Monday, May 22, 2017

The effort to be positive

On my Google blogspot, aka,cycles continue.  Three or four obvious takes on the coverage of the delusional Trump will diminish using old language about what we are trying to define and lead to three or four posts of comments on books or films as a diversion.  It's trying to balance out the dread and the potentially uplifting.  It is a stalemate not of the attention of others but a stalemate of my own sanity.

Each day there is too much to comment on in Trump world.  Still trying to digest yesterday we look at Iran's young people voting in mass to strengthen ties to the West with Trump speaking to an assembly of royal dictatorships villifying Iran as a country.  The price of a Boeing contract?  As previously suggested in a post before the trip, he is being treated as a potentate and, to add an additional thought, this will be the last time. Other countries cannot remotely risk being seen as this type of adulatory pawn to their voters. Trump has been insulated from this by the inoculation of his voters into the television culture.  When he comes back he may find that he has cut the cord.

There are no complete answers here. Obvious.  His exposure on the international stage is embarrassing to this country no matter what is said in the now threatened American media.

"Bright, Precious Days" the latest from Jay McInerney

It had been a very long time since a book by Jay McInerney was picked up here.  With his first book in 1984, Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, he lit up New York City storytelling for his generation at the time.  Reading from it to my office mates one morning, everyone genuinely laughed.  What I did was not particularly normal at a bank.

One or two subsequent books from the library were tried in the late 80's and early 90's, but did not have the same appeal.  Several weeks ago his 2016 book was in my hands.  Could it be worth reading.

It was, to my surprise.  While it is primarily a story about faux literate and upper middle class wealthy Manhattan and Hampton's residents, and their personal relationships set in 2008 and 2009, there were observations ranging from astute and humorous to glib and uninformed that pulled the story along. Following the locations in Manhattan was the glue here.  Like many writers of his generation, just pulling together enough places and things is essential.  In this instance, with "Bright, Precious Days", the personal journey through all of the streets and destinations was enjoyed, since almost all were known well and but not visited in the last few years.

McInernay is talented, but he is a huge notch below Yates, Updike, Cheever, and their generations best writers.  At this point, a week later, much of the story is not compelling enough to be remembered in any detail but I did enjoy the few days of reading and looking back. The Manhattan backdrop was compelling.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Dystrumpia seeks overseas attention

Perhaps Saudi Arabia will treat Donald Trump with the respect that he feels he deserves.  He absolutely will get gold plated treatment.  For a day or two he may not miss his palatial three stories at Trump Tower.  Middle Eastern culture suggests that extended pleasantries are necessary before any business, professional or personal.  Extended can mean days not hours.  Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia will be kowtows for him accompanied by pre-arranged accomplishments.

After that comes Israel where his serious attention will be required, serious people there.  He will be treated well and in a way that they think will be in their best interests, rightfully so.  Then on to Brussels with a NATO meeting.

At that point the reporters will begin to have their feast.  Trump spent the great majority of his primary and presidential campaigns always flying home after a day of campaigning.  Home was primarily 725 Fifth Avenue, and at times his Palm Beach compound.  Trump has limited diet preferences. He has limited and constant television preferences.  He could easily be going through habit withdrawal mid-trip.

In Brussels the security will be stifling.  Car attacks there and in Paris will be on the minds of security without question, but also on the minds of the public.  Trump will be engaged in supposed diplomacy with NATO members.  They will be attuned to his weaknesses. It will be awkward and Trump will be tired.  He has not needed Melania or his young son but he does need his own bed.

Then off to Sicily and, since presumably like most New Yorker's his one dietary necessity is Italian food, he may be revived.  Then again, the Group of 7 will not all be pushovers.  They will fake their for respect him and laugh behind his back.  They will not fold.

He will be overjoyed to return to his home and even be more focused on his dystrumpian vision for this country.  He will once again need his side tracked extreme nationalist Steve Bannon.  Reince Priebus will be fired in a week or two, an unwitting casualty of  Trump's misery abroad.

Just some thoughts...

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Whiner in Chief evokes "history"

"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician U.S. history".  That's from an early morning tweet today by Donald Trump.  Talking about himself yesterday in his graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, he said "No politician in history --- and I say this with great surety --- has been treated worse or more unfairly."

This is from the man who whose knowledge of history led him to suggest that Andrew Jackson was alive at the time of the Civil War.  Trump exists in a bubble of self regard, irregardless of facts.  The troubling comments per day are accelerating.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wall Street finally acknowledges Trump implosion

The metaphorical Wall Street has blinked.  After more than 100 days of ongoing chaos from the Trump administration and the "maestro" himself,  the last ten days have been a storm of continued dysfunction.  Investors capitulated today, and what comes next is unclear.  A further decline may well happen, or a modest bounce back could reassure for a day or two.  What is clear is that Trump is imploding.  There is no control mechanism for his narcissism and immaturity.  He will not last as the President for four years.  His every move seems to compound White House problems.

