Friday, December 12, 2008

Bailout

My first car was a 1971 GM Chevy Vega station wagon. I paid $150 in 1974, for a car that had about 40,000 miles. I say about 40,000 miles because the odometer cable had broken but that was the least of its problems. The car had so much rust that the windshield was only held against the car by the windshield wipers and when I depressed the clutch I saw the open road beneath my feet. It was on its third engine. GM’s experimentation with aluminum blocks was a disaster. This was a lot more than simple planned obsolescence.

The Vega died for good in front of a Chevy dealership after I drove it for about a year. The Chevy dealer gave me $150 trade-in towards a Chevy Chevette. It lasted 79,000 miles before so many things were broken it wasn’t worth fixing. This was a lot more than just planned obsolescence. I got $150 trade-in for it. GM made crap in the 1970’s and used up all my good will. I’ll personally never buy a GM car again and I personally don’t care if they survive. They don’t deserve to get bailed out.

I tried Chrysler next. In the 1980’s I used up three Caravans (one was totaled in a rear end collision) and a Eagle Eclipse which I later learned was actually made by Mitsubishi. None of these cars lasted more then 50,000 miles. Lee Iacoca used up all my good will there as well. They were so badly managed that even Mercedes-Benz couldn’t break them of bad habits. Chrysler doesn’t deserve to survive either.

Somewhere around 1990 I paid $500 for an old 1970 Mercedes 220D. It had 345,000 miles on the odometer. Odometers on American cars only had 5 digits. Odometers on my Mercedes had 6 digits. To me that says a lot. Over roughly 3 years I put 100,000+ miles on that Mercedes before it disintegrated in my driveway at 487,000 miles. I was very disappointed that I couldn’t stretch its life to half a million miles. I sold the hulk for parts for $500. I bought a Ford Explorer next.

Actually I leased the Explorer on the theory that if I didn’t like it I could turn it back in. I didn’t turn it back in but Ford burned their bridges too. During the 1980’s the cost of a medium sized car doubled. I paid around $10,000 for my first Caravan and about $18,000 for the last one. The Ford Explorer was around $18,000.

When it comes to cars I have a bit of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. I want a car that not only looks sharp but also feels and sounds sharp. When I close a car door I want to hear that special “thunk” that only comes from perfectly matched machined parts. Most European cars have “it” and keep it, so do a large number of Japanese cars. My Ford Explorer had “it” when I bought it. My “German Junker” Mercedes 220D still had it at 487,000 miles. None of my GM or Chrysler cars ever had “it.”

Since it was leased I only kept my Ford Explorer for 45,000 miles. I didn’t ride it very hard. I used 4 wheel drive in the winter a few times and went off road twice but by the time the 3 year lease was up the doors no longer had that special “thunk.” By 45,000 miles they went “ka-thunk,” making the sound of mismatched metal climbing into the lock position. I could easily picture what happened. To save a little money, Ford used slightly thinner sheet metal and fewer welds than their Japanese or German competitors. It seems American cars are designed by accountants not by engineers who know what it takes to make a “tight” car. By 45,000 miles the hinges on the doors of my Ford Explorer began to sag from their own weight. When the door is closed there is little weight on the hinges so the hinges can only sag when the door is open. How long do the doors of a Ford Explorer have to be open before the metal warps and the doors are misaligned? Three years, roughly 1000 days, four trips a day, 8 opening and closes of the door times 20 seconds equals only about 45 hours of open doors. Aluminum foil and duck tape anyone?

At the end of the lease I knew I didn’t want to keep that Explorer but I wasn’t ready to give up on Ford as I had GM and Chrysler. I asked the salesman what deal I could get for a new Explorer. He said that the new Explorers were $32,000. I looked at him in astonishment and with some disgust yelled, “It’s just a fucking truck!” My daughter piped in loud enough for everyone in the showroom to hear, “You know Dad, for that price you could buy a Lexus.” So I did and I’ve never bought an American made car since and probably never will.

I no longer care about any of the American auto companies. They don’t deserve to survive. They have proven over and over again that they are not willing to manufacturer what I want with the quality I want for a price I consider reasonable. Some talking head on television said that Toyota and GM sold the same number of cars last year and that Toyota made a profit of $7 billion while GM managed to loose over $35 billion. They don’t deserve to survive. Under the tutelage of all those Harvard MBA’s American manufacturing has become a joke, close what we used to think of when we saw the label “made in China,” in other words Junk.

What would happen if we let Ford, GM and Chrysler go belly up? After the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth died down, nothing would happen. We would still have to buy automobiles and we’d continue to buy them from the same companies we’ve been buying them for the last few years, which is from Japanese, Korean and European companies. Most of those “foreign” companies manufacturer their cars here in America anyway so what’s the difference? American Workers will still make the cars Americans drive. The only jobs that will be lost are the management tier of the Big Three automakers. Is that a loss? Is that worth a bailout? Maybe it is.

When I was a kid memories of the World War were still fresh and the Cold War was hardening into the very real possibility of a nuclear Armageddon. We practiced ducking under our desks and at the edge of town was an active armory full of weekend warriors. A few miles further down the road was a Nike anti-aircraft missile base. There were all sorts of military installations hidden in nooks and crevices all over America. They were the “Strategic Reserves,” kept in mothballs for years, just in case. Every county had its “Army airbase” that turned into the county airfield, which by 2000 had become either a golf course or a towering row of condominiums. We’ve closed so many bases and sold so much “national” infrastructure you have to wonder if we could again mount the same kind of effort needed to win World War Two. That’s where an automaker bailout makes sense. We need heavy industrial manufacturing capacity just in case. Think of this nightmare: China in conjunction with Iran declares war on us. Stranger things have happened. We loose our source of oil and computers. Suddenly we need to build lots and lots of heavy equipment. Think of the scale: The air force currently has about 1000 fighters during WW2 we manufactured over 200,000. GM made many of them.

Michael Moore, that icon of personal grooming, made a suggestion worth repeating. In World War Two, President Roosevelt told GM to stop making automobiles and to start making tanks and aircraft. Moore said that President Obama should tell GM to stop making cars since they don’t know how to make them anyway and start making railroad cars for public transportation. That would be ironic. In the early years of the twentieth century a network of light railed vehicles, trolleys, crisscrossed America. It was said that at one point you could take trolleys and heaver rail from the Canadian border in Maine to the tip of Key West. During the 1920’s GM bought up independent trolley companies and ripped up their track forcing people into automobiles. We didn’t complain.

President (elect) Obama wants a massive works project that will fundamentally change the way America operates while creating millions of jobs. What could be better than building a public transportation infrastructure that lets people get from anywhere to anywhere in America, without a car just like we could a hundred years ago.

