Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Caroline is qualified.

If you're eligible to serve on a jury, you're qualified to serve as a U.S. senator. Other than maybe not having many true peers, Caroline Kennedy is as qualified as anybody.

Though I'm sure I disagree with many of her social and political beliefs, I have always had the impression that she is level headed. I doubt she would be on the take like a Clinton. Both her father and mother were scrappers. If the apple truly doesn't fall far from the tree, she can't be all bad and certainly should be a better senator than whatever the New York political system spits out.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Frost/Nixon

First rate. Go see it.

For those who didn't live through the times and many who did, Richard Nixon has become a cardboard cutout representing power hungry, vicious politicians. On the contrary he was a brilliant, complex, awkward man whose life befits Greek tragedy. This movie does his story justice, achieving its art by not only showing what brought him down but also the power of will that made him scale great heights.

Although I knew the story well, I was on the edge of my seat throughout. The secondary characters were presented as shallow stereotypes, perhaps intentionally. It just brought out Nixon's greatness and Frost's rising to the challenge more dramatically.

I attended with son Jobo. We had a spirited argument afterward over whether the sins of Nixon and Judas were comparable, yet we managed to keep a happy disposition.

For a change the ticket price was worth more than the price of admission. But the popcorn was still just popcorn and not nearly worth the purchase price, particulary considering they skimped on the butter and I had a bunch of unpopped kernels in my sack.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Random Thoughts II

- George Bush seems to have Patty Hearst Syndrome. Held hostage in office after a big Democrat win and abandoned by his base, he isn’t exactly robbing banks as she did on behalf of the SLA. Instead, after being convinced by the opposition that the sky is falling and his former ways were the wrong way, Bush is robbing the free enterprise system of its guts for them, coopting the banking system and starting the march of collectivization of industry. It’s a sad end to a presidency during which in many ways he has been strong on principle if short on eloquence.

- I agree with the UAW’s point that middle and upper management should be making sacrifices, too. Where are boards of directors and stockholders in all this mess? I need to bone up on corporate law. It seems to me that board members make a lot of money for making bad decisions (or rubber stamping them) and are rarely held accountable. Stockholders and board members should be the ones yelling the loudest and exerting their influence to stop the overblown salaries, golden parachutes, private jets, et al. It may not add up to as much money as line labor cost does, but the profligate ways set the wrong tone. However, the UAW does not make a compelling case for their own “sacrifices” by pointing fingers at the other guy. Oversized wages and benefits have put the Big Three at a huge competitive disadvantage and there’s no sense in propping them up if that is not going to change.

- One problem with moneyed people—especially those who have inherited it or acquired it by marriage or dumb luck—is that they cannot help thinking that they are smarter or better than those with less. This is doubtless the origin of Jesus’ “eye of the needle” observation.

- As long as I’m on theology, an observation on the End Times: I don’t know if I’m the only one who’s thought of this, but from what I read and hear, people are discussing the End Times too literally, worrying about the actual end of the world. I think they’re missing the point. Regardless of when life on Earth actually ends, we all, each and everyone of us, will face the End Times. It is called death. The tribulations is called life. The message is that each of us better deal with our personal tribulations with a good heart and positive faith so that when death suprises us, we’re called up not down.

- Obama taking a couple weeks off to vacation in Hawaii? So… he’s allowed vacations while America is in crisis but nobody else is?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

All over this land...

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out a new political party.

There are of course already several third parties floating around but none of them cuts it for me. When I first investigate a new one I hear about, it usually sounds very promising but then I’ll come across something or some thing too fringe-element about it and decide to steer clear.

What I’m looking for is not the Litmus Test Party. Although I feel as strongly as anyone for example that abortion is nothing but state-sanctioned murder or that the concept of queer marriage is absolute lunacy, I’m not looking for people who are in complete agreement with me. I am looking for people who think things through.

Libertarians are thinkers. I wish the Libertarian Party would fit the bill. But they are by definition too rigidly logical, like Spock the Vulcan, and end up with impractical positions, like isolationism.

