Friday, April 30, 2010


Obama won the last presidential election, but Latinos are facing the political backlash from conservative whites, who see, more clearly than ever, that their days are numbered as the ethnic majority in this country.  That’s one conclusion I can draw from recent news and events.  I am felled by an awful spring flu, with a fever and an achy body and a nose that gushes as if it were the well of the Deepwater Horizon. But this is too important a day to be a bystander.

Arizona’s new law, SB1070, has been given an acceptable façade with the argument that it’s only against illegal immigrants and that it won’t result in racial profiling.  But what is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that someone is an illegal immigrant?  What does an illegal immigrant look like?  Like John McCain?  Sarah Palin?

It’s a law that the rogue cop who already hates all things Mexican, illegal or not, will easily abuse to jail a poor mother and father who don’t happen to be carrying their birth certificates in their back pockets.  I suspect that even if American Latinos have their birth certificates when they sleep, that the Arizona birthers will assume these documents are fraudulent.  They simply don’t like Mexicans, whether they are here illegally or not.

I conclude this not because I am paranoid, or because I see every political issue through an ethnic or racial lens.  I do not.  Read my blog, witness my marriage, see how I raise my children, examine my voting record.  What you will see, I hope, is a person who was given great opportunities in this country, who is conservative on some issues and liberal on others, who is proud of his Mexican heritage, yet still criticizes and tries to change practices within our community to make it more successful, more powerful, more open-minded.

But when I see that yesterday the Arizona state legislature also passed a bill that “prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,” I know that this legislative majority in Arizona does not like Mexican-Americans.  Imagine, a Mexican-American studies program in Arizona is being compared to treason.  What kind of mentality makes that irrational link?  The Arizona Department of Education is also trying to fire teachers with accents who teach English classes.  What is happening in this crazy state?  This weekend, the ‘education’ bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

So I don’t draw my tough conclusions on anything but the evidence of idiocy that are the actions of the Arizona state legislature.  I can only wait for those legislative Caesars in Texas to also take up racist and xenophobic causes, or Oklahoma and Alabama.  Are we about to start a new Confederacy in the South?  What happened to giving opportunity to new strangers to this country, to helping them become Americans, which they so desperately want?  What happened to being open-minded about someone who doesn’t look like you, who doesn’t sound like you?

For Latinos, we must organize.  We must protest.  We must register to vote in huge numbers, and then vote with our neighbors and friends at the ballot box.  We must get involved in politics locally, seek alliances with those who will help us.  We should never stay silent, and allow others to do the work of fighting for causes we care about.  That’s what this country is about: getting involved, gaining our voice, getting a chance to fulfill our highest potential.  These days should prompt a new grito for freedom, respect, and self-determination.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Financial Chess

Tomorrow I will make another financial chess move.  We are refinancing the mortgage on our house, to a super-low interest rate, at a shorter term. We close on the deal in the morning.  My father often criticizes me for “always worrying about money,” but discovering a financial advantage and having the guts to take advantage of it have been the ways in which I have gained my economic freedom.

During the nadir of the financial meltdown in March 2009, I was smart enough not to panic, even though I worried about my investments and what my wife and I had achieved, in stock gains, over many years.  As the market came back over the past year, I vowed to take into account that worry.  I sold stock, and Laura and I decided to use those gains to pay down our mortgage and so shorten the years of our mortgage debt.

When I was younger, I had almost 100 percent of my investment money in stocks, stock mutual funds, and only an emergency fund in bonds.  As I have gotten older, and with the experience of 2009 fresh in my mind, I have realized I want to preserve more of what I have, and not to focus only on growing it.  So I adapted.  Adapt or die, I say, to any would-be investor.

Yet the bonds I have purchased have been on the short-end of the yield curve, because I expect interest rates to go up.  They can hardly go down any further, so the best bet is that they will either stay stable for a while, or go up.  When interest rates go up, the prices of bonds go down: an inverse relationship.  So any bond that is long-term (i.e. greater than ten years) will be hurt more by a one percentage increase in interest rates, than a bond that is short-term (less than three years, or just one year).

