Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Brothers Warner" and Writing To Educate

My family attended the Kent Film Festival this weekend, in Kent, Connecticut (population: 2,858), nestled next to the mighty Housatonic River in the Litchfield Hills. We love visiting Kent because it’s so different from New York City: forests with deer, bobcats, and bears, and a small-town sensibility and pace that bring you back to the peace of sitting under a giant oak to read a book in solitude.

We saw an excellent documentary, “The Brothers Warner,” about the four brothers who created the film studio famous for making everything from “Casablanca” to “Looney Tunes.” The film was directed and narrated by Cass Warner, the granddaughter of Harry Warner, and what struck me was her description of why the brothers originally went into moviemaking and how different the industry is today. Their goal, of course, was to entertain audiences, but the brothers also wanted to educate and enlighten them. They saw films as powerful tools for promoting the social good.

For example, Warner Brothers made the first anti-Nazi film in the late 1930’s, even when the U.S. State Department was warning them not to do it. Warner Brothers also pioneered movies depicting racism against blacks, teenage rebellion (“Rebel Without A Cause”), and even the history of medicine (“The Story of Louis Pasteur”). One of the points of the documentary was that the brothers Warner often sacrificed profit for message and that marketing did not rule their decisions about what movies to make. They repeatedly put their “toochis ofn tish,” a Yiddish phrase meaning they put their “ass on the table.” The brothers took risks, political, social, and economic risks, to communicate something new through movies.

Not only did this make me think of all the junk movies today, hooked on the steroids of special effects or hot bodies, movies memorable for about five minutes; but the documentary also made me think of my industry and how marketing and celebrity literature have overwhelmed the world of books. Most of the books produced today are meant to be disposable, a quick hit to the bottom line of a corporation, and then forgotten and shredded. Rarely do commercial publishers publish anything that they don’t think will be a huge financial success, and so they follow often outmoded, safe realities of what editors, agents, and reviewers think will sell.

For example, I appeared in a new anthology this month, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, and a reviewer from Publishers Weekly criticized the anthology for not having “fiction examining distinctively Latino themes.” What stereotypical box does this reviewer want us to fit in before he or she gives writers a chance to tell their stories? The anthology was published, not surprisingly, by a non-profit press, Arte Publico from Houston. If the anthology sells, perhaps more doors will be opened to Latino writers wanting to write stories outside of preconceived notions of who or what Latinos should be. But don’t expect commercial publishers to lead the charge to educate a changing public about what deserves to be American literature today.

I find the most interesting movies are created by independent producers, and the most interesting books are published by small, often non-profit presses. These are the creative works in which it is still important to entertain, but the point is also to enlighten, to explore a subject that has been overlooked or forgotten, to perfect a work that will sustain its brilliance for a long time, and to challenge and break stereotypes. If you want to take a voyage that truly opens your eyes, rather than lulls you to sleep or gives you a fleeting high, then go independent, go non-profit, and experience the thrill of new thinking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Burning Down Your Own Neighborhood

The bill passed by the House last week, to tax ninety percent of bonuses for any employee making over $250,000 who works for a financial institution receiving more than $5 billion in bailout funds, will be a self-imposed financial disaster that will increase the chances of a deep economic recession becoming a depression. It may make the demagogues in Congress feel good, and the legions suffering in this economy may jump for joy that they are sticking it to the bankers, but all of us will wake up the next morning amid the burning ruins. Let me count the ways.

1) The legislation does not only penalize the tiny fraction of AIG employees in the financial products division, mostly in London, who took on enormous risk and have brought AIG to its knees; it also penalizes tens of thousands of employees from at least eight major U.S. banks who had nothing to do with this mess.

What are those employees doing? They are not spending because of their fear of what Congress will do next; they are leaving the banks we badly need to be healthy; they are taking fewer appropriate risks in their businesses, like making mortgages to individuals and loans to companies, because they don’t know what the idiots in Congress will do next.

2) Many banks will be forced to return the TARP money, to avoid being burned at the stake by Congress. Nancy Pelosi will be happy- we get the taxpayers' money back! But these same banks, the ones that can survive returning the bailout money, will restrict lending to save capital, just at the moment when we need for them to do the opposite. The banks that don’t return the bailout money will be targeted as weak banks, and expect many of them to fail and fall further into the clutches of the government. Anybody remember what a run on the banks looks like? It isn’t pretty.

