Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Word About Twitter - Or - Why I'm Twitching Instead of Tweeting

Okay, Twitter has now made the national vernacular. Awesome! Another way for us to dumb ourselves down all while being the voyeuristic weenies we are as a nation. I don't think I could encapsulate a single thought into 140 characters (I looked it up, I admit), much less do so on a daily, or in some cases hourly basis. Again, I went to the Web site to find out what it's all about, and all I could find was that the idea is that you're supposed to announce "what you're doing."

My thought remains: who cares? And those that do, will ask. Those that don't, why broadcast it for them? And why do we all (or at least so many of us that he took on CNN in a Twitter-off) care that Ashton Kutcher's in the car thinking up another Punk'ed?

So of course, now that twitter has entered the public consciousness, every company on the face of the earth thinks it can and should tweet. I don't agree. I think there are several problems with twittering in the corporate world. At least from the literal perspective of Twitter's professed and ongoing question, "what are you doing?" Ultimately, I don't think it's wise either from the company's perspective, or from the public's, for all companies to tell us what their doing. A think tank, for example, or maybe the guy who tests chairs. Surely we're all doing just fine knowing that the septic tank guy is quietly at work without letting us know what he's slogging through today. And I really would rather the airline pilot stick to flying the plane, not tell us he's/she's doing it.

That said, there are probably some people that I would have liked to twitter a little sooner than later - Madoff (my pet annoyance, obviously), whoever chose Bjork's swan outfit at the Grammys that year and of course whoever spread the swine flu (which will likely be my next blog topic).

And does knowing that someone not in front of us is doing something behind our backs really make us closer to them? What have we learned? How does it matter? Is there some other way to communicate it (like picking up the phone, emailing, faxing, blogging, Facebook, texting and the ever-popular shouting from the rooftops)?

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that privacy is still a good thing, and one that should be maintained. We don't all need to know, or even want to know what everyone's doing, and while the subscription service does protect us somewhat, it's still scary to me know that somewhere out there, Shaquille O'Neal is putting his shoes on.

That said, I'm still going to blog - and I'm wearing a blue shirt and khakis, don't I look spiffy, need a haircut, though. (67 characters exactly, phew! Made the limit)

So until the fourth wall is completely broken down, just do as I say and not as I do, and we'll all be alright.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I'm All For Earth Hour... or Why Edward Norton Should Really Just Shhhhhh....

I love this planet. I really do. And I, too, love and respect our celebrity culture (I do hope you know what I mean). But to have Alanis Morisette and Edward Norton on Larry King as our national experts on conservation? Please. I don't know either of these people, but I do think it speaks volumes about our country and culture that it takes a Canadian former child actor and chanteuse and an actor that was dumb enough to allow a breakup with Salma Hayek to be our national experts on Larry King Live about how to save the environment. Are they even part of the environment? How about someone with some credentials? Paul Reubens, maybe. Or George Clooney, a pretty well-informed cat, I'm led to understand.

Further, and this is the cynic in me - is the savings that happens from people shutting off their power for an hour on a mild spring night really going to put any dent in the problem? Is it actually even going to provide people with the education and incentive they need to go green?

I regret to say, I don't think so. I mean, I think that there may be a significant amount of money saved if you pool the international light bill for that hour. But I don't think that even that savings is going to amount to a significant impact on the environment, unless it is repeated daily. Or unless the money goes to proper education and subsidization of environmentally friendly energy sources for folks other than Alanis and Edward. And if things go as they have, they'll need those two to host the video, which will eat up the savings because they only do one thing for free per year, and that was Larry King (note to their lawyers, I know I'm simplifying and I'm sure their hearts are in the right place - I blame the booker).

But the other point is that we are no longer influenced by an activist culture. I know. I tried. I really did! I had all these 1960s ideals. I listened to the Byrds and the Youngbloods and Dylan (20 years after those messages stopped being relevant). I protested that first Gulf intervention in 91 (there's an FBI file with my name on it somewhere to prove it). Sure, in the 90s, being an activist was cool, and somewhat effective. Remember those multicolored rubber bands everyone was wearing for awareness of everything to biker cancer to leprosy? But now, they're just another accessory. And remember AIDS education? And Rock The Vote? These things worked. But now everyone's pregnant, and for God's sake, AIDS is still on the rise outside the US. At least we elected President Obama. Some good came of it, but I think that was the Internet, not activism (which I know if more people read my blog they would argue it's the same thing). Remember Woodstock? If you're reading this, then the chances are you don't remember the first one (except maybe you, Peter, and I hope you're reading). But do you remember the second one? Peace and Music my eye! As I recall, it was acid, mud, and then lighting things on fire. Activists indeed.

