Friday, February 27, 2009

Real People - Real Stories

This is a sidestep from the economy, but it stays true to the spirit of what I want to collect here - personal stories. It's a crowded blogosphere and good things can get lost in the shuffle. Please do not miss this:

Do you want to understand what it's like to be an Iraqi right now? Are you willing to do a little of your own reading and thinking instead of sitting in front of the best news team on television with your brain on "fill"? Then rejoice. Dr. Mohammed is an Iraqi dentist, a voice from the streets who is describing life as it is now.

How about a woman who is a doctor in Gaza? Yet another heart-wrenching blog.

Then there are stories from Tibet, told from the inside.

These are just three. There are blogs from people all over the world, people who desperately want the rest of us to hear them, to know what their lives are.

I suddenly see just what an amazing gift the Internet is. Communication leads to understanding...and understanding leads to cooperation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Economy and You: Tell Your Story

Are you mad as hell? Scared to death? Optimistic? Skeptical and cynical? Are you eating out less? Cutting way back? Losing your home? Losing your job?
I'm not the only one interested in your story.

GroundReport, a project that collects first person reports on news stories, is looking for videos which are being collected for a TV program called Worldfocus.

Here's the note I got from them:

Has the sinking economy changed your life?

Tell the world how in a quick video, and your story could be aired on US television program Worldfocus.

We want to know, "How has the economic crisis changed your life?"

* How are you cutting back?
* Have shops around you closed?
* Are bills piling up?
* Can you afford doctors and medicine?
* How is your family's life different?

Want to respond? Watch the video question on GroundReport. Then show us the changes in your life in a short video and upload it to GroundReport with the headline "My Life in the Economic Crisis." The deadline is February 28th, so start filming today.

This topic is the latest from Talk To US, a new partnership between Worldfocus and GroundReport that asks the world for its perspectives on the latest news.

So what are you waiting for? Go grab a camera and start talking!
And while you're at it, send a copy to the president at

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Making Lemonade

I recently met Dan Jacobs, the young entrepreneur who started Everywun. Everywun operates on the conviction that doing good is good business. Everywun enlists businesses willing to donate a certain amount of money to a worthy cause, then ties them with a web 'badge' that anyone can put on a website or blog. For every hit on that page, the business makes a donation. And what the business gets out of it is consumer recognition, goodwill and more business. Jacobs says he has studies that prove a customer is more likely to buy from a company it sees as socially responsible. He's a social entrepreneur. He's part of a growing group.

Ode Magazine, my favorite magazine on the planet at the moment, recently did a long feature on social entrepreneurs. They're not starry eyed idealists, though they're certainly idealists.

They're taking advantage of the increasing sense that we're all in this together - as each of us feels the pinch from the economy in lesser or greater degrees, we also are aware that everyone else is feeling it, too. We can curl up in a corner and cry, we can pull the covers over our heads and wait for it to be over, or we can help. That last one seems to feel the best, doesn't it?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pet Recession

Check your local shelter - they've probably filled every available space with pets whose owners can't afford to feed them anymore. One local shelter I know has a 'no kill' policy - and that's resulting in people being turned away as they try to surrender their beloved dog or cat (or bird, ferret or bunny) because there is just no room at the inn.

We've toyed with the idea of adding a dog to our menagerie of three argumentative cats. But the reality is we can't afford it right now. The cost of dog food is high; the vet bills can be astronomical. If you've already got the animals, how do you take care of them when you've lost your job, maybe are losing your home?

Here's a story out of Chicago with one answer. Dog trainer Cathy Sabin has opened up a food pantry for pets. There are others, and the need for what they're giving is growing. Sabin says she's seeing a lot of senior citizens lining up for free bags of pet food.

Some cranky so-called pragmatist out there may argue, "If they can't afford them, then why are they keeping those animals?"

The answer, you heartless automaton, is that for many people a pet is a best friend. Particularly for people who are isolated, people who are sick or sad, people who are older, a pet can be a comfort, a warm connection with another living creature. And don't tell me pets don't care about their owners. Anyone who has ever had a connection with a beloved animal knows that there is a bond there that can't be broken by time or distance. Some people like to pretend that animals are somehow less than humans, less sensistive, less aware. I maintain their awareness is different - I believe they may not relate to the world the same way we do, but different is not's just different. They know their people, they remember good and bad experiences, they have loyalty and they will risk their own safety to protect the ones they care for. Hmmm...maybe they're better than some of us.

