Saturday, May 30, 2009

Prelude to Panic

That’s the headline from today’s Palm Beach Post: Prelude to panic: Tax rolls plummet.
Surprise, surprise? More antidotal evidence that the recession is indeed the “Great Recession” and local government is out to lunch “with countywide values lower than feared.” Where have they been during the past year while the clock was ticking towards the end of their June 30 fiscal year and the beginning of the new one? Foreclosures and rising unemployment should have spelled out reality. All one needs to do is to drive through many of the neighborhoods in Palm Beach County where “For Sale” signs are interspersed with euphemistic “For Rent” signs.

Here are some bullet points:

* Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits had been expecting “the quickest free fall since the Great Depression” but his estimate of a 12% decline has now been revised to 13.5%

* Taxable countywide property has declined to $138 billion from $159.6 billion last year with 38 cities, towns, and villages having larger percentage declines

* Given the 13.5% decline in values, county administrators proposed a 13.5% tax rate increase (as well as laying off 175 workers, an undisclosed percentage of total employees)!

When times were “good” (fictitiously good, that is), our town in PBC was eager to spend. $Millions went into the ”beautification” of a street which might have been more beautiful if some of the homes were updated, but as the municipality can not just hand out money to homeowners (only the federal government can do that), they constructed little islands in the middle of the road and planted vegetation. Much of this beautification is now gone but the islands remain, constricting traffic and leading to a reduction in the speed limit: so much for handing municipalities the “benefits” of inflation. Now, faced, with deflation, and rising unemployment, no problem, presto, a proposed tax increase.

Prelude to panic, perhaps, but they can’t tax this away from us....


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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bombshell

“We are out of money.”

This is the “news” we’ve feared, although expected, but not so soon: the admission that the US economic system (not necessarily the stock market which lives in its own fantasy land before it adjusts to reality) is insolvent. President Obama, responding to a question about the cost of health care in an interview on C-SPAN yesterday, said, “Well, we are out of money now.”

Just a couple of weeks ago I noted, “One gets the feeling that the Obama administration has little choice but to let this kind of bad news out slowly, hoping the market and the psyche of the country can absorb it without disrupting the tenuous nature of the recovery, particularly in the credit and stock markets. Until REAL unemployment recedes deficits will inevitably grow beyond forecasts.”

Obama’s admission seems to be a continuation of the letting-the-news-out-slowly “strategy” the consequences of which are staggering, not only for holders of US Treasuries, but just about every world currency because of the symbiotic relationships between the lending economies and the consuming economies. For sometime I’ve been concerned about this, particularly because of the mathematical confluence of rising healthcare costs and rising unemployment. “Are T-Bills “risk free,” especially as the US seems to be on a course to guarantee every debt and every major corporate shortfall, not to mention the twin time bombs of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid as the baby boomers retire and unemployment rises? Now there is a Black Swan.” So, today’s headline “Fix is hard for Medicare, Social Security finances” does not come as a surprise, but it is disturbing that we have so long delayed the inevitability of facing up to this hydra headed conundrum. “If we cannot even acknowledge these economic truths, there can be no national plan to deal with the dire consequences.”

Maybe President Obama’s statement was more of a Freudian slip, but it is now out there, to be “pondered" by the markets, and, hopefully, to be finally faced up to by Congress.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Updike, Roth, Dreiser

This blog entry was really started by my blogger friend, Emily, who “tagged” me to name twenty-five writers who have “influenced” my life (not necessarily because they are great writers). Although I “answered” her with just their names, I had promised to explain why. To me, reading literature is to explore history and psychology, the human tapestry laid threadbare. Basically I am drawn to those writers I can personally relate to and I’m embarrassed to admit that those I like the most I take the longest to read, lingering over the experience so as to savor every word.