With the huge amount of power that our system gives the President, there is always the possibility that he could do something rash, or even unthinkable.  That's a big concern.  He has surrounded himself with so little quality leadership that one must wonder where sound advice might come from. Melania has no role or cares to have one.  Ivanka and Jared are already hugely compromised. Tillerson would leave the cabinet if he could come up with a good excuse.  Pence is a pathetic syncophant,  more frightening than most imagine as a possible successor who is waiting patiently with the hope of inflicting his extreme "values" and narrow mindedness on this nation.

When all of this is fully digested by investors here and globally, the outlook for the Republicans passing their vaunted agenda of lower taxes and a more stern society is in doubt.  The lack of a coherent vision of the future is not comforting to smart long term investors.  The strength of the U.S. markets over the last six months has been more relativist than rational.

We await with interest to hear Trump's comments on a market move that he will not jump to take credit for.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge", a Mel Gibson film

Awareness of this film here came while watching the Academy Awards presentation.  It seemed that Mel Gibson was being accepted back into the Hollywood fraternity.  Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for five or six Oscars and won two.  It was recognized at other award ceremonies as well.

The true story of a conscientious objector in WWII who served with extreme valor as a medic in the battle of Okinawa, it begins with a first half based on the life of Desmond Doss, the objector.  He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains countryside in the vicinity of Lynchburg, Virginia.  The development of his faith in less than ideal circumstances is the storyline and his decision to volunteer for the Army was one based on fairness, the need to contribute to the war effort while still following his beliefs.  It was a challenge.

The second half of the movie is in the battle for Okinawa.  At this point it becomes unequivocally a Mel Gibson film.  The war scenes are gruesome.  It is more like the type of battles that have been described in the Civil War, with troops of both sides running headlong into battle and at times almost certain injury or death.  Hand to hand combat with knives and bayonets is part of the scenes.  Some reviewers have described these scenes with great praise, and if blood and guts is what is required the film delivers with abandon.

It was certainly a diverting film but not one that was groundbreaking.  The combination of unshakable religious faith with extreme violence may be intoxicating to some, or could be viewed as troubling by others.  By all accounts, both financial and recognition for the film making, this movie was a huge success for the formerly embattled Gibson.

Hacksaw Ridge did tell an amazing story.  That Desmond Doss grew up in territory well known here, woods walked and gently rising mountains climbed with my father and grandfather, gave me the illusion that I had insight into the Doss that the film was trying to explain.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"The Sense of an Ending", comment redux

This book by Julian Barnes was read here five years ago and a comment was written on September, 19th, 2012.  Writing with some caution about the Man Booker Prize winner of that year, the post was focused on the positive and routinely noted the fine writing.

Read again now, and only minimally remembered from earlier, the book is almost solely about memory, and the stigma that the passage of time can place on events and "learning the new emotions that time brings".  Barnes continues, "Discovering, for example, that as witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been."

Barnes writes about the process of forgetting parts of the past, and whether that is much of an issue or just a focus of those who are older that exaggerates the concern. He is not writing about dementia or Alzheimer's, but simply mislaid facts that can resurface in an hour, or a day,or late at night.  He notes that in the midst of a concern about memory, "your brain, your memory, may surprise you.  As if it's saying:  Don't  imagine you can rely on some comforting process of gradual decline --- life's much more complicated than that."

While there is a somewhat linear story line of relationships, the look at memory, aging, and understanding of the past is the theme and the story seems to not be the purpose of the book in any important way. Then at the end, improbably, the unexpected resolution of the book's relationship puzzle puts the story line back in control.  The ending not only underscores the lack of memory's insight but also opens up the possibility that more understanding is possible.

In the prior comment on "The Sense of an Ending" this was hinted at, and during this second reading now five years later, it at first seemed to diminish the impact of a major part of the book.  Stepping back once again, the point may be that those late night examinations of events may yet lead to something.

Jason Bourne, the film

The television premiere of this fourth film in the Bourne series with Matt Damon aired last night.  It was released in 2016 to theaters and did well in the box office while it was received by critics with mixed reviews.   It was watched here with a combination of interest, confusion, and tedium.

The tedium came from the extended action sequences of car crashes, motorcycle chases, and fights with fists, guns, and knives.  It was frenetic as in the precious films and, if memory serves, a little more biased toward car and truck crashes.  It is assumed that piecing together the story line from the past was part of the attraction of the film to many devotees, and it was part of the effort here.  Yet, when an actual story line was followed, the film delivered on capturing the attractive aspects of this series.