So let's all kill the lights for an hour and see how it helps the environment. I think the best shot we have is to see a jump in the population in about nine months, but if that's not further strain on the environment and our resources, then I don't know what is...

So yes, I'm a cynic about these things. If you're going to try, try. If you're not, don't turn out the lights and pretend for an hour to help yourself feel "involved." And for God's sake, use a condom!

So until next time, when I'm likely to be batting away helicopters from the Empire State Building, just do as I say and not as I do, and everything will be alright.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What About Helen Thomas? ... Or Another Blog Post About AIG

I watched the President's press conference last night. And two things occurred to me, one of which matters, the other really doesn't. The one that does, is: Why didn't Helen Thomas get to ask a question? Isn't that like a tradition or something? Did someone pay her off? She's got a front row seat, she's the only person in the White House Press Corps (or perhaps in Washington as a whole) who's got more longevity than most (and that includes Jesse Helms - we miss you old sod). What? Hearst Newspapers is not an important enough outlet to call on her? I suppose The Washington Times is that much more important! C'mon Mr. President! What are you afraid of? A REAL question by a real journalist? She's not as pretty as that AP reporter, but I bet her question would have been harder to answer.

That little rant done with, there's the other matter, which is the damn bonus thing at AIG. The President said he was mad. Everyone's mad. Everyone should be. AIG should never have gotten as bad as it is. But I'm honestly of two (and maybe even three) minds about it.

Here's the popular mindset:
AIG has been bailed out by public money. They have no right to then take that money and give bonuses to those people who work there. Especially not bonuses of such outlandish and grandiose proportion that it defies understanding to anyone not in the financial industry. The recipients were asked and rightly should give the money back and it shouldn't even be a discussion. And yes, my friends, I feel this way too.

And here's the popular mindset with the financial industry:
The guys who got bonuses had it in their contracts. No one renegotiated the contracts when the bailout happened. They should be paid. That's why people take these jobs, to get those big payoffs, which, in turn, are responsible for the folks in those jobs to stay in those jobs. And yes, my friends, I can see the value of this one too. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss (who is useful in settling all disputes - we can experiment on that one later): "a contract's a contract no matter how small."

But there's one in the middle that bugs me too. That's very simply that some of the folks who received these bonuses have done their part to try to help AIG recover. The downfall of AIG was engineered by a gaggle of people who probably aren't with the company anymore (they took their bonuses from last year and took off!). So that left the rubble that was left of the company for everyone else to try to manage. And those who have worked hard to try to save the company, and earn more so that the bailout can be paid back feel they have some entitlement to what they were promised.

They were called retention bonuses, and I can understand why the talented people at AIG who were asked to return their bonuses may feel pretty screwed and may not feel like sticking around anymore to help the company back on its feet. They may have a hard time getting another job right now, but I have a feeling that retention bonuses from years past will keep the home fires burning for the foreseeable future.

So I appreciate everyone's outrage. Mine is very simple. That once the bailout was accepted, that AIG didn't put into place any provision regarding these retention bonuses from the outset. It's called planning, gentlemen. And it's a necessity when you are dealing with a disaster, natural or otherwise. Just ask FEMA about that (oops!).

So the question I leave you with is: what are you mad about here? That AIG fell at all? That they needed to be bailed out? That the bonuses were given? That the bonuses had to be ASKED to be given back? Or that there was no planning around the bonuses in the first place in anticipation of the coming backlash? What were YOU mad about Mr. President?

So until next time, when I'm likely to dance and lip sync to "Twist and Shout" during a parade down Michigan Avenue, just do as I say and not as I do and everything will be alright.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Enough's Enough, But What's Too Much?

Ok, so I'm certain I will get around to writing about my favorite food or band or something soon, but the economic and political stuff has been building up in me since the first Bush administration, so if my readers (both of you) can endure me for a bit more, I wanted to expound on something that was in my last post.

As a preface, know that religion and spirituality, to me, are separate entities that sometimes reside in the same house (or person), and some of what I'm going to say now reflects spiritual teachings that I've been learning for many years now (so the real political junkies are going to experience an uncomfortable glazing-over of the eyes now). But in reflecting what has happened with our economy and political landscape, a couple of questions occur to me. Those questions follow from something a dear teacher, Joseph Michael Levry, also known as Gurunam, has said many times: "Be grateful for what you have. And be grateful for what you do not have."

This is significant to me in several ways, most of which have to do with not wishing for more than you can use, or handle. Which, in turn, brings up the question I want to ask here.

