Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Holiday Books: A Door-Stopper, A Stocking-Stuffer, A Head-Warmer

A History Of The World In 100 Objects By Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, Viking.
A generous and thoughtful friend gave me this book; it is one that will keep on giving for years, since one can pick it up at any moment, go to one of the "Objects," and continue to receive insight and perspective.

Our age, like any other, considers itself to be the most advanced age; it's a natural mistake, or, maybe not mistake so much as an irrelevant idea. Funny thing how dozens upon dozens of these brilliant ages, piled atop one another,  always seem to bring us to a particularly sticky predicament. This book won't directly explain or resolve our current predicaments, but it will remind us that men and women have seen it all before. There is some comfort in that, I think.

Caveat Emptor: The book is thoroughly British and is based on a 2010 series of BBC radio programs.  While it includes A North American Buckskin Map from the mid-18th Century, the book does seem to go out of its way to exclude the US of A. For example, in the 1914-2010 Period, do not look for anything from Apple. Instead, you will see that the Credit Card object is from United Arab Republic, and "high tech" is represented by the Solar-powered Lamp and Charger from China. That said, it's well worth getting over any naturally British intellectual squeamishness about our role in the world, such as it is or might have once been.

Favorite Object: Ming Bank Note, China, AD 1375-1425. Why? It depicts, in an almost cartoon-like style, the actual piles of coins the note represents. Real dough.

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual By Michael Pollan, Penguin Paper and Illustrated (Maira Kalman) Hardcover.

A very simple-to-read collection of Sixty-Four thoughtfully short "rules." These are not going to hurt. Pollan, thankfully, does not preach here, nor lecture. Instead, he lays out very sound and simple to understand ways that we can all be healthier, smarter, lighter eaters...and still be happier for it!

How many people can get you to give up something and make you happier?! Well, at least one.

I bought the paperback version in Browser Books on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, mostly because I did not want to carry the illustrated hardcover home on a plane, despite my admiration for Maira Kalman's (The Illustrated Elements of Style and What Pete Ate among other favorites) work. You can easily finish reading the rules in a day, but another reason to have the paper edition is that you can keep it handy: in a carry-on to help you avoid airport food, in a purse, in a briefcase, messenger bag, under your fedora, etc.

These make great stocking stuffers for everyone in the family, and, if everyone gets it, no one person should feel offended.

Favorite Rules:
#19. If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.
#64. Break the rules once in a while.

Lightning: The Nature of Leadership By Bob Scher, with Photographs By Jane English, Codhill Press, New Paltz, NY.

Like "100 Objects," you may find yourself going back to this book many times for a refresher course. And, like "Rules," these are short, thoughtful, and highly relevant chapters in verse form, accompanied by Ms. English's extraordinarily appropriate photographs.


A person who always
counts pennies
may avoid grand failure

but is often
great success
The person who never
counts pennies
may achieve great success
but is often
in grave danger
and doesn't know it

This book should be mandatory reading in high schools, business schools, and on the campaign buses, not only for the candidates, but especially for the media covering, some might say inventing and destroying the same campaigns of people who would be our leaders. Why? Try this:

The wise
learn from the past
The unwise
learn from the future
The fool
learns from the future again
and again

Scher is our Confucius. Just in time.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Greece: Let's Give It One More Troy

A few years ago, my brother-in-law gave me a book entitled When China Rules The World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the West by Martin Jacques. This was meant to cheer me in an hour of need, the specific need being paid full time employment during a period of financial "unrest," not to mention the fact that I had just turned sixty, which in our culture is tantamount to lying with the daffodils. The idea was: if the Chinese are coming for it all anyway, why worry? Or, at least I'd be prepared to work for them, when they arrived.

And cheer me it did, although not in the way that its author, a British journalist, had intended. Mr Jacques, in his haste to rid the world of anything remotely American, had made two critical mistakes right up front. First, he had no sense of humor whatsoever, and therefore could not envision that a regime or people without a sense of humor (the Chinese) would ultimately fail. Second, and most importantly, the data on which his claim that China would catch us by 2020 or so and completely dominate us by 2050 or so came almost entirely from one source...Goldman Sachs.

Any person who would stake his name or fortune, I thought,  on data publicly supplied by GS was obviously a fool, who should have asked to see the data on which GS had made its own long and short investments. So I put the book down, marked at page thirty-two and placed it in a stack between Simple French Food by Richard Olney (recommended) and Ogilvy On Advertising (highly recommended).

...And proceeded on my sometimes merry way to invent a life.

But, why do I bring this up?