America is going to change one way or the other. If we do nothing we may find ourselves with just one American automobile manufacturer, Ford, and a vast belt of rusting, empty and dilapidated former automobile factories. We have let American industry languish while we’ve become a country of consumers. In the 1960’s the Iron and Steel industry left America following the textile industry in the 1950’s. In the 1990’s the electronics and computer industry followed. If we allow the automobile industry to go as well the only thing left will be the rape and export of our natural resources and our once mighty industrial fortress will have been replaces with endless strip malls. Do you want fries with that?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For what its worth

For those of you interested in economics and who read my blog on our current crisis, I just discovered this tidbit:

In August 2007, the Federal Reserve Bank had assets of $850 billion. The Fed buys assets like U.S. Bonds, and now "asset backed junk" with "fiat" money. That's how they "print" money. As of last week, that figure totaled $2.2 trillion — nearly a threefold increase. Yesterday they announced another $800 billion spending spree. Remember the multiplier effect of cash in a bank?

Will it cause inflation? Yes, eventually, but only when the economy gets started again. Nothing changes.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Volume 3 number 3 of the Wilderness House Literary Review has been released

I am pleased to announce that Volume 3 number 3 of the Wilderness House Literary Review has been released on the Web. This edition of www.WHLReview.com includes works of fiction by John Hanson Mitchell as well as short fiction by Denis Emorine, Jessica Keener, Jim Parks and Shannon O'Connor. As well as essays by Charles F. Campbell, Irene Koronas, Ashley Taylor, Doug Holder and Steve Glines and poetry by A. D. Winan, Chris Crittenden, Eric Greinke, Howard Good, Howard LeeKilby, Jackie Biederman, John Hildebidle, John Thomas Clark, Kathleen Haskard, Lawrence Kessenich, Lo Galluccio, Lyn Lifshin, Michael Amado, Peycho Kane, Raymond Diandrea, Robert K. Johnson, Shannon O'Connor, Sherry O'Keefe, and Susan Tepper.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How books are printed: Letterpress to Laser Printer

When I was about ten my grandfather gave me a book he had been saving just for me. It was my first book. I don’t remember the title or content but it was a beautiful book, my own book. It had a dust jacket that my grandfather removed and tossed aside to reveal a soft brown leather book with the title and author embossed in 18 carat gold on the cover and spine. Both the cover and spine had been tooled with a beautiful border. I thought the spine especially beautiful. The hide had been glued to a form of cardboard made of cotton fibers and the endpapers of the book itself were glued to the spine with the glue joint covered over with a beautiful hand made gold and green marbled paper. The body of the book had been printed by letterpress in giant 16 page signatures then sewn into a cloth backing with a Smyth Sewing machine. The first signature of the book, only 4 pages, had been printed by engraving and contained the title page with a florid design together with a portrait of the author reminiscent of those found on currency. There was a phantom signature of tissue paper between each of the engraved pages to protect the engravings.

You could tell the book had not been opened and read because the signatures had not been cut. The binding process included folding and gathering the signatures then sewing them into the backing but the resulting signatures were not trimmed as they are today. My grandfather ceremoniously handed me his paper cutter and instructed me to cut the signatures firmly but gently. For him learning how to properly open a book was a sacred right of passage. As I slowly sliced the first signature open I could feel the individual cotton fibers stretch then break as I drew the dull knife upwards. By the time I had cut the last signature the book had become mine. I would be the first person to set eyes on the printed page since they had come off the press. There was magic in that.

When I opened the book and looked at the first page in the first signature I could see the slightly uneven imprint of the type in the soft textured paper. Even without a magnifying glass I could see the needle edge of the types serifs where it cut into the paper carrying with it the carbon black filled ink. It was beautiful.

Books were made this way for several hundred years. Typesetting was a tedious, expensive and challenging work when done by hand and dangerous when done by a linotype machine that cast individual lines or slugs of metal type from negatively shaped type masters and hot molten lead. These slugs were then printed for proofing on small presses called galley presses. When all was well the slugs were then placed in a large 2 x 4 page panel for printing. Two of these were required to print one sixteen page signature. It was a slow tedious labor intensive process.

Before about 1970 fine, hardbound books were only printed by letterpress. I am old enough to remember when the change occurred. Offset printing was considered cheep and not worthy of a fine printed book. By 1980 all hardbound books were printed by offset lithography.

Offset lithography printing uses a flat metal or plastic sheet called a plate that has been photographically prepared so that ink sticks to the image area and is rejected elsewhere. Ink is transferred from the plate to a roller that presses into ink into the paper. One of the drawbacks to offset lithography is that the offset plate cannot carry as much ink to the paper or press as hard as a letterpress. Because of this the paper used in offset printing must be very flat and without the “tooth” that characterizes the “fine” papers used in letterpress. When the thin film of ink on an offset roller is pressed against the very flat paper, fine lines, dots and type serifs tend to spread so serif type faces printed by offset tend to look a little muddy when compared to identical type printed by letterpress. This feature of offset printing lead directly to an explosion in the use of san-serif type faces like Helvetica, Universe and others in book design. One good feature of offset printing is the ability to print photographs with a resolution many times greater than letterpress offers.

In older books photographs were often printed individually then glued or “tipped” into the book or entire signatures of photographs or drawings were printed by etching presses then sewn into the book. The maximum resolution of a letterpress was about 45 dots per inch using newsprint and as much as 85 dots per inch using paper specially prepared for the purpose. This paper was often hard and brittle from the clay used to prepare the paper to take a very sharp image. The harder and flatter the surface the sharper the dots could be. Etching presses or rotogravure, are capable of impressions of up to 200 dots per inch but this process is very expensive and gravure doesn’t print type very well at all. The colorful magazines distributed with Sunday Newspapers were always printed by rotogravure. That was then; today both newspapers and the colorful magazines they contain on Sunday are printed by offset. Because offset printing was an inexpensive way to print both type and art on the same page it became very popular with textbook publishers. It didn’t take long for paperback publishers to switch to offset followed quickly by traditional publishers.

Not only did the switch to offset represent a revolution in printing at the same time there was a revolution in typesetting. Letterpress printing was a part the old industrial revolution characterized by big dirty machines, steam engine technology. Typesetting was a blue-collar profession conducted in the bowls of a factory. Type was literally hot as the liquid lead flowed down open channels to form the slug in a linotype machine. In the late 1960’s “cold type” became popular. Early “cold type” systems came from IBM Selectric ™ Typewriters modified to print real typographers’ fonts onto specially prepared paper and Compugraphic ™ and other brands of machines that composed type onto photographic paper. These galleys would then be used to “paste-up” a dummy of the publication which then was then used to photographically create an offset plate.

Today, of course, hot type and paste-up is a thing of the past because of the multitude of personal computer programs that can electronically paste-up, proof the image on ink jet or laser printers and electronically create an offset plate. Xerox, Hewlett Packard and Kodak all pioneered in the use of ink jet and laser as “page-proof printers” with a quality image that rivaled or bettered that produced by an offset press.

