July 28, 2014

So I wrote this thing that was intended for commercial publication and all parties decided that it was, among other things, a little to glib in dealing with the bleakness that is the world these days.

So while I am pondering whether I should put it here (in the interest of wasting no part of the animal), read this Michael Tomasky piece on the bleakness that is the world these days:

But: Am I the only one to whom things right now feel a little... different? By which I of course mean worse. This Israel-Hamas war feels different, neither turtle nor scorpion even pretending anymore about seeking peace. What's happening in Syria, where hundreds die every week now with almost no notice in Washington, is certainly different. Lebanon teems with Palestinian and now Syrian refugees--imagine if you lived in a country of 4.5 million people that was being asked to house a number of refugees that equaled 20 percent of your population--and every effort at normalization is pulverized by the thugs of Hezbollah, which in effect governs the country and which is helping Bashar al-Assad murder civilians while limning Hamas' glorious contributions to "the resistance," as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did in a bellicose speech Friday.

Good day to you all.

Posted at 1:50 PM

July 25, 2014

I was reading the news of Paul Ryan's new anti-poverty proposal with a bit of interest, mostly because traditionally Ryan just hates hates hates the poors, thinks that they're takers, that it's their fault, etc.  I guess I was expecting some perfidy, some double-speak that was actually an arrow aimed at the heart of the impoverished.  And sifting through it, it's just a bland retrofit of the idea of block grants — instead of having individual programs (hunger, housing, child assistance, etc.) administered by the federal government, Ryan wants to give grants to the states directly covering all of everything.  You know, doesn't exactly rise to the level of Dr. Evil, even though I'd trust the State of New York to deal with this than a state like Louisiana, who would probably use the grant to sweep the poor into Lake Pontcharchain...

Whoa wait one second:

If a state opted into the pilot program, it would have low-income residents meet with case managers who would create an "opportunity plan" offering both financial advice and coordinating the provisions of the several different programs they need. The residents would sign contracts with these case managers that would offer incentives to reach financial security and sanctions if they do not. A neutral agency would evaluate each provider's success at moving poor Americans out of poverty.

[Emphasis mine.]

Oh, I get it, it's not a social safety net, it's a fucking reality show.  Not that I am against the goal of eliminating poverty once and for all, but I am wildly against punishing the poor for remaining poor.  Mostly because we live in an economic system that is predicated on the concept that there is such a thing as an acceptable level of unemployment, which means that there will always be people down on their luck, and Paul Ryan wants to gamify this into some spectacle where the down on their luck have to additionally worry because they're a unwitting contestant on the big fucking TV hit Poverty Wars.

More sedate criticism of the proposal can be found here, courtesy of TalkPoverty.org.

But Paul Ryan: yeah, that's about as evil as usual.

Posted at 10:01 AM

July 22, 2014

Let's talk about James Garner.

You remember Jim Garner — he was Brett Maverick, he was Jim Rockford.  He passed away over the weekend, at his home, of natural causes, at the ripe old age of eighty-six, which is about the best you can wish for, right?

But Garner was a lot more than a TV star to me.  Garner is one of the reasons I didn't grow up to be a macho knucklehead.  Now, considering my bookish/slight nature, the chances were pretty slim, but Jim Garner on the telly was one of the more vivid examples of masculinity that my little brain was taking in.  Oh sure he was a big hunky, athletic fellow, but he was also wry and bemused, and he also frequently didn't win.  His charm didn't come from invulnerability, but rather empathy and persistence.

So when I was growing up, I didn't want to be some star quarterback with cheerleaders hanging off him,  I wanted to be Jim Rockford.  (And yes maybe it's not fair to conflate Garner/Rockford, but be fair: a lot of that wasn't acting.)

