February 9, 2009--Snowbirding: The Red Onion

It’s finally come to this—consuming thoughts about what to do with the remaining three quarters after the dish I was preparing required just one tablespoon of minced red onion.

I was making a side dish of pineapple salsa to accompany chili con carne, thinking it would work very well, its coolness a refreshing complement to the heat of the chili’s spice base. We were motivated to think about making salsa since we already had about a third of a left over fresh pineapple and some two-day old cilantro—both perfect for the salsa. But we needed a bit of red onion, which we thus bought during our next supermarket run.

I am happy to be able to report that both dishes worked out well, but we were left with the challenge of coming up with a recipe that would require just the amount of the red onion I had wrapped in Saran and stashed in the vegetable bin of the frig.

Quite soon a partial solution presented itself: Rona had been eating away during lunch at a rotisserie chicken we had picked up a few days ago; but at the rate she was going at it, in a day or two we would either have to toss it or think about what to do with a half of the remaining hacked-at chicken. If you have been following these Snowbirding pieces, unlike during our Manhattan life, you already know that the former was not an option; so after a bit of a struggle about what to do I was pleased with myself when I came up with an idea to take care of not just the soon-to-be-spoiled chicken but also at least some of the onion: chicken croquettes.

They are not an elegant gourmet-ish dish, but almost everyone takes an occasional guilty pleasure in eating croquettes of one sort of another. Who can resist almost anything that’s pan-fried?

So I deboned the chicken, chunked it, and then blasted it into a sort of mush in the Cuisinart. Talking about something non-gourmet, to that I next added about half a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup; a couple of fistfuls of homemade bread crumbs (from about a dozen breadsticks); half a finely chopped yellow pepper (more about the other half in a moment); and, most satisfying of all, about two tablespoons of minced red onion.

I mixed everything together with my hands and from the result made four four-inch diameter patties, which I then, to solidified them, placed in the refrigerator for an hour before frying them up crispy brown in Canola oil. Some steamed fresh spinach and a side of sinful hash brown potatoes made perfect accompaniments. But again, I was left with some of that relentless red onion—a little less than a third of it, which I rewrapped in the saved Saran and once again deposited in the vegetable cooler.

With that piece of onion on my mind, two evenings later, Rona said, “We haven’t made fish for awhile. There’s so much good fresh-caught fish here in Florida. Maybe we could buy some and you could make one of your baked fish dishes. I used to love those when we had our house in East Hampton.”

Thus the next afternoon we bought two filets of perfect-looking Key West Snapper at the Old Dixie Seafood shop and at the farmers market four medium-sized potatoes and a bunch of fresh parsley. I remembered a recipe from Long Island days that called for beginning by baking in olive oil a layer of peeled and very thinly sliced potatoes before, after they have crisped, toping them with the fish on which you scatter a half cup of bread crumbs (I had retained enough for this from the previous week) ,a drizzle of olive oil, and then bake for about 15 minutes. Simple and delicious.

But as in the past I did a bit of improvising. Why not, I thought, slice up some mushrooms to also place on top of the filets and with the remaining yellow pepper and two carrots I had retained from something I had made the week before why not also slice them very thin and insert them into the potato layer? And while I’m at that, wouldn’t this also be an opportunity to slice up and use the rest of that red onion, also depositing it among the potatoes and now peppers and carrots? Sort of like killing three left-over birds with one recipe.

Immodestly, it worked out very well.

We had been so good about eating at home, both enjoying the cooking and the resulting dishes, that we decided to take a break from that and did some eating out—one night at Taverna Kyma, a local Greek place that does wonderful grilling on an open wood fire (environmental laws are much laxer in the south than up north and this does wonders for certain kinds of cooking) and where the portions of charred Mediterranean fish and richly flavored lamb are so generous that inevitably there is a box of food to take home for the next day’s lunch; and a second night at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza where again the unregulated coal ovens turn out about the best pizza on the east coast and again where there are always at least three left-over slices to take home to freeze and out of which another lunch can be deliciously concocted; and then on a third night we . . .