I understand a lot of how those folks in finance think. Some of them are in it because it's an interesting game of numbers manipulation, an intellectual exercise, if you will, that is both gambling and divination. That's cool. I get it. And if you get enormously rich in the process, that's your reward for being incredibly clever and/or having a remarkable sense of timing (or comic timing). Others are really in it for the money. I mean REALLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY. Again, I get this. It's a dream many of us have - earn enough money so you can always do whatever you want for the rest of your life.

So the question is this: What happens when you have so much that you can do so much more than whatever you want for the rest of twenty lifetimes? When is it enough? When do you walk away? Why don't you walk away? What are you trying to prove? Mr. Madoff, what do you DO with $78 Billion, whether bilked off someone else's savings or not?

Bill Gates? I get you. You said, I have so much more than I could ever use, I'll put it to someone else's use.

I'm not talking to you here (nor to many of my friends in finance who either already understand or are in pursuit of understanding the balance between humanity and being really wealthy -- I think you know who you are, and you're smart guys, and I appreciate you).

I'm talking to the ones who smugly manipulated the market and short sold and sold bad debt in order to be worth the $100M or even the $80M that he or she will NEVER find a use for, and beyond the first $10M, won't ever have to worry about their family for generations to come - even living lavishly.

So when is more than you could ever want or think of what to do with, enough? And if you can actually reach that point, what do you do for an encore?

I guess what I'm getting at here, and struggling with - and maybe, dear readers, your comments will enlighten me - is: what was the point? What did Bernie Madoff prove? What did the guys who ran the banks into the ground accomplish, and is a system in shreds really something to be proud of? Besides a bank balance of 10 figures, and the ability to do whatever you want over several lifetimes, what does it mean to have created such enormous wealth that you can't even possibly understand what to do with it? Especially if this ridiculous wealth was built by manipulating the fortunes of others so that you can benefit? And, as I keep going back to, was it worth our getting into the mess that we're in now?

When is more than you could ever want enough? And why wasn't it?

I know what a lot of the easy answers are: "hubris," "because I could do it," "why not?" "mind your own business you failure!" "arrogance (see hubris);" and many others. But none of them really get to the heart of the matter for me that would answer what arrogance is so profound that it would allow such a large number of people to allow such a disastrous outcome to come to pass.

And of course, in the end, it's proven the age-old concept that even the least spiritual person out there will be familiar with:

Karma does exist. But unfortunately, this time, we all share in the Karma resulting from excessive desire.

So until next time, when I'll have shaved my head, painted my body red and will be sacrificed to the great god Kali, remember: do as I say and not as I do and you should be all right.

PT Barnum, Stalin, Bozo and the Homeless at the Day's Inn

I had an interesting disagreement with one of the partners of my firm a couple of weeks ago. I was talking about a recent speech I’d seen former President Bill Clinton make at an event sponsored by one of my clients. I’ll likely write about that another time, but it’s the disagreement following my recounting of the speech to the partner that I want to concentrate on, as well as a New York Times story on March 11 by Eric Eckholm entitled “As Jobs Vanish, Motel Rooms Become Home”

Following the discussion about President Clinton’s speech, I commented about how there was hope in what he was saying, and that indeed, I had great hopes for President Obama’s stimulus plan. Frankly, I still do, and I’ll get to that too in a second. But the partner in question then indicated that he was of the opinion that our 42nd President was responsible for the mess we’re in based on his edict that “every family should have a home.”

I’ve heard this logic many times before, and was unprepared for a major rebuttal, except to say that the partner was “wrong” in his analysis, and that President Clinton’s intention was that everyone should be able to afford their own home. The logic being that both home prices and financing should be reasonable, and when presented with a responsible history and income level, people should be able to afford a home. I’m sure that it is quite haughty of me to think that I know what the 42nd President of the United States meant in several speeches during the mid-90s, but I’ve been called worse by better people, and if you think it’s the first time I’ve even been called haughty then you just don’t know me very well.

Anyway, cut from those days in the early/mid-90s to today. Many of the folks who went after homes beyond their ken are homeless, or living in motels or in dire circumstances as a composite result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the banking crisis, financing the Gulf War, avarice and short-selling of and within the finance industry, dandruff, halitosis and any number of other factors that arguably contributed the state we’re in today. How the hell can it be Clinton’s fault? Is it even George W. Bush’s fault?

[I’m going into parentheses here to say that I, too wish I could blame everything on Bush 43. But on this one, it really was only partly his fault – and I think that the fault of his is in the dumbing down of our country instead of people striving to understand and learn more, rather than come back with snappy retorts. But I also hear very loudly and clearly the thundering voices of those screaming “YES! IT’S BUSH’S FAULT,” a la Berkely Breathed in the 80’s blaming everything on Regan (which was correct, by the way, but that’s neither here nor there).]