3) The House legislation rewards foreign banks with a competitive advantage. Deutsche Bank isn’t a U.S. company targeted by the House legislation, but it operates a big investment banking unit in New York City. Guess where all the best bankers from Bank of America, Citibank, and Goldman Sachs are sending their resumes? Instead of keeping the best bankers to clean up the messes of a few, we are driving away the talent, and decimating our American banking system. Why doesn’t Congress focus on why AIG bailout funds made whole foreign banks that exploited loopholes in European legislation on derivatives? Oh, I forgot. That requires thinking, and actually being productive, not just livid.

4) The U.S. government owns AIG, we lent AIG most of the bailout money (yes, that’s true: it’s mostly a loan), and the vilification embodied by the House legislation destroys the value of AIG. Who in their right mind would now buy the assets of AIG? Yet selling AIG’s assets is the primary way in which taxpayers will get their money back. Killing AIG, rhetorically and financially, is only hurting ourselves again. It’s stupid.

5) The House legislation will hurt New York City the most. Many of the tens of thousands of employees of major U.S. banks targeted by the House bill work in New York. Bonuses are the way people in the financial industry have been paid for years, from high profile bankers to analysts out of college to secretaries. If anything like the House bill becomes law, expect NYC to teeter that much closer to bankruptcy. New York sponsors of the House bill, Charlie Rangel and Steve Israel, and Senate supporter Charles Schumer, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Maybe some good ol’ boys will be secretly thrilled at the prospect of watching these Yankees suffer, but remember the 1970’s: the nation stagnated, and what happened in NYC was mirrored in the rest of the country.

The ways in which the House legislation will hurt all of us do not stop at five. You can’t run any business with Congress changing the rules every week. You don’t inspire confidence in foreign investors of U.S. Treasury securities when you have a Congress legislating out of revenge, instead of focusing on new, tough, permanent legislation to regulate the financial industry so that these problems do not happen again. You do not turn the corner in the bear market in stocks by attacking everyone who makes money.

Even if our anger is justified, even if it is wild, we should focus on why we allowed trading in certain derivatives to go unregulated, why the SEC was not aggressively enforcing current laws and investigating financial fraud, and what legislation creates new, tougher rules for banks and other financial institutions while allowing them to do business that will help our economy prosper.

Or, we can burn down our own neighborhood, watch the flames in the night, not caring who is in the burning buildings, or whether they had anything to do with our justifiable anger. But remember, we will all wake up tomorrow morning, more sober and perhaps less angry, and we will have to walk through the smoky rubble to buy our groceries. If the grocery store is still standing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Praise for Teachers Past and Present

We have just finished an exhausting process: deciding which school our fourteen-year-old would attend for high school. In New York City this is a crazy process, in part because of the incredible choices you have: specialized and selective public schools, and private schools with a variety of unique cultures. As we discussed and debated the different choices my son Aaron had, I was reminded of how important teachers have been in my life, and how the teachers at the Bank Street School for Children, Aaron and Isaac’s current K-8 school, are transforming them into the accomplished young men they are today.

In grade school, at South Loop School over thirty years ago, Mr. Preston Smith taught me I could be someone I had not yet envisioned myself. Mr. Smith was a math teacher who encouraged me to join the Number Sense club, when I was a fat kid who just wanted to be left alone. I won three gold medals in citywide competition (that’s more or less me in my short story, “The Snake”). This feat astonished me, and embarrassed me, for I really did not like the attention, and even got me into an argument with the principal, who sternly ‘encouraged’ me to donate the medals for the school’s trophy case. I said no. He said he’d call my parents. But nobody could ever convince me to give up my medals. I wasn’t just fat; I was stubborn.

Mrs. Dolores Vega taught me to be a proud Mexicano. Every Friday in her third-grade class, she would force all the kids to dance cumbias. ‘Force’ is not quite the right word; the girls would jump up and dance with Mrs. Vega, and some of the more suave boys would dance too, to show off their moves. She would not take no for an answer, and it made you feel good about yourself when you finally said yes to Mrs. Vega. I have never met a more consistently exuberant teacher who worked so hard for you to experience the true joy of who you were.

