Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Send a Wish Upon a Star

     They say you should never explain and never apologize. But I'm going to do both. Briefly.

     I apologize for posting an entry about QE2 on Memorial Day. The explanation is that I had just been reading about Quantitative Easing and got caught up in the whole thing, and so I went ahead and posted my "take" on the issue without stopping to think:  Who wants to read about QE2 on Memorial Day?

     I should have waited until the work week started. But if you're a masochist about these things as I can sometimes be -- and now that the work week is here -- then you might want to check out financial expert Michael Pento on the subject. I don't necessarily agree with him -- he's even more distressed about the prospect of QE3 than I am -- but he's got a point of view you might want to at least consider.

     For Memorial Day I should have posted something more "in tune" with the spirit of the day. So here I am doing something ass backwards again, making my Memorial Day contribution now -- a pretty but melancholy lullaby by the Australian songwriter Sia. If it sounds at all familiar to you, it's because it was used as background music in an episode of the Showtime TV series "The Big C," starring Laura Linney, and also in a trailer for last year's movie Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon.

     The song doesn't pertain directly to Memorial Day and the sacrifices made by our people in uniform. It doesn't even relate to how the holiday marks the beginning of summer and gives workers a long weekend (although both of those are good things). I just hope it makes us reflect on how important it is to ...

     ... send a wish upon a star.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Watch Out: QE2 Is Ending!

     Anyone who's been paying the slightest bit of attention to business news has heard as much about QE2 ending on June 30 as they did about the world ending on May 21.

     Except, on June 30, QE2 really will end.

     So what's the big deal? And what is QE2 anyway?

     QE2 is the sequel to the original Quantitative Easing that came out in 2008. It's a program where the Federal Reserve Bank, led by Chairman Ben Bernanke, backs up the truck to the nation's banks and unloads huge piles of money.

     The Fed accomplishes this by creating money electronically, then buying assets such as bonds and commercial loans from the banks. The transactions increase "liquidity" in the banking system -- meaning the banks are bulging with cash.

     So now the banks are flush. Bankers have so much money they don't know what to do with it all. Sure, they stuff some of it in their pockets as bonuses, but the rest they put "on sale," in the form of low interest rates, and try to push it out the door as mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit-card loans, small business loans. All to try to jump start the U. S. economy.

     The problem is, Quantitative Easing didn't work too well. Bernanke couldn't make interest rates low enough to get anyone to buy a house, or entice consumers to go to the mall. So when QE1 ended in November 2010, and the economy was still sputtering along like my old Jeep, the Fed immediately came out with QE2 -- on the theory that if one QE didn't work, then two QE's certainly would.

     Now QE2 is scheduled to expire at the end of June. And the question nobody knows the answer to -- as discussed in "The End of QE2 -- Does It Matter?" -- is whether or not shutting off the tap of free money will hurt the economy. How could they? Nobody knows if QE1 and QE2 actually did any good.

     Oh, the economists do know that the twin QE's helped raise the stock market, causing the S&P to double since its low in March 2009. They know the QE's have depressed the value of the dollar and kept interest rates near zero. Mortgage rates are at an historic low (if only anyone wanted to buy a house.) Car loans are pretty reasonable, and most experts agree that the QE's have helped the beleaguered American car industry.  Of course, your credit-card rates are still ridiculously high -- after all, the banks need to "shore up their balance sheets."

     And the rate that savers get on a bank CD, or a Treasury note, is smaller than a  ... well, let's just say you can't see it with the naked eye. Which means after taxes and inflation, you're actually losing money by keeping your savings in a bank or loaning it to the Treasury. And since the older you are, the more likely you are to have savings, it's the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers who, along with the Chinese, are really bailing out the economy.

     Anyway, the best guess is that all that QE money went to Wall Street (with some leftovers to Detroit and Washington). But not much got to Main Street. And that's why Main Street is still coughing and belching like an old beater, while Wall Street and people "inside the Beltway" purr along like brand new BMWs.

     For most of us, the end of QE2 won't make much difference. If you're a saver, it might help you out a bit, by increasing the rate you get on a CD. If you're planning a vacation to Europe, maybe the dollar will be worth slightly more, making your trip marginally less expensive. If you're looking for a job, or looking to expand your small business, the end of QE2 won't change things. Life was hard; it will stay hard.

     If you're a Wall Street trader, though, it could make a big difference, according to this Reuters poll. Perhaps that's why the stock market has sagged in May, down about 3 percent. So now some people are pushing to follow up QE2 with QE3. On the theory that if two QE's didn't work, maybe a third one will. Does that make sense to you?

