One Last Setback of 2017, Averted!

It wouldn’t have been right if there wasn’t an hours-long setback on the last day of 2017, a year that was pretty much one long string of disasters politically and culturally. But personally, this year I’ve learned to take action ahead of time in order to have the time and resources to meet such challenges.

Back in February I hit a piece of ice while moving my car on a street-sweeping day, and busted the exhaust system. The mechanic said it would cost $1,200 to fix. I said he should junk the car. He called me back fifteen minutes later and said “You know, I think I could Jerry-rig something up for $300.” So I had a car for a while longer.

I had a big grand boat book tour planned for the summer. It turned out that a lot of book stores won’t stock my book and NPR won’t have me on the radio, because I’m self-published. Even the BS Albany ALT Magazine wouldn’t respond to my emails. After two days on the boat, she started taking on water. The old me would have said “It’s NYC or bust!” and ended up sinking with $1,000 worth of equipment and books on board around Poughkeepsie. Instead I adapted and drove to bars and marinas for the tour, met an international group of people canoeing up the river, and now I’m working with them to schedule their adventure down the Hudson next year (and I still have my boat and motor because it didn’t sink).

At Thanksgiving, coming back from my sister’s house downstate, my engine started crapping out, like it wasn’t getting gas when I hit the pedal. The next day I was supposed to drive to Indian Lake to visit a friend for the night. Its an hour and a half drive without cell service at the end. The old me would have driven up and made due with whatever happened. But then I thought “If I get up there and my car breaks down I’m going to have to flag someone down and then get towed for fifty miles at least, and all this might cost me $1,000.” So instead I picked up a shift at El Loco and made money and avoided potentially losing $1,000. It’s little stuff like that that adds up.

Today I am having dinner with my family at Red’s in Coxsackie. I’m going to my parent’s house at four. I haven’t started my car since Tuesday and it’s been really cold. I figured I’d just make sure it would start at noon. Of course it didn’t. But it gave me time to check the fuel cap, try starting it in neutral, turning the wheel, brushing the terminals free of corrosion, and then finally calling my friend Alison for a jump, which worked, two hours later, but one hour before I had to leave.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” I think we should keep that in mind as we enter 2018.

Books I’ve Read in 2017

These are 36 books I’ve read in 2017.

If you know me socially, you might not know what a big part of my life reading comprises. I view reading the way an actor views his first important role: it’s the vehicle for me to advance in life, my career, and art.

I was an awful reader in elementary and middle school. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I really started reading, after being shamed by my sister about the terrible spelling on my Christmas List. My mother took the list to the toy store and the clerk said, “Maybe you should buy him a dictionary for christmas.” So I started checking out books from the Middle School Library about ESP and the Bermuda Triangle and Atomic Submarines and anything else that seemed cool or paranormal or militarily interesting. Anyhow, looking back on my life so far, I can see that reading has been the most fruitful activity I’ve engaged in, and my books are, collectively, the most valuable possession that I own.

A couple of the 36 books I read in 2017 were boring, but some were very interesting. When I look at a book on my shelf like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which I read in 2008 and which served as the basis for the musical, I wonder how I ever hadn’t read that or another book. Reading changes your perspective so emphatically that I don’t think I am really the same person that I was in, say, 2007, a hundred and fifty books ago.

Teddy Roosevelt read a book a day. I was struggling to read a book a week this year and I only made about 3/4 of the goal. But in Edmund Morris’ biography, he talks of how TR read many different genres and allowed the ideas to “cross pollinate” in his mind, where they would form new ideas. I’ve tried to do that over the course of my adult life, but I could never describe what I was aiming at, until I read Morris’ description.

Anyhow, here are a couple of interesting things I learned from books this year.

–A lightbulb can burn for 100 years if you leave it on. What destroys the filament in a lightbulb is turning it on and off, because it heats up and cools down, which causes stress in the metal, like bending a spoon back and fourth until the metal softens and it breaks. (To Engineer is Human, The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Hentry Petroski, 1985.)

–After the great Chicago Fire of 1871, the only living creature to survive the flaming inferno was the postoffice cat, who workers found nestled in a half-filled pail of water when they dug through the debris. (Ten American Cities, Nina Brown Baker, 1949, p. 218)

–Anyone with an interest in great literature, characterization, and New York City history should read Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote profiles for The New Yorker in the 1920s-60s. In this book I first heard of McSorley’s Tavern and the health benefits of raw oysters.

–What made New York the Empire State was not just the construction of the Erie Canal, but the dispersal of the toll money which accreted to the state to individual banks throughout the state, for use as their capital. This stimulated the financial sector in New York while supplying capital to small investors when capital was scarce. It also allowed very small investors to invest in canal stock through the first savings and loan institutions. (Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People, Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838, Cornell, 1962.)

