28 February 2009

E Pluribus Omnibus

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Out of many, one piece of legislation.

One bill to slay all problems. One bill to stimulate all unstimulated areas of our economy. One bill, to tickle the fancy of those yearning for the good ol' days of the New Deal (most of whom, actuarially speaking, were not around to live through the original New Deal itself). As The Economist put it, one bill “larded with spending determined more by Democrat lawmakers’ pet projects than by the efficiency with which the economy will be boosted.”

One bill because multiple pieces of legislation—developed systematically, to address specific aspects of our economy that need help, and with all necessary due diligence and deliberation for each—would, obviously, be terrible. Genuine debate and analysis, obviously, would be a time-consuming abrogation of legislative responsibility, which would do nothing but slow down the momentum of the executive branch of government. Such an effort would be akin to voting to approve a war concocted (by the executive branch) under false pretenses. Or something like that.
One bill that has been passed by Congress, and which President Barack Obama again defended in his address to a joint session of Congress this past week as the first of many new measures.

I started writing this column two weeks ago. The idea came to me as my 20 month old daughter played with her little wallet and the dollar in it, and I had a chance to look again at the dollar itself in some detail. She has been folding it, wrinkling it, putting it in and taking it out of her wallet, and I thought that it was perhaps odd that we had given her an actual dollar as a toy. What does that say about its value? And what would she learn from playing with a real dollar that (at 20 months) she couldn’t get from a fake one?

At his inaugural address, President Barack Obama said "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." I loved that line. It was concise and eloquent, but also accurate and honest. It was representative of the person I wanted Obama to be as president.

That Obama is a person and a president whom we as a nation have not yet seen. Doling out federal dollars—as any Republican can tell you, after eight years of practice in Congress and the White House—is more or less the opposite of making hard choices. It's easy because, much like playing Monopoly, it doesn't feel like real money. Real money is what poor and middle class people lose when the GOP-led process of bank deregulation allows financial institutions to spiral out of control. Real money is what a father gives his daughter, not because it is a toy, but because—as an alert young person, learning about the world around her—she should know what it is, how to handle it, to hang on to it, and over time, understand its value. She will have to make hard choices with what to do with that dollar, so learning what it means, what kind of attachment to have to it and what its existence represents, is itself meaningful.
Congress and the Executive branch, as everyone knows, do not handle real money. They handle theoretical money that may (or may not) exist in the future, and that someone other than themselves will have to earn years later. If our government understood real dollars, then it would (for one thing) have started closing the absurd gap that our Social Security and Medicare systems will have, between the money coming in and the money going out. The President and Congress might have acknowledged that if it's OK to have government-managed health care programs for the elderly (and the poor), it's not really such a leap to consider creating a government-run system for the rest of us. Government might start moving more actively to draw down our troops in Iraq, and begin saving money on some of these absurd foreign adventures. Heck, an intellectually honest government would recognize the pointlessness of the so-called “War on Drugs,” and move to start taxing drug use instead of trying fruitlessly to eradicate it.

Or Congress and the Executive branch could wake up to the reality that investing billions of dollars to help people who cheerfully and greedily screwed up—while making essentially meaningless gestures in the direction of the hard working people who did not over-extend themselves as a result of greed—is unlikely either to solve many economic problems or to win over long-term voters.

Any of those things, just from that very small list, represent hard choices. They might also have served as economic stimulus components in their own right, by focusing on our long-term health and alleviating future debt or averting future disaster. But those are just a few of the hard choices that need to be made, and our nation has made none of them so far. No hard choices, on virtually any subject.

President Obama, in his address to Congress this week, again laid out a picture of the damage that has been done, and the hard choices we face. He was as elegant and as eloquent as usual when he said “Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long we have not always met these responsibilities, as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or to look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.” But at some point, the continued acknowledgment of the problem needs to shift into an actual moment of making hard choices. Granted, he has been in office for only 39 days. There are many more to go. I just wish that the stimulus bill—if it is representative of Obama’s approach—was representative of more clarity and restraint, and was a leading indicator of how problems will be tackled beyond throwing money at them.