Before getting to my more detailed “answer” by writer, this is what I originally wrote to Emily:

“I’m not too good at this – in fact as I don’t “do” Facebook, I don’t even know what getting “tagged” means. But I think I get the gist of it. This is an interesting project, one that I would have to give a lot of thought to explain why I chose my 25 writers. It is something I might get to this summer. Frequently, the reasoning will be that one writer brought me to another wonderful writer, simple as that. So, I promise, sometime in the future I’ll write an entry on this, but I can’t promise I’ll “tag” 25 other bloggers – I don’t even read that many blogs and except for yours, they are mostly financially oriented (that reveals where my own blog is frequently slanted). But I did come up with my 25 authors and so, below, here’s the list in the order as I thought of them (might have to be rearranged when I think this through). There is a heavy bias to contemporary American fiction, with one biographer in the group. I could name scores of writers who have written for me their one-time classic (such as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” or Alan Lightman’s “The Diagnosis”), not to mention the writers I studied in college (Franz Kafka for instance), who have had an impact on me and therefore could easily be added to the list. I could also add Pat Conroy whom you mention, but he didn’t come up when I went through this mental exercise. One of the best works I read by him is a memoir, “My Losing Season” but you’d have to love basketball as much as I do to appreciate it. Also, I share your admiration for Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift” and “Rule of the Bone” (which I think is his best work). Here are the 25, off the top of my head:”

So, further expanding my answer, I am going to keep the same order, as they came to me, but no other significance beyond that.

John Updike. If one searches “Updike” in my blog you will find other entries. I once saw him at a Pen Writers meeting where he was the main speaker and wanted to go over to him to chat. He seemed so approachable and kindly, but I became involved in a discussion with Russell Baker whose book All Things Considered we had just reissued. So other people surrounded Updike and I thought there would be other opportunities, at the Frankfurt Bookfair or perhaps the American Booksellers Association meetings, or another Pen Writers conference, but our paths never crossed again, other than his speaking to me through his works. Updike’s influence on me is he not only helped explain the American Zeitgeist, but he also explored issues relevant to my “maleness” ten years hence, as Updike was nearly exactly ten years older than I. The stages of Harry Angstrom’s life as depicted in the Rabbit novels are neatly spaced out about a decade apart, so painstakingly capturing the times in America, his maturation and ultimate decline.

I am now reading his last novel, the Widows of Eastwick, with sadness and reverence for a great American writer. Only a man who has walked the walk can write words such as this: "Jim's illness drove her and Jim down from safe, arty Taos into the wider society, the valleys of the ailing, a vast herd moving like stampeded bison toward the killing cliff. The socialization forced upon her -- interviews with doctors, most of them unsettlingly young; encounters with nurses, demanded merciful attentions the hospitalized patient was too manly and depressed to ask for himself; commiseration with others in her condition, soon-to-be widows and widowers she would have shunned on the street but now, in these antiseptic hallways, embraced with shared tears -- prepared her for travel in the company of strangers." Unfortunately, I’ve had similar “hospital experiences” and dread the inevitability of an encore. But, now, with Updike gone, I think of his poem “Perfection Wasted” which you can find at the very end of this blog entry.

Philip Roth. I think I respond in a similar way to Roth, a writer who seems to know me but in a different way. Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman narrates the novel. It is through Zuckerman in many of Roth’s other works that we have a window into Roth’s view of writing itself. The Anatomy Lesson is one of the “Zuckerman” novels. In it Zuckerman is thinking about his writing and what it had become in his life:

“It looked as though life had become bigger yet. Writing would intensify everything even further. Writing, as Mann had testified – not least by his own example – was the only worthwhile attainment, the surpassing experience, the exalted struggle, and there was no way to write other than like a fanatic. Without fanaticism, nothing great in fiction could ever be achieved. He had the highest possible conception of the gigantic capacities of literature to engulf and purify life. He would write more, publish more, and life would become colossal.

But what became colossal was the next page. He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead. Inherent in this choice was a paradox that he had never foreseen.”

Of course in spite of all of Zuckerman’s protestations, Roth has gone on to write at least a dozen novels after that one, and, thankfully, is still going strong. His more recent works are dark, clearly concerned with his physical decline and the future. But, writing is work, something that I have found, and few work as vigorously and focused as Roth.