And the other thing notable about Garner is that he was one of the few big stars that took on the Hollywood machine and won.  He sued twice over "Hollywood accounting" (which, I can tell you from experience, means cooking the books so that no net profits are shown).  After suing Universal over "Rockford Files" profits in the early 80s, he was pretty much blacklisted from TV.  And oh yeah he won:

"There's a lot of people who can't afford to do what I've done in the way of taking on studios (over his share of series profits). And I've done it twice and won both times. But it meant something to other actors, that it can be done. And it's also changed a little bit of policy by the studios toward the actors."

[Garner] smiled. "Of course, the minute you plug up one hole they find another one. They've got these batteries of lawyers to find ways to steal."

He was a pretty nifty guy, and I feel fortunate looking up to him when I was a kid.

Posted at 11:01 AM

July 17, 2014

A nice read concerning the interaction between big business and the rest of us is this Eduardo Porter column entitled "Motivating Corporations To Do Good."  Now, others might tell you to go read the Andrew Ross Sorkin from Tuesday, but I'm not that fellow.  Sure, hate-read that piece of apologia, the weeper about the sad Big Pharma company that just has to depatriate to the Netherlands because of a couple of points's savings in corporate tax, but no need to start the day gritting your teeth.

Porter takes the longer view, going into how business culture has changed w/r/t public responsibility:

"Over all, there is no question that the ethos of corporate America has changed dramatically over the past 40 years," said Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, who is writing a book about how the social contract between workers and employers has changed since World War II. The belief that business must serve multiple constituents, he argued, has given way to an imperative "to make the shareholder king..."

Though legally dubious, the argument that it is an executive's fiduciary duty to maximize the company's share price became a mantra from the business school to the boardroom. And it was nailed down with money.

This is demonstrably true, to the point that Americans believe in this on some personal level as an excuse for callous greed.  "Why did you embezzle all that money from a church?"  "Just increasing shareholder value, who could blame me."

Though I wonder if this maxim has not metastasized into something much more insidious, like, "The fiduciary duty to increase shareholder value by increasing executive compensation," though that might be a bit cynical of me.  Oops!

But this stuff is important.  We live in a nation of Walmart drones and Amazon warehouse pickers, underpaid and commensurately miserable.  This was not always the case!

Posted at 10:42 AM

July 15, 2014

Apropos of nothing, may I say publicly that the "Purge" series of motion pictures offends me on a moral level.  If you missed them (and I'm only thinking about them because the sequel coming out soon is advertising all over NYC's subways), the premise behind them is that there's this alternate universe America that picks one day a year where (wait for it)... all crime is legal!  Hurrah, confetti, etc.

Obviously a movie, or a book or a video game or what have you, is not an endorsement, it's not a proposal of proscriptive behavior.  In fact, consensus is that the plotline of the "Purge" is hamfisted political commentary: intended as an emotional outlet for the emotional well-being of society, the process is instead a cynical ruse by the future-government to mask population control of the lower classes.  Okay.

And it's not the first to posit some version of society where everyone has the uncontrollable urge to go out and murder people.  Go back to The Lottery, or Escape From New York or any of the silly Rollerball ripoffs where televised mayhem is the order of the day (more on that some other time).  Still, seeing those freaking posters while waiting for the A train has me seething a bit.

I am not anti-speculative fiction, or sci fi or horror or any of the ancillary genres.  In fact, it's a lot of what I'm reading at any given time.  But the suggestion that given the chance we'd all devolve into savages just really irks me in a visceral way, like I get all frowny and my mood plunges when I see the posters.  Maybe because I'm afraid it's true?  Maybe confronting the fact that my high estimation of human nature could be off the mark is something I'm having difficulty with?

Whatever.  See the movie if you want.  But if want to see something that will make you fall in love with the mundane, with the innate possibility in every day, go see Boyhood instead.

Posted at 10:12 AM

July 11, 2014

I was totally gonna ignore this in hopes that it would die a slow death, bereft of attention, but I think that it's largely already forgotten and therefor safe to bring up.