    [A shorter version of "QE2 Is Ending!" appeared last week on Technorati.]

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Universal Truths

     I ran across this list of "Universal Truths" while I Stumbled through the Internet the other day. (I signed up for Stumble last year; rarely use it, but it's the ultimate time waster if you're interested.) The list was first published sometime last year so some people may have already seen it. But even if you have, it's worth another visit.

     A few I liked best:

     *  I  think part of a best friend's job should be to immediately clear your computer history if you die.

     *  How in the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?

     * MapQuest really needs to start their directions on #5. I'm pretty sure I know how to get out of my own neighborhood.

     *  Obituaries would be a lot more interesting if they told you how the person died.

     *  Bad decisions make good stories.

      * I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.

     The full list of observations was apparently first published on a site called ruminations. I couldn't find it there, but it has been repeated on several sites, from a Civil War forum (why, I don't know) to this one:  32 Undeniable Truths for Mature Humans.

     The list inspired me to come up with a few of my own:

     *  I never, ever touch the pictures hanging on the living-room walls. So how do they get crooked?

     *  Why is it that the driver ahead of me is always going too slow, and the guy behind me is always going too fast?

     *  We know books are living things. They multiply in the bookcase overnight.    

     *  I'd sure like to get my hands on the guy who designed bathroom tiles so they get slippery when they're wet.

     *  A flower dies when you cut it down. A weed grows stronger.

     *  My computer works 99.9 percent of the time. It only crashes when I haven't saved an important file.

     *  I knew I wasn't as young as I thought when I realized that the old lady holding up the checkout line at the supermarket ... was younger than me.

     *  Why does every comedy at the movies insist on showing a throw up scene?

     Okay, maybe mine are not the greatest. So if you have any personal frustrations, common pitfalls, human weaknesses or interesting peccadilloes, would love to hear about them. Add them to the list. Meantime, I'll try not to fall over my own feet.
  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Blogging Boomers Carnival # 208

     This week's Blogging Boomers Carnival offers a variety of possible pairings. If you think you saw Big Foot last night, maybe you got too much glare from your headlights. For healthy herbs, would you travel to France, or search in your own backyard? And if you aren't too critical of yourself, if you don't expect perfection, then maybe you could start a new business in your retirement.

     Okay, I'm reaching here. Nevertheless, check out the links to these blogs for some interesting perspectives on what Baby Boomers are doing today.

     The Boomer Chronicles, where a 50-something Baby Boomer "examines midlife crisis, ennui in America and other compelling ideas," admits that she is obsessed with Big Foot and sometimes lets her obsession run wild. She offers a tale, with a link to backup reports, called Big Foot Sighted in Ohio.


     So Baby Boomer, which offers tips for "confident and independent Baby Boomers," uncovers the truth about our aging eyes. His guest author, a doctor from Bausch + Lomb points out in Boomers: Keep Your Eyes on the Road that driving at night can be one of the trickiest times for maturing eyes as headlights from oncoming traffic create glare and halos, making it difficult to see. (Boy, do I know about that one!)

     The Accidental Locavore, a blog about fresh, local foods, wants to know:  What Does a Locavore Eat in the South of France? (Does it have something to do with les amuse bouches (which is the only French cuisine term I know)? You'll have to go visit the Locavore to find out.)

     At Vaboomer there's a bit about Intuition and Herbs. Do we know which plants to use?

     The Midlife Crisis Queen in her entry How Do You Determine Life Success? wishes we could all give ourselves a break when it comes to self-criticism and expectations of perfection.

     And if you're one of the many Boomers who thinks they'll never be able to afford to retire, you might be interested to know that Ann at Contemporary Retirement has a new blog. Check out her blog entry 100 retirement business ideas. Then click on her link to the new blog. There are 20-some ideas up at the moment, and she's adding more all the time.

     

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Okay, I'm a Sucker Too

     I went to business school in the late 1970s when one of the principle assumptions about people is that they are rational creatures. They seek to maximize the benefit of any transaction they make, from buying a soda to deciding whether or not to get married. This evolved into the efficient market theory, which claims that the price of something -- particularly stocks, bonds and commodities -- reflects everything that everyone knows about the situation at hand.

     Now that I'm older and have some worldly experience, I realize that this economic assumption is terribly naive and simplistic. But, really, I always knew in my gut that people are not that rational. And to just proclaim that prices reflect all known information has to be some kind of tautology. I'm not even sure what a tautology is, as a technical epistemological term, but it has something to do with circular reasoning, that the conclusion is embedded in the question, that the premise is "logical" but it makes no sense in the real world.