–How did Calvin Coolidge become president? By being in the right place at the right time, all the time. He had a pretty radical college professor when he was at Amherst. The professor taught the students that life is like a river, and the trick is to stay in the middle where the current is. Don’t get stuck in the weeds or grounded out on rocks–in other words, caught up in scandals or an impulsive decision or leave politics, and then eventually some opportunity will arise and you will be in a position to make use of it. In 1922 that opportunity was being appointed as Harding’s VP–basically a throw-away job designed to attract votes from the northeast. Then Harding died of a heart attack, and Coolidge was in the right place. (Coolidge, Amity Shlaes, 2013)

–Hoover, on the other hand, was in the right place at the wrong time. Here is a man who’s reputation history has really destroyed, who had such promise before 1929. He made himself a fortune in mining in Australia and China before he was 30. When WWI broke out he was living in Brittian and organized the efforts to get Americans out of Europe, when they had no access to money because the markets had frozen. Then he organized a huge food relief effort for Belgium during the war–the only man allowed to travel behind enemy lines of both sides. Then he was head of food mobilization for the U.S. under Wilson. Then he organized a massive relief program for Europe after the war, in order to keep communism from spreading to a destroyed France, Germany, etc. But when in office during the Depression, his insistence on a strict reading of the Constitution and that Americans needed to find a way to help themselves left a poor taste in voter’s mouths. In 1932, FDR didn’t have so much of a plan as an attitude that when 1/4 of the country was out of work, the government must, to paraphrase, “Try something, anything. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try something else. But above all we must try.” (Hoover, Kenneth Whyte; FDR, Jean Edward Smith).

There is a mindfullness to the New Orleans culture which is refreshing compared to the doctrinaire morality of the north. Up here people go to the bar and do shots to get drunk, but poo poo a person who has a cocktail before noon. In New Orleans they enjoy themselves. Lift Your Spirits is a cocktail book written by Chris Williams, bartender extraordinaire from New Orleans. The cocktail recipes are great, but the philosophy of his book is the best part. He describes the bar as a kind of “proscenium”–a word I had to look up. It is the portion of a stage in front of the curtain, where a narrator or MC introduces the action. What a great image for a bar, and what a great way to think about your bar experience. You’re not just at the bar to get drunk, but to share a communal entertainment. If you’re a fan of the art of cocktails you should really watch this video of Chris Williams making a Mint Julep.

I’m not sure why Machiavelli has the reputation of saying “The Ends Justify the Means.” I didn’t find that quote anywhere in The Prince. Also, he seems like a yes-man who’ll do anything to curry favor with a local tyrant.

Karl Marx was too clever by half. The first half of his manifesto seems reasonable enough, insofar as he anticipated that wealth and power could not continue to accrue into the hands of rich robber barons while the majority of people worked 15 hour days for 6 out of 7 days just to make a bare subsistence. But he throws the baby out with the bath water and insists that democracy is also ineffectual, and so there must eventually be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and it must be worldwide. It set up the 20th century to be a war between Communism and any other form of government, which they viewed as enemies. I think I’d rather live in a corrupt democracy that at least depends every election cycle on seeming to have the support of a majority of people, than live under a dictatorship of mechanics and factory workers without any constitutional rights. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Or as Robert Frost said, “Revolutions are the only salves, but they’re one thing that should be done by halves.”

There were highlights from the histories of the medieval times, and a fascinating book by The Economist about the different kinds of financial markets and their function, but, alas, I’ve got to get ready to go to work now.

My Prediction: February Recession

Every time there is a major recession, experts say afterward that nobody saw it coming. I think experts don’t see recessions coming because they–by virtue of being experts–are not regular people, and don’t see what regular people see, or feel the pressures that regular people feel. Yes, the Wall Street Journal or Economist analysts and the policy staff for the Treasury Department have read about economic factors that effect “regular people,” but I doubt–with their Ivy League educations and their political connections–that they sense the workaday economic stressors that the majority of people in the country experience. They base their economic projects on abstract factors like interest rates versus stock yields and the effect this has on stock prices, and forget that most of the people who actually labor and make drastically different economic decisions based on small changes in commodity prices don’t have stocks or bonds, even through a retirement plan.

I predict a recession in February, and I predict it will be pretty long-lasting, and here is why.