Ben Smith, currently of Buzzfeed, is a smart, hardworking guy.  He is also occasionally a knucklehead.  Take this, his very earnest effort to both explain and rename the two dominant wings of the Republican Party:

I propose replacing the messy old terminology with a simple new vocabulary, one that has evolved organically, which has deep and consistent intellectual roots, no pejorative implications, and which political leaders use effortlessly and without reflecting. The division that will define the Republican Party for the next decade is the split between Liberty Conservatives and Freedom Conservatives.

Okay.

What follows is a bunch of words explaining the difference between the two, which makes sense, etc.  But!  Too suggest that Freedom and Liberty be appended to "Conservative" in order to distinguish between them us not unlike suggesting that Democrats be divided into Fascists and Communists.

That is to say, both Freedom and Liberty are so impossibly unassailably positive that it is downright unfair, like naming your child Jesus Christ.  And to suggest this, unironically, suggests a certain lack of perspective that borders on bias.

I mean, why not Awesome Conservatives and Terrific Conservatives?  Or War Hero Conservatives and Movie Star Conservatives?  Pepperoni Pizza Conservatives and Buffalo Wing Conservatives?

I keep trying to give Smith a fair shot, but you really do end up feeling like he should know better.  (And yeah, there's his Koch brothers connection, but that's a whole nuther.)

Okay, let us not speak of this again.

Posted at 10:23 AM

July 9, 2014

Ah!  A chance to in-your-face one of those Objectivist Silicon Alley knuckleheads!

Background: Tuesday a new app, with whose name I will not bore you, launched in San Fransisco, an app that scalps restaurant reservations.  Really!  A robot takes up all available reservations for hot SF restaurants, and then the app auctions them back to people for cash.  And of course there was an uproar, as it is generally a slimy endeavor that hurts the restaurants, as what seem like fully-booked nights are actually contingencies on the whims of millionaires.  Read all about it here.

But the dude behind this app, Brian Mayer, actually took to his blog to defend himself, as in his conception, he is doing something virtuous:

If someone does pay for it willingly, is it really unethical? The consumer has made a choice, the reservation stands, the restaurant gets a table filled as planned, and I have made money for providing the service. That seems perfectly ethical to me.

There's something very Aleister Crowley about that — "'Do what thou wilt' shall be the law of the land," or whatever — but even with the added gloss of the "consensual transaction" it doesn't make a lick of sense.  What are some other things that people pay for willingly?  Um, drugs, prostitutes?  Now of course those things are technically illegal, not everyone believes they should be.  Okay, what are some other things?  How about contract killings?  How about child prostitution?

Sorry, the fact that the buyer will pay for something willingly is absolutely untethered to the ethics of the situation, and any man that believes otherwise is indeed either unprincipled, stupid or both.

This app is a solution for a problem that does not exist, creating yet another profit margin out of thin air, monetizing something that never should have been monetized in the first place.

Disruption or not, it's yet another example of how these low-rent VC philosopher/kings are basically nihilists,

Posted at 10:44 AM

July 8, 2014

Bubbles are marching through today's headlines!  And not the fun kind, either.

On the whimsical side, sift through this episode of history repeating itself, this time with regards to the cupcake industry.  The cupcake chain Crumbs shuttered its remaining stores yesterday, the inevitable result of big business surfing a fad, milking it for all it was worth, and then planting it face-first in the dirt.  The Free Market may solve all problems, but sometimes it demands unsustainable growth at the expense of shareholder value.

And on the scary side, meet the Everything Bubble:

Welcome to the Everything Boom -- and, quite possibly, the Everything Bubble. Around the world, nearly every asset class is expensive by historical standards. Stocks and bonds; emerging markets and advanced economies; urban office towers and Iowa farmland; you name it, and it is trading at prices that are high by historical standards relative to fundamentals. The inverse of that is relatively low returns for investors.

The phenomenon is rooted in two interrelated forces. Worldwide, more money is piling into savings than businesses believe they can use to make productive investments. At the same time, the world's major central banks have been on a six-year campaign of holding down interest rates and creating more money from thin air to try to stimulate stronger growth in the wake of the financial crisis.