     But consider this:  A study at UCLA has shown that the price of orange juice futures is a more accurate predictor of the weather in Florida than the actual weather report. It seems that all those people betting on the future of Florida weather, who've put their money where their mouth is, do a better job sifting through all the information and making a prediction, than the people who are consulting their computers and their weather maps and reporting their conclusions to the weather bureau.

     But then, how do you explain the NASDAQ bubble of the late 1990s, or the housing bubble of the early 2000s? Or, perhaps, the gold bubble of today? (What do you do with gold anyway? I don't get it.)

     I know how to explain it. People are crazy! You gotta love 'em, but they believe in all kinds of nutty theories; they base a lot of decisions on emotions rather than facts; they select the information they want to believe based on their own prejudices and personal experiences; they tend to follow the herd. Some people are too stupid to pursue their own best economic interests. Some people are just too lazy.

     Yale economist Robert Shiller explains the irrationality of bubbles by saying they are a kind of Ponzi scheme. The people who get in early on a bubble identify a legitimate economic situation, and they make a lot of money as other people recognize the opportunity and bid up prices. Eventually prices outrun the original economic thesis -- yet prices keep going up, just because investors see prices rising and assume they will keep going up and so they continue to jump in. But inevitably people realize the new economics don't support the new prices. The bubble bursts and prices plunge, until all but the original investors who got in at a low price lose money. These bubble prices are not efficient. They are illusory.

     The fact is, people have limited ability to obtain information and figure out what it means. They act on their emotions; and their behavior is influenced by cultural influences; or their own sense of self-worth. How else to explain why a person pays an exorbitant price for a car, or a collectible, just to prove that they can afford it? That's not rational, that's egotistical. Or what about people's lack of self-control -- when they order a third martini, even though they know they shouldn't, or buy yet another pair of shoes when they have no use for them?

     Still not convinced? Just reflect on how many people believe in astrology, or UFOs or that Paul is still dead. Or that the world is going to end today, or tomorrow, or the next day.

     There's a lot of stupidity out there, a lot of gullibility, a lot of paranoia. A lot of emotion. And yours truly is not immune to letting emotions overrule his rationality. For example, I know that traveling in an airplane is the safest form of transportation, that you're more likely to die in the car on the way to the airport than you are in the airplane on the way to California. Nevertheless, you won't find me on an airplane anytime soon. No one's going to lock me into an aluminum can and send me 30,000 feet up in the air with a pilot who's probably been drinking, a maintenance crew that's on a work slowdown and an air traffic controller who's sawing wood in the control tower.

      I understand my view toward airplanes is not rational. Nevertheless, that's how I feel.

     There is one exception to this rule. It's that new putter down at the GolfPro store. I'm a mediocre golfer and a lousy putter. I've been through at least 20 putters in my day, and each time I've been absolutely certain that the new putter will transform my golf game. Each time I've been tragically disappointed.

     However, that new putter down at GolfPro has such a great feel to it. It fits my hands perfectly. Plus, it's $140, which is twice as much as I've ever spent on a putter before. If it's that expensive, it gotta work. Don't you think?

     [A slightly different version of this article was first published as "I'm a Sucker, but Not for Gold" on Technorati.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Your Name Doesn't Lie

      If you are a female Baby Boomer, born in or around 1950, you are most likely named Linda. Your daughter, born circa 1980, is Jennifer. And your granddaughter, born in 2010, is Isabella.

     If you're a man born around 1950, you're probably a James. Your son is named Michael, and your grandson might be Jacob.

     Okay, perhaps that's extrapolating a bit too far. But your name does tell the world how old you are. If your name is Barbara, it's likely you were born in the 1940s, when Barbara was the 2nd or 3rd most popular girl's name -- and not in the 1990s, when it was more like the 300th most popular girl's name. If your name is Jennifer, you were probably born in the 1970s. Jennifer was the No. 1 girl's name from 1970 to 1984 (thanks in large part to the 1970 movie Love Story, based on the bestselling book by Erich Segal).

     A report out earlier this month from the Social Security Administration catalogued the top ten most popular names for babies born in the U. S in 2010. And as you might guess, they look very different from the names we grew up with.

     According to the Social Security Administration, the most popular boys and girls names back when we were babies in 1950 were:

Popularity in 1950

Rank Male name Female name
1 James Linda
2 Robert Mary
3 John Patricia
4 Michael Barbara
5 David Susan
6 William Nancy
7 Richard Deborah
8 Thomas Sandra
9 Charles Carol
10 Gary Kathleen

     By 1980, about the time we were naming out kids, things had changed:

Popularity in 1980

Rank Male name Female name
1 Michael Jennifer
2 Christopher Amanda
3 Jason Jessica
4 David Melissa
5 James Sarah
6 Matthew Heather
7 Joshua Nicole
8 John Amy
9 Robert Elizabeth
10 Joseph Michelle

     Hey, what happened to Thomas?  My name was 8th most popular back in the good old days. By 1980 it had dropped out of the top ten list, down to No. 25.