The best offset printers can print images with a resolution of 300 dots per inch at a rate measuring in the thousands of impressions per minute but an offset pressman might have to print as many as 50 sheets to get the inking on a plate exactly right before turning up the press. Because of the tuning required an offset job is cheaper than a proofing press only of the print run exceeds many hundred or thousands of impressions. For many years book publishing has been constrained by the economies of scale in offset printing. For example, printing a 200 page paperback book might cost as much as $2000 to set up and 2 cents per impression. Printing and binding 100 copies could cost $35 or more per book but in quantities of 50,000 the cost falls into the range of pennies per book.

Modern proofing presses, for example Hewlett Packard’s Indigo series of industrial laser printers, are capable of printing an 11” by 17” images in full color with a resolution of 1200 dots per inch at the rate of up to 1000 pages per minute. The quality of the image produced by these printers is superior to almost all offset printing but cost considerably more than offset at its optimum but considerably less than offset in very small quantities. With the introduction of home, commercial and industrial laser printers “printing on demand” was born and “publishing on demand” soon after.

Publishers face two dilemmas: First, Can they sell enough books to make publishing worthwhile? Second, how can publishers keep their back list alive without having to print and stock uneconomical quantities of books? For most mainstream publishers pre- and post-publication costs dictate an initial print run of many thousands of books. These same economics prohibit the publication of books with potentially smaller audiances and prohibit altogether books on the backlist that could have long but active tails. A book by a major publisher that might sell 100 – 300 books a year in perpetuity is quickly marked out of print.

“Publishing on demand,” or POD, is a technology that solves the problem of small press runs. POD marries laser proofing technology with conventional bindery equipment to create a book production system that is as efficient at printing a one-of book as it is 2,000 books. Of course the unit cost is much, much higher and the production rate much lower than offset but back listed books that once would have gone out of print can be quickly and effectively produced by a Lulu or Lightning press one at a time at a cost point guaranteed to earn the publisher a profit.

To a small to medium sized publisher POD is a revolution. Not only does the use of POD eliminate an investment in inventory but the quality of publication is greater or equal to that produced by offset. The simple elimination of large inventories allows smaller publishers to publish more books than they otherwise could and the availability of POD published works guarantees that no book will ever go out of print. The agility of POD will almost guarantee that new and exciting works will flow to those publishers who using POD, will be able to respond quickly and decisively to the market. By reducing the cost to market while maintaining expected quality will insure the publisher using POD will have an advantage over their more conventional competition.

The books my grandfather kept were the classics but in that age and the one immediately after it how many books, good books, were never published because a publisher didn’t think there was a market big enough to make money? Today every book can get published and linger in obscurity until someone finds the gem they were looking for.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Roosting Chickens

In 1978 I had the opportunity to buy a house in Cambridge Massachusetts for about $75,000. I turned it down because had I bought it, after paying $10,000 up front for a down payment my mortgage would be $300 a month more than I had been paying to rent the house. If I bought the house I would get a negative return on my investment. Real estate has been immune from that logic for most of my lifetime because of the almost universal belief that all real estate appreciates quickly. The house was sold and I had to move. I drive by it occasionally and realize that at the peek of the real estate boom that ramshackle house could have sold for $900,000.

The problem is that someone did buy that house for a price nearer $900,000 than the $75,000 I had been offered. For the last 50 years the expectation that real estate will appreciate has been proved more or less true. Unless incomes grow at least at the same rate as the price of housing eventually the average person cannot purchase the average home. My guess is that that line was crossed somewhere in the mid 1990’s. Unfortunately bankers, brokers and consumers all assumed that the party would continue forever, that there would always be a greater fool willing to pay just a little bit more but as the prices rose relative to our incomes the number of fools willing to pay absurd prices approached the vanishing point.

Banks recognized the problem they were facing. When a depositor places money in a bank it is a liability. To turn that liability into an asset it must be invested which for a bank means loaning the money out. Because that money is then returned to the bank in the form of a new deposit or liability, it must be loaned out again. Without limits the amount of money “created” could approach infinity. To prevent that from happening a “reserve” of about 20% is held back. This reserve requirement is adjusted by the Federal Reserve Bank to speed up or slow down the economy as it effects the creation of money, it’s a multiplier effect. As the Real Estate market began running out of new suckers, banks began running out of new places to put their money. The banks return on investment began to falter; the rise in the price of Real Estate began to falter. The first part of the Real Estate Bubble was at an end, the second part was just about to begin.

We have become a very short sighted society. Executives are rewarded for what results they got last quarter and their vision rarely extends beyond the next. The “future” has been foreshortened to not much beyond this fiscal year. A mortgage is a 30 year investment, a deposited liability is now. The question became one of how to turn all that liability into high paying short term loans. Some financial genius with an HP-35 calculator realized that the adjustable rate mortgage, or ARM, was a perfect vehicle to keep the good times rolling.

An ARM is based on the notion that a security can be sold based on the cash flow over the life of a loan while low payments at the start mean more people can afford the payments at least initially. For example a loan can have very low payments for the first 24 payments then those payments rise over time with a huge balloon payment at the end. If the bank resells the the loan while the payments are low and still in good standing then the bank is off the hook. A loan priced at 2% then 6% then 25% could average, over the life of the loan as 7%. This financial genius figured the bank could have it both ways:

1. By charging a very low interest rate (or low repayment rate) initially, a lot more people could qualify for loans and since, so the theory went, most people refinance (in 3 years for example on a 30 year note) before the high payments kick in the security was safe. In theory someone could continually refinance a house with an ARM every couple of years forever.

2. Since the sale price of the security is based on the cash flow over the life of the security, 30 years, the bank could bundle thousands of these loans and sell them as “tranches” to large investment banks as well as Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. Banks typically mix good, bad and mediocre loans in a tranche and sell these to the highest bidder. They need to sell tranches to prevent buyers from cherry picking only the best loans leaving the bank with the trash. We’ll see in a moment what Freddy, Fanny and the investment banks did with these securities that made the situation worse.

The availability of cheep loans jumpstarted the Real Estate market as new “greater fools” flowed into the housing market. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created as millions of dollars worth of new housing was built. The monster fed on itself as deposits flowed into the banks and unstable loans flowed out.

Greed has no limits. Fanny, Freddie and the investment banks were not happy holding five year notes, much less 10, 15 or 30 year notes. To make these assets liquid, to create even more money, these institutions created “Asset Backed Securities.” An Asset Backed Security is created when an investment bank merges all it’s “tranches” together then splits them into different grades of investment bonds. A new “tranche” of, for example, $100 million worth of mortgages (at present value) is bundled together and bonds created that represent some percent of the total. These ABS’s were then sold on the open market creating new cash, new liabilities. The problem is that in a declining market no one knows what these asset backed securities are worth because they don’t know what the underlying mortgages are worth. It’s a Ponzi scheme, it works only while there is a greater fool willing to buy whatever is being sold.