Actually, on the third night we got back to cooking at home. The remaining parsley I had bought at the Woolbright Market was beginning to wilt and I was eager to do something with it. But I was stumped. There wasn’t enough to use in a faux pesto sauce and too much to sprinkle on another baked fish—though by then I did have some ideas about what to do with the swordfish that was beginning to show up at Old Dixie.

Then I remembered that they had been featuring little neck clams; and since it had been some time since I had made spaghetti with white clam sauce—spaghetti vongole—which calls for a smattering of chopped parsley, well, I was happy to realize, isn’t this the solution to my parsley problem?

And, of course, if any of the olive oil saturated pasta remained, which was certain, cold leftover spaghetti is one of Rona’s favorite warm day lunches. And with the weather here finally warming after a record-breaking cold snap . . .

Friday, February 06, 2009

February 6, 2009--Lazy Friday

I'm typed out for the week and so will return to this spot on Monday.

It does, though, look as if the Ladies of Forest Trace had it basically right yesterday--Obama has, to quote one news report, taken the gloves off and prospects for the desperately-needed-though-not-perfect stimulus bill are good. The Senate should pass an improved version of it perhaps as early as today. Just as the "girls" were saying.

I'll keep you in touch with what else they might be thinking. I am finding them at least as reliable about what's going on in Washington as CNN and my beloved (though far-from-perfect) New York Times!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

February 5, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Civics Lesson

“I know it’s only a little more than two weeks since he was inaugurated, but I’m feeling worried about his ability to lead and run the government.” I had just placed a call to my hundred-year-old mother as I had many times during the campaign when I was concerned about one thing or another.

“If you’re talking about that Daschle business, you can stop worrying.” Again, my mother was trying to calm me down. Which was why I had called in the first place.

“Well that too.”

“But didn’t you see him on CNN the other night?” I was ashamed to admit I was watching American Idol. But since I didn’t answer, knowing me so well, she sensed I was up to something like that and continued. “How did he put it when he was questioned by John King? ‘I screwed up,’ he said. Not that I like such language from a president, but when was the last time you remember a president admitting he made a mistake? He told us he would do that during the campaign, take responsibility, and there he was doing just what he promised. Not that I want him to, forgive me, ‘screw up,’ but if he does, and he most certainly will, I want him to be honest with us. I’m tired of what they on TV call that ‘spin’.”

“I agree with that.” I did see clips from that interview after Idol was over. “I also liked that he said we can’t have two sets of standards—one for what he called ‘prominent people’ and one for ‘ordinary citizens,’ though I wish he’d stop referring to the rest of us that way.”

“Darling, you’re losing sight of the big picture. Just like I was telling the girls downstairs at breakfast this morning. They too are concerned. But I told them, and I’ll tell you, don’t worry yourself so much about these kinds of things. We and the rest of the world are in big trouble, so big that we shouldn’t be criticizing him for his choice of words or his little missteps.”

“I agree with that too. Sorry. But that’s why I called. To talk about one of the big things. Maybe the biggest and most important thing—the stimulus package.”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, I heard that the bill the Senate is considering is on line.”

“I’m not following you.” I then remembered that though my mother, in spite of her age, is very up to date about most things, about computers and the Internet she is not so conversant; and so I said, “You can see the entire bill on your computer. Via the Internet. And since it’s been so criticized for being loaded up with pork barrel spending I wanted to see for myself what’s in it.”

“And what did you find?”

“First of all, it’s at least three hundred pages long. And though I didn’t read every word, to me it does look as if it is full of these kinds of things—every congressman’s favorite program. Worse, since I’m a Democrat, every Democrat’s pet project. And although I do know that these can provide jobs for people, it doesn’t look good from a political perspective, especially if President Obama is going to sign it. He will be accused of caving in to the forces of business-as-usual in the very first major piece of legislation he signs. Legislation that will probably define his presidency more than any other.”

“Are you sure you read the right version of the bill?”

“I’m not following you. It’s the one the Senate is considering.”

“Probably the one they passed in the House last week.”

“I’m still not following you. I found it on the Senate’s website. Again, on the computer,” I hastened to add as if that gave it extra validity.