Sadly, this was not really an omnibus stimulus bill that our Congress passed and our President signed. Instead, it was more like the world's biggest birthday cake: a cake created by 535 bakers and their assistants, for themselves, by raiding everyone else's kitchen for the necessary ingredients, and on which those same bakers and their helpers subsequently gorged themselves.

If we, as a nation, are to continue on the path that E Pluribus Unum implies—if we are to continue to be a united, strong one rising from the contributions of many—then the many need to see The One start confronting that "collective failure to make hard choices." Obama needs to start living up to his words, and fast.

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23 February 2009


...There will be more content coming shortly...

15 February 2009

Covering Cover Letters

Today's New York Times' Business Section has a good "Career Couch" column the value of cover letters.

Regular readers (do I have such a thing?) know that I have a real hang-up about the many absurd faux-pas that job seekers make, including mistakes in handling cover letters. I highly recommend this Times' column to anyone searching for a job.

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10 February 2009

Frank Rich, My Mother, & Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I don't think that my mother and The New York Times' Frank Rich are actually talking about politics and the bailout (aka "stimulus"), but sometimes I wonder. There are certain parallels in their sense that the stimulus is mis-focused and the situation a bit off the rails. There are also some obvious differences in terms of how far each goes in criticizing the Obama administration directly.

At the same time, both seem to hold dear an assumption that President Barack Obama's entire governing plan would be different and, thus, that the bailout would be different than it had been under George W. Bush. Obama himself famously said that he feels like a "blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." We are now seeing the impact of that, in terms of the peoples' shattered perceptions.

Ever the cynic, I voted for Obama - but outside of an immediate sense of post-November 4 euphoria, tried to keep my expectations low.

If there was any single indicator of how not-different Obama would be from past attempts at American government, it was his ring-kissing episode with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March 2007. Perhaps, one might argue, such obeisance was crucial for getting elected. Perhaps not, might one argue, once they've looked at what portion of the American population is Jewish (4%). Obama's margin of victory was greater than 4%. He might have won even if he'd been more honest about the mess that is Israel / occupied Palestine / the Middle East, and about what America's role in fixing it should, nay must, be.

What does this have to do with the economic stimulus package? Well, my mother has been focused like a laser on how off-track the bailout is, wondering why it's OK to dump billions of dollars on banks and bankers, but not on the people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their retirement savings, etc. She's not wrong.

Meanwhile, Frank Rich has been focused like a laser on the way that the Obama administration has - already, in just a few short weeks - danced around the ethical guidelines it once said it would hew to so closely.

Both have a right to be upset because - so far - the Obama administration has given us only a new version of politics-as-usual. The rise of the left on November 4th has not brought us clarity or a new vision, but rather exactly what the rise of the opposition always brings after they've been in opposition: revenge. In this case, it's been a more polite, mildly more accommodating form of revenge - but the results of those accommodations are additional goodies for the Republicans (e.g., more corporate tax cuts) rather than a realistic compromising of positions and dollars, or a genuine refocusing of priorities. Instead, almost everything counts as a priority, adding up to nearly $800 billion.

Rich said this weekend that Obama "is not Jesus," and he's right. Obama isn't Jesus, but it's also an irrelevant comparison because even Jesus couldn't sort out this mess.


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08 February 2009

Land Grab

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Here’s a thought: maybe the recession—and the corresponding impact on commercial real estate prices—will benefit existing and new small and boutique shops in New York City. It’s a situation calling out for a better and more creative approach to business development.
The debate over the proliferation of “big box” retailers (and big box banks) in New York is longstanding. I am a proud Costco member-shopper, and patronize Fairway, a big box grocery if ever there was one. While there has been much angst over fair pay and union practices at some of these kinds of stores, including over whether WalMart has a place in New York City, they also often offer legitimate value in terms of job creation and cheap(er) goods. (For two good articles on this issue, see John Tierney’s piece in The New York Times from July 21, 2000, and Virginia Postrel’s article in the December 2006 issue of The Atlantic, “In Praise of Chain Stores.”)

