Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Business News Blather

I used to watch the TV for business news. But now Kudlow’s and Cramer’s shouting leave even more ringing in my ears than the express trains zooming past the local subway stop at 86th Street. I have read the Wall Street Journal for decades, but I have noticed that after Murdoch took over more news stories have political slants and headlines are unnecessarily more pessimistic in the age of Obama.

I don’t get the parade of blond people at Fox News. Are they really trying to be that obvious about who is in their camp and who they could care less about? The CNN anchors who read Twitter responses: are they serious about that? That isn’t democracy, but stupidity, on display for the world to see.

I have become a full-fledged media skeptic. I do think that many of the quick and easy responses encouraged by modern media are often nothing more than rants. That’s one of the reasons I have not allowed comments on Chico Lingo. I read other blogs for years, and still do, and the comments are rarely thoughtful or interesting. I figured if someone wanted to comment on what I wrote they could send me an email, and I have received dozens. Or they could start their own blog.

I know I am in the minority, in more ways than one, on turning away from the flotsam of the news cycle. My only use for democracy-as-hyper-mediocrity is that I try to take advantage of the paranoia or euphoria through my investments. I ignored the doomsday scenarios of March, and kept my investments exactly the way they were. So I have benefited from the recent run-up in stocks. New money I have added to my short-term bond portfolio, simply to have more emergency reserves in case we return to the brink of depression. I am also paying off debt in advance, even if my debt levels were relatively small compared to my net assets.

I watch the crazy flamingos of speculation, the fast money, the lightning rounds, and I am happy to be patient and contrarian and independent. Investors should do their homework, and this knowledge will allow them to ignore the garbage advice that washes up on their shores.

One of the reasons, as I pointed out to my wife Laura, that I did not panic after the recent vicious bear market was that my mutual fund and individual stock positions were still mostly in the black, or with slight losses, at the bottom of the precipitous drop. I have invested patient money, for decades in some cases, and so a downturn cuts into my gains, but isn’t deep enough to even put me in the red.

Too often I hear of friends who invest to get rich quick. To me, that’s not investing, but speculating. I even had a close friend who would invest for a major appliance, for a month or two, score a quick profit, and buy the refrigerator he needed. It was ridiculous to me then, and is ridiculous to me now. But most media outlets encourage this kind of behavior. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, oil traders who invest in oil futures for quick bucks were labeled “investors” in paragraph after paragraph. That’s editorializing in news stories, and makes the point against Obama that he is against “investors” in this market when he or his administration considers putting limits on oil traders.

I don’t think we should expect much from CNBC, the Wall Street Journal or Fox Business News in terms of investigative journalism. They are promoters of Wall Street, and sometimes that’s good and too often it’s horrible. The best single article I have read about the current shenanigans in the finance industry came from the New York Times, about how subprime brokers have resurfaced as dubious loan fixers, by Peter Goodman.

The individual investor has to protect himself. But ‘Caveat Emptor’ only works if there is full disclosure in plain English, if abusive behavior is eliminated and illegal behavior prosecuted, if you are not lied to by whoever is selling you stock in a company, a bond, or a mortgage. That’s the proper role of government and what George W. Bush could never understand.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

America in Retrenchment

I have the sense, as I have read disparate news items from Apollo 11’s moon landing forty years ago to the healthcare debate, from Henry Louis Gates’ arrest in his home near Harvard Square to the Republicans’ petty delay on voting for Sotomayor, that the United States as a country is getting smaller and meaner, instead of more ambitious, experimental or collectively enthusiastic and purposeful about the future. I may be wrong. But I see a country fighting to keep what it has, rather than solving its problems and moving toward opportunities.

It is always dangerous to abstract and claim any country seems like this or like that. We are a collection of 300 million individuals, from different backgrounds, religions, races, and classes. And what you understand is often what the media wants you to see and hear, through their weird prism where glib contradictions, petty arguments, and the scandals of celebrity culture attract eyeballs and ears to TV sets, radios, and newspapers, the point of any media empire however big or small.

But those caveats to my impressions of America’s retrenchment have always been there. Either we have had leaders who overcame our personal or collective pessimism about the direction of this country, or optimism was truly a part of society, for whatever economic or political reason. So I think the United States may truly be changing from what we used to be.

The fortieth anniversary of the moon landing exemplifies, for me, how far we have fallen in our space program, not how much we once accomplished. We should be going to Mars and beyond. Where is the enthusiasm to explore a new world? Where is the collective will, along with the nuts-and-bolts practicality, that embraces the challenge, the technological breakthroughs, and the sacrifices of such missions?