Poor Nicky Parsons of the prior films was killed off early on, and the female lead became Heather Lee, played by a smartly photogenic and even tempered Alicia Vikander.  The assassin in the Bourne Ultimatum met his end here as well, eventually, after being an easy to dislike menace throughout. Tommy Lee Jones' role as the aging rough faced and corrupt CIA director also was completed.

This is the first Bourne film since 2007, which is not counting a weak substitute in 2012 with Jeremy Renner.  The story line also advanced ten years, as Bourne is pulled back from an off the grid life by Parsons, who lures him back into the spy game to deal with corruption at their heritage agency.

The development of this film suggests that another sequel is already in the mind of Paul Greengrass. Damon's co-star will surely be a more highly promoted Vikander   It will be watched whenever it comes out but one could wonder if these films can sustain their profitability given what must be substantial production costs related to the many film locations and the number of stunt men required.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps", new crime series from Nick Kolakowski begins

This new crime fiction novel should get some attention.  It hearkens back to the era of paperback crime novels that could fit in your back pocket and make a bus ride pass quickly.  At the same time it is completely current in observant references to time, place, and style of criminal activity .  While the True Crime Series reprints much of the older crime fiction and some genre extenders of today, "A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps" is much more than a regurgitation of the old model, while at the same time being an homage to it.  It is published by Shotgun Honey, an imprint of Down & Out Books.

Around ten years ago a journey through crime fiction was experienced here.  Of the veterans, Donald Westlake and his pseudonym Richard Stark were the unequivocal favorites.  For newer writers at that time a favorite was Jason Starr.  In recent years the genre has been neglected as the feeling was "I get the idea and have now read the best".  With Nick, a friend from the younger generation, now writing, it was necessary to dive back in.  It could be said that it was worth the effort, except that it was not an effort.  An exaggeration could be that it was noir crime poetry, and in fact the writing is compelling. There were a few nits noticed, noticed only because there were so few.

One location was surprising.  A main character would "sit with his chosen tailor in a cubbyhole of an office off Madison Ave.. who bemoaned  his dying art..." as he sat "in a hot and windowless shop." That shop is known here or one similar as an investor client who could buy anywhere recommended it to me years ago.  The finest fabric was not chosen but the fit of the suits made from scratch was exceptional and the cost was no more than basic Brooks Brothers.  That the fitting room was the size of a broom closet could be tolerated.

The book itself becomes somewhat frenzied as a doomed character morphs into a gun toting Elvis impersonator.  Don't ask... just read the book.  This is crime fiction that evolves into inevitable chaos and then ends in amiable uncertainty.  Always, always, I try to look for metaphorical or allegorical meaning in this genre, but it is not called "hard crime" for no reason.    

Brazen and bizarre --- the firing of Comey

Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director Comey is transparently self-serving.  The timing can be explained in only one way and  the rationale is clear.  First, Comey did not back up Trump when he claimed that Obama had him wiretapped during election, which was something Trump "learned" when listening to the neo-fascist broadcaster Alex Jones, and second, and more importantly, Comey stated clearly in Congressional hearings that the FBI was investigating Russian involvement with members of the Trump team during the election.

The Trump assertion that the firing was due to Comey's mishandling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton's e-mail is ludicrous.  Trump had praised Comey for his intrusion into the election and almost all opinion across the spectrum of political beliefs suggests that Trump benefited from Comey's clumsy efforts.

Much of the world was speechless at first, and remains stunned.  Bannon may be in the background but this move has his fingerprints all over it.  His surrogate Stephen Miller was most likely involved as well.  Did they tell Trump that this would be overlooked?  Did Trump with his bluster initiate this on his own?  There were multiple opportunities to fire Comey after the election if Trump's explanation is true.  The timing now is appalling.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Undisguised self dealing by Trumps and Kushners

It's as if they have no shame.  The only good thing that can be said of the self dealing for financial benefit coming from the White House is that it is transparent.  Today's NYT described a Kushner Companies road trip to Beijing and Shanghai to sell shares in a New Jersey real estate project that is building 1,500 luxury apartments in two Jersey City towers.  In the advertising, they have a picture of President Trump.  Much of the pitch details U.S visas that can be obtained for investments of $500,000 or more.  Coming out of the gate, they are using Jared's position for financial gain. Especially in China connections are viewed as crucial, and they are clearly touting them.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, George Packer was on a panel this week on Bill Maher's weekly show. They were discussing the Trump administration, and there was a suggestion by Maher and one of the panelists that at least Ivanka could be moderating the President's view.  The always balanced and insightful Packer rejected this thought in a polite way, saying that the pose by Ivanka and Jared is not consistent with their actions in the family businesses.  He suggested that they already are using their newfound influence for financial gain.  Packer noted that Ivanka could be "the H.R. Haldeman of the Trump administration".

