Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"It's America - It'll Be Alright"

Have you wondered how the newest adults are handling this recession?

I met Geronimo Rodriguez and Ian Anderson after a long afternoon interviewing people about their own personal economic realities. They were sitting together in the shade of a tree near the local pizza joint, their heads bent over their guitars.

"Would you mind talking to me about the economy?" I asked Geronimo.

Ian had wandered off when I arrived, and I wasn't sure I wasn't intruding.

"Really? Yeah, yeah. Sure. I'll talk to you."

Geronimo is a pencil-thin guy with a generous mop of carefully styled black hair.

He's from Temecula, a town in southwest California.

"They were hit really hard there," he said. "People are lining the streets, looking for work. I was going to community college and there were more middle aged people in the class than there were people my age, you know? Like they'd been working at the same place for fifteen years, never went to school beyond high school, and now they're like, 'Hey, I'd better go back and learn some skills.' And kids my age, we're having a really hard time paying for school. Banks aren't lending anymore. How do you pay for it?"

Ian wandered back. He's a thin young fellow with a sandy beard and a knit cap. He said he was from Temecula, too.

"We drove out together. Three days straight. There wasn't any work there, so we figured we'd head east and see if we couldn't do better here."

"Where are you staying?" I asked.

"With friends, crashing wherever, sleeping in the car," Ian said.

"Yeah, we're doing a little more busking," Geronimo added. "You know, hey, can you spare a buck, we haven't eaten today. It's hard. But we got lucky and we've got jobs in New Jersey," he continued. "It's just for the summer, and maybe we'll be able to save up to get a place. And I want to go to school."

Ian told me he was in the Coast Guard until they booted him out after he got a concussion.

"I was seeing a lot of educated people joining up," he said. "I think they couldn't find any work, so they figured they'd be safe if they joined the military. To tell you the truth, I think it's kind of like a back door draft, you know?"

I asked them if they were scared.

"No, no," Ian said. "We'll be fine. We did this because we didn't have any responsibilities, no families to take care of. It'll be hard, but this is America. We've got the corner on the world's food supply. We've got plenty. I mean my belly's full and I haven't got a dime."

"I think," Geronimo said, "that maybe what this recession will do is make kids start to value an education again. Something good may come out of it."

"And I believe that entrepreneurs are going to be what pulls us out of this," Ian said. "We've had hard times before. We got through it. This is America. It'll be alright."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Terrorist Plot - Walking the Tightrope

A terrorist plot was revealed in New York this week. Four men, men who studied Islam while in prison, have reportedly been under investigation for a year as they plotted to buy bombs and surface to air missiles with the intent of bombing a Bronx synagogue and shooting down military planes.

They were arrested, the FBI says, as they were planting the dummy bombs they'd bought. They'd also allegedly bought a broken Stinger missile from the feds.

It brings back a lot of unsettling feelings in New York and that's completely understandable. But as I covered the story the first thing I wanted to do was be certain not to fall into the anti-Muslim hysteria that seems to be our default position.

I found the family of a young Pakistan-born soldier from Newburgh who died in Afghanistan last year, fighting for his adopted country - the United States.

"My brother," I was told, "was the most patriotic person I know. He enlisted right after 9-11 - he thought it was his duty."

They belonged to the mosque where the alleged terrorists prayed, and they were disgusted by the possibility that they'd prayed next to these men.

I spoke to one of the officials at a little village that's been told it's one of the top terrorist targets in the state - a thriving Hassidic town on the outskirts of New York City.

"This," I was told, "is a case of extremism. It's very sad."

Thinking people know you cannot paint a religion, a race, a culture with a broad brush. It is a collection of individuals and in that collection will be people who are bad. There will be people who do not respect human life and have no tolerance for beliefs other than their own. That is human nature. There's plenty of that in our own country.

Yet when I read our local paper, there was a headline guaranteed to shock.

"Suspect's Imam Has Ties to Local College"

Sounds threatening, doesn't it? But if you actually read the story, it explains that the Imam is a well respected man who is considered very moderate, who has been one of several chaplains at the college for years and denounces terrorism.

"We are teaching tolerance," he said in the article. "We are teaching respect."

And our local newspaper is teaching sensationalism.

No wonder the media gets a bad name. But then, that's painting us all with a broad brush, too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Is Bigger Still Better?