‘We don’t have the money,’ many might say. ‘We need to fix our country before we can represent the human race in space again.’ Yet many of our economic problems were self-inflicted. We chose a laissez-faire capitalism, particularly during the disastrous Bush years, that destroyed limits on risk-taking for banks, that unleashed profit predators on hapless, uneducated consumers of mortgages, and that fueled a society of pointless consumerism.

Meanwhile, our children watched too much TV, played too many video games, and were rarely encouraged to read. I am not surprised that the biggest group of foreign students in one of my classes is Chinese. These students are invariably polite, hardworking, aggressive, technically capable, and fluent in English. I see the future in my class every day. What happened to our work ethic? What happened to the peddle-to-the-medal desire to rise from the dirt and make something of yourself? My father and mother were like that; the Ukrainian woman I met on Broadway, who works several menial jobs so that her daughter can finish dental school at NYU, is like that. But I feel they are aberrations in contemporary America.

Part of the problem is the United States became too developed. You see this size problem when investing in companies. It is easier to grow a $100 million company by 20 percent, than a $100 billion company. America is not a growth story anymore, but a story of fixing devilishly persistent problems like the uninsured, high infant mortality rates, swaths of our society still disenfranchised and in poverty, and racism. The problems of race are not what they were in the 1960’s. I believe we have made progress. But I also believe it is foolish to think we don’t have a problem anymore, or that racism and ethnic discrimination will not take different, unexpected turns like African-Americans and Anglos closing the doors on Latinos.

Which brings me to Professor Gates and Judge Sotomayor. It was one thing, in the early years of the civil rights movement, to be a liberal by giving minorities the chance to educate themselves and to compete equally for jobs, local political offices, and so on. But that’s not where we are anymore. Many from the traditionally disenfranchised classes don’t want just a break anymore; they want and deserve the keys to Harvard and the Supreme Court. Barack Obama already has the keys to the White House.

I am sensing further retrenchment in America to the progress of the disenfranchised. It is one thing to be patronizingly liberal, to grant an opportunity to someone you still may look down on. It is another for someone to replace you at the highest levels of power. Perhaps what I sense is this unease in parts of America that are white and non-Hispanic; you certainly see it in a wing of the Republican party. They are unwilling to concede Sotomayor is exceptionally qualified to be on the Supreme Court, even after she handled the hearings well, even after her judicial record was scrutinized and determined to be moderate. Her detractors will not be convinced by anything reasonable. They have prejudged her, or are careful never to counter the smears of Limbaugh in front of their constituencies. These senators are digging in their heels.

What I hope will counter America’s retrenchment is having leaders and cultural educators strive to make the United States as one again. One nation about freedom. One nation that is bold, yet tolerant. One nation that focuses on problems to solve them. One nation that corrects mistakes, instead of repeating them. A nation more about the future than the past.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Really Long Commute

This week I have been waking up at 5:15 every morning to be behind the wheel of my Honda Pilot by 6, so that I can be at Yale by 8 to get ready to teach my morning class at 9 a.m. I’m wiped out and my brain’s fuzzy, but it’s Thursday and this week is almost over.

I do love teaching, but I love it only if I can do it intensely for a short time, whether it’s writing workshops in Missouri or an investment analysis class at Yale. I have taught semester-long courses, and I end up throwing myself into them too, but I know I also don’t do much writing, or much of anything else for that matter, because I think students deserve a great experience in my class. It’s what I owe them as a teacher. So I teach, but only in short bursts, and then I return to my life.

What has kept me going, 81.5 miles from New York to New Haven in the morning, and 82 miles back to Manhattan in the late afternoon, besides hearing how well Sonia Sotomayor has handled the endangered, antsy white men of the Senate Judiciary Committee, besides my gulps of java, besides NPR, 1010 WINS, CBS News Radio, besides the occasional deer a few feet from the asphalt of the claustrophobic yet verdant Merritt Parkway, has been the speed of the car itself. That is, my going has kept me going.

I have pondered this phenomenon in my writing as well. I begin a story, and at a certain moment, which could be an early draft, the story itself begs to be told the right way, the story demands that I finish it, a certain movement has been created, by me, and it must be finished. Or else, what? I’m not really quite sure. Or else I don’t live up to what I expected of myself or the story, or else I don’t live up to what I wanted in my brain. Or else I created something, but only half-created it, so that it doesn’t have a life of its own. When something I started is not completed, the story, the task, and I are not fulfilled.