Again! Unfortunately bankers, brokers and consumers all assumed that the party would continue forever, that there would always be a greater fool willing to pay just a little bit more but as prices rose the number of fools willing to pay idiotic prices approached the vanishing point. Suddenly all those 2, 3, and 5 year ARMS began to come due. A 2% interest rate became, 4% and 4% became 6, 7 or 8%. A mortgage payment of $1000 became $2000 and promised to go to $4000. The greater fools could not refinance their mortgages and the prices began to fall. The monster fed on itself.

Remember that money you deposited in a bank back at the beginning of this story? Let’s say you deposited $100. Given the 20% reserve requirement the bank was able to loan out $80, then $64 then $51.20 …. This creates a total of about $450 in new deposits and about $350 in new loans. If some of those loans go sour then the bank has to either find more money to maintain the reserve requirements or stop making loans while those loans that are still good are paid back.

The way banks find more money is to either sell the assets they have or get new deposits. Here’s the problem: No one is willing to buy these “assets.” Even Fanny and Freddy have suffered terminal indigestion, having purchased enough ABS junk bonds and toxic mortgages that they had to be taken over and resuscitated by the U.S. Government. That leaves option number two: wait until existing loans mature and are paid back. The cash coming in from maturing loans fills the bank’s vault until the reserve requirements are met. In the mean time they don’t have any money to loan out. That is where we find ourselves right now but that’s only half of the story.

It gets worse. We live in a world where we finance everything. No one pays cash for their homes or cars or washing machines. Likewise companies finance as much of their operations as they can get away with. Every automobile dealership finances their inventory and look inside any store and you will see nothing but bank owned inventory, fixtures and infrastructure. Most companies as well as most individuals are “leveraged” to the max. On paper this looks great: Grow with other people’s money. What happened when all this toxic debt began clogging the market is that the whole house of cards started falling. It’s already begun and like the twin towers once the collapse starts no one knows if it can be stopped.

The cards at the top of the pyramid are crumbling: General Motors has tapped out its last $2 billion line of credit. Once that’s spent it will have to live on its cash flow, something it hasn’t been able to do for the better part of a decade. GMAC, GM’s finance arm and a big player in the toxic security market, announced it could no longer finance the inventory of its dealers and almost immediately the largest GM dealership in the US went bankrupt sending thousands of employees to the unemployment lines.

All five of the of the largest investment banks, creators of those toxic Asset Backed Securities, have, one way or another, gone out of business so has the largest insurance company in America, a major buyer of the ABS junk. We may celebrate the demise of incompetence but historically these same investment banks were instrumental in the creation of most of America’s largest companies. In the future it will be foreign investment banks, Chinese, Russian, Arab and European that will dictate the direction America’s economy will go. Almost unnoticed was the largest bank failure in American history when Washington Mutual discovered that it could not raise enough cash to meet its commitments. Then Wachovia, who’s next? This is just the tip of the iceberg.

So the Federal Government is going to bail out the financial system by buying $700+ billion in bogus, toxic, ABS, “derivative” securities. With luck it will work but please note that the Feds aren’t buying the original mortgages, heavens no, they might have some value, rather the Feds are buying the Asset backed Securities created by the now defunct Investment Banks. If (and only if) the Real Estate market “recovers” and somehow still greater fools are found will those ABS ever have value.

If $700 billion is the size of the problem we would be very lucky. $700 billion is only about half the size of the annual Federal Budget, that’s manageable. Fortunately only a small portion of those questionable mortgages were converted into ABS’s, the vast majority of those loans are still on the books of banks and Freddy and Fanny as assets. If the sale price of these assets continue to decline they will poison the balance sheets of more and more banks and cause many to fail. If you don’t like a $700 billion bailout you’ll love the price tag if this bailout doesn’t work. It’s something like $100 trillion or about half of the mortgages out there.

It might be interesting to stop for a moment and look at how and why we got here. We know greed got us here but it was greed at every level, from the most petty real-estate salesman through Wall St. to the Congress and the President of the United States. Greed has many forms and in politics is often disguised as altruistic actions. We want all sorts of services from our government but none of us want to pay for these services. No problem we’ll charge it and leave the debt to another generation. Our national debt, money we have borrowed to run the national government, has grown from $2 Billion in 1980 to $10 Billion today. Historically our debt has been eliminated by monetary inflation. Inflation is a hidden tax shared evenly across the country. Let’s take a look at the last 100 years.

In 1900 the average person earned $300 a year. In 2005 the average person earned over $40,000 per year. Of course in 1900 the average person didn’t have the costly amenities we have today like indoor plumbing and electricity but still the majority of the difference in incomes between 1900 and 2005 is inflation. Inflation is defined as an increase in the amount of money in circulation relative to the goods and services available for sale. It sounds simple and concrete but is really nebulous because as we saw banks can create money simply by making loans.

Economists have a name for different kinds of money much like Eskimos have names for different kinds of snow. Hard currency is called M0, M0 plus bank deposits are M1, M1 plus medium term deposits (like CD’s and savings accounts) are called M2 and M2 plus the longest term deposits (like 2 year treasury notes) are called M3. Most of us treat our real estate investments as part of our personal M3 although most economists don’t count it. In the past we have treated real estate as money since we could always go to the bank and get a loan based on the value of our houses. I would also argue that our 401K plans are also part of our personal M3 since we can dip into them on occasion too. The point of this exercise is that we measure our economy and our salary in money terms measured in dollars but that term has different meanings depending on context. A dollar means different things depending on when and where it’s used so talking about inflation around economists is as slippery as an eel but a change in incomes from $300 to $40,000 speaks for itself.

What happened at the beginning of the Great Depression was almost the same thing that’s happening today. When deposits aren’t reinvested, new money isn’t created and when money is transferred from M3 to M2 (by loan defaults or by paying off loans faster then new loans are made) then to M1 and cash (as confidence in longer term securities dwindles) the combined money supply shrinks. So long as all those ARM’s are not being refinanced the money supply will shrink. When the money supply shrinks prices fall. At the height of the Depression the average price level actually declined, we had deflation.

When Roosevelt came into office the new thinking in economics was to stimulate the economy by increasing the money supply. It did so by purchasing all the bonds issued during the First World War and by buying gold at the, then, unheard of price of $35 an ounce. The national debt was “monetized.” Still it took the demands of the Second World War to put the malaise of the Great Depression behind us, monetary policy wasn’t enough. Fortunately for us a combination of aggressive monetary expansion and an incredibly fast growing economy put the debt of the Second World War behind us very quickly. The cost of Vietnam was different.