Another initially enticing movement is the so-called (self-called) Progressives, a sort of remaking of Democrats. I think Progressives want to believe that they achieve balance by blending social liberalism with fiscal conservativism. But besides the snobbish quality that seems to undergird the movement, the problem I have with Progressives is that they cannot seem to understand that two intelligent people can look at the same set of facts and come up with different conclusions. They are the PC party. If you don’t agree with their party line, then you must be a racist, or a homophobe, or a war monger, or a xenophobe, or their catch-all dismissive label, a wingnut.

So I think I’m not looking for a party that presents a set of smug conclusions but that, like Socrates, asks the right questions.

The first question I would want my new party to ask is, why can’t we get decent candidates to run? How do we keep ending up with sorry choices like Dole vs. Clinton? Gore vs. Bush? McCain vs. Obama? Whatever happened to citizen-statesmen? Why does nearly ever single politician’s hand seem to be in the pot somehow? I want to feel when I’m voting that I’m voting for someone who is smarter, tougher, wiser, better than me. How can we make sure that happens?

So this new party—I’m searching for a name for it, but I think that will come last—has as its first assignment, crafting the qualifications for the candidates who represent it. Let’s daydream about that for a while.

Heck, it’s a happier use of brain cells than thinking about how poorly the supposedly best and brightest in this land are doing with the economy…

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Called that one right!

Yesterday the stock market dipped a couple hundred points in the first hour or two, then moved into positive territory and wavered back and forth the rest of the day, finally ending slightly positive.

The world did not come to an end because the Auto Bailout did not pass. In fact the stock market reacted positively. It would have risen dramatically if the White House had not volunteered to come up with the money elsewhere, tempering the positive reaction by investors.

Now it will get even more interesting, though depressing like all the other prostititute-economics going on these days. Just how blatantly will Congress and the White House debase themselves to save a corrupt and destructive union? Will the end result be what no one should want: nationalization? Is Obama going to talk again today about roads, bridges, power lines, and green jobs?

When is someone going to quit focusing on avoiding a Depression and instead focus on cutting taxes, limiting government, and letting the market work so that we will have a Surge instead?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bailistics Report

Before I get too euphoric about the put-down of the bailout legislation last night, I’m going to wait to see if that Hydra rises up again with pork attached as the first Bailout bill did.

The Chicken Littles are filling the early morning airwaves with “sky is falling” commentary, ominously reporting futures down. Heck, futures "been down so long it looks like up". If I had any extra change, I’d bet on a positive reaction from the stock market today after an initial dip. If there’s not a rise today, it’s because the first Bailout Bill experience has rendered the market as skeptical of Trojan horse bailout votes as I’ve become. It'll come eventually, though. If not today, it will rise again once investors are convinced the Bailout mania might finally have been stopped.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Manufacturing Makes a Comeback?

I’ve made my living off supplying tools to the commercial sewing industry for about twenty-five years now. The death knell has been tolling the whole time. In fact the number of people working in sewing in the U.S. has declined by millions since I got into it. The industry left is hardly an industry at all—our market is a patchwork quilt of sole proprietors like upholsterers, small niche businesses like cheerleader uniform makers, and just a few factories that exist, say, because they’re making military uniforms, none of them on the scale of the old days.

When I started, there were certain areas you could drive through and see one factory after another, like north Alabama, where tee shirt production was huge, or Mississippi or North Carolina for furniture. Even in the non-specific areas, sewing was still everywhere. Nearly every small town had at least one sewing factory.

Of course, nothing is forever. Early in my career one of my biggest deals involved shipping sewing machines and supplies to Jamaica under an A.I.D. contract managed by G.E. Third world countries—and our federal government—were recognizing that the sewing industry is an ideal first step in industrialization for developing countries because it is labor intensive and light on capital requirement. Soon China and Indonesia were into it big time, blowing American manufacturers out of the water with the labor cost differential and nearly completely vulnerable to predatory pricing as the U.S. was committed to “free trade”.