Anyway, food pantries for pets. It's sad that it's coming to this, but what a fine example of the best in humanity that someone's doing it.,0,5222459.story

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stalling the Eviction

Those of us scrambling to make those mortgage payments every month are waiting to see just what the new foreclosure prevention plan means to us. In the meantime, here's a neat trick to slow down those deputies with the eviction notice:

Demand the original paperwork. Really. This whole fiasco is such a mess that if a homeowner demands to see the original mortgage, it often shuts down the entire foreclosure process indefinitely. Chances are the bank that's trying to toss you out isn't the one that originally loaned you the money.

Our mortgage has changed hands so many times we can't even keep track. It took a conversation with our mortgage servicer (that's the company we pay every month) to discover that it doesn't own our mortgage - and any discussion of renegotiating terms with them is impossible until we've missed more than two payments. We're dealing with Fannie Mae - who knew?

If you own a home, do you know who actually holds your mortgage?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Doing the Stimulus Chinese Style

What to do when the bulk of your country's economy is based on what you sell to other countries - and they stop buying? That's the conundrum facing China, which, despite a multi-billion dollar surplus, is seeing its exports deflate faster than a leaky tire.

The local governments' solution is to offer coupons to encourage its own citizens to start buying. Factories are closing in China and the rate of layoffs is increasing. It's the natural response to a lack of demand as export markets hunker down for a long, painful economic contraction. The Chinese government is creating a 585 billion dollar stimulus package that includes subsidies to encourage rural Chinese to go out and buy appliances. But local governments believe more needs to be done - and their answer is to give out shopping vouchers.

The vouchers are time to coincide with holidays and they're working, sort of. Sales are up. But analysts wonder if it will have any long term significance as the country struggles with an economy built on customers from somewhere else.

The vouchers serve an important PR function as well - it's hoped that they will be seen as the government showing concern for its people. And that's important. Because if things continue to worsen and the Chinese don't think they're being cared for, it won't take much to ignite riots. These are people on the edge - and when you're close to the edge chaos is just a short step away.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Just Another Foreclosure

It brings a tear to the eye - the economy has finally touched Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The Wall Street Journal reports his childhood home in Dillon, SC, was sold for 83 thousand dollars to a local bank officer. The buyer was suitably respectful of the historic nature of his purchase.

"It's just a great sense of pride to know that one of the greatest leaders we have in our time period walked the same floors I walk," said Travis Jackson, who said he may put up a plaque honoring Bernanke.

The house was sold by the Bernanke family ten years ago. It was then sold again to a national guardsman and his family for $123,000. They lost it when they couldn't keep up the payments.

I won't even comment on the irony.

I've been doing a lot of investigation into the foreclosure issue. Evan Wagner, director of communications for IndyMac Bank, tells me in most cases his bank's hands are tied. It doesn't own a good 80% of the loans it services. And the agreements it has with the banks who do own those loans specify that it can't negotiate with borrowers until they've missed at least two and sometimes three payments.

So people who know the wolf is at the door and try to talk to a bank before it's too late don't have any options if their loan is with one of the giant lenders. Local really is proving to be better.

There's word that the Obama administration has some plans to alleviate the foreclosure crisis. It's certainly not part of the big stimulus. And without it, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that we're just throwing good money after bad.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Economics of Marijuana

A recession can do funny things to people. It can make some staunch red states rethink their stance on marijuana.

Okay, let me preface this with a disclaimer: I am not a pothead. I'm not a liberal, raving "right to get high" activist. I'm a pragmatist.

And so, apparently, are Tennessee, Alabama and Texas, among other states. They're looking at the looming catastrophes that are their budget deficits, comparing those with what they HAVE to spend by state and federal mandate, and looking for places to cut. And that's where marijuana comes in.

Law enforcement across the nation spends up to seven billion dollars a year enforcing laws against marijuana, according to a study done by Doctor John Getman.
And states are now considering whether they can afford to keep enforcing that prohibition, according to NORML, the marijuana law reform lobbying group. They're getting phone calls from states they never expected to hear from, legislators looking for the hard facts about marijuana, medical marijuana, scientific data...information they are using as they decide whether it's time to decriminalize marijuana.

