Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Citigroup Raises Pay as Unemployment Rises

It is a tired old argument in the financial service sector, raising salaries “to retain the best talent.” Today the New York Times reports Citigroup Has a Plan to Fatten Salaries .

It goes on to note “industrywide, total compensation is expected to rise 20 to 30 percent this year, approximately to the levels of 2005, before the crisis, according to Johnson Associates, a compensation consulting firm.” It was during that time the instruments of financial destruction began to flourish, so why not roll back the clock to then?

Having run a business in both good times and bad times, we all benefited from the former and we all had to tighten our belts during the latter. Why should the financial services industry be except from the financial laws of gravity and why does the Board of Directors approve such policies while their shareholders suffer and their businesses take government funds? Bank of America and Morgan Stanley are also raising base salaries. Guess they too are concerned about “retaining the best talent.” All of this as unemployment rises -- where does this logic end? It almost seems like a back door form of price-fixing, as isn’t it inevitable that the expense of these coordinated salary increases find their way into the cost of financial products?

Juxtapose that to an article in the same edition of the Times: Despite Recession, High Demand for Skilled Labor. Some jobs such as registered nurses, geological engineers, and welders are going unfilled, even during the recession. These are jobs that actually produce something and are critical to our society. One might as well work in the financial services industry where compensation is immune to supply and demand.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Practice Sessions

A couple of months ago Ann and I saw a remarkable piano concert at the Norton Museum of Art , Alexander Wu performing a program of Fascinating Rhythm: Music of the Americas, 20th century pieces by composers from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and as the title implies, works of Gershwin, including his Three Preludes.

The highlight after the intermission was his virtuoso performance of Fantasy on Porgy and Bess, an arrangement by Earl Wild of Gershwin’s classic opera, as a solo concert piano composition. It is an extraordinary piece: delicate and powerful at the same time, and extremely difficult to play, befitting the talents of Gershwin himself who was a gifted pianist in addition to his genius as a composer. Rare is the composer who can transcend both the popular and classical worlds and one can only wonder where his gifts would have taken him had he not died at only 38 of a brain tumor.

After the concert I met Mr. Wu and asked him about the difficulty of the piece, something he acknowledged. Unfortunately, he had not yet recorded Fantasy on Porgy and Bess (he said he will in the future), but I found one by Graham Scott, Wild Fantasy, which includes other Gershwin pieces as well. So I bought it as a downloadable MP3 and now have the pleasure of listening to Wild’s magnificent arrangements.

It is hard to explain what it is like to passionately love something you think you are on the cusp of being able to do yourself, but the remaining distance between where you are and your goal is only an illusion of closeness. You are looking through the ocular lens of the binoculars, whereas, in reality, your age and ability renders the real view through the objective lens, your dream much, much more distant in reality.

We’ve all been asked the question of what ideally you would have done with your life if you could wave that proverbial magic wand. I’ve always answered the question unhesitatingly: a jazz pianist and not too close behind a baseball pitcher. Luckily, what I actually did do professionally, publishing, would have been third choice.

Well, my pitching days are long over and the Yankees will have to go it alone without me. On the other hand the piano is something one can play for life, and since retiring I have devoted more time to it, even having recorded two CDs in a studio, just so I have something for friends and family.

After hearing the Wild arrangements I focused more effort on playing some of the music from Porgy and Bess, but my interpretations are marred by my limitations as a pianist, and while I can practice from here to kingdom come, there is just so far I can go without the requisite skills to even remotely go to the place where Wild, Wu, and Scott can bring Gershwin, not to mention the composer himself who was a highly accomplished performer. In fact Gershwin said in a preface to his own arrangements in the Spring of 1932: “Playing my songs as frequently as I do at private parties, I have naturally been led to compose numerous variations upon them, and to indulge the desire for complication and variety that every composer feels when he manipulates the same material over and over again. It was this habit of mine that led to the original suggestion to publish a group of songs not only in their simplified arrangements that the public knew [from traditional sheet music], but also in the variations that I had devised.” Just one look at those “variations” reveals the technical difficulty of his arrangements, the confluence of his jazz roots and his classical training.

The hands of the master, himself, George Gershwin

Nonetheless, I wanted to record my own practice attempts. The CDs I’ve recorded were in a studio, all relatively short pieces in a controlled environment, so they don’t sound half bad. But for my “practice sessions,” I wanted an inexpensive digital recorder for home recording, a means to establish a baseline, something I can try to improve upon over time. Therefore, I bought a Sony Digital Voice Recorder with 1GB Flash Memory that handles MP3 recording and playback and plugs directly into a USB port (and is not much larger than a USB storage device). Talk about “practice sessions” – just getting up to speed with this technology was daunting in itself.

And listening to these home recordings, so far removed from the idyllic conditions of a studio, with all the “warts” of background noise, the turning of pages of sheet music, and the mistakes, none of which can be airbrushed out with editing software, is painful for me. And as I can no longer sight-read music other than the melody line, I have to sort of make up arrangements as I go along. But Wild’s arrangement of Porgy and Bess obsessed me, so I continued to practice six songs from Porgy, playing them without pausing with little transitional phrasing, recording them on the Sony. Because of upload limitations I had to divide one such practice session (although played continuously) into two digital files, and here they are, “warts and all,” the first including Summertime, My Man’s Gone Now, I Got Plenty O’Nuttin’, and the second including Bess You is My Woman Now, It Ain’t Necessarily So, and I Loves You Porgy.