What's happening is this: there's just too much idle cash globally, and nowhere to put it that brings back returns comparable with returns pre-Great Recession.  So the idle money is seeking out every possible asset with even a marginal return.

Two ominous thoughts.  First, call me old-fashioned, but the only thing I think about when I see this sort of bubble is the fact that bubbles burst, and the fact that this bubble is pretty much all assets everywhere, that's quite a burst to contemplate.  Our last two "corrections" were (largely) caused by defined, finite bubbles, the tech sector and then real estate.  This bubble is seemingly boundless.  Yikes.

And the second thing is that, in light of the income/wealth income all over the globe, why the hell is there all this idle cash?  Where did it come from, and, better yet, is there a moral reason that it ended up concentrated in so few hands?

Ah, well, such is life!  Have a cupcake.  Have two!

Posted at 9:47 AM

July 7, 2014

It's not every day that you come across a paragraph like this one here:
But Democrats can't lean on a single demographic. The corporatists, oligarchs and plutocrats are working in concert. Liberals must marshal all their constituent groups to do the same. Everyone must vote.

Emphasis mine, duh.

See now, that's the way it is, as far as I'm concerned — objective reality is being unnaturally swayed by the corporatists, oligarchs and plutocrats working in concert.  But I'm a pinko, of course I believe such things to be so!  So clearly, the source of that paragraph must be Mother Jones or DailyKos or whatever the hippies are reading these days.

Actually, it's the New York Times, from Charles Blow, one of their regular op-ed columnists.

Blow is definitely a fellow traveler, ideologically, but even so, it is a bit jarring to see those words grouped together in the paper of record.  But maybe the fact that they're right there, fit to print, means that the concept is gaining currency?  Why, that would be a hopeful thought.

Posted at 10:43 AM

July 3, 2014

If you remember back all the way to last week, when we were visiting the fact that there will be a whole lot of independent restaurants/stores being priced clean out of the city into oblivion in the future, Danny Meyer, the man who opened the soon to be relo-ed Union Square Cafe, speaks on the matter:
Because the market suggests they can, landlords are using this moment to demand the significantly higher rents they've been waiting for since first betting on their neighborhoods. In our case, the advertised rent is triple what we are now paying...

For the condos and chain stores that may replace us, such costs can be absorbed or passed on to consumers. But that sort of economics doesn't work for neighborhood restaurants. Our food and wine isn't inexpensive, but it's not unreasonably priced. To change that value equation would be inhospitable to our guests and go against our reason for existing. Nor would it allow us to continue to provide an upward career path for our dedicated employees.

I largely agree.  I take that back; I agree.  But I do want to take issue with an issue ancillary to all of this, namely, what we're talking about when we're talking about neighborhood restaurants.

I've got nothing against Danny Meyer.  I've been to most of his restaurants and I've never had a bad meal/time.  But, I think for Meyer to characterize USC as a neighborhood restaurant is maybe a bit much, especially when you take into consideration his enormous restaurant empire, anchored by the endless expansion of Shake Shack.  In his op-ed he concedes that he may be part of the problem.  I think he is, but not in the sense of the snowballing landlord greed.

Rather, I think that he is part of the problem that is killing the actual neighborhood restaurants, the diners and mom-and-pops and lunch counters.  His food is just too good, and too high-end, and it has led us to where we are now in terms of the landscape of restaurant cuisine out there.  Basically, after the trails blazed by Meyer, we are all hipstervores now.  Our communal palate has changed like that, and it's fantastic that we're taking more care about the sourcing of our food and our diets in general, but let's be honest: when I say we, I'm talking about some small portion of the population that is pretty well-off economically and can afford the attention/money that this new cuisine requires.  And then there's everyone else.  And as the mom-and-pops slowly get squeezed, the empty space not filled by hipstervore experiments gets occupied by a new fast food restaurant or 7-11 — more better eating by chemistry, and more of the non-wealthy slowly eating themselves to death.