There's a precedent for this. FDR partially repealed prohibition during the Great Depression. It made sense. It was an industry that was in demand, it was an industry that could be taxed. And regulating that industry eliminated the criminal distribution of booze.

This seems to make sense with marijuana, too. Studies don't agree on the "gateway drug" argument - in fact, the biggest study on the topic concluded there was absolutely no evidence that marijuana use led to harder drug use. There is apparently no evidence that anything in the chemical makeup of marijuana leads to cocaine, crack, heroin, meth or any of the other drug scourges of our time. The actual gateway drugs were cigarettes and alcohol.

And there is a great deal of evidence that medical marijuana is a gift for cancer patients. It relieves nausea, restores appetite and does it instantly, with no need for a queasy patient to swallow anything. And it's far cheaper than a legal marijuana alternative pill that often isn't covered by insurance.

Millions of people use pot. Millions of them. Nobody's monitoring it except the police. Tons of illegal marijuana is brought into this country from elsewhere, and there is no quality control.

There is money to be made. Think of the money if pot was taxed at the same exorbitant rate as cigarettes. California has medical marijuana and though it accepts tax payments from those clinics, it doesn't officially tax it. And safety standards, legal regulations could be put in place.

Want to do some investigating? Here are two studies:


And here are the facts presented with no bias for either side.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's Behind Door Number One?

Could it be a new house, Johnny? Maybe.

Some Londoners, frustrated with the comatose real estate market, are getting creative.

They're creating a lottery, with the winner getting a house that the owner hasn't been able to sell. There are all kinds of legal hoops, and most home sellers aren't exactly sure if they're going to get in trouble or not, but it's apparently worth the risk to them. They sell a certain number of tickets at so much per ticket and those tickets, hopefully, add up to what they're hoping to get for their house. Then one of those lucky ticketholders actually wins the house. Everybody's happy - home seller gets the equity back - ticketholder gets a really cheap house - losing ticketholders didn't lose all that much and live to gamble another day.

Humans are nothing if not resourceful. What will we think of next?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Watching the Jobs Go

This may just be too depressing - but look anyway. If you hide your head in the sand, you can't help, can you? There's a place you can go to see what jobs have been lost.

Why do you need to know this, you ask? Is it necessary to bury ourselves in this misery up to our necks just to feel connected? Well, maybe. But there's another reason.

Most of the problems this country has had stemmed from blind trust. We believed what we were told. Some of us were naive, some just gullible, others too lazy to check the facts. Or some combination of the above. Those days are over if we want things to get better. It's time to take responsibility, check the facts, know what's really going on and then make sure the people we elect to take action hear whatever opinion we have. Those opinions have extra gravitas because they're informed opinions, not knee-jerk "I heard it from him/her so it MUST be true!"

I know a guy who says his father used to yell at him for spouting out other people's opinions as fact. "Papagallo!" his dad hollered. (That's Italian for parrot.) "Make up your own mind!"

Good advice, America. Good advice, planet. Blindly following whoever sounds good or makes us feel better has gotten us into nothing but trouble. Any institution that insists on blind faith has some explaining to do. We are thinking creatures. We reason - or we should. Think, study and form your own conclusions.

So back to the litany of misery - we need to know what jobs are being lost and where. We need to be informed about how bad things are. We need to know if it's urgent. Because if we sit back and wait for politicians to make it all better with no pressure from us, we're going right over a cliff. And we will be the ones to blame.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

YES! The good side of the economy!

It's almost horrible, yet somehow very comforting. For the first time ever, poor people are happier than rich people.

How can this be, you ask? Well, it actually makes sense. If you're poor, nothing's changed for you, has it? Life was tough before and it's still tough. In fact, prices are coming down a bit.

But if you're rich, whoa Nellie! You're scared to death - you might lose your job - maybe you invested your big bucks with a shyster - maybe your stocks have tanked. You might become gasp MIDDLE CLASS!

Now of course nobody's talking about the middle class - we working shlumps who go to school, get a job and then work fifty weeks a year fifty hours a week to make ends meet and try to afford a vacation once every five years or so.

We didn't lose anything with Bernie Madoff. Most of us don't have any stocks, except for maybe a 401K through work that's now worthless. Our lives go on as before, except maybe it's becoming less likely that our kids will be able to get the education we had. The other big change is that we're not talking about retirement anymore. We don't expect to retire. Even if we want to. We're going to be working until the day we die and we just hope we can stay healthy and keep going.