“Well, that in fact must be the one the House voted for.”

“But why then is it on the Senate website? I thought they were working on their own version.”

“Clearly you’ve forgotten what you learned in your high school Civics class. You did take Civics, didn’t you?”

She very well knew that I did. “You mean about how a bill becomes a law?”

“Exactly. Tell me what you remember.”

“Bills like this one that have tax implications begin in the House and then they go to the Senate where they pass their own version and then if it is approved it goes to a committee made up of members from both houses; and if they can reach an agreement, and both houses pass the same version, it then goes to the president for signature. Of course at that point he can veto it and the Congress can try to overturn it. I do remember all of that.” I couldn’t believe I was reciting this to her as if on a final exam

“But since you tell me you’re worried about what is happening it sounds to me that you have forgotten the most important part.”

My mother had been a first grade teacher and some of that teacher tone and diction had crept into the way in which she was responding to me. But I chose to ignore that, though it always upset me when she spoke to me in that way—as if I were one of her first graders. Thus restrained, without attitude, I asked, “OK, so what am I forgetting?”

“You have the outline of how this works but you’re not remembering how things actually work—how they play the game in Washington as a bill moves through the process.”

“Go on.”

“In the case of this stimulus bill, since we know how smart Obama is, since it had to begin in the House of Representatives, rather than trying to tell them what to do, he, I feel, understood that Nancy Pelosi needed an opportunity early on in his presidency to show that even though there was at last a Democrat in the White House she still wanted to demonstrate her authority. She didn’t want to appear to be a rubber stamp for the new president. Sad, but that’s the way she is. And he also understood that many Democrats in the House had been frustrated that many of their favorite programs had not been adequately funded while Bush was president—he would veto any legislation that was dear to their hearts. Like more money for health care or education. Knowing this, Obama let House members fill up their version of the bill with money for these programs.

“He of course knew,” she continued, “that the House version would be criticized by Republicans who would be looking to end his honeymoon as soon as possible and by the media who didn’t want to appear to be too in love with everything he did. So Obama let things alone at that point. Which I myself think is very smart. As the girls do now. After talking with them this morning.” I heard her chuckle at that while I tried to imagine the table talk earlier in the day at Forest Trace—what my mother must have said to them to convince them not to worry about Obama.

“And now?” still unconvinced, I said, “To me he doesn’t seem to be doing all that much and, you’re right, the attacks on the bill and Democrats, even criticism of him, have become severe. You should see what they’re saying about him on The Daily Kos—a progressive blog. That’s why I called you in the first place—out of concern that things were not looking good for him. I hate to admit it, but to me too he’s looking passive. Too concerned with everything being bipartisan.”

“So then let’s get back to the civics lesson.” A little schoolmarmishness was again creeping back into her voice. Once more I chose to let it slide. “That’s only step one. Yes, the Senate will begin, they have begun, to work on the House bill. But, if they wish, they can virtually start from the beginning and write their own version. They won’t do this, of course, since the House will resent that and then there will be trouble once the committee gets their hands on it. But they will begin to take out some of the most obviously wasteful or politically controversial parts and they will add some of their own. Hopefully good ones. Ones that Obama wants to see in the final bill. You can see this already happening with them adding more help for homeowners.”

I agreed that I could see some of that. “So let’s just say,” my mother said, ”by the end of this week or next the Senate approves their version of the bill. But still it will be full of problems for the Obama administration, things Republicans and the people on TV can still pick on, and the public will still be asking, ‘Where’s the real change?’ You’ve been hearing that haven’t you?” I mumbled my assent.

“So then they go to the next step—the Senate–House committee that will be deigned to, I think they say, ‘reconcile’ the two versions.”

“And that’s where the deal-making will occur,” I jumped in to offer.