Obviously this is not Danny Meyer's (or David Chang's or Bobby Flay's or whatever name you want to fill in) fault, and more of an unintended consequence of success.  And it sucks that USC is getting squeezed out, and it basically shows that no one is safe.  I just want to be careful that we don't forget the actual neighborhood restaurants, because when they die, no one writes an op-ed about them.

Posted at 10:06 AM

July 2, 2014

This is from last week so it might as well not exist, but it is a Thing You Should Read — the latest contribution by venture capitalist Nick Hanauer to the conversation concerning income inequality.

But it's not as boring as all that!  The piece is posited as a plea to Hanauer's fellow billionaires to tend to this problem before the pitchforks and the torches arrive, followed by Madame Guillotine.  He's being partly disingenuous, of course, but when it comes right down to it, our current state of nauseating inequality is just bad for business:

Which is why the fundamental law of capitalism must be: If workers have more money, businesses have more customers. Which makes middle-class consumers, not rich businesspeople like us, the true job creators. Which means a thriving middle class is the source of American prosperity, not a consequence of it. The middle class creates us rich people, not the other way around.

It is plainly written and it is filled with restatements of ideas that you already agree with.  It also acknowledges that this is a problem that will not be solved politically without the public will to see it done.  So get up to get down, all you.

The Apostate Rich Guy events pop up now and again (Henry Blodget for example), and I guess I'll keep highlighting them until such time as there is no longer a need to do so.

But Hanauer is smart:

The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics isn't believing that if the rich get richer, it's good for the economy. It's believing that if the poor get richer, it's bad for the economy.

Please tattoo this on my forehead.

Posted at 10:33 AM

July 1, 2014

Here's a quick enthralling read.  It's a bittersweet love story, wherein the sitting governor of Maine, Paul LePage, falls head over heels for a bunch of Soverign Citizens:
When discussing Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves, both Democrats, [Sovereign Citizen dude Jack] McCarthy apparently claimed that they were guilty of "high treason" and noted that the penalty for treason hadn't changed in a hundred years.

"I never said it, but the governor said it. I never opened my mouth and said the word," explained McCarthy. "The governor looked at us and looked at his buddy and said, 'They're talking about hanging them.'" (The "buddy" was apparently a member of LePage's legal staff.)

According to McCarthy, at another point in the conversation, when discussing federal funding, LePage said, "If I go any further with this bill, with this refusal to accept federal money, they will surround this building and kill me."

"I believe he thinks that literally, absolutely literally. I said if you call we will come and defend you," said McCarthy on his show.

This is not fiction!  It's an excerpted version of the first chapter of an upcoming book by Mike Tipping.  It's filled with fun stuff like the aforementioned death threats and remonstrances and admirality law and stuff like that.  Oh, and a sitting U.S. governor falling for that puerile nonsense hook, line and sinker.  It makes Rick Perry look like a Fulbright Scholar, and Bobby Jindal look like the president of Mensa.

Read it and wish you were a Mainer.

Posted at 12:24 PM

June 27, 2014

Here's some more grist for the Slow Degradation of All Things, which is pretty much (come to find out) the underlying theme of my life's work: People don't make things like they used to.
Workmanship has declined in parallel. There continue to be expert craftsmen -- carpenters, roofers, painters -- who work with precision and pride, but they are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills (which is, of course, why the labor is cheaper). I have had paint jobs that blistered within days and had to be redone -- at my expense. And I have heard and read of many analogous experiences.

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and Realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

This is one of those things that all of us know instinctively and rarely think about.  One of the great things about NYC is that a large portion of the housing stock here is sixty years old or older (hence, "Pre-war").  The really great thing about a Pre-war apartment (I live in one) is that the quality in construction is supremely evident, especially having grown up in the suburbs, with it's hollow doors and cheap paneling.  The walls of my flat are so sturdy you can't put your fist through them, and there are all kinds of moldings and details that you just don't see outside of luxury condos anymore.