Theodore Dreiser. I skip to a writer of my college years, having devoured everything he wrote during those years, either for assignments or just because I found his Darwinian philosophy of life a revelation at the time. I spent a harrowing week in the Brooklyn Hospital ward with pleurisy, the consequence of teenage stupidity because I had taken caffeine tablets for a couple of all-nighters to study for exams and became exhausted. This led to my contracting that most painful condition. In the hospital I began to read Dreiser’s “Cowperwood trilogy,” the first two written before the 1920’s and the last one some thirty years later after WW II, tracing the life of financier Frank Cowperwood. Cowperwood’s life is built around an economically and socially hostile world, where the survival of the fittest reigns supreme. On his way to school as a ten year old, the future financier passes a store window which exhibits a lobster and a squid contained in a fish tank and one day he discovers the lobster had devoured the squid, Dreiser commenting: “The incident had a great impression on him. It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: How is life organized? Things lived on each other – that was it…Sure, men lived on men.” This social-Darwinian leitmotif runs through all of his writings and became a worldview that reverberated throughout my working life. My DNA, though, prevented me from doing the “eating” but I learned how not “to be eaten.” In my very first job after college I was thrown to the wolves in the production department of the now defunct Johnson Reprint Corporation, which was part of Academic Press. By “wolves” I mean coworkers who did not like my intense work ethic and would have eaten me alive except I learned how to deal with them from my Dreiser “education.” That education would prove to be valuable right up to my retirement, helping me negotiate the labyrinths of corporate politics as well.

That’s it for this session, three down, and only twenty-two to go! Just looking over the remaining list I can see that this is going to take a very long time to do thoughtfully. Rather than rushing through it, I’ll post installments as time permits, leaving the rest of the list a mystery although perhaps you can guess many just from the first few.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Financial Views from the Blogosphere

Main Stream Media is clearly in decline, newspapers failing, people becoming inured to the endless drone of cheerleading CNBC.

Like many others, I have turned to an eclectic group of blogs for a clearer financial view of the world (in addition to keeping an eye on some MSM). There are of course thousands, but I’ve seemed to settle on a few that continue to provide thoughtful, frequently contrarian views. Some are also good aggregators of links to other relevant sites or information, so further views are no further than one click away. I haven’t listed these on the face page of my blog, but I note them here:

http://www.fundmymutualfund.com/
http://www.hussmanfunds.com/weeklyMarketComment.html
http://zerohedge.blogspot.com/
http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/
http://www.jeffmatthewsisnotmakingthisup.blogspot.com/

I’ve written about my “blogger friend,” Mark, over at Fund My Mutual Fund before. One of his most recent postings is particularly interesting as it addresses my greatest concern about this recovery: the notion that we can borrow ourselves into prosperity while employment continues to wither on the vine. After all, the present financial crisis began with excessive leverage and that was in a time when the unemployment rate was nowhere near the “reported” 8.9% (and still growing).

He describes a government sanctioned scheme to “pull forward” new home buyers, those with little ability to provide a down payment and with low FICO scores. I know how this works in some corporations when towards the end of the year revenue can be accelerated and expenses can be deferred with “hope” that the following year it can be reversed. And it does seem that “hope” is the future antidote for the latest government sponsored scheme as it is hard to see a rational plan. So, Mark, you had me with your first sentence: “I've become numb a long time ago ... but seeing these programs and ‘solutions’ one after the other is simply.... I don't have words.”

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Slowly Letting Out the Bad News

Among all the talk of green shoots, the recession bottoming, and the hope that the spending will produce growth, a new headline from Reuters: "White House forecasts higher U.S. budget deficit.”

One gets the feeling that the Obama administration has little choice but to let this kind of bad news out slowly, hoping the market and the psyche of the country can absorb it without disrupting the tenuous nature of the recovery, particularly in the credit and stock markets. Until REAL unemployment recedes deficits will inevitably grow beyond forecasts. The recent unemployment figures include some “gains” because of recently hired government census workers and fails to count workers who have just given up or are working part-time, and does not yet include the 1.6 million college seniors graduating this year.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bus to Nowhere

May 5th’s Palm Beach Post proclaimed “West Palm Beach's new bus depot 4 days from debut,” an encouraging development for mass transit in this area, in keeping with national priorities as well. One of the main objectives is “a seamless connection to the regional commuter train system.” That system is Florida’s Tri-Rail, the only mass transit system for moving passengers in the heavily traveled North/South corridor between West Palm Beach and Miami, also connecting to Ft. Lauderdale and Miami airports.

So far, so good, an improvement to one of the connecting tributaries, something that will provide dependable and reasonably priced transportation to those who either can’t afford driving that route or simply encourage people to give up on their gas guzzlers for such trips. In fact, since the economic downturn began and fuel prices spiked, ridership has almost doubled.