     Names have changed even more since 1980. Today's most popular sobriquets -- the ones our kids are giving to their kids -- are:

Popularity in 2010

Rank Male name Female name
1 Jacob Isabella
2 Ethan Sophia
3 Michael Emma
4 Jayden Olivia
5 William Ava
6 Alexander Emily
7 Noah Abigail
8 Daniel Madison
9 Aiden Chloe
10 Anthony Mia


     Thomas has now dropped to No. 62. Well, I was actually named after my grandfather (something people seem to do less often these days), but the point is, I prefer to think that instead of losing popularity, my name has simply become more rare and distinctive -- kind of like how Ethan or Alexander was back in 1950.

     But the fact is, to most people, my name just signifies that I'm probably in my 60s.

     Anyway, you can look up the relative popularity of your name over time by entering it on the bottom right of this page on the Social Security site.

     Have fun. But don't let it take time away from your grandchildren ... er, Sophia, or Jayden.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A New Seinfeld Sighting

      If you're a Seinfeld fan, you know that the comedian hasn't really come up with any new material in this millennium. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The humor he produced in the 1980s and 1990s will last a lifetime.

     Last week Jerry Seinfeld unveiled a website -- jerryseinfeld.com -- that features the best of short Seinfeld takes from over the years. Clips with Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Parts of his old standup gigs. Bits from more recent routines. The idea of the website is to offer three different items a day from the Seinfeld archive. So you check it out every day, and you can get a different dose of Jerry Seinfeld.

     On the website, if you click on the bottom right, you'll also find his current tour dates:  in Las Vegas this coming weekend, then going to Europe; and later in Texas, California and a few other locations, finishing up in Indianapolis on July 23.

      Of course, Seinfeld's career peaked with his TV show. (It doesn't seem as though there are any clips from the show featured on the website.) And all of us Seinfeld fans have our favorite episodes, our favorite clips, our favorite quotes:

      "No soup for you!"

     "That must've been one magic loogie."

     "I'm gonna hire you as my latex salesman? I don't think so."

     "It was a million to one shot, doc, a million to one!"

     "I'm not a lesbian. I hate men, but I'm not a lesbian."

     I tried to copy one of my favorite Seinfeld TV show clips here, but the youtube gods wouldn't let me. But you can follow this link to see some Seinfeld bloopers, which offer a few of the funniest moments of all.

     It seems that Seinfeld appeals more to men than women. Almost every one of my friends loves the comedian, and the show, whereas many women seem to be able to take him or leave him. Am I wrong about that?

     I understand that Jerry Seinfeld is male and looks at the world from a male point of view. But Elaine is a strong female voice on the show. Here's another link, this time to the best of Elaine Benes.

     Plus, Jerry Seinfeld's act is pretty clean, as far as comics go. He doesn't do toilet jokes or reflexively resort to the F word. His TV show does deal with sex -- actually, pretty much all the time -- and includes topics such as gay sex, masturbation, one-night stands, large breasts, etc. But the show handles these topics in a tasteful and reasonably intelligent way. (At least I think so. Maybe I'm wrong about that, too? I dunno. I assume that women not not as keen on dirty jokes as men are.)

     Anyway, I for one am setting up the Seinfeld site on my Bookmark list. From now on, it's gonna give me my laugh of the day.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Boss, Part II

     In 1952, my two older siblings were in grade school, and my sister Nancy had left for kindergarten. My mother must have seen that freedom was just around the corner, when all her kids were finally in school, so she decided I had to go to nursery school -- and I was therefore the only child in my family to enjoy the advantages of early education.

     We lived in the New York suburbs, near the College of New Rochelle, and the sisters at this Catholic institution had opened a nursery school. You didn't have to be Catholic to go there, but it helped, and so my mother signed me up.

     I was excited about going to school. My brother and two sisters went to school every day, and I didn't want to be left behind. So my mother bought me a new outfit, and a little knapsack, and every day she drove me over to New Rochelle. She'd park the car, walk me by the hand over to the playground and put me in the capable hands of the nuns.

     At first I found school a little unsettling. I didn't know any of the kids. I was especially wary of two big Irish kids, Billy and Colin, who swaggered through the playground, throwing sand at the girls. I was also intimidated by the nuns as they swirled around in their big black and white habits. And I didn't want to have to lay my head down on the table and take a nap at 11 a.m. I was never tired. I didn't want to take a nap!