Haven't we learned one single thing? Is it really true that Steven Rattner, the journalist turned investor turned car czar, favors auto megastores as the future of America's car sales industry? Is it true, as I was told by a Buick dealer who's been told that despite 21 years of showing a profit, his franchise won't be renewed, and by the head of the NYS Automobile Dealers Association, that the future road map calls for the end of the Mom and Pop car dealerships?

Where I live, there are a number of little car dealerships snuggled into small towns. I'm sure they don't do a ton of volume, but they've got great reputations and their customers come back time and time again.

I've driven through areas with mega auto dealerships. It's like the Sam's Club of cars...rows upon rows upon rows of shiny vehicles, bought and paid for by the dealer, who has thrown on all kinds of options to help pay for the crushing overhead of having a mile wide parking lot.

Mom and Pop businesses are what's missing in America 2009. Mega grocery chains, box stores, cavernous hardware chains have driven out many small business owners. There is no personal connection, there is no sense of community. Sure, you'll recognize a couple of the people who work there. They'll try to be helpful. You'll appreciate it. But will you think, "Wow, that Big Box Store sure is a great place. I'd gladly pay a couple of dollars more to keep them here!" Nope. They've got no loyalty to you and vice versa.

Contrast that with how you feel toward the truly local businesses near you. We've got Kevin, the guy at the meat store. I'm a vegetarian but I still think he's great. He's always involved in our community, always cooking up a new plan to create activities for the kids or raise money for a good cause. Our local grocery store isn't as cheap as the mega store a couple of miles down the road. But it feels comfortable; it feels like they care whether we shop there or not. They offer sales when they can.

I measure it all against a place I thought was paradise when I was a kid.

Let me tell you about Cherry Valley, New York. I never lived there, but I spent most every summer there and we got to know people pretty well. It's a little town - a little village off a quiet highway in Central New York. When I was a kid, there was an ancient A&P grocery store, Rury's market, a pharmacist, and a general store.

Mr. Mackey was the druggist. He was a nice old guy who'd spent his whole life in this Andy of Mayberry town and knew everyone there. When I got stung by a mystery insect and swelled up like a turnip, he calmly handed my mother an antihistamine. When I turned my ankle, he sympathetically offered OTC painkillers and a pair of crutches. When he retired, the drug store closed. There hasn't been a pharmacist there in years.

The A&P was nothing the company would later be willing to claim. It was in an old wooden building with a massive front porch and you had to roll the tiny carts around poles and hang on lest the warped floors carry them off into a row of dusty canned peaches. But the lady at the old metal register knew where everything could be found and she always had a piece of stale candy handy for a grubby little kid who'd managed not to careen into a display of crackers.

Rury's Market was just a few doors away. A small red building with a wooden screen door that had a very satisfactory slam, it was great fun to stop in for a loaf of bread or a jar of grape jelly. There was always the chance to someone would ask Mr. Rury for something on top of a stack of fifty foot high shelves (remember, I was a kid at the time) and I'd get to see him climb the little wooden ladder and extend the long pole with the metal grabbers on the end. Ha! Another successful catch!

The Friendly Corner Store was the place for candy. Lots of candy. I remember the lady behind the counter always wanted to know how long we were up for, what we'd been doing, how old I was...she was very friendly indeed.

All of these businesses were within the space of one block. A stroll of another block would take you to Robert Lafler's plumbing supply store or Joe Shipway's lumber yard.

Joe Shipway, even when he was a million years old himself, used to climb into his ancient Chevrolet and drive food out to the town's shut-ins.

Nothing is left except Rury's. It's all been replaced by larger stores about a twenty minute drive away. There's a convenience store in town. There are a couple of businesses - but the bedrock stores of small villages are gone, replaced by monster chain stores in bigger towns.

Didn't AIG teach us anything? Is anyone noticing that it's the small town banks that aren't in trouble?

We keep talking about preserving small town values while destroying what helped create the communities we love.

Bigger isn't always better.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Again, Mr President?

I just received another request for a contribution to help the president push through his health care reforms. Please don't get me wrong - I like the guy. I'm delighted that he's president. I do not believe he's doing anything worse than any other presidential hopeful would have done in the face of this recession - and I think he's better. At least he seems like he's making a sincere effort and means well. That's better than I can say for the past eight years, when it was all about power grabbing more power. (Don't even bother, Republican apologists. Your sudden concern for Democracy is too little too late and the GOP track record has more holes in it than my mom's old noodle drainer.)