“Well, yes, in normal circumstances. But these are anything but ordinary circumstances. It will be important to see who gets appointed to the committee. The leaders do that and I am sure they will name mainly practical members. But even more important this will be the time when Obama and his people will get very involved. They will be up there at the Capital all the time this committee will be meeting. You’ll see Ronald Emanuel involved with House members [“Rahm.” I corrected my mother] and Joe Biden with his old Senate colleagues. This will be the time when the Obama administration will really say what they want. He is still seen favorably by about 75 percent of the public and he will still be in the first month of his presidency. There is not much likelihood that he won’t get most of what he wants. And that will be good if . . .”

“No ifs as far as I can see if you’re right about this.”

“As I was saying, this will be good if . . . only if it works.”

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

February 4, 2009--"I Was Here"

Someone I know on occasion expresses concern about how she will be remembered. “What will they write about me in my obituary?” is the way she puts it.

This, of course, comes from her feeling that she hasn’t accomplished enough. If she had there would be no need to think about this, unless what might ultimately be written about is the result of having done something notorious.

What is clearly on her mind, since whatever she may have done that might qualify for notoriety was not of the scale that would make headlines, is a list of more traditional kinds of achievements. Those kinds of things obit writers normally take note of—accomplishments in the world of work or the arts or noteworthy philanthropic or civic activities. In her own mind her list of such things must be shorter than she would like.

But then there is Joe Ades who the New York Times notes, died on Sunday at 75; and though he seemingly achieved little during his life there was quite a lengthy story about him yesterday. (Linked blow.)

If you visited New York City during spring, summer, or fall you may have run into him on a sunny Saturday in the northwest corner of Union square Park where he was set up on a small stool demonstrating and selling $5 vegetable peelers.

A local myth surrounded him. It was obvious from his expensive European suits and his British diction and the fact that he was frequently spotted dining at fancy uptown restaurants that he wasn’t just your everyday pitchman. There must be quite a story to tell behind what he appeared to do for a living. Rumors swirled that he had a wealthy wife and lived up on Park Avenue and that he came to the park on nice days to keep himself occupied, albeit in an unusual way.

The truth appears to be less exotic. According to his daughter, he had four wives; and it wasn’t that he sold carrot peelers as a sort of rich man’s unorthodox hobby but rather he hawked a variety of things this way during all of his life and during all of his marriages. Originally, when arriving in New York, he sold children’s books, which when they became too heavy to carry around, he abandoned and switched to more portable items, culminating in his legendary peelers.

Earlier in life, off the back of a big truck, after he moved from Manchester, England to Australia, with his daughter’s help he sold linens, textiles, jewelry, clock radios, cassette players, electrical goods, and kitchen items. So it wasn’t that much of a leap to vegetable peelers once he followed her to New York.

He discovered them at a state fair where someone was pitching them and he realized, in the words of his daughter, that they would be “a fantastic item for the street.” And clearly he loved the street and the stage it offered because as he demonstrated the peelers while squatting in a flurry of breeze-borne carrot peels, intoning their virtues in a splendid voice that carried halfway across the park, I can testify from stopping to catch his “act” many times that he put on quite a show.

Enough to get him into the New York Times.

Again from his daughter with whom he lived and where he stashed his peelers and carrots in what had been the maid’s room (yes, he did live on the Upper Eastside), after finishing for the day, and resisting telling even her how many peelers he had sold or how many carrots and potatoes he had peeled, she sometimes went to look for him.

Most times he had already left but she could tell he had been there in his accustomed corner of the park. She reports that though “He cleaned up really well, still there were these little shreds of carrots left on the ground that said, ‘I was here.’”

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

February 3, 2009--Snowbirding: Pilates

Rona swears by it, my sister in law Sharon is a devote, and so with time on my hands I decided to try Pilates.

Thus last week I found myself, after sweating my way through the Hundreds, doing the Elephant. How to describe it to the initiated?

You do it on the Reformer, a bench-like contraption that features a sort of sliding seat attached to a set of springs. At one end is an adjustable bar on which sometimes you place your feet while, laying face-up, you press against the bar to slide the seat back to engage the tension supplied by the springs and in this way get various forms of leg and abdominal exercise.