Maybe this economy will level out the playing field a little. Maybe it's time we finally realize we're all in this together - and maybe it's time to grow up, reach out and all work together.

Are you listening, Congress?

Thanks to the Huffington Post for this one.

Why I Love Rachel Maddow

I'm no groupie. I'm not a gay activist. I hate television and I hate myself when I sit in front of it, mindlessly flipping around.

But I love Rachel Maddow and an hour with her makes me feel pretty damned good about our chances.

Rachel, if you have somehow missed her, is the snarky host of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. She's got a radio show on Air America. She's the smart ass kid you wanted on your softball team, and she's all grown up and poking holes in political stupidity - no matter what side of the aisle it's on.

Ignore what MSNBC's done to make her acceptable to mainstream America - turned a shortstop into a glamor girl with flappy eyelashes. Listen to her.

She's intelligent, she backs up her opinions with fact, and she cares. When she's outraged, she doesn't mince any words. But she never descends into shrill rants. Take a note, Fox News. Aw, let's be even handed here - Keith Olbermann might want to borrow a page from his protege as well.

Last night, Rachel discussed the stimulus.

She devoted her show to debunking what she called "bull pucky" arguments against the stimulus plan, and arguing against the compromises that were made to get it past the GOP objections.

She gave facts and figures showing that tax cuts don't stimulate the economy nearly as well as infrastructure spending and funding food stamps. And she was clearly outraged that common sense gets shouted down by partisan fighting. She cited studies I've heard before but she gave them a national voice, and she said what I've been thinking myself. If Congress can't shut up, grow up and get to work bailing out this boat, it's time to toss them overboard.

And I'm predicting when this time passes, when history looks back, Rachel Maddow, along with Jon Stewart, are going to prove to be two of the most important voices for this era.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Now That's Journalism!

Found this in my inbox this morning. I love this idea! Finally, we're using all the technology that allows us to be heard all over the world to talk to each other!

Dear GroundReporters,

A week ago we launched Talk To US, a groundbreaking citizen journalism segment on TV news program Worldfocus.

Every month Talk To US asks the global community a different question about the news, and citizen journalists like you upload video responses across the globe. The best video responses are aired live as part of Worldfocus.

The first question is "What's your advice for President Barack Obama?"

Respond now by uploading your video to

We know that this is an incredible opportunity: your message could be broadcast on air to television sets across America. But we also know that this kind of great, sophisticated video takes work.

That's why for this question, the first 100 video responses will each receive a $5 USD bounty for their hard work. To qualify, you must meet the following guidelines:

1. You must live outside the United States and be a non-US citizen.

2. Your video must be 1:00 (one minute) or less in length.

3. Your video resolution must be good enough for TV.

4. You may submit multiple entries, but we will only distribute one bounty per reporter.

5. You must submit by February 15, 2009.

6. All videos published through GroundReport are automatically entered.

The deadline is soon, so get going! Login and upload your video to GroundReport today.

At worst, you'll make $5, and at best, you'll be on TV. It's a pretty good deal.

GroundReport has a history of supporting compelling citizen journalism by compensating our reporters for their hard work. We hope to see more incredible stories come from this initiative.

Monday, February 2, 2009

It's Worse in Japan

The US is moaning by the side of the economy, clutching its cuts and bruises and complaining that the ambulance is taking too long to arrive.

Japan is lying quietly nearby, bleeding to death.

Frank Veneroso, who's invested in hedge funds for the World Bank along with many other big, big clients, says the Japanese economy is in the worst state ever - already worse than America's Great Depression. Industrial output could take just four months to fall almost as much as the total decline during the 30s in the US.

This is straight from Veneroso:

I have been writing about an Asian black hole for almost two months now. I have been crying from the rooftops about an emerging depression in Japan. It has been as though a neutron bomb had gone off in the world. There was no one who seemed to notice, no one who seemed to listen.

Every week it gets worse and worse and worse. Today it was Japan....

THERE HAS NEVER BEEN DATA THIS BAD FOR ANY MAJOR ECONOMY – EVEN IN THE GREAT DEPRESSION. December industrial production came in down 9.6%, worse than the METI forecast. It is now down almost 21% year over year. METI forecasts a further 4.7% decline in February. The inventory to production ratio soared again. Maybe METI will be correct.