  1. Stock’s are astronomically high, with no basis outside of speculation. Stock prices have risen by 25% since election day of 2016. It is not because production is up 25%, or because some new resource was discovered or technology was invented which increased the value of industrial resources by 25%. Stocks are up 25% only because investors expected that corporations would receive a tax cut under the Republican tax plan–which they have–an 11% tax cut. Of course this means that corporations will have more cash for paying dividends to investors, to put toward reserves, to buy shares of other companies. If a 25% year-over-year increase in the stock market isn’t a speculative bubble, I don’t know what is. The question is, when will it burst? I say February.
  2. Wages have not kept up with inflation. My monthly rent increased 10% this year. Food costs are up. I would bet my bottom dollar that local property taxes are going to be up year-over-year. The economic activity of working class people are like sands underneath the economic pyramid. When they stop spending money because they can’t make ends meet, it hurts the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors on which many other working-class people depend, and the sectors that supply those industries. It seems to me that just as during the 1920s, when there was a prolonged depression in the agricultural sector even while the stock market was booming, right now we have a recession within the working class even while the stock market has exploded.
  3. The holidays kept consumer spending up and now it will fall precipitously. Even though almost everybody I know has said they’re having a hard time meeting bills to some extent or another, most people still bought presents for the holidays. Some people spent money they didn’t have. Now the holidays are over, the Postal Service and the retail chain stores will lay off their extra workers, people in the construction industry will go on UI for the winter, and consumers, generally, will try to spend as little as possible in order to shore up their meager personal savings or pay down their credit cards.
  4. The cold will hurt. Half of the country is undergoing an ice freeze. That keeps people inside. It also raises the costs of local governments for salt and road maintenance, which will tend to increase local taxes. It also means a bigger slice of the monthly budget has to go to utility bills. But more than that, people get downright depressed when it is brutally cold, and January and February are the worst months of the year. Maybe Netflix and Hulu stock will go up, but the rest of restaurant and hospitality sector will go way down.
  5. If there is the slightest bad news, there is nothing the government can do to mitigate the negative effects. Interest rates are still at rock bottom after the last Republican-tax-cut-deregulation-funded recession. The deficit is sky-high and the Congress is not ideologically aligned with the idea of massive public works projects if things start to go south. In the event of a stock dip, the President, no doubt, like Herbert Hoover, will assure the country that the economy is “fundamentally sound,” when in reality it is sound only at the very top, and everyone knows it, but they ignore the fact as long as stocks are going up.

This is the scenario I see–which I am really not hoping for, but I think it is foolish to ignore the facts: Come January, consumer spending will drop, the job report will be weak, people will try to rein in their spending after the holidays, pay down credit cards, and save up for school taxes; the people will be ornery because the weather is bitterly cold, their money is not going as far as they expected, the country is socially divided; they will hunker into a defensive economic posture. A few of the big retail chains might report less-than-great profits as a result of the retraction in consumer spending, and their stock prices will start to dip. Meanwhile the tax break which was supposed to create jobs for anybody who wanted one won’t seem to create any jobs. People will get more frustrated as February rolls in with a bad winter storm. Some economists will start to predict that the stock bubble has reached its limit. Either a scandal will break that hurts the President, which will hurt the stock market, or Congress will fail to avert a shut down, or some insurance company will turn out to be overextended and insolvent, and it will trigger a jolt to the stock market. Stocks will dip and there will be nothing the government can do to stop the “correction.” Meanwhile the rest of the economy is already gasping for breath and the $1,000 the average person got from their tax return will already have been spent to pay down their credit card or pay their property tax which is no longer deductible. It doesn’t really matter what starts the fall, because once it happens, there is basically no leadership in the country, no great minds, no resources or plan to arrest the trend.

If you have any money in stocks, I’d consider taking it out and investing in bonds around January 2nd.

December 27th: A Date Which Will Live In Fame (On the Tromblean Calendar)

For about a decade I’ve observed The Tromblean Calendar of Seasonal and Cultural Consistency. The most popular of the holidays on that calendar seems to have been Gin Day, which occurs on the first day that it is warmer than 63 degrees in Albany, which is when gin cocktails, having been retired for the winter, come back into vogue. This year I am adding a new day of observation — December 27th–Pre Resolution Day.

Normally people make a New Year’s resolution and they implement it on January 1st. It is a pretty hard day to start a new resolution, because most people’s resolutions entail the avoidance of some vice, and New Year’s day generally includes champagne at mid-night and a substantial meal at mid-day. So right away people find themselves in this moral quandary where they say, “Hmm, I’m giving up drinking or smoking but I’ll wait until after I go to sleep following this New Year’s Eve party, and the new year will start when I wake up in the morning.” Or, “I’m supposed to jog every day, but I’m having dinner with my family and I’m going to wake up late so I’ll start my New Year’s resolution on January 2nd.” Then, having failed to follow through on the resolution on the very first day, it gets much harder to start it on the 2nd, and a lot of resolutions die of exposure.

I’m going to start implementing my resolutions on December 27th (they are to jog and practice the piano scales everyday, while limiting myself to five smokes). That way I will start to form a routine before the New Year comes. I will have built up four days and laid the groundwork for the more healthy habit. My legs will have already begun to be conditioned for running, and I will already have overcome the first test of cutting down on smoking: New Year’s Eve.

If you really are resolved to follow your resolution, why not start four days early?