Mrs. Pearl Crouch and Mrs. Josie Gutierrez Kinard, at Ysleta High School, were my mentors in Publications. They taught me how to be a good writer of fierce editorials aimed at teachers and the school administration. How? By never accepting anything less than written arguments that were precise and provable. By showing me the meaning of integrity when they stood behind me, even when they came under pressure from the powers-that-be. By expanding my horizons: I first visited San Francisco and New York City with them to attend scholastic writing competitions. I did not know the fancy neighborhoods of El Paso, but I had seen “A Chorus Line” on Broadway and dined at Sardi’s.

At Bank Street, Aaron and Isaac have also experienced classroom after classroom with dedicated, insightful teachers. The School for Children is part of Bank Street College of Education, which is a school that trains teachers. But how do you capture the essence of a place where teaching about children, and children, and how they learn, their voices, their art, their music, are at the center of each day? Bank Street is a remarkable place. I see it reflected in Aaron and Isaac. They sit patiently to work on their homework; they discuss important subjects at the dinner table; they repeatedly ask why, and can offer plausible answers that delve deep into their own selves. Aaron and Isaac are not perfect, but I have little doubt that they will be good citizens in whatever community they decide to call their home.

Even I have learned from Bank Street. I do not think I was a good father when Aaron first attended school as a three-year-old. I was learning to be a parent on the fly; I was exhausted by my many responsibilities; I was too gruff, instead of being focused on understanding the world from my child’s point of view. My essay “The Father is in the Details” recounts my struggle to be a better parent. But I wanted to learn; I am excellent at adapting; I am a sponge. So I paid attention to how successive Bank Street teachers reached my children, how they handled questions, how they listened. Over time, I received as much of an education from Bank Street as my children did.

John Womack. Terry Karl. Maurice Natanson. Laurie Ryan. Karsten Harries. Juwanna Newman. And so many more I have not mentioned. To all those teachers who dedicate themselves to their important work every day, thank you.

Monday, March 9, 2009

TV Rants as News, and Undermining the National Dialogue

Cable news has devolved to the lowest common denominator for the sake of profit and niche ratings. Instead of reporting what happened, instead of carefully researched investigative journalism, we have on Fox News, CNN, and now CNBC loud rants from anchors spouting ridiculous positions, which attract much coveted attention and keep them in business. But what has happened, and what will happen, to the important debate about how to resolve our current economic crisis? Will policymakers have the guts to ignore these rants, which stir up the public for a few moments, and instead opt for difficult, long-term solutions? I think the more we listen to the so-called debates on TV, the more trouble we will be in.

For some channels, perhaps they were always in it to serve a small cable constituency, and get their coveted ratings to promote to advertisers. Their motto was, ‘Be Extreme, be loud, be outrageous, like Limbaugh, and get attention. Make money.’ They only used the cover of ‘news’ to attract that uncritical viewer who might have been channel-flipping.

For others, the change has been nothing short of remarkable. Lou Dobbs, in another lifetime, was a respected business journalist, before he decided to pull what I call a Bill O’ Reilly. Dobbs metamorphosed into a dictator on the TV screen, who only invited guests in order to talk over them, berate them, and pontificate on his own views, while his ‘guests’ were left stammering. For years, Dobbs has shouted at the camera, red-faced, to vilify illegal immigrants, to attack Bush, the government, CEOs, now Obama, and so on. You know the story.

And his ratings have skyrocketed. Mind you, he doesn’t have a majority of the cable news audience, just an important sliver of it, but that’s all you need to thrive in this media. Limbaugh has known that for years. Balkanization works for success on TV and radio; the middle ground is not only boring, but unprofitable. These loudmouths do not offer any practical, real-world solutions. They shout, and we tune in, amazed, disgusted, in stitches or in tears, but many of us look and listen. It’s entertaining, and we can gleefully feel good about ourselves while the talking heads put someone else down. It’s a weak and petty self that enjoys such entertainment, but well, that is who we often are.