     One day my mother decided I could take the bus. She walked with me up the block from our house to the main cross street. I had on a new jacket to ward off the September chill, and a hat with earmuffs. When not in use, which was most of the time, the earmuffs were tied back over the top of the hat, with the fur showing on the outside. It was pretty cool. Already, in nursery school, I was trying to look cool.

     However, in my heart I wasn't cool at all. I was kind of shy, and I didn't know if I liked the big uncaring world beyond my neighborhood. When the bus pulled up to our corner, and the door opened, I stared at the three big steps that led into the cavern of the bus -- and burst out crying.

     My mother looked in my face, then pulled me close and gave me a warm hug, reassuring me and telling me that everything was going to be fine.

     I looked back at her, took a deep breath, then turned back to the bus. I climbed up one step, two steps, and then I peered down the length of the bus -- a big empty space with strange little faces peering out from behind the backs of the seats. I could hear the rumble of the motor, and feel the vibrations in the bus. I looked down at the floor, staring at the little ribs in the black runner that led down the aisle between the seats. Then I turned back to my mom and burst into tears once again. My mom looked over my shoulder at the bus driver and gave a nervous laugh. "I don't understand," she said. "He did fine in school all last week."

     My mother finally took me off the bus and walked me back to the house. I missed that day of school. The next day she drove me to school again.

     I didn't like nap time at school, but I did like recess. The playground was paved over with asphalt and surrounded by a chain-link fence. A single tree towered over the play area. It provided plenty of shade over the sandbox. And it had several low, spreading branches which were fun to climb. I liked to scramble up to the second or third branch of the tree and survey the playground, pretending the school was my castle and I was king of of the playground. From my perch, Billy and Colin didn't scare me. And I also noticed a girl, Wendy, who had pigtails and lots of teeth and a dirty face, and was clearly tougher than the other girls and seemed to boss them around.

     There was a storage shed at one end of the playground where we kept bats and balls and blocks and pirate paraphernalia. And also a step ladder. One day I brought out the ladder "Hey, let's play fireman!" I called.

     A couple of boys came over and helped me carry the ladder over to the tree. We looked around at the girls, asking for a volunteer to climb up into the tree and let us rescue her. We needed a damsel in distress.

     Most of the girls either ignored us, or shook their heads, indicating there was no way they were climbing into the tree. But then Wendy stepped forward, saying she would volunteer. Before I could even say anything, she jumped up onto the first branch, then scrambled higher and settled onto a branch. Then she started yelling, "Help. Fire! Help! Help!

     Billy and Colin ran over and jumped into the sandbox and threw sand around, pretending to douse the flames. I positioned the ladder against the tree, ran up the steps, climbed onto Wendy's branch and helped her climb down to the safety of the sandbox.

     We started playing fireman every day at recess. Wendy always volunteered to be our damsel in distress, and I was always the fireman who saved her. Wendy and I became friends, and we climbed the tree together, and played fireman, and then Wendy started to sit next to me in the classroom and she began to call me "Sir."

     "You don't have to call me 'Sir,'" I told her.

     "I like to," she replied.

     "So do you like me?"

     "I like your hat," she said.

     With Wendy at my side, I became recognized as the fire chief. Other kids, even Billy and Colin, deferred to me in the sandbox. In the classroom, Wendy and I were picked to hand out supplies, or to demonstrate a project. We were pressed to the front of the room for story time, and when I was picked as one of the kickball captains, I always chose Wendy as the first person to be on my team.

     Eventually, I came up with enough courage to start taking the bus. I was then instantly qualified to join the elite group of boys -- including Billy and Colin -- who made fun of kids who got a ride to school from their parents because they were too "little" to take the bus.

     But one day, Billy and Colin cornered me in the bathroom to challenge my new-found authority at nursery school. I tried to bluff my way through. I reminded them that I was the one who picked kickball players -- and no one wanted to be among the last chosen. I mentioned Wendy, and how the two of us were the prime players in the fireman game. The two boys backed off, but I could tell the challenge wasn't over. I was not the biggest or the baddest kid in nursery school. I had to think of something.

     Over the next few days, as the boys kept eying me, I stuck close to Wendy. I knew instinctively that the only reason I was a big shot in nursery school was because Wendy liked me. Nevertheless, I liked being boss -- being called on by the teacher, leading the kids on the playground, having Wendy call me "Sir."

     Billy and Colin found me up in the tree, at recess a few days later. They pressed me about why I got to boss people around. Why did I always have to be the fire chief?