Is this one of the green shoots we’ve heard about? Such an expansion of mass transit not only accomplishes these important local and national objectives, but also provides jobs as well, not to mention getting people to their jobs.

Ironically, in the same issue of the Post, is another story: “Tri-Rail's hopes for emergency state money are dashed; by fall weekend service ends, entire system could close in 18 months.”
“The Florida legislature Tuesday refused to include $30 million in emergency Tri-Rail funding in the 2009 budget, as requested Sunday by a group of legislators in an open letter to GOP leaders.”

$30 million? – mere chump change that hardly qualifies as a down payment on what has now been revealed as AIG’s real bonuses payments for 2008, $454M. This is the amount which Florida is refusing to fund, or does not care enough about to fight for some federal government sponsored money to keep one of its few mass transit options open? The legislature is obviously willing to play political hardball at the expense of people who are dependent on the system for their very employment. Didn’t they get the message from Washington about improving our infrastructure as being one of the pillars of the stimulus package? Clearly they are not aware of the new buses to nowhere.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

How’s My Driving?

When I posted my penultimate entry, the blogger “dashboard” indicated that it was my one-hundredth one. This made me ask: where had my blogger journey taken me? So, I did a cursory review of the entries, beginning with the first posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2007. Little did I know at the time we were only at the beginning of an historic political and economic era.

The latter was showing only the tip of a sub-prime mortgage iceberg. In fact, the market report for that day was as follows: “Stocks soared on Wall Street last night as investors returned to the bombed-out financial sector following positive comments from investment banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan about the impact of the ongoing sub-prime mortgage crisis. The Nasdaq tech stock index, meanwhile, recorded its biggest gain in more than four years closing up 89.52 points or 3.46% at 2,673.65, while the Dow Jones closed up 319.54 points or 2.46% at 13,307.09.” These now seem like Halcyon levels for both indices.

The ensuing “Great Recession” as it has euphemistically been called, along with Obama’s historic rise to the Presidency, have been the two most significant events of this period. As one of my intensions has been to give a personalized view and account of my times, a fair number of my blog entries during the last 535 days relate to these topics, perhaps more than I had originally envisioned.

No doubt there will be more as momentous political and economic winds continue to blow. Government had to step in to become the “spender of last resort” in this perfect economic storm, but we will inevitably face the unintended consequences of fighting a credit bubble with a new credit bubble. President Obama’s choices (who I supported in these pages from his primary battles to his election campaign) were between worse or worst and I get the sense we are winging it on a daily basis, hoping the economic implosion can be morphed to an explosion as the latter will be necessary to raise the revenue to retire the debt being created. A society cannot borrow itself into prosperity and a common thread in my postings has been the observation that borrowers and lenders, Ponzi schemers and investors in those schemes, are all complicit in this crisis. Government cannot protect people from themselves but we need regulations that make predatory lending and investing practices more difficult, all fodder for future postings.

I have been asked what I meant by the title of the blog. In my first entry, I credited a publisher I admired at McGraw Hill, Curtis Benjamin. To quote from that entry, “Benjamin labeled increasing specialization ‘the twigging phenomenon’ – the tree of knowledge constantly developing new limbs as scholarship and scientific discoveries blaze forward. I wonder how Curtis Benjamin would see the Internet world, the ultimate in customized, personalized, specialized publishing. No doubt he would see it as an opportunity. Hence, an opportunity for me to use the medium to muse about my life, interests and experiences over time.”

So, the blog was intended as musings about la·cu·nae (-n) or la·cu·nas: An empty space or a missing part; a gap. And they are solitary musings of a microscopic nature. I like to think of it as dealing with the irregular numbers between zero and one, of which there are more than whole numbers. The whole numbers from one to infinity are left to mass media and those blogs and web sites positioned for large readership.

Consequently, it also leaves me free to address my own personal interests so other entries have dealt with my life as a publisher, friends and family history, travels and boating, photography, and my interest in music and literature. To some extent I feel the gravitas of the economy and politics have encroached upon writing more on those other topics.

As I said to I said to a blogger friend, Emily, “I’ve always thought of myself as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none…. My on-and-off-again blog reflects my disparate interests and …so, I’m afraid your readers may be disappointed by the content. You have a central passion and your blog reflects that focus so well.”