So, no, it’s not GWB’s fault. It’s clearly ours! Ours? Me? Not me! No, surely you’re wrong! I’m just standing here!

Here’s why it’s all of our faults. We’re human beings. We’re always looking for the angle. There’s no such thing as purity among humans. Take Communism. It was a GREAT idea! Really, it was! Could’ve worked. People would have had what they needed, and there would have been enough for everyone. But then people had to go and confuse it with power mongering! You see? The Soviet Union wasn’t a communist state! It certainly wasn’t a socialist state! It was a hybrid of the easy application of communist ideas with the desire of a few people to maintain power and influence over a lot more people. They saw an angle, they exploited it, and there you are!

Not a clear enough example for you? Try this on (boy am I gonna get smacked for this one…): take MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL! These human growth hormones and steroids that became so abused were not designed for that purpose! Initially, steroid use was designed to help heal inflammation and injury sooner, as was HGH. But some Mr. Wizard realized that if a little was good, a lot would be awesome and make an entire generation of super sluggers! So while their scrota were shrinking, they were creating records that mere humans could never have imagined! But then they couldn’t stop. And it got worse and worse, until it got to the point where no one is sure whether the last ten baseball seasons were actually played by real people or by Petri dishes. Someone saw an angle for something that would have been of benign benefit and turned it into something sinister, or at least shameful. They saw an angle, they exploited it, and there you are!

So now, let’s look at what happened with the sub-primes. President Clinton said, “let’s make it easier for people who can afford to get a house to get one. Let’s make it so everyone who wants one can have one.” My friends, if you don’t understand that when we say “everyone” we don’t mean “EVERYONE,” then you’re pretty much Rush Limbaugh trying to make a stupid literalist point that holds no water. But guess what? A bunch of guys said, “ok, you want everyone to have a house, they can, but we’re going to give them loans at such unfavorable terms that they would have to be stupid to take them.”

PT Barnum wasn’t wrong. Sadly, there is a sucker born every minute, and the financial industry is looking to take advantage of his parents, by telling them that even though they have jobs at Wal-Mart and the corner bodega that they, too, can afford a five-bedroom house.

So what happened? Smart guys made sick money off of dumb guys, and dumber, or at least more innocent guys are left with mortgages they can’t possibly afford when the piper came to call on the so-called smart guys. So everything collapses (and then the banks happened, the market crashed, people panicked, chaos ensued, cue 2009).

Now the mercantile guys are going to argue with me that if they qualified for the lousy loans, and they were willing to accept the responsibility in good times to take them on, what’s the problem? It’s just business. But it isn’t. Business in any other context is working together to come to a fair agreement so that services and goods are exchanged for a reasonable amount of money, such that the person offering the goods and/or services are able to make some profit, and the recipients are able to benefit long-term. Otherwise, my friends, it is just called a swindle. A swindle.

A swindle.

So the partner WAS wrong. Clinton didn’t cause this. Greedy people caused it. The same way greedy people caused ENRON (remember them?), the same way greedy people caused the collapse of the banking system, and the same way that greedy people caused the collapse of AIG, the same way that greedy people have tainted all of the idealistic opportunities created for the greater good over the years.

I urge those greedy people to read Mr. Eckholm’s article, so that they can see what they wrought. Many of them are out of jobs at this point as well. But look at what happened to the people they swindled. The less intelligent or savvy or more innocent and trusting people that they decided it was ok to swindle. Look what happened to them. And I then urge them to get on their knees and at the very least, thank whatever greater power they believe in that this kind of swindle wasn’t illegal. And that the people who are currently struggling are too busy trying to survive to seek the reasonable restitution they deserve for having their innocence preyed upon.

Until next time, when I’m sure that my soapbox will be wet and I am likely to slip – do as I say and not as I do, and you should be alright.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Opinions, Opinions, or Heeeeere We Goooooo!

Welcome to my blog. I can’t say I’ve always wanted to write those words, nor can I say I ever imagined that I might (thanks Kelly). But after some minor prodding, here it is, my blog, or what I’d like to call, “Do As I Say, Not As I Do” (thanks David).

I imagine I’ll be covering a wide variety of topics, likely those that are of interest to me, but if you indeed subscribe, and we happen to go off on a tangent for an entry or twenty, well, that’ll be all the more interesting, won’t it? One thing I think I like about this idea is that if I happen to start to delve too deeply into a topic and feel myself (inevitably) in the quicksand of ignorance, or worse, boredom, I can simply move on. Ah, power! But it’s my blog and I’ll err if I want to. I’ll really try not to get facts wrong, though.