     I finally thought of my brother, and our little escapade in the playhouse in our backyard. And so I looked Billy in the eye, and gave Colin a cold stare, and then I told them in conspiratorial tones : Okay, you win. You can be bosses.

     They nodded in agreement, as though I'd finally seen the light.

     So, I told them with as much authority as I could muster, that I was appointing both of them assistant fire chiefs. They both smiled; they'd confronted me and gotten what they wanted. What they didn't realize was that by accepting their appointments as assistants, they were acknowledging that I was the top chief.

     And so it happened that my two buddies settled for being little bosses. I took over as the big boss. And Wendy kept calling me "Sir."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to Get a Job

     In my last blog post I complained about the lack of jobs, especially the lack of decent jobs in our American economy. I admit to a certain personal interest in this. I've been one of those underemployed individuals since the last recession in 2002. Going on ten years. I don't work in construction, real estate or finance, so the housing boom of the 2000s did me no good.

     I'm not counted in official government figures for the long-term unemployed. I'm deliberately overlooked. So are a number of my friends who have been struggling along with occasional consulting jobs or freelance work, at a small fraction of the salary they used to make when they were middle-manager types.

     So I thought, maybe I should see if I could come up with some ideas for improving the job picture, since I'm the one complaining about it.

     Uhhh ... this is going to be a short post.

    But I'm not the only one with no ideas. Certainly the Republicans didn't have anything that worked very well, relying on old-fashioned trickle-down economics. They gave tax-breaks to the rich, in the hopes that rich people with even more money would somehow start hiring more employees. Maybe a few extra butlers and chauffeurs did get hired, but it didn't make a dent in the unemployment rate.

     The other Republican idea was to give the banks lots of free money, again hoping they would make loans to home buyers and car buyers who would in turn spur production in the auto business and the construction business. This maneuver did help out the car companies a little bit, at great cost, and Ford and GM have hired back a fraction of the workers they laid off in 2007-08. It has not worked for the construction business, since the only people buying real estate are investors taking advantage of desperate people behind are on their mortgages. And the few regular people who want to buy a house usually find they don't qualify for a mortgage from banks that have suddenly made their lending standards tighter than a rusted screw.

     Banks were also supposed to lend that free money to small businesspeople to expand their businesses and hire new workers. The trouble is, most small businesses are not interested in expanding in a weak economy. So instead, the bankers pocketed the money as "bonuses."

     If the Republican ideas for creating jobs were old, inefficient and largely ineffectual ... well, at least they had ideas. The Democrats have no ideas at all. They've simply continued with the Republican policies -- giving free money to the banks, extending tax breaks for the rich, keeping interest rates artificially low. Why should we be surprised? The architect of the Democratic strategy is the same as the architect of the Republican strategy -- Ben Bernanke.

     I happen to like Mr. Bernanke, and I think he's a very smart man. I felt the same way about Jimmy Carter.

     One thing the Democrats have done is debase the dollar, and that does seem to have helped a little. When the dollar is worth less, American goods are cheaper abroad, so it's easier for our companies to sell their products and services around the world. The export business is up, and employment is up too. Computer companies, which do a lot of business overseas, have been making money and hiring people. As MerCyn pointed out, just yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that California's information technology sector added 5.3 percent more jobs in March. And a company like Caterpillar, which sells farm equipment around the world, has seen its profits grow as tall as Midwestern corn -- and Caterpillar has been hiring. Just one small example: Caterpillar is currently signing up about 600 people to staff a distribution center in Ohio.

      All these efforts have produced some growth in employment. As I pointed out in my last post, the American economy last month created 244,000 jobs, the third month in a row that businesses have added more than 200,000 new jobs. But as I also pointed out, after a precipitous three-year decline, we have a long, long way to go to get back to a vibrant economy that will provide opportunities for ourselves and our children. Experts have estimated that at the current pace of job creation, the economy won’t return to full employment until 2018.

     So what else can we do? Bernanke will probably continue to lower the value of the dollar to increase our exports to the world. That's a good thing. We should probably lower taxes on American corporations (rather than increase them as some liberals are saying), but that should be coupled with some sort of incentive program to hire Americans rather than people in other countries. We could (but probably won't) lower the payroll (aka Social Security) tax. After all, every employee costs a company an extra 7.5 percent for its share of the payroll tax, and it's just one more reason not to hire on another person.

     And speaking of the "extra" costs that companies take on when they hire an employee, one significant way to encourage corporations to hire more people would be to get the health insurance gorilla off their backs -- by converting to some kind of national health-care system.