The latest flip to the dark side of ridiculous media is CNBC. I watch CNBC often, and last week was a turning point. Rick Santelli, Larry Kudlow, and Jim Cramer unleashed a series of anti-Obama rants about the war against capitalism, subsidizing losers, and unprecedented wealth destruction. Did Obama get us into this mess? Where were these TV demagogues when Bush exploded the deficit, when the SEC fell asleep at the wheel, when CNBC promoted many of the CEOs who later bankrupted their companies and then came begging for government handouts? Is there any kind of mea culpa forthcoming from CNBC about its role in not being systematically critical of Wall Street investment banks, Countrywide Financial, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when it mattered years ago? What happened to their skills as journalists in investigating these problems before they became the crisis du jour for talk television? David Faber is the only one who still sounds thoughtful on CNBC, and he must feel lonely there.

The problem of course is that this insidious trend to gather a small, but loyal group of eyeballs to make your channel profitable is being taken for serious national debate by those who are not the sharpest tools in the shed: our politicians. If our political leaders make important decisions based on these rants, then expect our country to suffer, expect it to be irrationally divided and bitter, expect careful thinking to go the way of analog TV, expect other countries not so hooked on the boob tube to surpass us quietly and methodically. Where is Gretchen Morgenson when you need her? Turn off the TV, and pick up a newspaper, magazine or book, and think outside the box.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bear Market Blues

Another day, another drop in the Dow. We had an interesting discussion as a family yesterday: how to cut back on expenses to save as much money as possible. Laura and I told the kids about our investments, and how along with everybody else in this country we are suffering from this vicious, relentless decline in equities. We are okay, and I have never invested in anything fancy with the small portfolio of stocks I have, mostly in healthcare. Our portfolio has done better than the S&P 500 over the past fourteen months, yet it’s little solace to be down 35 percent even if the market is down 50 percent. The kids suggested turning off more lights to save electricity and eliminating cable and just watching TV on the Internet. I suspect many families across the country are having these discussions, and I know many are making much tougher decisions than whether or not to keep cable.

I wonder how this deep recession will affect our long-term attitudes. We have never been big spenders, and I have always paid off my credit card balances at the end of the month. I don’t like the punishing interest rates or late fees from plastic. I pay our mortgage fifteen days early each month; I try to be responsible. In our living room, I still have the speakers I had in college twenty-five years ago, but we do spend heavily on books and about once a week I buy a few culinary treats from Zabar’s. This economic downturn has forced me to ask myself many questions. Have we been careful enough with our finances? Are we ready for a long-term decline in the economy, in the stock market? Should we have saved even more money, and invested it even more conservatively, so that our kids can afford college in four years?

There is a great deal of self-doubt, self-assessment occurring in my head. I know I have not been reckless with our family’s finances. In comparison to what I hear in the news, of people investing in mortgages with teaser rates, of credit-card holders paying only the minimum with exorbitant interest rates on massive balances, of spenders who did not save much for many years but instead took out home-equity lines of credit, I know I did none of these things. We spent what we needed; Laura and I have saved 10-20 percent of our income each year; and I invested it. My friends and family have assured me I have been conservative with our finances, and yet I still feel I am failing. I simply want my family to be okay; I want my children to go to whatever college they want in four years.

Besides questioning myself, I am also angry. Angry at the ridiculous 21st Century version of American democracy. I find it more akin to several mobs shouting at each other, trying to sway the middle who simply wants to live in peace and with a modest prosperity. The democratic political and economic discussion to solve our problems, I have always believed, would only be as good as the character of the participants in this discussion. But what happens when ‘character’ is defined and warped by the means of communicating your message? We are losing newspaper editors and reporters every year, but TV pundits and braggarts on the radio, both experts of pithy sound bytes, define, ambush, and drive ‘political discussion.’

What will happen when we don’t even remember that there used to be a time when careful, self-critical, and even profound political debate defined at least a significant part of what occurred in the great American conversation to solve our problems? When we don’t even have the memory of a better political discussion, I believe we will become more mob-like, and less democratic. I believe we will be prone to radical influences with simplistic solutions, which in reality solve nothing. Be careful whom you pay attention to: the more you pay attention to them, the less you will be able to decide for yourself why you began to pay attention to them in the first place.

These are sobering times. Will we get sober leaders to help us out of this mess? Will we even have the capacity to listen to them anymore? I don’t know, but I am still hopeful.