But why do I have to pay to get legislators to listen to my president? Why do I have to become part of the lobbying machinery? This isn't the way it's supposed to work. We elect our representatives, they ask our opinion and they vote. That's what we're told. But the lobbyists are louder. They offer much bigger incentives to their buddies. And it works. Look how badly the attempt to cap the credit card interest rates got clobbered. Do you really think anyone thought that interest rates should go above 15%? But you can't afford to tick off really powerful friends.

So instead of asking for my money, Mr. Obama, why don't you fix the system? You're president now and you've still got the wind beneath you. Squash the lobbying industry and then see how your efforts at reform go.

I'd like to help you, but I'm strapped. I didn't get the bailout that the banks got.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Using the Recession to Clamp Down Dissent

I've been stumbling over stories of international human rights abuses for the past couple of weeks. First, I saw the letter from Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo's wife begging for international pressure to win his release. His crime? He's a prominent intellectual who is vocally pro-democracy.

I spoke with Larry Siems of the Pen American Center, with which Liu Xiaobo's been affiliated, and he says the international organization of writers and journalists is hard at work trying to get the word out to put pressure on the Chinese government to release its political prisoners. He said the promise of the Chinese Olympics didn't come to pass - instead of loosening up its strangle hold on dissent, the government actually jailed more dissidents during the Beijing Olympics.

In Zimbabwe, Jestina Mukoko and 17 other pro-democracy dissidents were taken back to jail while recovering from torture suffered during their recent incarceration. Amnesty International's Amy Agnew in London told me all but three were quickly let go again, but it's an indication that there are factions trying to derail the new coalition government. Nondumiso Gasa, a South African human rights activist, says the economy in Zimbabwe has collapsed beyond anything we can imagine. She says soldiers are raping women and children, health care is non-existent, schools are closed there.

Women in Afghanistan are still treated like property. Experts say they believe there is no such thing as a moderate wing of the Taliban.

And I'm told by experts that the world's preoccupation with the economy has allowed these abuses to multiply.

Not only that, we've got our own civil rights issues here in America. Siems says much of Pen American Center's work now concentrates on trying to get the Obama administration to roll back Bush-era changes that put restrictions on freedom of speech and our right to privacy. But that's an issue that's been taking a back burner to the recession in Washington.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Things Are Better - So It's Getting Tougher To Get Help

This is anecdotal evidence, but I have no reason to doubt it as I heard it from two independent sources.

The economy, in the opinion of the banking industry, is starting to improve. And that means the big lenders are resisting cutting any deals in an effort to head off foreclosures.

Here's what I heard:

An attorney who has dealt with several of the large lenders, including the former IndyMac, says he's not taking on any more loan modification or refinancing cases. He has two reasons. First, it was a nightmare. He spent hours on the phone with little result. Second, lenders aren't working with the borrowers anymore.

"They're seeing things improve, and they're not willing to make any deals now. They're not even agreeing to short sales. If a customer manages to sell his house but it's worth less than the mortgage, they're letting the sale go through but demanding the customer make up the difference. Loan modifications? They won't even talk about it.

Wasn't that mandated for banks that took federal bailout money? Aren't the rest of them being strongly encouraged to do it?

Another person I spoke with used to be a mortgage broker. She knows the housing mess first hand - her own house was on the market for more than two years and she nearly filed for bankruptcy. She's finally managed to sell for less than she paid for it. In her opinion, the biggest mistake she made was trying for so long to keep up with her payments. Now that she's at the end of the process, she says she could have saved herself a lot of worry and saved a lot of money if she'd just defaulted. The end result would have been the same. She saved her credit, but she's not sure it was worth it.

So this is how the big banks are going to play it? Cry for help, beg for money, agree to do whatever they can to help their customers, then play hardball the second they see an inkling of an economic upturn?

They should all be shut down. There's no sense of fairness, no acknowledgement that they were stupider on a much larger scale than any of their customers were, and no acceptance of the responsibility they agreed to when they took taxpayer money to stay afloat.

It's time for the peasants to fight back.