     As for what you and I can do -- well, it seems that education and training are the keys to a decent job. I know (again as I reported in my last post) that the New America Foundation, in an April 2011 report called "The American Middle Class Under Stress," claims that our underemployment is not due to a lack of skills, but to the new structure of the job market. The report cites people with college degrees doing jobs for which a college degree is not necessary -- including one out of every eight waiters and waitresses, and more than one out of eight parking lot attendants.

     Nevertheless, I also saw a news report on this year's college graduates in California. Kids graduating with engineering degrees are getting an average of three job offers each. Not too shabby.

     It reminds me of the old joke about the theater major coming out of college, asking what lines she should learn -- and the response was:  "Would you like fries with that?"

     It seems obvious, but our kids are not listening. They should not automatically jump into a liberal arts college. They should instead consider a vocational school that teaches them a real skill. If they do go to college, they should not major in sociology, women's studies or theater arts. They should major in engineering, information systems or nursing. And learn another language like Spanish, German or Chinese.

     When I met B a few years ago, I had just lost a job, and she had just lost a husband. At the time, I thought about going back to school. But I felt that I had paid my dues. I was tired of working, and I sure as hell didn't want to start over. Now, seven or eight years later, I'm doing essentially the same work I did before I lost my job -- except I'm doing it part-time, at half the price, with no benefits.

     B, on the other hand, decided she would go back to school. She worked part time, and took classes in the evening, and there were times when she wondered why she was doing this at her stage of life. But she persevered, and at age 55 graduated with a master's degree. Now she has a new career ... with health insurance, vacation time and all those other benefits we used to have.

     So don't ask me how to get a job. Ask B!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Blogging Boomers Carnival

Accidental locavore hosts the baby boomer carnival this week, with links to items as varied as dairy, osteoporosis and flowers. Stop over for a visit!

Sightings at 60: The Missing Word

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Missing Word

     A new jobs report came out last week, saying the "number of Americans filing for jobless aid rose to an eight-month high, clouding the outlook for an economy that is struggling to gain speed."

     Economists had expected unemployment claims to fall, but instead new claims rose 43,000 to 474,000, the highest since mid-August. Other reports, according to Reuters, showed weaker employment growth in the manufacturing and services sectors in April, while hiring by U.S. small businesses has almost ground to a halt.

     So why should those of us who are retired care about the job picture?

     For one thing, workers are consumers, and consumers support 70 percent of the economy. With fewer people working, the economy will never fully recover and our living standards will inevitably decline. With fewer workers paying taxes, states will never be able to close their budget gaps, and the federal government will sink further and further into debt.

     Workers also pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. A smaller workforce means less money for seniors, less money to pay Medicare bills.

 
     And here's the disturbing long-term trend. Since 2000 the U. S. population has increased by almost 30 million people. But as this graph shows, we have the same number of jobs -- actually not quite as many jobs. That means, compared to ten years ago, there are 30 million more Americans who are not working.

     The government reports that the unemployment rate has inched down to around 9 percent, from a high of over 10 percent. But 9 percent is pretty bad. And the only way anyone can even get to 9 percent is by not counting the millions who have dropped out of the workforce -- people too discouraged to look for work, but who would gladly take a job if they could get one. The broader rate of unemployment, which includes people who work part-time but want a full-time job and people who have given up looking for work, is 16 percent, nearly double the official rate. (And you can count me, and several of my friends, in that 16 percent.)

     To add insult to injury, we not only have fewer workers, they are making less money. Yet they have to support more people who are not working -- people on unemployment, people on Social Security, and people in their own households who may once have been working but no longer are -- or who may be expected to work (such as recent college graduates) but aren't.

     The most recent report says that wages increased 1.9 percent in the last year. But inflation increased 2.7 percent. So even ignoring the unemployed, we are a little bit poorer than last year at this time.
 

     One major problem is that middle-income jobs are disappearing from the economy. Many administrative and managerial jobs have been replaced by low-income jobs in retail, restaurants and tourism. The share of middle-income jobs in the United States has fallen from 52% in 1980 to 42% in 2010, while low-income jobs have increased from 30 percent to 40 percent of total employment.

     And while it's easy to blame our schools and our kids, the problem is not a lack of skills, but the structure of the job market. According to a recent study by the New America Foundation, some 17 million Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree. For example, 30 percent of flight attendants and 16 percent of telemarketers have bachelor’s degrees even though this credential is not necessary for these jobs.

