Monthly Archives: November 2013

Is America Becoming Pottersville?

As I sit here on a glorious Saturday after turkey in New York City, I am inundated with images of bad behavior in pursuit of what we Americans think of as the “Holiday Spirit of Giving”.

Story after story on the morning news is of people fighting, rampaging, stealing, and ultimately getting arrested, hospitalized, or both. The one thing these stories have in common is that they all take place during “Black Friday” sales. As I watch with a mix of disgust and fascination (think Jerry Springer), I cant help but wonder if is this something isolated or something more symptomatic of a decline in the social fabric of America.

Some of you, especially those of you who are younger or not Americans may be wondering about my comparison to Pottersville. This is a reference to the iconic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by the legendary director Frank Capra, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Stewart plays an honest, hard working, generous, but unlucky local banker who always puts his community, Bedford Falls, above his own needs and interests. After a string of mishaps he is driven to attempt suicide believing that the world would have been better off if he had never existed. Just as he is about to commit the act, an angel intervenes (yes a bit hokey but this was 1946!) and shows Stewart what the world would have been with out one precious person, him!

In this world, Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, the town named for its owner, the miserly Mr. Potter. Potter controls all of the economic activity in Pottersville. Instead of owning nice homes, people rent tenements from Potter. Instead of bookstores, restaurants, clothing stores, and houses of worship Pottersville is dominated by bars, second run movie theaters, liquor stores, and the dreaded dance for a dime dance halls. Public safety is maintained, not, by the community but by a strong police presence. It is in essence every man, woman, and child for themselves. The people are perpetually divided by the power, in this world, Mr. Potter.

Think of the state of our lives in America today. While many of you may disagree, it seems to me that our sense of community is at an all time low. To many, life seems to be harder than ever and as a result we are less charitable and tolerant of our neighbors. I have taken to reading the comments sections of articles in online newspapers. I am shocked at the lack of caring and tolerance that I see. Recently, when reading articles about anti-Walmart protests the comments were at least 20-1 against the protesters and many people stated that people should be thankful that they could get jobs and that it was their fault that people wouldn’t pay them a living wage. I read similar comments (with similar distribution) about working conditions at McDonalds. Again, the people who worked there were essentially blamed for being losers and were told not to complain as they were lucky to have any job. Now these aren’t people who are sitting home collecting welfare. These are the working poor. It seems that their fellow citizens just don’t care. In many ways it betrays a spirit of meanness that i thought wasn’t part of America.

Mr. Potter seems to me to be a euphemism for today’s corporate America. Short sighted, seeking every advantage in pursuit of current profits. Potter is always seeking ways to limit competition and thereby choice for the people of Pottersville. He wants them to be beholden to him for their lives. Does that sound familiar?

As far as the towns that we live in, those of us who live in affluent sections of New York, Boston, or San Francisco spend our days amidst Starbucks, Banana Republic, and three different Private Wealth offices. Yet, just a few miles or blocks away, residents are met with a steady diet of liquor stores, bars, pawn shops, pay day loan providers, and grocery stores without healthy options. Do any of us believe that this doesn’t send a statement to the people who live in these areas?

Let’s not forget about our personal freedoms. Maybe we don’t have the physical police presence that existed in Pottersville. Have any of you heard of stop and frisk? Also, how many of you are aware of the widespread use of government controlled security cameras in your area. We have them in Brookline, a town in which not curbing your dog is considered a big crime. Does anyone other than me think that this is an infringement on our privacy or are we all so afraid that we want to be spied on to find the criminal in our midst? Lets not even mention how all of our online activity is watched and tracked by governments and corporations.

Then there are the social indicators. High rates of prescription drug abuse. High incarceration rates. Did you know that life expectancy for females whom are below the top income quintile is declining? This is the first time in American history that this has happened. There are many reasons for this including increased, smoking, alcohol abuse, and obesity. Maybe it’s also the fact that if you are born poor, your children and their children are likely to be poor too.