One lesson I have learned about myself is that I must be careful what I start. If I start the drive to New Haven, I will finish it. If I commit myself to teaching this class, then I must finish it. If I create characters in a novel and they reach a point where they are speaking to me on the page, but in garbled language and confusing situations, speaking yet not being heard clearly, then I must finish this story. I must rewrite it. I must make it so that these proto life-forms can reach their fruition. When these characters can be heard, somehow, in them, I will be heard too. ‘Heard’ does not mean what the characters are saying is ‘obvious.’ What ‘heard’ means is that the characters are true to themselves. The best characters for me say many things to different readers.

I perhaps say many different things to many different readers with this blog. I am not trying to be obscure; I am just trying to be real. Why we extol the personal experience of Alito as a judge, yet demand Sotomayor distance herself from her personal experience as a judge, why movies nowadays must always have good endings, why politicians never admit mistakes and change their policies publicly, and why news reporters believe pointing out glib contradictions is the epitome of free expression, and not the death of it, I don’t know. I don’t know these things; they don’t seem real to me. I am just driving to New Haven every day and watching the road. That’s real enough for me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Our Children in the World

Today I was teaching twelve-year-old Isaac to get to school by himself, on the New York City subway. This past school year he came home by himself on the bus, about 30 blocks, without a problem. He has reached these thresholds slightly earlier than Aaron, who at fourteen, now gets everywhere he needs to be by himself, and safely. As a parent on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, I have to worry about many more potential dangers than my mother did on Ysleta’s San Lorenzo Avenue. I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about my children in the world.

San Lorenzo was three short blocks to South Loop School, and my old neighborhood did have a few gangs, but they weren’t the real danger as I walked to and from school as a child. Dogs. I hated the Doberman pinscher that once lunged at me from the bushes of the house across the street. We had our own ferocious guard dog, Lobo, who had bitten many passersby straying too close to our fence or unlucky enough to be on the street when Lobo managed to vault the chainlink. And cars. The souped-up low riders and pickups never stopped, for there wasn’t even a crosswalk painted on our dirt streets. I remember seeing Reuben, a neighborhood kid, tumble underneath a pickup as it ran him over during our baseball game on San Simon. Reuben survived with only a broken arm.

In New York, cars are also dangerous, but in a different way. At crosswalks, even when pedestrians have the ‘Walk’ sign, cars do not stop. This happens every day on Broadway, and it’s a particular problem on two-way avenues. You get the ‘Walk’ sign on Broadway and you walk across the two-way avenue, but by the time you get to the other side, impatient drivers on the cross street have begun turning into the avenue, challenging pedestrians to get out of the way. The worst offenders are invariably taxis, livery cabs, city buses, and delivery trucks. Those on a schedule, a match up their butts. I have lost count how many times I have heard that awful screech of rubber on asphalt to avoid metal smashing into flesh at the crosswalk.

Less frequent dangers on Broadway are cars missing the red light entirely and zooming across the intersection and cars screeching to a halt at the crosswalk as their drivers realize they have a red light. If you jump into the crosswalk the instant you have the ‘Walk’ sign, you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After you have the ‘Walk’ sign, I tell my children, make sure the cars have actually stopped. Not only do you not have to make mistakes, but you must often catch the mistakes of others to be safe.

Bicycles, of course, never stop at the red light. Messengers, take-out delivery guys, Lance-Armstrong-wannabes. They’re even on the sidewalks.

Parked cars you’re standing next to often lurch backward without their drivers glancing into their rear view mirrors.

SUV-like strollers are battering rams deployed by harried mothers with a passive aggressive smile on their faces. At worst, your toe or shin will be bruised. It’s happened to me twice.

And I haven’t even gotten to the aggressive beggars on the street who follow you for a block, even after you have politely turned them down. The shifty-eyed losers who strike up conversations with young girls alone. The crazed woman I once met on a Number 1 train who, out of the blue, threatened to gut everyone in the car “like a fish.” The wild high school kids who, as four cops stand at the subway platform, push each other at incoming subway cars with snorts and guffaws.

I will do my best to train Aaron and Isaac for this New York City world they must navigate on their own. I will train them by being tough, by teaching them to be resourceful, by being available in case they need me, by going over scenarios with them, by watching them and not saying a word, even if they are making choices I would not make. I will do my best, and I will keep my fingers crossed and hope they learn from experience. The buzz of the doorbell, when they are home, is the sweetest sound of my day.