There is an old saying that “you can’t have both guns and butter” and during both world wars there were shortages and rationing. Vietnam was different. For the first time in history politicians tried to have it both ways. President Johnson’s “Great Society” combined with a booming post-war economy and a festering and expensive war in Vietnam lead to a relatively massive national debt. The solution the Federal Reserve choose to solve the problem was to monetize the debt to pay for it with “fiat,” invented, money. Of course this lead the wild inflation of the Nixon and Ford and Jimmy Carter years but it solved the problem of the debt. It got rid of it. It also stimulated the economy and the 1980’s were golden years.

This magic potion was not lost on Ronald Reagan who doubled the national debt as well as the size of the federal budget and managed to bankrupt the Soviet Union in an arms race Russia realized they could not win. Unfortunately Reagan also appointed Allan Greenspan to head the Federal Reserve.

Alan Greenspan did two things that made free market economists drool in delight. He attacked inflation with a vengeance by raising interest rates sky high. This made investments in America look very attractive while at the same time removing money (that mysterious M3) from the system. He was so effective in removing money that he caused the recession of 1988-89 which cost George H.W. Bush the presidency and forced President Clinton to create budgets with a surplus. Regains debt could not be paid for with inflation so Clinton had to arrange to pay for it with taxes. Fortunately the end of the cold war reduced the need for military spending. We had a peace dividend and the economy grew and grew and grew. The economy grew because there were more goods and services available to buy since the capacity of our economy to manufacture goods for human consumption rather than military consumption grew. The good times came to an end with George W. Bush.

George thought he could do old Ronald Regain one, maybe two better. After nine-eleven George conjured up the most expensive war in American history. If Regain only doubled the national debt from $2 trillion to $4 trillion, George managed to double it again from $4 trillion to $8 trillion through a combination of tax cuts and uncontrolled spending. Contrary to their political doctrine Republicans have been unable to restrain themselves when it comes to spending your money. With the financial rescue plan in place it is not unreasonable to expect the final bill to push our national debt well over $10 trillion.

So how are we going to solve this problem? This is a ~$30,000 problem for every man woman and child in the US, it’s the cost of a low end luxury car or a year at a middle of the road private college. It is “doable” if any of us really thought that would be the end of it but it would destroy the hopes of retirement for the current generation and hobble the start of the next. Even if we did pay it off in a static economy would it have any effect? Who do we owe this money to anyway?

In the aggregate we owe it to ourselves but the devil is in the details. When Ross Periot sold Electronic Data Systems to General Motors for a couple of billion Dollars he put his money in U.S. Government bonds, he bought part of our national debt. When he ran for President and paid for his campaign “with his own money” he actually paid for it with interest on those bonds. We actually paid for his campaign with that portion of our taxes that pays the interest on the national debt. It’s the very rich of the world, rich individuals, rich corporations and rich countries like Dubai and China that own the promissory notes of the United States. If we default, and default we must, it will be a massive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor.

Why must we default? Simple, we must default because there is historical precedent for it and in the end there is no other way. Trickle down economics never worked. The rich don’t spend the way you and I do. They invest, they create more money, and they create additional claims on our national productive capacity. They own or have a lean on the means of production and they demand their due. Eventually the economy grinds to a halt as it becomes tied up in servicing its own debt.

I’m not inventing economic theory here, just observing the patterns of history that have been observed in every society since man began recording history. In our own era it has been called long economic wave or Kondratieff Wave after a Soviet era economist who first described a 50-80 year wave of economic growth and contraction in the modern era. Nilolai Kondratieff observed the expansion and contraction of economies and described it as a cycle of strong economic growth followed by a period of debt repudiation and commodity price collapse. The price collapse is a result of the contraction of the money supply brought on by debt repudiation or default.

In earlier times what economists now call the Kondratieff wave was observed as “goldsmith crisises.” Vilfredo Pareto, an economist and early contemporary of Kondratieff was able to isolate data showing signs of long economic waves going back into Roman times. It appears that in societies lasting long enough to observe their internal economics institutionalize their debt repudiation. For example in the Old Testament there is the observation of the “Jubilee Cycle” every 49 years, a feature of which is the forgiveness of debts.

There are many ways to default on the national debt. The most obvious way and the least likely to take place is to simply repudiate the debt, just announce that we will no longer honor the debt. The second way is through monetary inflation. The Federal Reserve adjusts the money supply by buying or selling debt instruments like Treasury Notes. When the Feds buy notes they introduce money into the system, when they sell securities they remove money from the system. What do you think will happen when $700 billion in cash is spent buying up defaulted mortgages and “toxic” securities? A lot of money will be introduced into the system and according to classical (or neo-classical if you like) economic theory one of two things will happen. If there is pent up demand (i.e. if there are people who could qualify to buy a house but can’t because of the mortgage crisis) then the economy will boom as money changes hands again at an accelerating pace. This is called a simple increase in the velocity of money if any of you reading this are economists. If, however, the economy is saturated, if there are no more “greater fools” out there then this sudden increase in the money supply will cause nothing but inflation. This is good!

Why is this good? For one it reignites the housing market as outrageously expensive houses become relatively cheaper. It also allows us to pay down the national debt with inflated dollars. It’s a game of musical chairs where those who hold enormous wealth on paper are least likely to end up with a seat at the table. Still inflation is a hidden tax on all of us that history has shown to be a universal but, ultimately, welcome leveler.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How we are different from them

He’s the one that used to mow your lawn. His father remembers your father. They are fifth generation “landscape architects.” The grandfather used to own the farm that became this neighborhood. His uncle works in the industrial greenhouse. His mother works as a nurse’s aid. They are all around you. You think they only drink beer.

They have no history. They live for now, working just hard enough to pay for life’s necessities and a little extra. Tomorrow will be the same. Nice life. This is how they have lived for thousands of years. Ambition is something for the foolhardy dreamers that life leaves by the side of the road like so much roadkill. Ambitious men fail. The prodigal son was ambitious. It’s dangerous to dream, it wastes time and doesn’t feed the chickens, goats, horses or car. The only good ambition is getting a new roof on your shed, a new cast iron pot, a new knife, a new gun, a new car, a new HD TV. The only safe goal (it’s not quite an ambition) is getting that one more little thing that makes life enjoyable. Its all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; wine, women and song; sex, drugs and rock and roll. In whatever order you prefer, it doesn’t really matter as long as there is bread and circus.

For all their faults they are still the salt of the earth. Without them there would be no harvest, no tailor, no roads to drive that new car on. Someone has to do the work and they are both grateful and resentful at the same time that there is work to be done. You can count on them. They work hard and at the end of the day they die and their children work hard too. It has been this way for millennia and will be for many more. They are eternal and blind.

We are different of course. We have a vision! A vision not shared with them. It’s this vision, not ambition, that drives us and we pursue it with a blindness beyond foolish. A curse they say. They mock us when we fail and despise us when we succeed but without us there would be nothing. We built the pyramids with their labor. We painted the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel; we carved the pieta and build the Grand Coulee Dam; we said we would send men to the moon and we did.