Maybe I am so deep in the bubble of my own life that I am misinterpreting the things I see around me. After all, most of the people I know ARE hard working, caring, and generous people. It’s just that I can’t escape the fact that I feel that America has become a much harsher place than I remember.

Heck, even the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life has been impacted. Once upon a time it was shown 100’s of times a year. Then the rights to the movie were bought by NBC (read Comcast, a large monopolistic corporation) and now it gets shown only once per year.

When I was in high school, we used to worry about living in a world like the one in 1984. Maybe we should have been afraid of Pottersville.

I really want to be an optimist about my country. What I am saying is that this holiday season, we all need to take stock and think about what kind of community we want to spend our lives in. I know that I will.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…

Thanksgiving week is upon us. This is, IMHO the best American holiday. Who doesn’t like eating so much that you fall asleep at 4:30PM while watching one of America’s legendary NFL franchises, the Detroit Lions lose yet again? Of course, most of us do this with our families, just the beginning of a 5 week period of reliving our childhoods, good or bad. The best news for those of us in the Boston area is that hopefully well see fewer mean turkeys roaming the streets on Friday.

To those of you away from home or new to America, I hope that you find a way to partake in the joys of the holiday and of the season in general.

The most exciting part of Thanksgiving to most Americans (and a lot of Europeans judging by the empty suitcases I always saw on the BA flight to NYC during this week) is that it is the unofficial kickoff of the holiday shopping season. Back in simpler times, like five years ago, people would stuff their faces on Thanksgiving and go to bed early just so they could wake up early to get to Walmart for their $59 television or their $10 George Foreman Indoor Grill (“Limited Quantities Apply”). Oh, did I mention that every year someone dies running through the aisles trying to rip the last $25 DVD player from grandma’s hands!

Now America’s greatest retailers have solved the problem. How you ask? By opening their stores on Thanksgiving day. This will bring to ONE the number of days where underpaid employees are actually allowed to take the day off to spend with their families. I’ll let you all guess which day that is.

Now of course retailers have given all of those minimum wage employees the option of not working on the holiday. I imagine the memo read something like this:

“Crappy retailer XYZ has decided to respond to overwhelming demand from its fabulous customer base to spend their money ASAP. As a result we will be opening on Thanksgiving Day. It is optional for associates to join our family on Thanksgiving. For those of you who wish to spend the day with your families, we wish you a happy holiday season and best of luck in 2014″

The reality is that most of these people do not have the option of saying no to their employer and will need to go to work to keep their jobs.

What should we do about this? I am vowing right now that I will not spend a penny at any of the retailers that are open on Thanksgiving Day. I hope that each of you will be encouraged to do the same. After all, its likely that manufacturers made enough stuff for all of you to get everything you want. Also, the best sales usually take place closer to the holiday when retailers panic that they will be hung with excess inventory.

Heres a list of America’s “finest” retailers who have chosen to be open on Thanksgiving. Please boycott these stores:

Walmart
Best Buy
Michaels
Toys R’Us
Sports Authority
Old Navy
Bon-Ton
Dicks Sporting Goods
JC Penney
Kohls
Macy’s
Modells
Office Depot
Office Max
Sears
Shopko
Target
Staples

Heres a list of the retailers who are allowing their staff a day with family. Please support these stores:

AAFES Exchange
Aeropostale
Ace Hardware
Bass Pro Shops
Bed, Bath, & Beyond
BJ’s Wholesale Club
Costco
Fred’s
GameStop
Gordmans
Half Price Books
Harbor Freight Tools
Havertys
Home Depot
JoAnn Fabrics
Lowe’s
Meandrous
Nordstrom
PETCO
PetSmart
Radio Shack
Rite Aid
Sam’s Club
Sportsmans Warehouse
Stein Mart
Tommy Hilfiger

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!!!

O’Ya is Awesome!!!