But when doing the Elephant, rather than lying on your back on the Reformer, you stand or kneel on the sliding seat and hunch over so that your hands are able to grasp the bar, all the while encouraged by your trainer to arch your back and suck in your abs and by so doing assume a concave position that I suppose from a distance someone might think makes you look like a baby elephant. Thus the name. But this is only the beginning.

The Elephant is not some adult version of the kids game Statues but, since it is after all a Pilates exercise, the way the exercise part works is that by using your abs, and only your abs while squeezing your butt--without being tempted to cheat by taking the easy way out by pushing back on the sliding seat with you arms--you are expected to activate the slide, again extending the springs, and thereby get the ab-building benefit. Strengthening what our instructor, Kirstin, calls The Powerhouse—the core of one’s being, your abs, the exercising of which is the principal goal of Pilates.

I must admit, in my decades-long neglected shape, the very idea that I am working on building anything even remotely resembling a powerhouse is more daunting than inspiring. But since I have already pre-paid for 10 sessions and thus far have gone to only four, I probably should wait until at least next week to see how I my Powerhouse-building is progressing. Kirstin, however, though a serious taskmaster, who emphasizes technique as much as the strength-building part, is nothing but encouraging. Even for someone in my condition.

After my shaky attempts at The Elephant and The Hundred (where you lie panting on your back and with hands inserted into a pair of springs that are attached behind your head to the Reformer and then, with them fully extended, you flap your arms up and down a hundred times as fast as you can while alternately holding and releasing your breath) after struggling with these, it is time for The Tree.

Still on your back, you are directed to lift both legs off the Reformer and with quivering abs hold them suspended in air at about a 30-degree angle. Then, when thus more-or-less stabilized, you are expected to lift the right leg “up to the ceiling,” keeping it straight (“Try not to bend your knee”) and with your calves and hamstrings burning are told to lift your head about four inches, tucking in your chin so you can look down at your abs (which in my case is not difficult to do since they are still far from toned up and flat) and, thus crunched, are instructed to use both hands to grasp your raised leg behind the knee and “walk them up” toward your ankle.

The Elephant I understand but why this is called The Tree still escapes me. Maybe by the eighth or ninth session I will get it; but at the moment, though when in that curled-up state, gasping for air, though attempting to fool Kirstin who doesn’t miss a trick, that I am breathing properly “with control,” I do feel in my literal gut that I am doing something good for my Powerhouse. So be it The Tree or, as I prefer to call it, The Crab—all that counts is that I am certain I am making progress.

Still, to me, since I always think of a tree as vertical with a trunk and protruding branches, while prone and curled up on the Reformer and walking my hands up my legs I do not as yet see why this in any way is tree-like. Unless, of course, the Pilates tree image is of a fallen or cut down one with its branches pruned off.

This, however, I prefer not to contemplate. Not while stretched out on the unforgiving Reformer and attached to various sets of powerful springs or while I still have six sessions to go and remain committed, at least in my mind, to growth and strengthening.

So later today I will be back at Kirstin’s immaculate studio and place myself again in her capable hands, trusting that whatever she has in store for me on the Cadillac is not only well-designed for someone like me (no need to go into further detail about that!) but by the end of the session, certainly by the end of all ten, I will begin to resemble Joseph Pilades himself who, when about my advanced age, as revealed in pictures that line Kirstin’s studio, looked as if he indeed was carrying around quite a Powerhouse.

Or at the least I’ll stop thinking that the Cadillac, with its springs and pulleys and bars and restraints, is not something inspired by the Inquisition but actually something carefully devised to yank me into shape.

To tell you the truth, there are mirrors lining the studio walls and though at first I was reluctant to catch even a wayward glimpse of my stooped self, last week I did take the risk to do so and was surprised and pleased to note that things that were supposed to be flatter were indeed a little flatter (assisted a bit by sucking in my gut) and I was I noted standing a little taller.

Who knows, maybe . . .

Monday, February 02, 2009

February 2, 2009--Eating What You Kill

I have some friends, self-described “corporate types,” who are as outraged at Barack Obama calling the $16 billion in bonuses in which they shared as he is outraged with the fact that taxpayer money paid for these bonuses.