We crafted each Civilization with our minds but we grew tired and let the Goths, the Huns, the Hordes in and presided over the last meeting of the Roman Senate. We built the great engines of industry and, when they fail they ask us to fix it. They won’t fix it, they can’t. We can’t always fix it ether; being mortal our vision is only so large, so comprehensive.

Our soul cries out to the Universe, to God: You made us in your image, perfect our vision, our wisdom, our understanding so that this time it will be perfect.

You want to melt into them. No cares, no worries, just life but your mother said you were special. “You come from a long line …,” she said, “You must be better than the best of them.”

Monday, June 30, 2008

Wilderness House Literary Review Volume 3 Numer 2

I am pleased to announce that the Summer 2008 issue of Wilderness House Literary review is now online. Of course it's the best issue yet. http://www.whlreview.com/

Friday, May 23, 2008

After reading too much Bukowski

I walked to the shed to look for something I could pour down the gopher hole. The little bastard won’t go away and no matter how much fox piss I pour around my garden fence he just digs under it. I wonder what would happen if I poured fox piss down his hole or better yet pissed down the hole myself. No this time I need to kill the bastard.

Last summer I put up netting for my pees to climb but the gopher, blind as a bat, got ensnared and pulled down my pees, all four feet and his head wrapped up in at least 2 layers of netting. When I walked up to him with a pitchfork ready for the coup de grace he hissed at me and chattered his teeth. Ok I said to myself, get your self out of there; with luck the coyotes will eat you. For three days he squirmed and writhed in the net. Not a single coyote showed up, not a single goshawk, not a single predator big enough to munch on an oversized rat already trapped and ready to be served for dinner. I’m sure there were tens of thousands of flies, worms and other insects ready to devour a carcass but no one willing to do the initial deed.

After three days I relented. I went out to the garden with a pair of scissors, intent on cutting the carcass loose. At best I expected to find a dehydrated, compliant ball of fur ready for an easy passage to the great burrow in the sky or whatever passed for paradise in that pee-brained rodents head. Instead I found a furious, angry gopher more interested in extracting an ounce of revenge from me than passing quietly into that good night. I picked him up by the net while he wiggled, wreathed and swore at me as only an angry rodent can. I let him bite down as hard as he could on the scissors, my blood boiling up in petty sadism. I was ready to cut him free but he pissed me off. I poked at him with the scissors and contemplated impaling him on them but in the end I just cut him loose. He ran away and down his hole with the netting still wrapped around his hind feet. I jammed the pitchfork in his burrow entrance. If he wanted to visit my garden again he’d have to dig another hole. I didn’t see him for a year. I’d hoped he’d become fertilizer over the winter but I was wrong.

The first warm day in late April I saw the little bastard waddling around the yard like he owned the place. I tore out the back door grabbing a snow shovel I still hadn’t put away. I was going to brain the little SOB but he ducked down one of his holes just before I reached him. I slammed the snow shovel down over the open home hoping he’d poke his head out. That’s what I would have done if I was a curious rodent and I would have had my brains splattered all over the ground. Instead the snow shovel broke into a dozen pieces, the wooden handle split in two and the red plastic scoop just shattered. I jammed what was left of the wooden handle into the warren and vowed to get even. Nothing useful in the shed.

At the hardware store, how to kill a gopher? Have-a-heart traps? No better than the netting I caught him with last summer. Rattraps? I’d probably get the neighborhood dog. Smoke bombs? Yah! Four for $9. I took a dozen.

I went home and stuffed four smoke bombs down the hole the little bastard dove into when I chased him with a snow shovel. I put a large flowerpot over the opening and listened with satisfaction while the smoke bombs roared like four small rockets. Foul sulfurous smoke billowed up from a dozen holes in the yard. Where the smoke rose in feeble wisps I set off more bombs and repeated the procedure with every hole in the yard that looked promising. Near the porch was one last large rat hole I had overlooked but for the small wisp of foul smelling white smoke that gave it away. It was a large hole and recently used so I stuffed my last four smoke bombs inside, covered the hole with a flowerpot and sat back in the smug expectation that I had committed rodent genocide. As I was congratulating myself I noticed that smoke was rising from under the back porch, no matter I got the sucker.

One month later the sulfurous stench of anti-rodent smoke still fills my house. When I walk into the house I feel like barfing, until I get used to it. At least I killed that goddamned gopher … I think.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The handwritten, a lyric essay

I once spent well over $200 on a Mont Blanc fountain pen. I used it for two or three years until the nib had worn down to a razor sharp edge that effortlessly sliced through the pages of my journal. The pen was guaranteed for life but exercising that guarantee included the cost of shipping, handling and insurance or more than the cost of a lifetime supply of cheap BIC pens. So I gave the pen body to a very grateful young lady who was starting a diary. For her, getting a second hand Mont Blanc was a paradise worth saving for: an investment of about $50, to get a world class writing instrument. I bought BIC pens (or their equivalent) in boxes of a dozen after that.

When I was in a scribbling mood I would take my journal to a café in Harvard Square Cambridge, usually the Café Pamplona (on the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets) in the evening or the Café Piroschka (in Holyoke Center on Dunster Street) in the morning, and scribble for several hours about life, love and my alternating bouts of ennui and angst. Most of what I wrote was awful but rain or shine I had promised myself that I would write at least one full page every day. At my peek I may have written ten, fifteen, twenty or more pages in longhand, day after day.

My goal was to teach myself how to write. I believed that since I could tell a good story I could learn how to write a good story and since telling a good story was a result of good mind – mouth coordination it made sense to me that writing a good story would require good mind – hand coordination. To that end I began a journal. I think the theory is mostly true and I think in practice it works. I wrote in longhand for years, writing around a million and a half words, but I ultimately turned to a typewriter then a computer but that would take much more than a decade.

At the beginning it was very difficult to find something suitable to write. I could talk to the other denizens of the café’s for hours then turn to my journal and have nothing at all to say. Those conversations have not been wasted; they have formed the basis for a lot of what I’ve written about over the years and some of my favorite characters were those I encountered the bars and café’s of Cambridge. I wrote about the weather more than once when I simply could not translate a story I could tell with my tongue into a story I could tell with my fingers. It’s not always an easy translation. There are many stories I’ve told “off the cuff” for years that I’m only just beginning to be able to write about. The truth is I still occupy two parallel linguistic universes, the one I can speak about and the one I can write about. I am finally more comfortable in the universe I can write about. I am so much smarter, wittier, and brilliant and articulate in print than in person.

In person I find myself getting angry when I cannot find the right word or remember the right fact in the middle of a conversation. I’ve wondered if, in person, I might have early onset of senility but my writing gets better and better.