Another financial chess move I have made over the past three years is to increase my foreign stock allocation.  When I teach an investment analysis course, I always give my class the current total stock market capitalization of the world, and what portion belongs to the United States.  Since the 1970s, the American share of world stock market capitalization has declined.  The world outside the U.S. is growing faster than the U.S.  Brazil, India, China, and South Korea are great growth stories.

Even individual American companies I purchase for my portfolio I examine in light of their foreign revenues: companies with their eyes on foreign markets will simply have less of their eggs in one (domestic) basket.  If you think our budget and trade deficits will have a negative effect on the dollar (I do), then you will benefit by having companies earning their revenues in Euros, Yuan, Won, and Yen.

I also expect taxes to go up.  Why?  We have these gigantic deficits and lack the political will to tackle spending on entitlements and the military nationally, and on state and city government budgets and bureaucracies locally.  I blame both Republicans and Democrats for this situation, and think they will come together when they are forced to come together.  Crony capitalism on Wall Street and dysfunctional politics in Washington have left us in a mess, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world.  I believe the Tea Party activists are overstating their case.  I see reported profits for S&P 500 companies higher than expected, and perhaps there is a chance we can grow out of this deficit hole.

Right now I would vote for Obama again.  Why?  He has been pragmatic when faced with the economic cleanup of the Bush mess.  Obama has forced consumer protections on credit-card companies and is actually regulating, as the government should, the practices of financial institutions which drove the American economy into a ditch.  The laissez-faire, I’m-a-deregulator philosophy of Bush allowed the powerful to take advantage of the weak and uninformed, and the well-connected to seek a public bailout when their crazy risks exploded in their faces.  And ours.  We can’t let that happen again.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Returning the Blood to Words

At almost every AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) there is a moment, a panel, a writer who reminds you of why you became a writer in the first place.  The annual conference is in Denver this year, and Martín Espada, the master poet, was the man for me this year.  Last year it was Marie Ponsot.

Espada: “Writers should return the blood to words.”

Espada said so many things on his panel, “Justice, Community, and the Republic of Poetry,” with Tara Betts and David Mura.  But that sentence encapsulates his ideas about writers fighting the deadness of language used by politicians and even the deadness of perspective given our busy and often compromised lives.

Espada read and sang in a way only poets do, to uplift the literary sprits, to call us to the social mission of writing, to dethrone the accepted, to criticize the unjust, to delve roughly and humorously into ourselves too, lest we forget that not only is the world the issue, but also the self.

Years ago I had a similar reaction the first time I heard Curbstone’s Alexander Taylor speak at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.  Sandy, who died in December of 2007, may he rest in peace, invigorated me and gave me purpose.  I write to change the world, to prod myself, to seek answers to questions often unasked, to lead the good life as Aristotle may have envisioned, which is hard and unrelenting.  And I try to do this with good stories that engage the reader.  Philosophy in literature, some have called it.  So hearing Sandy, just like hearing Martín, captured my soul.

I dropped everything, even the panels I am missing as I type this, to write this entry.  This is what great writers do: they cause you to act.  They don’t just entertain you (although they have to do that if they are storytellers), but they prompt you to do, to change your perspective, to ask yourself tough questions, to believe in a just republic and imagine the impossible.

Martín Espada and Sandy Taylor were great friends.  I also remember hearing Martín speak about reading poetry to Sandy as he lay in the hospital during his final hours.  I knew Sandy, since I had been briefly on the Curbstone Board.  But I do not know Martín except from afar.  I am lucky to have paid attention to their words.

I have been pondering why it is that poets, recently, have been the ones inspiring me.  It is their exceptional use of language, and their thinking beyond the norm and the staid.  This poetic thinking I believe is deeply philosophical.  These writers seem to pose the question of ‘seeing’ without assuming what it means, or what it has meant, or what it can mean.  ‘Seeing’ for these poets is a new act with every poem.

During breaks, I am finishing Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and have already received recommendations from poet-friends on what to read next.  It has been a great conference so far.  But now I need the solitude and quiet that beckon me even in a crowd.