And while the writer of the piece above attributes this to good old market forces (Greed!), I think that it's also emblematic of a certain erosion of our ability to care, both in the sense of pride in one's work, and care of our material things.

At least, that's my working thesis for the time being.

Posted at 10:29 AM

June 24, 2014

In my neighborhood, next to the bar I habituate and at which I occasionally work, there is an old-school deli, run by nice young man from Syria.  Rather, there was, as this weekend he and his family packed the entire shop up into vans and drove everything to Philadelphia, as the story goes.

The reason?  The landlord raised the rent.  From $2,800 a month to $5,000 a month.

Now I'm no expert in commercial real estate (let's just shorten that to I'm no expert), but I'm guessing if you run a store that makes its nut selling mostly cigarettes, newspapers and soda pop, you're going to find it really hard to sell enough cigarettes, newspapers and soda pop to make a rent like that.

This is not an isolated phenomenon.  It's also currently rearranging the NYC restaurant landscape, with WD-50 getting priced out a couple weeks ago and the venerable Union Square Cafe announcing last night that it too had its rent jacked beyond tenability.

I guess I could join the chorus of geezers bemoaning the demise of a once-proud metropolitan area, greed squeezing residents, people and businesses alike, until nothing was left but ATM kiosks and Saudi royalty, but this is a familiar complaint, widely-shared.

What I would like to know, however, is what exactly our city's landlord class is doing with all that freaking money, because when rents go up some egregious amount over a short span of time, the cash has to go somewhere.

Posted at 10:11 AM

June 20, 2014

What I really want to do is distract myself from the 300 military advisers (which really makes me think only of French Indochina) headed to Iraq by immersing myself in the story of the slow downfall of Governor Scott Walker.  Walker, mysteriously touted as a rising star for the GOP, has been long dogged by the so-called John Doe investigation, which was a multi-agency look into fund-raising improprieties surrounding his campaign to defeat recall in 2012.

So this news broke yesterday:

Prosecutors in Wisconsin assert that Gov. Scott Walker was part of an elaborate effort to illegally coordinate fund-raising and spending between his campaign and conservative groups during efforts to recall him and several state senators two years ago, according to court filings unsealed Thursday.

Should be a big woo-hoo, right?  The very divisive Walker, who effectively crammed through legislation ham-string public employee unions in the state of Wisconsin, is exactly the kind of Koch brothers-funded politico you want to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

But wait!  While I'm still happy to enjoy my Schadenfreude, this is actually a vivid example of why reporting is hard, as it's just not that easy.  The simplified version, the version that you'll read on the blogs, is, "Gov. Walker named by prosecutors as implicated in illegal campaign fundraising and prohibited coordination with super PACs."  But in reality, it is oh so much more complicated than that, and hardly a slam-dunk.

To wit, there are so many moving parts (campaign officials who were "unaffiliated" with the campaign at the time, various advocacy organizations with different IRS classifications, etc.) that it's impossible to distill into a neat paragraph without overstating or eliding.  Additionally, the laws being broken (in this case, state campaign finance limits) are not the ones that you, the judicious observer, would hope are being broken (Federal tax laws that govern the behavior of tax-exempt organizations).  Basically, it's a movie that takes exactly as long as the actual movie to summarize, and there's the whole busting-Capone-for-tax-evasion cherry on top.

I've long been mildly obsessed with the fact that, when it comes to news, things are never as they seem; the actual events that cause the news rarely reflect the news being reported.  And this is making me leery of oversimplifying anything.

I suppose that it's impossible for Gov. Walker to walk away from this without a little tarnish, but, even with his bald admission of collusion in an email to Karl Rove, but even then it's best to temper one's expectations with a cold hard deep read of the facts.

Posted at 10:49 AM