People who write in journals are called diarists not journalists. Journalists are writers who, like formal poets, must write in a very strict format. The who, what, when, where and why of journalism starts with the most general statement about a news item (who got killed) and gets progressively more detailed as the story lengthens. The “juice” in a journalist work is always at the end. Newspapers and other purveyors of journalism are in the primary business of selling advertising space not literature so the honey only serves to drag a reader in front of advertisements, much like the unavailable but beautiful babes at a car show. The reason for the journalists form is that an editor should be able to arbitrarily cut from the bottom to make the article fit the available space. Very few journalists are truly accomplished in this art form and it shows in the butchery of articles on the inside pages of our nations daily newspapers. Editors cut to fit and articles often end abruptly, missing information hinted at but not delivered.

Diarists on the other hand write sequentially and most often about their personal lives or about the immediate world in which they live. There was a period in my life when I despaired of ever writing anything of import and I fantasized that my journals might define my era and be compared favorably to the diaries of Samuel Pepes. I read the abridged version of Pepes’ diaries and they contained the same kinds of stories I was writing about except that during the course of his writings he moved from being a middle class English civil servant to one of the highest appointed positions in England, that of Secretary to the Admiralty. The traditional British Admiralty Board consisted of an appointed politician known as The First Lord of the Admiralty, a position Winston Churchill held, The First Sea Lord, the top professional seaman and The Secretary to the Admiralty, the top civil servant, held by Samuel Pepes. Two hundred years separated Churchill from Pepes. The best I can say I did in the decade or so I was writing my diaries was to move from assistant art director at the East/West Journal to assistant art director at Sail Magazine. Not a lot to brag about when comparing myself to Samuel Pepes.

I wrote 15 ¼ volumes in longhand before abandoning my journals. I still occasionally pick up the last volume and scribble a paragraph or two but the sprit is gone and disuse of the muscles used to hold a pen now quickly lead to cramps. Before I began the journals I would outline a story on 4 x 6 cards in detail before beginning to write or type a rough draft. It was torture. I realized that if I was to become a fluid writer I needed to find a way to express myself on paper as easily as I could in air. After several false starts with a loose life folder I settled on a bound notebook.

Volume I was one of those green mottled cardboard backed “composition” notebooks sewn in one large signature with 120 pages. The idea of filling a book this size was daunting. I wrote the date on the cover: June 1, 1972. By the time I committed to this “journalism” I had already written quite a lot but had been hedging my future. Would writing remain a psychologically required hobby or would it play a large part in my economic future?

When I was in my early teens I announced to my mother that it was my intent to become a writer to which she wearily replied, “Well, you come by it naturally. You come from a long line of failed and petty literati.”

Writing had become a challenge, an urgent necessity that, at the age of 20, I felt I was not making the kind of progress I assumed I would be making if I were to become a professional writer. Drastic efforts were needed if I was to become accomplished, if posterity were to know my name. In the first page of Journal Volume I wrote with my fountain pen,

“June 1, 1972 – Today was the start of my new life. I woke up at 6:00 A.M. and wrote a letter to Suds Macklem (after my father died a neighbor, Suds Macklem, became my intellectual mentor). I told him that I had decided once and for all to become a writer.

What I had lacked was self-discipline. So to correct my lack of self-discipline I have taken several big steps, which, at least psychologically, help to order my mind. The major steps I have taken are to start this diary, get up at 6:00 A. M. everyday except Sunday and to write at least one hour every day before breakfast. …”

On Saturday, November 4 1972 I write,

“… It is a cold wet November day, almost winter. They say it’s snowing in western Massachusetts.
Poem {It is winter as the sky, that cold grey body that hovers, threateningly, over our heads from November till April, hangs low and absorbs every drop of heat with its cold, cold wind blown rain.}

I haven’t much energy today due to getting drunk last night, GAC, Casablanca. I can feel myself falling into a rut. When I started this journal I was destitute, I had no money, no job. Now I have a job …

It took me four months, almost to a day to complete this volume. It will take considerably longer for the next as it is 400 very large pages.”

An annotation on the inside back cover reads 40,000, my estimate of the number of words I had written. Not yet a novel.

The next 14 volumes were large smyth sewn signature “Record” books sold by the Harvard Coop. Volume II had 432 numbered pages. I began the volume on November 5th 1972 and finished May 17th 1973. The last entry was 6 pages long. I recorded that I was paid $10 for the pilot chapter for a book on John Keats’ Ode On a Grecian Urn. The job was to write a “Cliff Notes” on a series of well-known poets. I did three or four sample chapters but Simon and Schuster eventually passed on the project. I debate on abandoning, temporally, my life in Cambridge for an adventure in Newfoundland. I eventually did but not for several more volumes. “It’s frustrating not doing anything and not being able to decide what to do,” I wrote, “I am riddled with indecision.” I agonized about going into the typesetting business and where to raise the money if I did. I end with, “I have, in the confines of this volume gone from abject poverty to relative opulence and back to poverty again. On the other hand I have a lot more experience now than I did 100,000 words ago.” On the endleaf I note: “total words since June 1, ~150,000.”

For twelve more volumes I scribbled every day. Poetry, philosophy, and outlines of books I wanted to write, snapshot portraits of characters and a never-ending series of complaints about my love life, ennui or angst.

Volume XIV (14) was the last volume I completely finished by hand. I had given up my fountain pen by volume III and by the end of volume 14 I was no longer obsessed with my daily entries. I began on August 11, 1980 and finally filled the last of 432 pages on February 10, 1986. The last entry was, “The next volume will be generated electronically and bound in a three ring notebook.” and so it was. After three hundred or so pages of complaints about my life I bought another bound “journal” but it was not the same. My hands cramped when I attempted to write longhand. My writing just “petered out.”

By 1986 my life as a professional writer was at a standstill. I had not sold a literary piece in years. I had abandoned literary writing, abandoned graphic design and academia. For the next 15 years I wrote technical books, political diatribes and “edgy” columns in technical magazines. My daughters became the center of my life and I gave away my Everyman’s edition of the Diaries of Samuel Pepes.

Monday, March 03, 2008

A Feminist Manifesto

My daddy was a southern gentleman. He was taught to venerate women, to acknowledge the superior position women held as progenitors of the species. Men, he was taught (and firmly believed), had to find their own way, create their own reason for existing and as a result had to seek challenges. Men become bankers, lawyers, engineers, and artists, whatever their egos and imaginations conjured up, and they told themselves over and over again that it was important. They told their woman how important they were and their women smiled. Being important or rather being more important than the next fellow was the only real goal men could achieve.

My daddy also said that you should hold doors open for women and otherwise help women not because it was chivalrous but because without women civilization would collapse, because women carry the burden of the future, because everyone in every society knows it’s the right thing to do. That’s why even in war women are generally exempted. In this respect women were lucky he would say. They held the preeminent position of importance simply by having a womb and could, without working very hard, hold positions of great consequence.