The amazing thing about this is that they seem to have no idea that this could be seen as inappropriate and more importantly as demeaning to the Presidency and its integrity.  They don't care to know.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

A weekend of favorites here, Derby, Jazzfest, Fair

Historically speaking, a usual weekend of personal favorites is coming to an end.  The significance of this weekend began in 1973, my first year living in Louisville on Kentucky Derby day, or should it be week.  That year was the year of Secretariat, and with friends visiting from Chicago we were on the infield.  At that time the infield was not remotely as crowded as it is now, and getting a spot near the rail was not difficult.  Of course, we only saw a brief major snapshot of the race being at ground level, but it was remarkable.

Remarkable too were a few parties that were attended during that week.  It has become a ritual to watch the race since that time, in person, on the infield when living there and once in the stands as a guest, and in 1982 or 1983 when K and I attended from New York as at the invitation of friends who has great seats.  Seated just below us was ZZ Top.  All dressed up in blazer, tie, and shades, I lost money on every race, every one!  My smile occasionally wilted.  Still, it was a fine day.

Another ritual of this weekend began in 1976, my first visit to a lightly attended event, at that time, called the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  After hearing about the event from me, my parents began their many uninterrupted years of attending that event that they loved.  My return was not until 1981 after moving to New York and having enough money to return.  For more than half of the years between that time and 1999, I was there with my parents, plus K or Louisville friends or Danville friends or all of the above.  The last visit was 2008, the highlight of which was the completely revitalized and lively Frenchmen Street.

This year and last, the torch has passed to our younger daughter, a frequent traveler who is attracted to great events and attends with friends from Austin as they are within a reasonable driving distance.

The last significant event of this weekend for many years was the local SCA fair, an event to raise money for school programs.  It is by far the best event of the year in this town of 8,000.  A large school playground is visited by a traveling carnival with rides both for little children and daunting ones for all, activities, and those wonderful games that reward with sawdust stuffed animals. There are also local food tents, hot dog stands, ice cream trucks, a large tent with donated yard sale items including a large array of used books, and a bandstand for aspiring bands and singers among young people in the community.  Everyone was there.

From 1989 with children mostly, at times without, that was a place to be if not in New Orleans.  With almost juvenile enjoyment, the goal every time was to win one of the big stuffies, two were usually needed, at the basketball hoops that were too high and too small or at the softball basket toss which was eventually mastered.  At times the basketball shot was won easily, not too high and just over the front of the rim, and at other times far too many dollars were spent at the effort.  The last win was seven years ago when younger daughter was still with us and I wanted to bring something back to the house for her, for old times sake whether she wanted it or not.

There were lines for two baskets which were about ten feet from each other.  It was clear to anyone watching and the vendor on my line that I was past my basketball prime.  After five or six shots, most of which hit the rim or backboard but not in a way that was promising.  One last shot...  it was too high and to the right but it hit the rim, caromed sideways, and swished through the adjacent basket.  The attendant laughed and handed me the big prize of my choice.  Game over.

This year the Derby was watched with interest on television, no bets possible.  Traffic around the SCA fail slowed a trip to the grocery store.  A photo sent from Jazzfest today was viewed with great interest.  But that's it.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

"A Man For All Markets", personal experience from Edward O. Thorp

This book is subtitled "From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Best the Dealer and The Market".  From the title it is obvious from the start that this is not going to be a work of self-deprecation or an especially balanced autobiographical study.  After adjusting for that in the first chapter, and taking a pause for a week before picking the book back up, it was mostly an engaging read.

Thorp tells an interesting personal story which describes his life long skill in math, his career in academia, his successful hedge fund, and his wholesome and well meaning life.  The arc of his career is well told and interesting.  Whether it is gambling analysis or investment analysis, Thorp gives detailed descriptions of his systems of risk mitigation while making money.  At times, this detail can be tedious but understanding every nuance of what he writes is not necessary to enjoy the book.  With gambling, breezing through without taking the time to understand everything, as if I could, was easy to do while enjoying the ride.  In the financial investing portion , Thorp details all of the significant financial crises from the late 1960's until recent years and much of what he writes is an accurate understanding that many reasonably astute investors would have.  There is no groundbreaking information here but it is well done.  It could be used as a textbook that would be much more interesting than a standard recitation the market events described.  The investment advice that can be gleaned here is sound.

