Posts Tagged ‘Economic Downturn’

Thanksgiving 2008

November 27, 2008

I can’t think of a Thanksgiving in my lifetime that has been so wrought with a national sense of economic insecurity. The circulars in both daily newspapers seem to be offering unnaturally-low prices, so low, in fact, it prompts me to wonder what calamities will befall us if Friday is not a big shopping day. Anecdotal reports of job cuts are growing as companies grapple to deal with a rapidly changing business climate. Stories that Al Qaeda is targeting Amtrak’s rail corridor, used by so many travelers to get to their loved ones for the holiday, only magnify the sense of unease.

Thanksgiving, like July 4, is a purely American holiday with a purpose behind it — allowing us to give thanks for the blessings we do have. I think of my neighbor relaying to me his personal story of coming to our country after being a slave laborer in Nazi work camps.

Even as these times evoke — but do not emulate — the terrible period America experienced in the 1930s, we remember solace exists in community, friends and family. These bonds are unbreakable — although it may take a holiday for us to recognize them.

Republican Infighting on the Eve of Debate

October 15, 2008

The backdrop of Republican infighting for tonight’s presidential debate is not good for John McCain. I was surprised to see such vocal and critical comments from William Kristol, a longtime John McCain ally, so close to the election. In case you missed it, here’s what Kristol said: “It’s a stupid campaign,” Kristol said in remarks reported in the New York Times. “It’s really become a pathetic campaign.”

Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, answers Kristol in an op-ed today. While he doesn’t cite Kristol by name — another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, and a New York Times columnist, David Brooks, have also be leveling complaints about the McCain campaign — read it and you’ll get the point.

John McCain has reached this stage of criticism among conservatives. Some attack him for “frenetic improvisation,” while others urge him to frenetically improvise. His campaign is in a “defensive crouch” while also being “obnoxious” in its “phony populism.” McCain’s running mate is a “fatal cancer” who should “read more books.”

This kind of cheap shot is, thank goodness, the prerogative of the commentator — an option I will doubtlessly exercise in the future. But having once been on the political side of the divide, I remember how truly obnoxious such advice can become. If only the candidate would fire his entire campaign staff and travel the country in a used Yugo, speaking in the parking lots of 7-Elevens, the gap would be closed. If only the candidate would buy three hours in prime time and give a bold, historic speech (which has been helpfully sent under separate cover), the entire election would be turned around. If only the candidate would finally highlight his opponent’s ties to Colombian drug cartels, the illuminati and the British royal family — or perhaps abandon all this suicidal negativity — the election could certainly be won. And yes, above all, the candidate must be himself.

McCain might benefit from shifts in strategy: a retooled stump speech has already been rolled out. But sometimes a candidate who is down in the polls is not an incompetent but a bystander. While America remains a center-right country, this may well be a Marxist election in which economic realities are determining the political superstructure.

The diverging political fortunes of Barack Obama and McCain can be traced to a single moment. In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points. Did McCain suddenly become a stumbling failure? No, the world suddenly went into an economic slide. Americans blamed the party with executive power, which is also the party most closely tied in the public mind to bankers and Wall Street. None of this was fair to McCain, who has never been the Wall Street type. But party images are vivid, durable and almost impossible to shift on short notice.

Previous to this economic free fall — and after his transformative vice-presidential choice — McCain was about tied in a race he should have been losing by a large margin. The public clearly had questions about Obama’s leadership qualities. But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.

Following the onset of the crisis, McCain was left with flawed options. He reasonably chose to work for a responsible bailout while hoping the markets would stabilize quickly. Instead, the bailout proved politically unpopular and the markets gyrated like the Pussycat Dolls. Then McCain raised Obama’s past association with William Ayers — a valid attack if properly raised. (Can anyone doubt that the past political association of McCain with a right-wing terrorist would attract some attention?) But this accusation naturally looks small compared to the nation’s outsized economic fears.

 

Here’s where I come down in this debate. I think Gerson’s spot on with the fact that something very much akin to a tidal wave hit the McCain campaign when the drastic economic downturn struck in September. Fair or not, as Gerson asserts, the party in control of the executive branch wears the after-effects of a major crisis.

But Kristol and company have a point too. The McCain campaign has compounded its problems by raising questions about Obama that do look small at a time like this (as Gerson acknowledges.) I know from my own reporting that McCain campaign operatives examined the Deval Patrick-Kerry Healey race in 2006. They saw how Healey’s tough law and order ads not only failed but also sent the campaign into a downward spiral. Those mean-spirited ads alienated independent swing voters and had no resonance in what was then very much a “change” election. Yet despite that knowledge they made the same mistake.

I’m not sure how you take a candidate who has been in the Senate for more than two decades and never seriously dealt with the economy and run him in the midst of an economic crisis. My sense is that if McCain had come out of his time-out with a serious and newfound commitment to the issue and made the case that he was the best man for troubled times, he would have had to be doing better than he is now. But, as I’ve said before, the tide is against him.

Hard Times: A Morning at the Trump Financial Institute

September 16, 2008

The Donald

 

 

The news on the financial front is bad, perhaps even apocalyptic. I can’t say I know enough about the world of money right now to be able to hazard a guess on what will happen. I suppose, though, that makes me as smart as anyone else during these turbulent times.

Given the dramatic period we have entered, I made a foray into a world I would usually avoid this weekend. I spotted an internet ad for a Trump Wealth Institute seminar and thought it might make for a good column. While I ultimately wrote up something else, I can’t waste the chance to describe this unique experience.