I got a great lesson in the eighties when we decided to open an office in Mexico City to follow the out-migration of sewing factories to Mexico caused by NAFTA. It was a rich but not enriching experience. I must say, one of my better personal achievements was getting functional in the Spanish language at age 40, from scratch. (That has a lot to do with why I have little sympathy for immigrants who won’t learn English and those who don’t understand the cultural importance of demanding English-only.)

The biggest lesson I learned, after three or four years of throwing money down a black hole, was that free trade is anything but free. Under NAFTA, Mexican companies could ship anything and everything-except avacadoes!-into the U.S. duty and hassle free. On the other hand, we turned somersaults trying to get our goods into Mexico, and the array of taxes we paid for the privilege was truly amazing in its creativity and talent for sucking every penny of profit out of a foreign company. Some U.S. companies have prospered there, like Wal-Mart, but even UPS abandoned ground delivery from the U.S. to Mexico. I and most of my colleagues ended up pulling out of Mexico. It was a good thing. The mini-recession surrounding 9-11 killed most of the new Mexican factories and China just gobbled the business up like a juggernault.

Now I am going to make a bold prediction based on some circumstantial evidence and a lot of gut feel. American manufacturing—small manufacturing, not auto plants and such that are very capital intensive—is going to make a comeback starting this year. For one thing, local is in, driven partly by the green mania and partly by practical considerations. China is losing its competitive advantage as it finally starts to enforce some labor and environmental standards, and besides, the spike in oil prices last year interrupted the cheap freight era. Too, the slow economy in the U.S. is starving their cash cow.

For another thing, there are going to be a lot of people out of work in the U.S. in the coming year. It’s going to be easier to start a business than to find a job. And nothing makes money in a downturn better than manufacturing, where you take something of little value and through creativity and labor make it valuable, like taking raw fabric and making a nice tablecloth. Or jacket. Or easy chair. Or whatever. In any case, the bubble economy which saw a lot of otherwise non-specifically educated people end up in real estate or mortgage brokering or investments, is gone.

It’s time to make some money the old fashioned way.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Al-Gorical Economics

Yesterday when I heard the “news” that some brainiacs have determined we’ve been in a recession since last December, I couldn’t help thinking of John Flor.

Three decades ago in one of my first real jobs I worked for John. He was a brilliant manager. A yankee transplant to Nashville—from Philadelphia or thereabouts, I think—he took over as executive director at first, then C.E.O., of the struggling Dede Wallace Mental Health Center. It had grown fat through the seventies on easy government money intended to help along deinsitutionalization of the handicapped. John established profit centers within its programs and demanded accountability throughout the organization. He turned the place around. Sadly, John was hit by a car while walking in Rome on vacation one day not too long after I left that job to join my family's business.

As is usual in my life, I missed at the time some of the big lessons I might have learned from John Flor, but I fastened on a factoid he passed along to me one day: That scientists were perfectly capable of acurately predicting tomorrow’s weather, but it took them three weeks to do it.

That’s why I thought of John Flor yesterday. When it takes economists a year to tell us we’re in a recession, how are they any more useful than those meteorologists?

The fact is, in my reckoning, economics as a discipline is hardly any more useful than astrology. I could have told you in March right after Easter, from living within the pulse of my business real-time, that we were hitting a slow period. By August I knew we were in deep doodoo.

But that was slowdown. Slowdown kind of creeps up on you and you adjust. On the other hand, I can tell you the exact day that the recession really began: It was the day that Hank Paulson convinced George Bush that the sky was falling. Thus began cascading a series of dominoes that shows no signs of stopping.

So don’t believe the b.s. about the recession’s starting last December. That’s just a convenient falsoid to make us think that if it began back then, then it will soon be over. John Flor’s not here to tell us himself, but I can tell you: the economists don’t have any more idea what they’re talking about than Al Gore knows about the weather.

By the way, anyone else noticed how cool it’s been this year?