Saturday, September 27, 2008

That Fall(ing) Time of Year

So many things happening now of great import. The financial meltdown, the one of “I sure would like to live in a house that I can't afford” and “hey, take this money.. the rates will never be better.” Reminds me of the perfect storm of the early 80s when, with rates in the high teens, avaricious bankers in the midwest sold loans to one farmer after another on the pretense that “money will never be this cheap again...” -- 16, sometimes 18% -- and as over the course of a very short time, hundreds of family farms went down the drain, one after the other on the auction block, as the farmers couldn't keep up with the payments . I guess it was like the early version of Pay Day Loans who manage to strip the value of a paycheck faster than a Vegas showgirl loses her sequins.

Art Schweers, on the frame of the bed he slept in for three decades, in the farm house he raised his kids, after his farm went into foreclosure (1982) - Gravity, Iowa
The farmers got pissed, though unfortunately they did it in that nice farmer way they usually have. They didn't just stop growing food and wait for the public to go batty over no food in the stores. That would have been the “real politik” thing to do. They instead tried playing nice, seeing if they could 'work things out..' and of course what happened in the end is that large corporate farms came in and bought the family farms for a fire sale price. There was a wonderful bumper sticker which I remember from the time: “Don't Complain About Food Prices With Your Mouth Full!” Kind of sums it up. There are, after all, no lazy farmers, just some who are a little more astute than others at business. But I'll bet there isn't one person reading this (Walt, you don't count!) who would happily get up at 4am every single day of the year to milk a hundred head of cattle. And then do it again in the afternoon. No vacations. The cows don't take vacations, and neither would you. Well there are such things as hired hands, and they help, but the farmers themselves don't really like to miss much. It's how they keep an eye on what's doing out there. The biggest surprize of the era to me was that Ronald Reagan, you know, the guy who opened that airport near Washington DC, didn't lift a finger to save a single family farm. No, that bastion of American values, the guy who actually played a bomber pilot in a movie in WWII, just let the family farms die a slow death. There was no intervention, no convening of a late night Congressional session, no emergency meeting in the Cabinet Room, to save the family farms. And throughout, amazingly many of the farmers just kept voting for the Republicans, and in particular for the movie bomber pilot, since he embodied all those great American values, of which “tough toenails” might have been the most obvious.

Last week and next, we will see some kind of transformational act in Congress which will lay a lot of bread down in an attempt to try and get the credit markets flowing again. Apparently that is the key to avoiding, for this week, at least, another Great Depression. If it happens, and it eventually will, sometime, for sure, I wonder if we'll call it GeeDeeTwo, or will there be some other catchy phrase which will become the popular moniker. I went to Wall St. ten days ago, in that first week of 'wake up calls' which began with a 500+ point drop in the Dow. That is a real attention getter. The last time the market dropped 500 points, in October 1987, there was a very clear and obvious culprit. My brother Tom was then working at Merrill, and had invited my dad, Ted, who was visiting New York with mom that week, to pay a visit to the Merrill trading desk. If you don't spend much time on trading floors, and only see trades as a phonecall with a broker, or, nowdays, something online, you don't really know what kind of controlled madness goes on there. The traders never say 'please,' and they never say anything in a calm voice: Yelling is the key, and it is truly something to see. All that yelling and scribbling, and the markets actually adjust the nunbers to some nature-state financial law, and voila, you have a stock market. That day Tom took dad for a looksee, and by the time the markets had closed that afternoon, the Dow was down over 500 points. It was truly a Black Monday. And curiously, in the manner befitting a car wreck caused by the short-sighted vision of Mr. Magoo, the market saw dad come to the floor, decided that had to do something to get his attention, and ours, a BOOM, a 500+ point drop. I'm told that the floor was rather restrained afterwards, from the shock of such a huge move. But at least they had Ted Burnett to blame for the calamity. For the next 7 years of his life, pop was not invited to put his tootsies on any trading floor; people were just too afraid of what might break out.