     And there's another reason why we should care. We're at the stage of life when we're supposed to cultivate our generative qualities. When we get to our 60s, our own ambitions and selfish concerns are supposed to take a backseat to those who are following us. We're supposed to extend our concerns into the future and care about the next generation, and the one after that. Don't we want our children to have the same, or better, opportunities than we had? Don't we want to pass on to our grandchildren a better world, one where they can live a decent life, and fulfill their dreams?

     On Friday there was one mildly optimistic note. The American economy created 244,000 jobs last month, the third month in a row that it has seen more than 200,000 new jobs. After a precipitous three-year decline, private employers have been adding jobs for a little over one year. That's the right hand side of the graph up above. But as you can see, we have a long way to go. Experts say at the current pace of job creation, the economy won’t return to full employment until 2018.

     So is it any surprise that Americans are losing faith in the economy, even in their society? What does the future of democracy hold for us if it cannot create jobs, produce higher incomes, and make our futures more secure?



     Jobs. That's the missing ingredient in our economy. So I, for one, would encourage our president, the congress, our state governments -- and everybody else -- to think about that one missing word. Jobs. Because more jobs and better paying jobs are the key to solving our other economic problems, from the federal deficit to the funding (and fairness) of Social Security and Medicare.

     Having a better job, or even having  a choice of jobs, might also lift our spirits a little bit.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Turning Over a Rolling Stone

     I don't know why, but I consider this clip completely mesmerizing -- so I thought I'd share. It's the lead guitar part of "Gimme Shelter" as played by Keith Richards, from the 1969 album Let It Bleed.



     If you like this, you may want to know that there are a number of other "isolated tracks" on youtube, and many of them offer a whole new perspective on a song. Another one I thought was pretty cool:  the isolated keyboard and bass track for "Get Back" by the Beatles.

     By the way, as I'm sure Rolling Stones fans are aware, Keith Richards recently published his autobiography, Life. The book came out in paperback just this past week. I must admit I haven't read it, but according to all reports, it covers the lead guitarist of the world's greatest band (or depending on your taste, age or point of view, the world's second or third greatest band) and his marathon journey into music, Mick, marijuana and money -- and also a few things that don't alliterate, such as sex and heroin.

     Enjoy!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Remember Her?

     I was at a church rummage sale this past weekend and came across a videotape of an old movie that reminded me of this woman. I didn't buy the tape -- who has a tape deck anymore? -- but I wonder if you can guess who she is. Don't scroll down and cheat!

     The woman was born in The Bronx in 1931. Her given name was Anna Maria Louisa Italiano. She graduated from high school in 1948 and went to the Actors Studio in New York, and later to the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women at UCLA.

     She appeared in several early television shows under the name Anna Marno, then changed her name again when she made her film debut in a 1952 movie called Don't Bother to Knock, a thriller starring Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe.

As a young actress
     She was unimpressed with the studio system that ruled Hollywood in the early 1950s, so she moved back to New York to appear opposite Henry Fonda in a play called Two for the Seesaw. For her role as Gittel Mosca, who falls in love with Fonda's character, she won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play.

     Her big break came in 1960 with the role of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher in the play The Miracle Worker. Two years later she reprised the role in the movie version, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out several high-powered stars of the time including Katharine Hepburn.

     A few years later she received a second Academy Award Best Actress nomination for her performance in the Pumpkin Eater, a film based on a British drama with Peter Finch playing her philandering husband. But this time she lost out to Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins.

     Her most famous role came in 1967 when she took on a part as a family friend and "older woman," for which she received a third Oscar nomination for Best Actress. This time she lost to the woman she beat in 1960, Katharine Hepburn, who played the mother in the groundbreaking race-relations movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

     In the meantime, she met comedian Mel Brooks backstage at the Perry Como Show. The two stars got married in 1964, and in a rare instance of a long-running Hollywood union, they stayed married for 41 years, until she died in 2005. They had one son, Max Brooks, who became a writer on Saturday Night Live and has published several books involving Zombies, apparently (although I do not keep up on the Zombie literature) from both a dramatic and humorous point of view. Max, a 1994 graduate of Pitzer College, in Claremont, Ca., will give the keynote speech at this year's Pitzer commencement ceremony on May 14.

     The old movie I saw at the rummage sale was, of course, The Graduate. And the person I'm thinking of is Anne Bancroft, who at age 36 played the iconic role of Mrs. Robinson, the neighbor who seduced Benjamin Braddock, played by 30-year-old Dustin Hoffman, in this quintessential Baby Boomer movie.

In The Graduate, 1967
     Just as an interesting footnote, The Graduate was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Anne Bancroft for Best Actress, Dustin Hoffman for Best Actor, Katharine Ross for Best Supporting Actress. But the movie garnered only one win:  Mike Nichols as Best Director.