As we live on a boat over the summer, I will be without my piano and any means of making improvements, other than studying some theory, until next fall. In fact, this blog will be brief or go silent for a while, as we will be in transit. Perhaps next season I will take the lessons I should have had decades before, become less reliant on the sustain pedal (something Gershwin criticized amateurs for when playing his compositions), and take time to practice scales, something I haven’t done since I was a kid. But it will be difficult breaking bad habits, so I will be looking to make small improvements and have no illusions about making major leaps.

I’ll conclude this entry with my studio recording of Gershwin’s Love is Here to Stay, the last song Gershwin ever wrote. He and Ira were working on Samuel Goldwyn’s film, The Goldwyn Follies in Hollywood even as his headaches were increasing to the point of his having to be admitted to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on June 23, 1937. He died only a few weeks later. The range and volume of Gershwin’s work are staggering for such a short life; his brother’s lyrics say it all…

Love is Here to Stay

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay;
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies,
And in time may go!

But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay.
Together we're
Going a long, long way

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
They’re only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers, Sons, Distance, and Memories

My older son Chris called today as well as my younger son Jonathan to wish me a happy Father’s Day. Nice to hear from them, but it was a reminder that life has become more complicated, more mobile and, for many, gone are the days of being able to get together for such occasions. Chris is in Worcester, Ma, 1,163 miles from here and Jonathan is visiting Shanghai, China, 8,195 distant miles (mileage courtesy of WolframAlpha, the “computational knowledge engine” – a useful site).

Their absence reminds me that when I was their age, we were able to visit my father as we lived only fifty miles apart. So, in addition to missing my sons, my thoughts are with my Dad who died some twenty-five years ago. I wish I could turn back time and tell him how important he was to me, in spite of our going our separate ways in life. There was always an expectation that I would join him in his photography business, which I did not. I wrote a piece about him soon after he died, sort of an apology in the form of an explanation. I posted that a couple of years ago but I include it below, with love, to my Dad…

Up Park Avenue we would speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with “Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866” imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaited us.

It is some summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. Their discussions no longer center on the business, but they speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics. I think of where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc, probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Lefferts Boulevard.

Over the years, as a summer employee, my father believed I was being groomed for the business, the fourth generation to carry it on. My Uncle was a bachelor and I was the only one with the name to follow the tradition. There were cousins, but none at the time had any interest in photography, so the obligation fell to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation for my future maturation, that nothing of a formal nature was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples and for the furniture show (the primary commercial product photographed by my father). Then I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, then, finally to an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging shadows to hold overexposures of glass tables. Osmosis was to be my mentor.

At work I see my father, as the camera would reveal contrasts with different filters. These were normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed into submission by a troubled marriage. But I see him strolling down the halls of his business, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way, “How’s Biz?” he would say. His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins would preside over lunch, a burger and coffee from the nearby luncheonette.

In spite of my obligation to learn the profession from the inside, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would study business. By then I think I knew that this would be the first step to take me away from HIS business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

But as silently as I was expected to take over the business, my retreat was equally stealth. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and I continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were clear to me. In the hallways of the studio he was larger than life but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He, his brother, and his cousins had developed an inbred view of the future of photography. Like Willie Loman, they had bet the future of their business on producing prints for salesmen, unconscious to the developing mass media and its impact on door-to-door sales. Entering the business would mean conflict with beliefs that were sacrosanct, a battle I would surely lose. So, I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know. Ultimately, I married, and began a career in publishing, with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still joined him for lunch occasionally, with his greeting me when I arrived, “So, How’s Biz?”


Thursday, June 11, 2009


Most books I read come to me because of my previous knowledge of the author’s work or the recommendation of a review or by someone I respect. And such is the case with Firmin but the way it came to me was through a chance chain of events befitting the role of chance in the book itself, a serendipitous journey of the book into my hands. My son, Jonathan, had recently been in Sardinia, quietly enjoying a cappuccino in a local cafĂ© and a woman was nearby, tearfully finishing Firmin and they struck up a conversation. “Here,” she said, "take the book and read it; you’ll love it,” offering him her worn paperback copy of a UK edition with a sticker on it, “Choose from any 3 for 2 at Waterstone’s.” At first Jonathan politely demurred thinking that it was probably some maudlin potboiler, but she was insistent and so he accepted. He read it on the plane when he left and suggested I read it when he last visited, so via happenstance the copy wound up with me.

Now, if I could imagine a Venn diagram of my 30-something son and my literary taste, there would be a majority overlap of books we both care deeply about, but the non-shaded area of books we do not mutually enjoy is meaningful enough to raise doubts regarding a book about “a well-read Rat” with a debonair soul who lives in the basement bookstore on Boston’s Scollay Square in the 1960’s. But Jonathan said: “trust me on this one” and as it is a book about books as well, I read it and I’m glad I did. It is quite a find under the proverbial radar.