Last night got off to a somewhat inauspicious start. As usual, I was dependent on my GPS to get us to our destination for the evening. Also as usual, I also didn’t listen to Kim who told me that the GPS seemed to be sending us in an odd way. Who knew that there was more than one East Street in Boston and that one of them was in an industrial part of Dorchester. The good news is that as I am so neurotic about being late, we still had time to drive to the right East Street in time for our 8:30 reservation at O’Ya.

What we didn’t know is that we could have gone to East Street in Southboro and back and still have been in time to be seated. O’ya is located in an old brick building in the Boston’s financial district. The decor is modern without eliminating some of the character of the original space. The dining area is small with seating for about 20 at tables with a similar amount of space at the sushi bar.

Upon our arrival we were told that there would be a brief wait. At 9:00 we were asked if we wanted a drink. At 9:15 we were brought some appetizers to keep us from passing out (amazing oysters with watermelon pearls and a cucumber mignonette). By 9:30 we were told that our dinner would be 50% off (not a small amount at O’Ya). The issue was a 2 tables of 5 each with 3 relatively young women and 2 old, drunk farts that had been seated at 6PM. Clearly they were attempting to improve their odds.

Finally, blissfully at 10PM we were seated. We were hungry and frustrated but that lasted about 30 seconds. Eric, our caring and knowledgable server promptly asked us if we had any dislikes or allergy issues. Rather than order off the menu, we just allowed Eric to bring us the best that O’Ya has to offer. That out of the way, the cavalcade of culinary pleasure began.

There were so many amazing tastes. Ill go over a few. Salmon Tataki with torched tomato and Onion Aioli. Very sweet and clean tasting. Hamachi with a spicy pepper mousse which complimented the fish perfectly. Homemade Fingerling Potato Chip with Black Truffle was amazing and something I never had imagined as Sushi. We had a few of those! My favorite of the night was Kyoto Style Black Trumpet Mushrooms with Garlic and Soy. These tasted just like Kobe Beef. Oh yeah, we had some of that too. Our dinner closed with Foie Gras Sushi with Balsamic Chocolate Kabayaki, Raisins, and Sake. I really struggled to tell Eric to stop bringing food even though we were all stuffed to the gills.

Of course there was still desert. This was led by a Sake that reminded me of a nice Tawny Port. Chocolate Molten Cake, Cheese Cake, Raspberry Sorbet, and Creme led the way of yet another amazing course. I usually skip dessert in Japanese restaurants as its the weakest course. Not at O’Ya.

I have been fortunate to eat at some of the worlds best Sushi restaurants: Masa and Sushi Yasuda in New York, Nobu, Yashin, and SushiSay In London, and numerous places I don’t remember in Tokyo. O’ya is the best of them all, hands down. It is a great room, with great, attentive service, and delicious, inventive food.

Now its not cheap. Im not sure what it actually costs as they ultimately comped our whole meal as an apology for keeping us waiting so long. I’m told that one should expect to spend between $150-200 per person. IMHO, its well worth it!

DPI -659 The Final Project…….

When I was an active partner at a Hedge Fund, I became aware of an organization by the name of Third Way. This was through my Senior Partner who is a Director at the organization.

Third Way considers itself a centrist think tank that proposes an alternative to the partisan politics that dominate America. In actuality, Third Way is a slightly left of center, Democratic leaning organization. The group is dominated by individuals with experience in the private sector, particularly in finance.

At present the group focuses most of its energy on legislators, typically discussing progressive ideas in language that will make these views interesting and acceptable to more centrist or conservative legislators and vice versa.

My strategy memo will propose and define steps to make Third Way more of a grassroots organization.

I will discuss goals, such as voter registration, petition campaigns, raising money to support issues.

I will discuss methods of how to break out of the filter bubble, how to maximize weak ties, and how to get people from clicking on a link to action and what that action may be.

Comparative analysis of similar efforts including Move On, Organize for America, and Center for American Politics will be included.

I hope to show that Third Way can be a significant voice for what I hope is the great, silent  majority(apologies to Richard Nixon!).

 

 

 

 

Is the Internet Actually Dangerous for America?