In its own way this was a fascinating book and kept my attention throughout.  Sometimes these days, that alone would be a great compliment.

Trump free zones

After watching the white male Republicans in the Rose Garden yesterday with their high fives and shallow goofiness have their celebration of the narrow passage of their so called "American Health Care Act", it feels necessary to create Trump free zones during the day.  That means no cable news during most of the day except for checks on the market during weekdays on CNBC.  Network news needs to be limited to the specific evening time slot.  PBS news to some extent and Vice News definitely still make the cut. Newspapers will be read thoroughly but not dwelled upon.  Editorials will be limited to reading headlines unless there is someone especially notable writing.  Periodicals will continue to be limited to the usual suspects.

This agitation withdrawal is meant to be healthy and lead to more productive days.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Andrew Jackson and the Civil War, Trump's view

We have a real problem here in this country that is becoming more obvious and more pronounced, if that were possible. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America, does not know fifth grade history.  From my hometown as the proclaimed "Last Capital of the Confederacy" it was first grade history but that is another story.

In one of his constant interviews and commentaries yesterday, he viewed Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, as someone whom he admired and who opposed the Civil War and wanted to stop it.  This is simply bizarre.  That is mixing different eras.  Mixing all history is the same mush as mixing health care initiatives, foreign policy practices, the history of other nations and on and on.  President Trump is an illiterate man by the standards of any basic education.  His resentment of others with any view of his particular dysfunction is viscerally hostile some could say, but his way of using this as a way of identification with his base has worked, whether that is brilliant or just an intuitive identification with a television dulled culture is for others to decide.

There is no simple answer.  Maybe just one.  His election had absolutely nothing to do with political parties, congressmen or congresswomen, senators, or major ad campaigns.  It was simply a gut check reaction by many who felt that they were abandoned or had nothing to lose.  The abandoned can include a portion of the immensely wealthy who feel the never requited need for personal confirmation of their worth, like Schwartzman for good reason, and to some of the middle class and borderline lower middle class who are exhausted with their decline. The "nothing left to lose" are those whose cultural identity has been eroded to the point where the once and still voter substantial  "white middle class" had begun to seem like a loser term in their lives. Their station in life has been diminished, everything from their local prejudices, regional ambitions, social networks, and philanthropic leadership have been wiped out by a wealth hierarchy in all but the smallest of towns.  All of this is complicated, but the "left out" is simple.

Growing up in a modest sized town that was petri dish where every strata of society was visible and for the most part either embraced or accepted and, while not being at top of it, I have always felt that all of this society can evolve and be understood.  The election of Donald Trump throws that into doubt.  He is "reinforcing the negative" with his unseemly description of  "American carnage" in his inauguration speech and the graphic tales that he provided on the steps of the Capital.  Any "accentuate the positive" only deals with himself.

Calls to action on issues like climate change and women's recognition and the importance of scientific facts are laudable, but Trump must adapt to the real world or go. See Evan Osnos in this week's New Yorker on how that, however unlikely, could happen.

HRC is unstoppable

Hillary Clinton is back and talking, more than ever.  She is not the future.  She is not even the present. As said in a post on April 7th, she should never have been in such a vulnerable position in early November.  Her self-centered unfocused campaign sacrificed the issues that many support to her personal whims. Listening to her out of touch young campaign manager Robby Mook above all else, she displayed her need for obsequious help.  Now that she is becoming more outspoken about the reasons for her loss, it is becoming clear that there was no good outcome available in the election. Trump is a dangerous man, but with Hillary there would have been no direction known.  She too would have been scrutinized for competence.

Just as Donald Trump could ultimately destroy the Republican party if its adherents don't eventually stand up to him, Hillary Clinton could destroy the Democratic Party by persisting in representing herself and her husband as the avatars of the Party.  At the moment Tom Perez and Keith Ellison have no clout or significance, but others could rise up, and they will if a normal progression is allowed. Just a strong opinion here, but she must step back.  She is not just "an activist citizen" as she said today.  She is an activist self promoter with a minimal core following.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Big bank break-up?

According to Bloomberg News and to Gary Cohn,  Trump still supports his call during the campaign for a 21st century Glass Steagall.   Whether he has any understanding of what that entails is doubtful. While in some quarters across the political spectrum that would be welcome, the purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits of the idea.  It is to discuss the rationality of letting Donald Trump and his team reorder the national and in fact global banking system.