Sometime in the mid 1970’s I held a door open for a woman walking behind me into a store, letting her pass through first. She turned to me, glared, slapped me as hard as she could and screamed, “Sexist pig!” Times had changed. The venerated position woman held in societies imagination was crumbling. We had entered an era where women were no longer honored, venerated and otherwise protected from the world at large. Indeed women no longer wanted that protection and some angrily and aggressively sought to abolish any and all vestiges of the old system. My daddy would have been appalled.

For women living in an era where infant mortality was high, the simple maintenance of the population was an all out effort and a permanent requirement of every capable woman in society. No wonder she was honored and largely exempted from male warfare. For most of man and woman’s existence, for tens of thousands of years, this was the norm and many villages, towns, states, societies and civilizations have collapsed as a result of insufficient fertility. The Age of Chivalry was characterized by repeated plagues that decimated the population or worse so an active, breading population of women was essential to survival and everyone knew it.

By October 25 1889, the day my daddy was born in Baltimore Maryland, the telephone and light bulb had recently been invented and August Auto had just built the first working internal combustion engine. The telegraph was 50 years old, transatlantic cablegrams were 25 years old and a transpacific cable a long 16 years away. The World still loomed large. My granddaddy, Stephen Douglas Glines, was born in 1861, a Civil War baby. In 1889, almost everyone’s father or grandfather fought in the war. Before the Civil War surgery was a brutal affair performed without anesthesia of any kind. In its wake, the Civil War left hundreds of thousands of veterans with missing limbs or painful injuries ameliorated for the first time with morphine and ether. Surgery became safer and Caesarian births became almost endurable and very survivable. The population began to explode but two world wars had the same effect as the plague on fertility rates, women had to produce to make up for the millions lost. And make up they did with the help of antibiotics and other marvels of modern medicine. In less than 100 years the population of the world grew from less than one billion people to almost six billion. Women had performed admirably.

Now what? By the mid 1970, after I had been forcefully awakened to feminist ideas, there was talk of drastic overpopulation in the world. China reached one billion people and began enforcing a one child per family law. The birth control pill decoupled childbirth from sex and the United States (as well as most of the “developed” world) began a long period of declining population growth from births, unsustainably low fertility rates. In the nearly 40 years since 1970 the population of the United States added 100 million people, mostly from third world immigration. Women as bearers of children lost their worth and became as misplaced as men in their search for personal meaning.

Bras were burned, demands were made and laws were changed. By the turn of the 21st century women had pushed their way into the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, into the Presidencies of first, second and third world countries and into the forefront of the arts and letters. In 2007 more women attended college than men and college presidents were lamenting the need to lower the standards for men so as to keep sexual parity in the classroom. As the father of two college graduate daughters (and no sons) I cheer their professional and personal growth and understand that my own legacy – my name will not survive – depends as much on what they produce professionally as any offspring they may have in the future. Such offspring, the lineal descendant of someone else, with another’s name not mine, are of interest to me as grandchildren to be spoiled but my true legacy will be in the great works of art my daughters will produce, in the great novels or magnificent screenplays or towering monuments to civilization they create, a gift to future generations that will bear their name, my name. How can I be anything but a feminist?

Over the past few millennia the male of the human species has contributed the majority of the intellectual vigor to society. This is not to say that had women been given equal access to education over this epoch they would not have made an equal or greater contribution. My own single antidotal observation made in the 1970’s was that on average women are far brighter than an equal cohort of men. When I was a college undergraduate I spent many hours at Radcliffe College before it allowed itself to be swallowed up by Harvard University. I spent an equal amount of time at Harvard itself. As a whole the women of Radcliff were the brightest group of individuals I have ever met. That cannot be said for the men of Harvard College who, in the early 1970’s, were as a lot, far duller than that august University would want anyone to believe.

If the women of that generation, my generation, succeeded it’s because the services of their wombs were largely deprecated. Women, like men, needed a reason to exist so off they went to the universities, the trade schools and the military. Today we gleefully send women off to war, appoint them to our corporate boards and perhaps elect them president. It’s a heady time to be a woman and a grand time to be a father of two.

But shadows appear on the cracking walls:

In China the one child per couple law has an unintended consequence: In most modern societies a male heir is considered desirable as the carrier of the family name. In China female babies are regularly aborted in favor of the only child being a male. This has lead to a relative decline in the female population and while the population continues to grow there is a looming population collapse beginning around 2030. One child per couple is not a sustainable fertility rate and with fewer and fewer female children China will face a dramatic crash in its population.

In the United States, the European Union and even in post Soviet Russia the fertility rates have fallen below that needed to sustain the current population. With an aging populace economic demands on the working population require full participation and greater efficiency by both sexes. Women have achieved full equality! Is that what you expected? But economic efficiency has its limits, people can only work so many hours. Without a growing population business stagnates. The population and economy of North America is being maintained largely by a massive influx of Spanish speaking immigrants, both legal and illegal. In the European Union the same thing is happening with a similar influx from Moslem countries, Turkey and North Africa. Only Russia faces a real immediate decline in population with slim hopes of a near term population rebound and little net immigration. Improving efficiency and the labor of women in the workforce will allow Russia to grow economically but only for a while.

The world is changing. The imminent collapse of populations in China and Russia will probably bring a resurgence of the traditional roles for women if the societies are to remain structurally intact. It is unclear whether the social, political and intellectual advances made by women in these societies can be maintained in the face of these new demands. In the West, both in Europe and North America, a different change is taking place. Immigration from countries where infant mortality and fertility rates remains high is fundamentally changing the complexion the West. Will that end the remarkable intellectual and artistic renascence of women in the West? I don’t know but it is clear that in many parts of the world, modern medicine or not, a new generation women will have to give birth more often than they have in recent generations.

I hope, for the sake of my daughters and their daughters, that women will be able to do it all, be mothers to their children and contributors to the future in whatever other pursuits they choose. Only time will tell but for now I remain a cheerleader for my daughters and a stanch advocate of equal access and treatment everywhere. One can only hope that in future generations they will say of us, “That was a golden age.”

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wilderness House Literary Review Volume 2, number four released online

LITTLETON, MA – January 3 2008 – The Wilderness House Literary Review committee is pleased to announce that Volume 2 number 4 has been released on the Web. This edition of WHLReview.com includes works of fiction by novelist Anne Brudevold as well as short fiction by Denis Emorine, Murray Elias Denofsky, Shannon O’Connor, Thomas Wauhob and Werner A. Low. As well as essays by Elizabeth Glines, Jim Woods, Mignon Ariel King and Steve Glines and poetry by Anne Cammon, Bonnie Pignatiello Leer, Carolyn Gregory, Daniel Y Harris, Doug Holder, George Held, Helen R Peterson, Hugh Fox, Lyn Lifshin, Marc Jampole, Orvill Lloyd, R L Swihart and Tolu Ogunlesi.