Pensionagoras's Tomb
I have just been reading the paper, which now tells me that, in fact, the demise of the West may indeed be nigh, and golly, think of the irony, it all depends on Greece itself,  the cradle of the Western civilization, not China.

Greece, through the BC/AD millennia, laid all the groundwork for citizens' rights to avoid paying taxes, elude sustained hard labor, create a 56-week year so that there would be four extra weeks of vacation, and, most amazingly of all, invent a kind of mathematics that truly changed everything, at least for a while.

I refer, of course, to The Pension-agorrean Theory, to which American cities, towns, and villages, from Utica and Ithaca in the north to Athens (GA) in the South still subscribe:
a$ + b$(x) = ab$ (100x). 

Now it turns out that we cannot pay out that ab$(100x) after all, since it depends on annualized gains of 15-20%, and not the more realistic average of 5-6%, if that. Not to mention that it also depends on the accumulated value of productive work, which is how we create wealth with which to pay things. This is not exactly the same as just showing up at work four out of five days. We cannot pay out in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain (PIIGS) or in America.


Re-enter China...

...Emissaries from France and Germany have arrived in Beijing, on behalf of Greece and other European scofflaws to make the case to the world's most ruthless capitalist-totalitarian regime that it has a golden opportunity to wrest the mantle of world financial/economic supremacy from America much earlier than previously supposed.

The words etched over that mantle in ancient Greek, underneath the image of a horse, accurately rendered in Mandarin, mean: SUCKER.

...a little trick that the Greeks learned long ago at Troy (Asia Minor, not NY).

Saddle up, Comrades, and enjoy that ride.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Athens-Yonkers-Peekskill Express

Greek Yogurt
We've gone from worrying about why they ran out of that Greek yogurt we love at Costco to wondering if Greek debt is going to be the end of everything after all. Just when we were told that all would be fine, for a while at least, the Greeks scuttled everything and, horror of horrors, will ask "the people" to decide.

Didn't they try that during the French Revolution only to find that the only one who benefitted was an inventor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin?

Just because Greece is the cradle of democracy doesn't mean they have to take it so seriously all of a sudden. Americans may hate Congress with a passion, and with excellent cause, but do we really want to have a national-popular referendum every week about taxes, healthcare, what to do with all these millionaires, and the price of gasoline?

We think not, based on several recent trips to airports and malls, where we've seen our fellow citizens wearing what appear to be pajamas or old gym clothing, with expandable waists; while munching on large pieces of fried cheese and gazing into their smart phones (so-named because they are better educated than their users) for some kind of instruction about what they absolutely need to buy and place on the shelf at home with all the other crap.

As if on cue, another banking/trading villain has emerged in MF Global, famous for having a former Senator and Governor from New Jersey at the helm. Perhaps they would have done better with the cast of Jersey Shore in charge. This outfit bet heavily on the fact that the Old Europe, as Rummy (where's a sharp guillotine when you need one!) used to call it, would HAVE to bail out Greece and other debt-profligates, because...well, it was just unthinkable that they would not.

Apparently, Greeks beware of Euros bearing gifts.

Oh yes, aside from those big bets, debt leveraged to equity 40-1, MF Global has "misplaced" several hundred millions of dollars of client money. Is this Greek Tragedy or Comedy? I can't help thinking that John Candy would make a very fine movie out of all this, if he were still alive.

Or, perhaps this plot will seem all too familiar to those of us who were paying attention way back in '08.

But, why worry about Greece, when the fun is about to begin right here at home. This week, I've been touring cities on the Hudson, Peekskill and Yonkers to be exact. Both have seen better days. Both have tried, tried, tried to revive downtowns with public/private (mostly public) investment, AKA debt. They have aging populations who need healthcare, immigrant populations that need work, student populations that require better education, etc & etc. Meanwhile, their tax bases are hurting and they do not want to lay-off public employees, further adding to their woes.

Have we mentioned pensions? These cities and many others like them around the country have HUGE underfunded pension obligations brewing, among other kinds of debt. When citizens see the real (currently a state secret) numbers on these obligations, they may begin wailing away like Clytemnestra and Maria Callas never dreamed of wailing.

Yonkers Revival
The Governor of New York apparently has a plan to fix this, except that nobody has actually seen the Governor in a while, since he prefers his office and phone to mixing with the rabble in the streets. Maybe he'll fix this like he fixed property taxes, which he had capped at a 2% annual increase, UNLESS (small print and unpublicized loophole) cities, villages, and towns vote to override that cap, which they are already beginning to do.

Wasn't it that great Greek philosopher, Cat Stevens, who said, "...Ooh, Baby-Baby, it's a wild world, and it's hard to get by just upon a smile..."

But, we must try.