It is no mystery why Trump is in favor of the idea.  While he is tolerant of Jamie Dimon and other bankers, many large banks more or less blackballed him by the early 1990's.  Trump lied to bankers and sued bankers during his scrapes with bankruptcy in the late 1980's.  He was widely viewed as untrustworthy.  Of the four major banks that led to today's JPMorgan Chase, only one lent to him at all after 1991.  The original JPMorgan, Chemical Bank, and Manufacturers Hanover ended their relationships with him at that time, or a year or two earlier, while Chase Manhattan maintained what could only be called a schizophrenic relationship with Trump, befitting of their less than stellar management before they were gobbled up by Chemical in early 1996.

There is one other explanation for Trump's opinion on this.  His head of the National Economic Counsel and most favored economic adviser at the moment was a long time Goldman Sachs banker who had risen to President of the firm.  Traditionally commercial banks and investment banks were serious rivals, especially as the commercial banks were allowed to expand their powers.  Cohn's DNA would be such that he would enjoy seeing the break up again.  The balance sheets that the traditional bank run investment banks have has put huge pressure on Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and the tribes of pure investment banking employees that still exist.  It is natural that a Street fighter like Cohn would enjoy the battle over a break up.

More to come...but the point of the above is to suggest that any such considered action should not be based on intuition, resentments, or competition.  This is a serious topic that could become a maelstrom of bad ideas.  Opinion here is that big banks are necessary and beneficial if regulated and managed well.  The Trumpeted great America would diminish if it participated piece meal in global banking. Goldman Sachs would not care about that in the least.

 In his own unique way, Trump is clueless.  Maybe that is said in different ways post after post.  It doesn't make a difference. Read Evan Osnos's article in the current New Yorker magazine about letting Trump go, if a reader feels the same.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Vice News

The Vice News program at 7:30pm on weekdays here on the East Coast has become a must watch show.  It touches on the major news of the day briefly, news that does not need to be repeated to anyone with interest who has a radio, cellphone, television, laptop, or desktop.  Dispensing with that in a few minutes it moves onto well done news segments narrated by young and diverse journalists. That in itself is refreshing, but the choice of stories to cover is often eye opening.  Tonight there was a segment on a disease that is killing bats in enormous numbers, as much as 80% gone in the eastern half of the country. According to the program, bats are a major natural killer of insects that destroy crops.  This disease continues to spread west.  One more bit of information to be concerned about for sure, but information is good.  Unpredictable segments occur most nights, and it is a relief from the DT's dominance, Trump pun intended.

This half hour segment, sometimes maybe just 22 minutes, provides new information most nights. There are no advertisements on HBO of course, so the times when they have less material are still the equivalent of the ever boring network news 22 minutes, that time that has news readers tell viewers what most already know, a summary that is still checked here when convenient, and is concluded with human "interest" stories that provide no information at all.

Around ten years ago a good friend of mine, a particularly focused friend when it came to news of importance and social issues, suggested that the Daily Show was by far the best news program to watch.  That surprised me at the time, but I understood what he was saying.  The standard networks were lame, but PBS still seemed vital and more focused.  Now PBS, due perhaps to funding issues that may soon be exacerbated, is each night a series of panels, often with repeat and predictable guests.  Their best segments are about international news, which is produced by a globally focused network that they interact with or support.  PBS is now watched but often interrupted by the change to HBO after the first half hour.

Problem solved here now.  The second half hour of PBS can now be watched on the public news channel on Long Island at 6:30pm. the first half hour on the Manhattan public news channel at 7pm, and then Vice News at 7:30pm.  That means forfeiting that opportunity to watch Lester Holt, David Muir, and Scott Pelley, each of whom make somewhat more than $5mm a year to read and look good. It is clear now that these programs are to the networks just a cash cow being milked for residual benefits as they replay some of the same news night after night.  On both CBS and NBC, Dr. Dao of the United beating and drag out in the aisle has been seen almost nightly for over a week and a half. He should talk to the Emmy's for a nomination.

Point is that the networks are not investing in their old mainstays, PBS is limited in its financial and message reach, and HBO is forward looking and almost surreptitiously very cool.   Maybe openly.

AMT still widely misunderstood

In articles on the Trump tax plan today, NYTimes writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Alan Rappeport repeat the myths of the AMT.  They are surely relying on sources for the analysis rather than their own research, and they misrepresent what the hopefully doomed tax regulation has done.

They write, "...alternative minimum tax, a parallel system that primarily hits wealthier people..." in one article and in another article just Rappeport writes that "the alternative minimum tax makes it harder for very rich individuals to game the tax system and pay less tax."  This law was implemented in 1982 and for its first 30 years was never indexed for inflation.  In 2012 an Obama rule began to require indexing but only with that year being the base.  Having railed against this regulation here for many years and doing the research, the law penalizes taxpayers with income beginning at $150,000 if they live in areas with high state and local taxes, and has no impact at all on at all on taxpayers with incomes over $750,000.  Those at the higher end of that range are certainly wealthy people but the tax has no impact on the wealthiest, including the vaunted or reviled 1% in most areas.