If it is, Japan industrial production will have fallen 28% (non annualized) in four months. It will have fallen by a third in about a year. Nothing in the history of major nations compares. A 28% decline in four months would be more than half of the entire decline in U.S. industrial production over the 3 years and nine months of the U.S. Great Depression.

It would be a greater decline in four months than in any 12 month period in the Great Depression in the U.S. We are literally looking at the unimaginable. (I am attaching the U.S. industrial production index from the Great Depression for comparison).


And who's compounding this mess, essentially guaranteeing that there's no saving the Japanese economy? Financial markets. They haven't learned a damned thing from the death spiral on Wall Street. Markets, according to Veneroso, are making Japan's injuries fatal by pushing the yen as a "safe haven" for investment as it teeters on the brink of disaster. In other words, investors are pushing the price of a yen higher and higher with nothing supporting it from behind. Sounds disgustingly like the real estate bubble, doesn't it? And yet it's happening. Again.

More from Veneroso:

The yen is strengthening massively against currencies all over. On a trade weighted basis, it is by far the strongest currency on the planet. There are long lags between changes in currencies, exchange rates and trade. The recent take off in the yen is not yet fully reflected in Japanese exports. The lags are too long. The weakness we are seeing in Japanese exports today is in large part derived from aggregate demand weakness from its trading partners. It is the result of an earlier appreciation in the yen for perhaps 120 yen to the dollar to 110 to the dollar or 100 to the dollar. And perhaps, most importantly, it is the result of a secular trend in which its lower wage neighbors in Asia are making inroads – big inroads – into the global markets which it has traditionally dominated as an exporter.

When the long lags between the yen exchange rate change and trade and industrial production fully run their course the land of the rising sun may fall off the face of the earth. And with it will fall all the market participants who refuse to look at fundamentals and chase chart witchcraft and ephemeral market dynamics who have been the big bulls engineering that yen exchange rate that will maximally undermine the markets, economy, and social fabric of Japan.

Thanks to

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Economy Hits Sports, Too

Thanks to Handsome Significant Other for this one:

It didn't take long for the recession to spread its effects into one of the most overpaid segments of the economy - sports.

The release of Joe Torre's tell all Yankees book came along with revelations that Yankees pitcher Andy Pettite ran into the "New Economy" head on. The team offered the veteran 10 million dollars to re-sign. Nope, said Pettite. He was looking for 15 million. And after shopping around, discovering nobody, just nobody, was going to pay him that amount of money, he came back to the Yankees and said okay. He'd accept 10 million. The Yankees said no go. The offer was now 5 million. And he took it.

It's not so much a reflection of Pettite's skills, though he is certainly not a young buck anymore. It's the economy. Even the legendarily generous NY team is tightening up the spending for most players.

There are 30 free agents in major league baseball, all looking for new teams. Being a free agent used to be the holy grail - once you reached that status, you were pretty well assured of a mind-bogglingly large salary after a heated bidding war among MLB teams. Not this year.

Manny Ramirez, for instance, never expected to still be without a home this late in the winter. And he's got an agent who's considered a master of the negotiating game. But so far, only the Dodgers are playing - everyone else would love to have him, but the salary he would command is a luxury now.

The economy is bound to hit the teams where it hurts - in the wallet - and they know it. The rising costs of ticket prices have put a day at the ballpark well beyond the comfort level of most fans. Boston, the most expensive ticket in baseball, had an average fan cost index in 2008 of $321. That's the estimated cost of a day at the park for a family of four, according to the Team Marketing Report.

Sixteen of the thirty teams are freezing or cutting ticket prices in 2009. They are anticipating trouble.

The Super Bowl isn't immune - secondary ticket prices are down almost 40%.

So what's next? Movies? Films, during the Depression, were one of the few things that saw a steady business. We loves us our escapism when times are tough. But movies aren't cheap to make, actors are remarkably overpaid, and the prices at the ticket counter have risen steadily. And they're not the only game in town now. We've got DVDs, we've got BluRay, we've got television and we've got

Marketers in every sector are responding to the new national mood - Allstate encourages us to insure what we've got with a company we can trust - Walmart is positioning itself as the place to save money and downsize. It's a new world. And indications are it's going to be around for awhile.

Maybe stickball is going to make a comeback.