I make that observation as my blog has been “picked up” by some others, all with a “central passion.” So, if you arrive here through another blog site, I might be dealing with an altogether different subject at the time. I’ve also been asked why I haven’t activated the “comments” feature. Perhaps I haven’t wanted to get into a public debate on my views. They are what they are. But, in the profile part of the blog I have provided an email contact for those who want to communicate.

I’ve averaged a posting almost every five days for one and one half years. Sometimes it feels more like a responsibility than fun and that’s when I back off and post laconic entries, maybe more suitable for Twitterdom than a blog. But I never intend to Twitter as can’t imagine anyone wanting to follow my daily minutiae.

Concluding this summary of my “first hundred entries,” I reiterate an inspirational passage that cuts to the heart of the matter. Just reading the words again makes me more sanguine about the next hundred. This is from the 70-year old classic by Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write; A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: “At last I understood that writing was about this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling of truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it. If they did not – fine. They did not need to listen. That was all right too…. You should work from now on until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence, at your writing or whatever work it is that you care about. If you do that, out of the mountains that you write some mole hills will be published…. But if nothing is ever published at all and you never make a cent, just the same it will be good that you have worked.”

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cagney!


One of the admirable qualities about local theatre in South Florida, aside from the usual touring revivals of classic musicals and plays, is that some will take chances on innovative new productions. I’m referring in particular to original productions offered by The Florida Stage in Manalapan and Dramaworks in West Palm Beach over the years. Yesterday we saw such a work -- CAGNEY! -- a world premiere at Florida Stage.

I was wondering how the life story of the famed Jimmy Cagney could be carried off as a musical and the answer is the passion and commitment of one man, Robert Creighton, the lead actor, who conceived the work, and wrote the music and lyrics along with Christopher McGovern. Creighton is also a dead ringer for Cagney and Ann and I were taken in by the play and his inspired performance. In fact we felt as if Creighton was channeling Cagney himself.

It is the rare creative genius who can bring it all together – the vision, the ability to write music and lyrics, and then to act, sing, and dance as well. Creighton is one of a handful of unique actors able to create such a work as CAGNEY! He joins Hershey Felder who was brilliant in bringing GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE to life, which we were fortunate to see at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach several years ago. It ultimately made its way to Broadway, and Felder was actor, pianist, playwright and arranger. (Believe me, as an amateur pianist I have a special appreciation for Gershwin and the skill needed to do justice to his music which embodies elements of jazz, ragtime, and classical.) No one could have accomplished that better than Felder, as no one could have created such a successful, moving musical on Cagney other than Creighton.

My Uncle Phil had a summer home in Stanfordville, New York where I used to spend time as a kid and Cagney bought a farm there in the mid 1950’s, one that we frequently drove by, usually trying to catch a glimpse of the great actor, but Cagney kept to himself and was rarely seen in the area. CAGNEY! reminded me of those days and roused my interest in learning more about his life. Wikipedia has a good detailed write up and after reading the entry, I am astonished by the musical’s level of detail and accuracy.

But most impressive is CAGNEY! as a musical itself. This is not a little revue with some nice song and dance numbers. On a smaller stage it follows the principles of the great musicals of our times. The story line, songs and the chorography are woven together with one element advancing the other. We never felt that we were being “performed to” but, instead, brought into the action and moved every step along the way. The entire cast was outstanding, obviously being inspired by Creighton as well.

It also follows the traditions of excellence from the Great American Songbook with witty lyrics sometimes reminiscent of Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin, seamlessly woven into the music, appropriate for the era and the major themes of work. They brought out the tensions between Cagney and Jack Warner, Cagney’s bulldog convictions, his devotion to his mother and his wife, and the accusation of his being a Communist sympathizer, an irony not lost by Creighton’s depiction of Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I hope that, as with Felder’s work, CAGNEY! will find its way to a larger audience perhaps on Broadway. But my concern, after my generation dies away, is that there will be succeeding generations who care enough to preserve the memory of people such as James Cagney and, equally important, dedicated to carrying on the traditions of the Great American Songbook. Creighton’s musical, not to mention his performance, accomplishes just that and I can think of no greater compliment.

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