Interestingly the subtitle of Sam Savage’s work has morphed from “Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife” in the UK edition to “A Tale of Exile, Unrequited Love, and the Redemptive Power of Literature” in the American edition. Both are accurate but I suppose the latter makes it more marketable. Below there is the review of the book from Publisher’s Weekly. There is also a brief, amusing You Tube promotion of the book that warrants attention.

Like most novels narrated by a rat :-), it is a metaphor of life we human rats endure and bring upon ourselves, with themes of Hardy and Dickens running beneath the surface of lovable Firmin’s narrative. It is a highly imaginative work, one you are doomed to compulsively read to the end in one sitting and at times a SOL (smile out loud).

And, for me, what is there not to love about a rat who is a voracious reader and plays the piano as well? But, Firmin’s narration touches so many truths for me: “A rat’s life is short and painful, painful but quickly over, and yet it feels long while it lasts….I always think everything is going to last forever, but nothing ever does. In fact nothing exists longer than an instant except the things that we hold in memory. I always try to hold on to everything – I would rather die than forget….One of the things I have observed is how extremes coalesce. Great love becomes great hatred, quiet peace turns into noisy war, vast boredom breeds huge excitement. Great intimacy spawns huge estrangement.”

And those are but a few.

From Publishers Weekly
Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle. Soon left to fend for himself, Firmin finds that books are his only friends, and he becomes a hopeless romantic, devouring Great Books—sometimes literally. Aware from his frightful reflection that he is no Fred Astaire (his hero), he watches nebbishy bookstore owner Norman Shine from afar and imagines his love is returned until Norman tries to poison him. Thereafter he becomes the pet of a solitary sci-fi writer, Jerry Magoon, a smart slob and drinker who teaches Firmin about jazz, moviegoing and the writer's life. Alas, their world is threatened by extinction with the renovation of Scollay Square, which forces the closing of the bookstore and Firmin's beloved Rialto Theater. With this alternately whimsical and earnest paean to the joys of literature, Savage embodies writerly self-doubts and yearning in a precocious rat: "I have had a hard time facing up to the blank stupidity of an ordinary, unstoried life." (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Inspirational Diplomacy

I am an early riser so was able to see President Obama’s entire speech today as he delivered it at Cairo University. If a main criterion of being a successful President is to be inspirational, Obama passed that test.

It was not a speech of diplomacy per se but its prelude, setting a tone and putting forth ideals. I fear progress on the broad objectives President Obama set out in the speech will be delayed, another victim of our economic malaise. This dilutes the energy that can be focused on international goals and until domestic issues such as the deficit and unemployment are under control, the ability to make significant progress abroad will be impaired.

Nonetheless, the speech is one that realizes the hope I expressed more than a year ago in an open letter to then Senator Obama: “Some people have pointed to 9/11 as a manifestation of the clash between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Given your personal background, you have what may be a unique opportunity to establish a dialogue between these two worlds and in so doing begin to restore our international standing. Just electing you will demonstrate to the world that we can put our ideals into action.”

President Obama’s made several references to the need for honesty, putting forth some very sensitive key issues to his Egyptian audience, such as the future security of Israel and the need for Palestinian statehood, and Iran’s place in a nuclear world.

And if I am to be honest, during my lifetime the American Presidency sometimes has been a source of embarrassment, culminating in President George W. Bush having to duck shoes thrown at him. When I traveled the world I would occasionally feel the undercurrent of anti-Americanism, the stereotype of the “ugly American” that President Obama has asked the Muslim world to renounce as he has said we must “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

During my adult lifetime I can think of only two comparable speeches as noteworthy as Obama’s: President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” June 26, 1963 speech (ironically three days before my first marriage) in West Berlin and President Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, proclaiming “Tear down this wall!” a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall. I was in Frankfurt Germany on October 3, 1990 when Berlin was united into a single city-state and East/West German unity was achieved, the words of Kennedy and Reagan resonating in history.

Hopefully President Obama’s Cairo speech similarly will be recognized as an inspirational turning point sometime in the future. Words and leadership make a difference.


Monday, June 1, 2009

Krugman Vs. Hussman

John Hussman, the erudite economist who runs his own mutual funds, and Paul Krugman, the Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics have a bone to pick over inflation. Essentially, Krugman thinks such an outcome from the current economic turbulence is a non sequitur as the funds being created with all this debt is essentially not being lent out – they are going back into Treasuries. Therefore, he concludes, “when it comes to inflation, the only thing we have to fear is inflation fear itself.”

Hussman has some pointed rejoinders to this view. The lack of money velocity will have to be indefinite for inflation to remain tame. Eventually this debt will have to be addressed via inflation or through a dramatic expansion of economic activity. He expects a doubling of the U.S. price level over the next decade.

Their discussion takes me back me to the 1970s when the fear of inflation led Paul Volcker to raise short-term rates to unheard of levels, with ultimate success but not before the inflationary genie escaped the bottle. Certainly, recent gyrations in the Treasury market as well as the resurgence of commodity prices show this debate is now being waged in the marketplace as well.