My invitation called for me to arrive at the seminar 30 minutes prior to its 9 a.m. starting time. When I got there, a number of people, most of them elderly, were already sitting in easy chairs outside of the ballroom that would house the program. I sat down while an older, semi-coherent man peppered me with questions about the size of my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I left the foyer and came back and sat next to two men a few years younger than me dressed in chinos and button down shirts. I tried to make the most of the opportunity of the down time, querying them about their presence at the event. Each muttered something about trying to learn something about the real estate business, then cut the discussion short.

I noticed the diverse group of people who took registration cards. There was a pair of young Central American women dressed up as if they were going to church. I observed several other groups of non-English speaking people as well as a number of 60-something women who reminded me of my mother. Inside, I saw a few African American faces, some Asians, Latinos and whites. The only thing that seemed to unify this oddball crew was a desire to financially better themselves during a downturn. If that was the goal, the seminar run by Rick Brown, a self-described member of Donald Trump’s financial empire, didn’t disappoint.

I’m not saying that Brown’s caused anyone to get rich. But his almost two-hour routine played on the insecurities and fears, hopes and dreams, which we all as Americans possess. Before saying more about Brown, I can tell you that Trump not only lends his name to these functions, which amount to little more than a live infomercial, he also appears before the group in a brief video, like a capitalist version of Chairman Mao in a Communist China reeducation camp. “You’re going to learn the Trump way to get cash back when you buy a property,” Trump bellowed on the video. “You’re going to learn the Trump way to build your real estate empire property by property.”

Interestingly, though, Trump was not the star of the show. That honor fell to the aforementioned Brown, who entered the ballroom dramatically after the Trump video wearing a black suit and red tie. “You have to learn to take care of yourselves,” he told the attendees. “There’s no more job security in this country…It’s financial security that counts.” Within a few moments he had the entire group say aloud “I have to stop working this hard.” At another moment, he prompted the crowd to repeat the words “I need at least $3 million.”

To his credit, Brown announced at the beginning of his seminar what the game was about. He was there to sell a $4000 tuition program at the Trump Institution, which, he added, was tax deductible and he was authorized to offer for $2000.

Soon after he began to speak, the two younger men with whom I had spoken, got up to leave. When I asked them why outside of the hotel, one of them said sternly, “thanks. We’re all set.”

It’s just as well because Brown was only getting started with his preamble, one relevant to the financial news we are currently witnessing. “This is a meltdown. It’s historic, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have not seen the bottom yet,” Brown said.

He was only warming up. Soon he spoke with anger. “They took advantage of good hardworking Americans…And they’re going to pay for it.”

I’m not a member of any of the Evangelical churches. But this is what Brown’s speaking style reminded me of. He was gripping, compelling, moving. At times he spoke sternly about the financial plight most Americans find themselves in. “You better watch out where you bank,” he hissed knowingly. At other points, he was folksy, telling a story about how he, on a weekend clad in jeans and rugged jacket, approached a property owner to tell the man of some $500,000 in special loans and grants he was eligible for, only to find him arrogant and all-knowing.

He was equal parts, a snake oil salesman, an adviser, a therapist, a preacher, a talk show host. He spoke quickly, but slowed up at times. By his own description, he is not a college graduate, in contrast to his brother, whom he said, always doubted everything but couldn’t find a way to make much money. His eyes twinkled. He laughed derisively. He made jokes that caught everyone’s attention: for example, he described how he could use his computer and Trump tools to find out almost everything about a given property. He paused, said “but nobody can find that Bin Laden guy,” and gave a loud “ha!”

I don’t know enough about real estate to make any judgment about the overall Trump program. I stayed only through an hour and forty-five minutes of Brown’s talk, but that in and of itself says something. After all, I’ve seen Barack Obama speak in person almost 30 times, and I can say that there are moments even in his best speeches where I’ve drifted off. Brown held my attention as well as that of almost everyone in the room for most of that time.

He also made good use of the Trump name and reputation. “One thing about us. Everything we touch turns to gold,” he boasted. “We make a lot of money in real estate.” My favorite was when he mentioned the Trump casino. “Yeah. We own a casino. We don’t gamble in it,” he said to hoots of laughter. 

As far as the substance goes, I’m, of course, skeptical; maybe I’m too much like Brown’s brother. One of his money-making examples involved dividing a one-unit property into a property that could contain a number of lots. I couldn’t get all the details but it amounted to getting pre-approval to change the zoning from the county or municipal authority. In Brown’s example, the zoning official was more than happy to make the change because the instructor advised attendees to go in and ask that person his or her “expert advice” – “expert advice” being a key phrase that touched the ego of underappreciated zoning officials. When Brown concluded the story with the person making a considerable profit, the older, semi-coherent, man I had seen before the program began, exclaimed “that’s a good idea!”

It might be a good idea some place, but I don’t know anywhere within Route 128 where an investor can snag some kind of zoning-pre-approval, at least without investing all kinds of money in lawyers and government relations firms. In our region, filled with neighborhood activists, environmental and community groups, various political officials and bureaucrats, such changes are unheard of. Perhaps there are more relevant examples in the $2000 program, but the scenario just didn’t seem very probable for eastern Massachusetts.

Which is really too bad. The people I saw at the Trump seminar were looking for something that really went farther than money. They were looking for a better life. And they were looking for hope during a difficult time. Maybe Brown’s words can give confidence to would-be entrepreneurs to take control of their lives. I don’t know. People presumably go into seminars like that with their eyes open.

Having said that, I believe this Rick Brown would make a fabulous profile for a glossy magazine or the subject of a screenplay. He reminded me of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia or, even more, of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. He’s a unique American character, one worthy of further study, even if it won’t make me $3 – or even $1 million.