NYT reporter Neil Irwin accurately points out that the AMT is so complicated that without hiring a tax firm or a capable accountant it is hugely time consuming to calculate and even with the best tax preparation software the job will not be completely done.  It is also incredibly annoying that to most people the calculations required are inexplicable.  It is by that measure an anti-democratic rule. While the Trump tax plan has both outright flaws and many potential ones, doing away with the AMT could only be greeted with "good riddance".

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Trump administration tax plan

The Trump administration released a brief overview of its tax plan today as prematurely promised.  Any comment on this would be premature as well, but better to write something as a quick reaction before the media has turned all comment into a hash that get mashed into mush by Spicer's responses.

---A 15% corporate tax rate is too low.  20% might be a reasonable compromise if there is a housecleaning of  existing exemptions, exclusions, and other tax breaks.  A rate of 15%, down from an average corporate rate of 27%(nominal top rate is 35%) would be too much for corporations to digest efficiently so much of it would just go to stock buybacks, dividend increases, and higher compensation for upper management.  Less than 20% of Americans have any substantial exposure to the stock market, so equity market gains as a result of these actions would not benefit most consumers or the middle class.

---This could lead to an effort to push as much personal income into business income to get the lower rate, especially at 15%.  This would be a variation on the completely abused "carried interest" tax break that hedge fund owners still benefit from in a huge way.

---A lower tax window for repatriation of overseas assets could be an obvious way to deal with a need for capital investment and infrastructure investment, both public and private.  Dealing with this issue in a constructive way is long overdue.  In some cases those overseas profits have been fairly taxed already in their overseas jurisdictions and in other cases they have not been.  There is no way to do this in a way that will please everyone, but biting the bullet and getting this issue at least partially behind us means taking action.  It should be noted that a meaningful amount of these overseas balance sheet assets will stay there regardless of incentive, as they are there to reinvest in manufacturing, servicing, and research for the regions that they are in.

---Fortunately, the  twit Paul Ryan pushed "border adjustment tax", aka a tariff, has fallen out of favor at the White House.  Maybe Trump discussed it with his friend Xi.

---On the individual front, elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax is long overdue.  It is outdated and has never been adjusted for inflation, so it is essentially an upper middle class tax burden that never touches the wealthy.  When Bill Clinton had a budget windfall due to the tech boom, the AMT was already lame, but he refused to touch it in his last year in office in order to burnish his reputation for sound fiscal management by making sure that he had a budget surplus. That was typical Bill Clinton.

---Eliminating the 3.8% additional capital gains tax that is supposed to partially fund the Affordable Health Care Act could be considered positively as a reaction to one-offs that are just more taxes, all really just put into the same bucket. Negatively it can be seen as simply part of the overall attack on Obamacare.  Specific reasons for additional taxes can lead to abuse by the politicians, just as overuse of executive orders can lead to an exaggerated pattern for others to follow.  Who would want an immigration enforcement  surcharge?  On the other hand, causing millions of Americans to lose their health insurance could be called cruel.  Two sides to this seen here.

---There is no explanation yet of the three tax brackets proposed, but simplification of the tax code could be positive.  The gap between the first level of 10% and the second level of 25% is huge.  It will be interesting to see those brackets, and it is impossible to comment on without that information.

---Complete elimination of the estate tax is so transparently driven by Trump's personal agenda that it should be laughable.  Now we are forced to take proposals like this seriously.  The estate tax as currently written is far from perfect but to grant complete license to Trump, Schwartzman, the Koch's, and other billionaires to exploit the U.S. economy with abandon and without acknowledgement of their benefit from this country is not right, as well as not being sound tax policy.

---Raising current estate tax minimum levels would be a good thing for small business owners and would be a positive change.  For a family to build a business that they have constantly reinvested in and then for  their heirs to need to sell it to pay tax is a result of an overly assertive government that is behind the times on valuations of firms and their real estate.

---Increasing the standard deductions for individuals could be a positive for the middle class and lower middle class that would not seriously impact the budget.  Details are needed to say anything more.

That's it for a quick comment that could be outdated in a day or two.  This will require legislation and that needs to be seen.  Can the Trump administration put it together and can Congress pass anything that is not filled with even more complexity than already exists?  Good question on the first and unprecedented on the second.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What will Trump bring this week...

Last week it was positive comments about Marine Le Pen, a call to Turkey's Erdogan to congratulate him on the vote allowing him to establish an oversight free autocracy, and his remarks following polls that show his approval numbers flagging, which he viewed as positive when considering that all mainstream news was "fake news, not true".