I had a French photojournalist friend years ago, Henri Bureau, whose stock in trade was to hop on a Lear jet (usually splitting the travel expenses with a non-competitive TV crew) when calamity would strike and fly off to the place where things had gone bad. A coup in Portugal, an earthquake of enormous proportions in Turkey, the last public appearance of Lech Walensa before being arrested by the Polish Junta. Henri was always there. Usually first, and most importantly the first to return with his film to Paris. Often he would literally have the Lear jet just keep the engines running a few hours, and be ready to back, film in hand. He understood that it was a time when exclusivity, the most importaquality, and speed of delivery were the key elements, the latter being paramount. His film headed back to Paris for development, his office would start phoning clients for guarantees, and he always made it work out extremely well for him. But he began to get the reputation that if he was headed your way, you just might be in deep doodoo. “When the leaders of a country see me coming, they Tremble,” he once joked to me, though I think Henri might have gotten a bigger laugh than the Prime Minister of country X, who knew the only time Henri would pay a visit, a cataclysm of some sort was just around the corner. Now, in the digital age, with good photographers having been trained, and living virtually everywhere, and each in possession of a laptop, we have all become part of one big, enormous POOL. We don't always get to avail ourselves of the POOL material, but it's out there. Good people everywhere, shooting digitally, and diffusing their material before the ink is dry on their caption envelopes.

This was one of those kind of weeks where the story outraced the pictures telling it. Yes, there were huddled groups of important people, huddling importantly. Yet, the real sense that anything was being done remained a difficult challenge for the stills people. I shot a few pictures near the NY Stock Exchange which showed me a new way of looking at “Wall Street.” Since the blocking off of most vehicular traffic after 9/11, the streets around the Exchange have become something of a little theater unto themselves. Hundreds of strolling tourists, taking pictures of each other, the Exchange (the big American flag) and the Federal Hall just across Wall St. where Washington took his very first oath of office. It's like a mini version of St. Mark's in Venice, without the smelly lagoon, pooping pidgeons, and rasty beaches. Here, in stead, just hundreds of curious onlookers, nosing up to the buildings, taking pictures of each other embracing the heroic George Washington statue; it's that kind of warm fuzzy feeling you wish all tourists got, not just the ones who arrive with big pockets stuffed full of Euros and who drive to the theater in stretch limos. It was a very welcoming plaza, and while the value of the diving securities was well into the billions inside, outside it was just another time to see if you frame that big American flag with your two best friends. It can be done.

As for the big bail out of the week, maybe it will bring a little bit of reality to executive compensation. There are still too many non-arms length discussions between boards and CEOs, etc. and this leads to a situation where the money flows far too freely, especially when the company has had tough times, and just wants to be in business, and make some shekels. Somehow the Golden Parachute is still revered instead of reviled. To cash in big when you have failed at your job isn't really the American way, is it? With all these MBA refugees running the economy, well, maybe that IS the New American Way, afterall.

In the end, unlike President Ford's challenge to help out Chrysler and New York during its 1970s crisis (“Ford to New York: Drop Dead”) it seems even the House Republicans want to see some kind of bailout pass. So we'll keep our fingers crossed and spend the rest of the weekend reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Alaska: The Russian Frontier. I heard they were opening Borscht cafe (all you can sip for one low price) in Wassilla as a “thank you” for all the vigilance of the Wassillans when it comes to preventing another Cold War with Russia. Thank god we have those trade missions.

But of course what I really wanted to blob about was the beauty of Gotham city when the fog rolls in. You remember the New York fog (as opposed to Mel Tormé, the Velvet Fog), its that ethereal stuff which wraps itself around unsuspecting buildings and edifices, in an attempt to ward of evil spirits. Seems to work. Things were, literally, very chill in NY yesterday, and quite beautiful. When the rest of the city looks like it's goin' to Hell, the fog rolls in, you put on a Tony Bennett tune (or Mel Tormé himself...) and rush up to the roof with a bourbon on the rocks, you somehow know that even another 500 point drop in the Dow isn't going to permanently muck everything up. I'm sorry Ted Burnett isn't here this week to see the city in the fog. In his neo-Pollyana view of the world, he would have certainly pronounced it “just gorgeous!” and might have even been glad that after 22 years, they found someone else to blame for that market crash. It's about time. We're just sayin' ... David

as always, click on a picture to see it full-size


Billie said...

Love the photos of NYC in the fog. Wish I had been there with my camera too.

Anonymous said...

What I love about Payday loans is that they are meant to be short term and can help in a tight situation if you are running a little short on cash during the month.

Anonymous said...

Let's place these CEO's on minimum wage for a year..Let THEM feel some real pain we mere mortals face. they'd probably toss themselves off a bridge to nowhere...With any luck,maybe..