At the same time, small shops and “boutique” brand stores offer an equally valuable shopping experience. Generally, the appeal of both rests less on price point than on the intimate knowledge that owners and employees usually have of the products on sale. And for both, it is (in part) a matter of scale: the larger a store’s stock, the less likely it is that the store’s employees will have great knowledge of each of their products. Likewise, the exceedingly wide range of products available in large stores often precludes stocking the more eccentric, low-sales-volume merchandise some customers may desire.

For example: it seems completely natural to me that the appliance and technology chain Circuit City is now bankrupt. While I am sorry for 30,000 employees who will lose their jobs, three separate instances of terrible service at two Manhattan stores was enough to convince me that this was not a good place to shop. Even if the prices were reasonable, the sales staff was generally not: they lacked in-depth knowledge about all but the most high-volume products, and were indifferent to basic customer service. Confidence-deflating salespeople make for depressed sales numbers.

Contrast the Circuit City approach with that of the average Apple store where you get what you pay for: great products with great service. Everything about the experience—including being able to book a “personal shopper” in advance—indicates that Apple understands that its customers deserve to be treated not only respectfully but with respect for their intelligence. This is, in part, a matter of hiring smart staff and training them properly, but it is also a function of the focus involved in Apple’s product line. A manageable range of products means it is possible for staff to learn in great detail about the items they sell.

The same can be said of other kinds of products and stores. Innovation Luggage, another chain store, has a perfectly fine selection of mass-produced, mass-product bags for the mass market. I have shopped there once or twice myself. But if you want a bag that is more creatively designed, something customized to different kinds of styles and purposes, you have to look elsewhere—like Peter Hermann, in New York, which sells smaller, harder to find brands. My favorite shoulder bag, by Mandarina Duck, cannot be found at most big chains, while the terrific computer tote we bought for my wife a few years ago is a true original: a product of the innovative and artistic Schlepp Berlin.

Let’s not forget bookstores, about which I wrote a few years ago. The closing, in 2006, of the fraternal twin book stores Murder Ink and Ivy’s Books and Curiosities was a terrible day for my Upper West Side neighborhood. Even worse—or perhaps just ironic—is the fact that the store fronts that housed those shops have sat empty since December 31, 2006. Only now, more than two years later, is one of them seeing a new tenant (yet another mobile phone chain). Jay Pearsall, who owned the book stores, would have every right to be angry, and also to revel in schadenfreude at a landlord whose rising rents put Pearsall out of business but also kept the spaces unrented for another two years.
My dream of a series of new boutiques and small stores is probably just that, given the state of the credit markets. But commercial real estate vacancy rates are high and rising, not just in Manhattan. If landlords changed, ever so slightly, their perspective on what makes a successful tenant, they might find themselves able to reverse the drain. Landlords could, for example, become limited business partners with their tenants for renewable terms; lease payments could be made based on the success of the business, which would make the success of the business in the best interests of the landlords themselves. If that sounds like a money-losing proposition, ask yourself what sounds better: unrented storefronts for the duration of the recession—or renting out that space, generating some (initially modest) income, and aspiring to achieve higher rents while also contributing to the success and stability of a given neighborhood?

This is not a foolproof strategy, as the closing of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop shows; not every business can be saved, and not every business will succeed. That is not the point. A strategy of seeking to maximize profits by looking exclusively for the largest commercial retail partner is not sustainable; there will never be enough big box partners to satisfy every available rental space. In urban and suburban communities alike, retail diversity is important—there is value to be found in many stores beyond the savings of dollars and cents—and landlords would do well to figure this out, and take advantage of it. In fact, we would all benefit.

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