Many of the blogs I’ve seen are about something. At the risk of revitalizing a 90’s sitcom (and the now-dormant career of one Michael Richards), I can’t promise that this blog will be about anything particular. If I find I have something to say based on what I’m reading or observing here in the real world, I’m likely to want to post it – and again, perhaps encourage some kind of dialogue (multi-logue) along the way. So very little will be off-limits, except those things I have little to no interest in. I can promise, for example, that there will be little mention of snakes, except in the metaphorical context, because I’m afraid of them.

Christian Speed Metal is probably a long shot as well.

So given what I’d like to think may be an eclectic array of topics (although I’m sure someone will find a pattern – probably an economist – more on that in future posts), but is probably just a smattering of this or that and a lot of griping about pop culture I’m sure I’ll lose some of you for a week or five, but then I hope you’ll come back. Of course if I manage to contribute to this blog on better than a bi-weekly basis, then I think we will have really accomplished something.

But ultimately, the purpose of the blog is multi-layered. On its most basic level, I hope you find my musings both entertaining and thought-provoking (and sometimes both at the same time), but it will also provide me the opportunity to learn in the best Socratic tradition (although the dialogue schizophrenic [I’ll answer my own questions – which I prefer anyway] at the outset, as I have no idea who’s reading this), and maybe, together, dear reader, we’ll have some new answers to old questions and maybe even some new questions to ask (although my money’s still on the Celtics for this year – Kobe be damned!).

One quick word of note, I will NOT EVER comment on events that I am directly connected to in the real world, as I make my living as a public relations professional, and there will be no anecdotes in which clients who could possibly recognize themselves. I may mention things I’ve said to a variety of audiences, but I will never reveal confidences and I will never reveal two-way conversations carried out in a work context. That’s not to say I won’t mention a thought I received from a friend in conversation and then either expound on its brilliance or deride it as the drivel it is. That is also not to say that I won’t comment on the macro view of situations that have already passed and been put into the public domain. But I am bound by my dedication to my clients to maintain their privacy and integrity.

So let’s go!

Since blogs are generally a posting of opinion, I started thinking about the concept of opinions and how they differ from facts or experience or even dogma. We’ve all heard lots of funny sayings about opinions. Some of them aren’t particularly nice or G-rated, but I’ve tried to construct one that is:

“Opinions are like noses in three ways, everyone has one (repeated from many other interpretations), some are more prominent than others (I like this one), but mostly, they all smell.” I think at least the first two of that list are true (although not truth, necessarily), and the last one is worth considering both practically and in the comedic sense.

I’m not sure if I have a good definition of the difference between opinion and experience. I know opinion is derived from experience, but an experience is not necessarily an opinion. And I know that there’s a clear difference between dogma and fact. But what I’m not so sure about is where opinion and dogma fit in the continuum. Certainly there is a variety of dogmas out there, but who’s to say which are right? And if one is to take certain philosophic prodding (ancient, modern and contemporary), one can certainly get caught up in the question of whether fact is a priori, or if it is a matter of experience. And I think going on the theory of knowledge and Wittgensteinien philosophy is a little too

But believe it or not, where this gets me is last night’s The Daily Show with John Stewart where he skewered a Mr. James Cramer of Mad Money fame. I’m torn here because Mr. Stewart (a William & Mary grad, thank you very much) very much encapsulated my feelings on the way the financial markets have been covered on CNBC and elsewhere, and it very much mirrored my feeling that it was an insider’s club with a very snarky and exclusive membership requirement. But at the same time, was the severe editorializing that he did in that interview appropriate for the venue?

Today’s New York Times posited that it was more like a Senate hearing, where Cramer was so shamefaced that he remained silent out of deference to the Democratic Senator from MakingPoopJokesville. And while I was riding on my own indignation, I struggled to understand what the Times reporter was getting at, and how, indeed, Cramer would have the last laugh. Then it occurred to me – Stewart went outside his genre. He may have taken the mantle of serious news that the general public has been trying to bestow on him for years and ran with it for those 30 minutes. He’s done it before in other contexts. But here’s the bottom line and I think Stewart said it best at the end of the show:

It was awkward. Improper even. I LOVED that John Stewart had the audacity and the pulpit to say what he did, and it echoed my and many others’ sentiments exactly. But, he’s a comedian (albeit a very smart one with an excellent education from a top-notch institution). But if he’s going to express an opinion, it better damn well be funny and he should leave the desk thumping to those who actually have the authority to change things…unless he wants to start a blog.

Until next time, all – when I’ll probably write about my brush with Republican greatness or at least largesse – do as I say, not as I do, and you should be all right.