Over the past couple of years, I have spent a lot (too much) time thinking about the fact that in many ways democracy in the United States is declining. To many this is a ridiculous statement. My friends will cite the fact that they can say anything they want, have 300 choices for their morning cereal, and that the internet is their ultimate guarantor of freedom and transparency. To many the internet is a panacea for everything that stands in the way of absolute freedom. Interestingly, many of these people refuse to use Facebook or Twitter stating that they don’t want everyone to know “their stuff”! Maybe they intuitively know that while the internet may enhance freedom, it also compromizes privacy and could be used against them at some point.

This weeks readings, build upon a theme that we have seen all semester. While many cyber-utopians believe that internet and social media in particular will move the world to a more perfect democracy, in reality the internet is only part of the complicated mosaic of human relations. Yes, the internet was an essential part of motivating and organizing the opposition forces during the Arab Spring. It is also a tool used by the militaries/governments of Egypt, Syria, and Libya to repress, control, and maintain their power. For those of you who think it could never happen here, I beg to differ.

Much like Evgney Morozov in the Net Delusion, I believe that the internet is many things, a conduit, a tool, perhaps most importantly a reflection of where a society is at a moment in time. This is why I chose the title of this blog.

It is my belief that there are a number of factors that represent risks for democracy, particularly in the US. First, we are living in an era of unprecedented corporate power. The forces of free trade and globalization have not only benefitted the large Western Democracies but their corporations. Corporates are larger and more internationally focused than at any time in the past 200 years. There really is no such thing as a national champion any more.

Is it unreasonable to think that corporate loyalties may lie more to themselves than to their respective nations? The internet companies seem to be the ultimate manifestation of this. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are huge multi-national corporations with mobile employees and operations. Google doesn’t have a $2 billion manufacturing plant ties it to a particular place. No one should believe that these firms have any loyalty to any particular nation. Evidence of this can be found in a recent Wall Street Journal article in which certain Silicon Valley leaders muse about seceding from the United States.

The second risk is that governments are being seen as failing their constituents. The government shutdown of the past month is yet another example of government failing to meet the basic needs of people. The list of government failures is long; failing schools, incomprehensible healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, and a tax code that seems to most to be unfair and inequitable. It is not hard to believe that should this trend continue that the governments in question would face questions around their legitimacy. While I don’t share their views, the Tea Party is already doing this. It is not unreasonable to envisage that there would be other non-federal government actors that would step to the fore. In the case of the US, those actors could be state and local governments, NGO’s, and corporations.

Some of these transitions are occurring. The federal government seeking to push certain mandates to the states, California discussing the possibility of giving legal status to illegal immigrants, and the continuing growth of NGO’s are all examples of power moving away from the existing center. We could argue that all of these are good things. But what happens when individuals threaten the powerbase?

When we think about the internet and its uses, we need to view it in the context of society as a whole. Certainly it is a tool that links people, lets us share, lets us shop, and makes a host of things easier. There are also examples such as during the Arab Spring of social media being an excellent tool for organizing people for action.

There is also plentiful evidence that the internet is used by governments to spy on their citizens, to spy on others and to suppress any threats to their legitimacy. This evidence does not just apply to non-democratic governments. The cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are just two examples of the world’s oldest democracy using technology to spy on its citizens and its allies. We also know that governments want to be able to turn off access to the internet and wireless communication at their command. Not too anti-democratic!!

I know that every word I read and write is tracked by someone, somewhere (perhaps you should have clicked away from this long ago). Your clicks are tracked too! Not only is it tracked but it is stored indefinitely. This really concerns me.

Bottom line is this. If you have a government that is dominated by a few, that is failing in its basic obligations to its citizens, eventually its citizens will challenge its authority or at least I believe that they will. If this occurs, do you believe that the internet and social media will be a tool for freedom or for repression? Do you believe that the people with the most to lose will allow the tools that we have to be used against them or will they use those tools to maintain their power at any cost?

I don’t know the answer but I certainly am not a cyber-utopian.

Those of you that don’t think it can happen here need to ask yourselves why.

What do you think?