When I say back to them that no one should be making bonuses when the bank or brokerage firm for which they work is losing billions they shoot back at me that I’m talking socialism—lumping everyone who works for, say Citibank, into the same category, as if no parts of the firm are productive. “I work for a division of the bank that made money last year so why shouldn’t I get my bonus?” A good and fair question. “To say that everyone should be punished, even if they themselves did well, is not in the spirit of capitalism. “It’s . . .”

“I know, I know. It’s socialism.”

But then, I asked, “How is what you do at the bank an example of capitalism? Isn’t it required in capitalism for you to have something at risk? What have you placed at risk? You didn’t invest money in the bank. You just have a job there.”

“Well, I could lose it. That puts me at risk.”

“Yeah, but you chose to work there, not putting any of your own capital at risk, when you could have opted to work someplace else. Even for a not-for-profit.”

“More socialist talk. Work for the government, which is the world’s biggest not-for-profit? Or the ACLU? If you ask me that’s socialism in action. The real action is in the corporate world and if you take away our incentive bonuses you wind up pulling down capitalism.”

“Nonsense. There’s nothing, I repeat, nothing very capitalistic about having a fancy job at an investment bank. What you are objecting to is some of us, including the president, calling into question the sense of entitlement you have that no matter how the bank does you automatically get bonuses. If the bank makes big money then I can see you getting big bonuses. But if the bank loses billions I don’t see anything resembling capitalism for anyone to get a bonus.

“That way,” I pressed on, “in effect, if bonuses are contingent on making a profit there is some semblance of capitalism at work—to get or not get a bonus based on actual performance at least resembles your having something at risk. But only if there is a downside when your company doesn’t do well. And God knows your bank and AIG and the big three auto companies and hundreds of other firms not only did poorly but have contributed to a national economic disaster.”

“OK, you’ve had your say, Mr. Not-for-Profit. Now I’ll have mine. You continue to ignore the fact that even when a Citibank loses billions many working for the bank have had good years. You’re ignoring this reality. I personally did well and so shouldn’t I get my extra compensation? That, by the way, should be what bonuses should be called—‘extra’ or ‘deferred compensation’ or an ‘income credit.’ Because that’s what it is. As we say on the street, ‘You eat what you kill.’”

“I saw that felicitous phrase in a piece in last week’s New York Times.” (Linked below.)

“Since when are you a vegetarian?”

“Touché. But, still, you’re missing my larger point—when you join a large corporation you should thrive or not based on the firm’s bottom, bottom line. You should understand that going in.”

“Well, to quote from that same Times article, ‘Folks come to work for an investment bank because they want to work hard and get paid a lot for working hard.’”

“You’re making my point for me. You get a salary for working hard. Not a bonus. If you did, those autoworkers who got beat up recently for making, quote, ‘so much money’ would get more than you. They really work hard. You should get a bonus when your company makes money and not just for hard work. Sometimes you work hard but not smart and things as a result do not go well. You should be rewarded for this?

“And if your company makes an actual profit the money that’s shared around in bonuses doesn’t come out of taxpayers’ pockets. As it did this time. Your bank’s stock now selling for about three bucks a share has already cost ‘average people’ billions in lost savings. People, by the way, who put actually cash at risk when they bought Citibank’s securities. Some security!”

“Again, you’re avoiding my argument that those of us who did well, even though the bank obviously didn’t, should be compensated.”

“You would have a stronger argument if the bonus money was distributed that way; but most reports indicate that the bonus pool was pretty wide, with lots of folks who weren’t a part of individual profitable divisions also getting their money. In fact, CEOs, COOs, CFOs, and others at the top of the corporate pyramid, senior people without direct profit-making responsibilities, also for the most part got their bonuses. And they were huge. Often in the millions. And these are guys, mainly guys, who when they were hired, before they made or lost anything, were given signing bonuses and from before day one had their golden parachutes already worked out.”

My friend didn’t respond, so I added, “To tell you the truth, if you want to talk socialism, this comes pretty close to my definition of it—a version of from each according to his means, to each according to his needs. In this case, from taxpayers according to their vulnerability, to executives according to their greed.”