Donald Trump should not remain President for four years.  His careless spontaneity, never ending campaigning for himself, and total lack of insight into foreign policy are degrading to the office.  Any hope that he will change is wishful thinking, dangerous thinking.  What eventually happens is unknown, but something inevitably will.  Whether that's sane people in his own adopted or hijacked party standing up to him, or a decision that he makes that defies logic and causes a huge problem or worse, this will not continue for four years.

Is this just "wishful thinking", or an accurate prediction?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"The Man Who Wasn't There"

This film from 2001 was watched tonight.  It was new here, and stumbled into on a night when a good film was needed.  It's an unlikely Coen brothers film, with Billy Bob Thornton, Francis McDormand, James Gandolfini, and Scarlett Johansson among others.

It is a noir crime drama set in a San Francisco suburb in the late 1940's.  The pace of the film is steady. Nothing is rushed.  Thornton, as the main character, is a stoic low key barber who speaks as little as possible but aspires to a better life.  This aspiration evolves into a story that includes blackmail, murder, cooked books, an unfaithful wife,  a major car wreck, two trials, and an execution. The overall story hangs together in a straightforward and not completely predictable way.  I doubt if it is seen by many as a great film, but it was engaging enough for tonight.  Overall it was a grim tale.

It was on Starz and will no doubt be shown again in the coming days.

Trump visits Walter Reed

To remind the public of what a fine person he is and to create a distraction, Donald Trump visited Walter Reed military hospital to pin a purple heart on a wounded soldier who had been shot in Afghanistan.  His leg had been amputated.

The soldier was not caught smiling in the photos.  His wife, standing next to an uncomfortable looking Melania, did smile.  As Trump awarded the purple heart,  his words were "Congratulations... tremendous."  Trump's vocabulary is limited, but those words seemed out of place.  Thanks for the soldier's service in the military would have been more appropriate.  The photo was taken in front a windowed room that had memorabilia in it, most prominently a large photo of Trump.

One could surmise that Trump was thinking about himself, posing.

Friday, April 21, 2017

"not quite Whitey Bulgar"

That title was a quote in an article forwarded to me by a friend.  It was in reference to that Georgetown friend, Scott, who was part of the Slug's post one or two days ago.  It has been chronicled here before.

There were many other places that we went.  Two more that others are less familiar with are worth mentioning, at least to keep my fingers agile here on the keyboard.  The first was an Irish bar area in the Bronx in the late 1960's that was a late night cataclysm.  There was bar after bar down a street at the bottom a slightly rolling hill.  When ordering a beer, you were given a chip next to your glass that meant the next one was free.  More often that not when ordering another one, a chip was again placed down.  It was an Irish drinker's paradise.  I am one quarter Irish.  My quarter was satiated that day.

The second was what a few others may have experienced.  That was La Boeuf a la Mode, a French family owned restaurant that was a half block from the upper east side apartment building that was Scott's lifetime home. His parent's had an account there and even as a child, whenever he wanted he could walk there and get a meal, lunch dinner whatever.  It was like a second home for him, and if meals count it was his home, away from his somewhat delinquent parents. The restaurant owners treated him and anyone with him in a special way.  The menu was beside the point.  What do you want was the question.

 He took me there often on that post Europe visit and other times.  In a twist, friends from Louisville were visiting in the early 1980's, extremely wealthy people who had an apartment on Fifth across from the Met who I knew through my tennis club in that cloistered city, and after drinks they asked where to go.  I suggested La Boeuf and took them there, and they were stricken with delight with this hidden bistro. Those "friends", never seen again, most certainly used that as their surprise place many times, immensely knowledgeable about Manhattan that they were.

Dinner on the way here soon, suburban oriental fusion of sorts.  It's ok.

The flower girl

That title should be "woman" and she is one of Kathy's caretakers.  She comes in the mornings from time to time and, now that is springtime, she takes K out in the wheelchair to pick flowers.

In this pristine area there is abundant opportunity.  An estimate here would suggest that at least half of the homes have residents who spend more than half of the year in Florida but maintain complete gardening attention around us.  Then there are those who have houses here just for the school district but actually live in Queens ethnic neighborhoods.  The point of this is that there are few people around to care if a few of their flower are chopped off for a vase in Kathy's view.

The flowers are spectacular now.  There are daffodils, lilies, tulips, daisies, and a few other multi-flowering plants. The combination in a vase becomes a nice scent and attraction to the den where K spends much of her day.  More importantly it is an outing for fresh air, and with a purpose.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Slug's, a legendary jazz bar

In the fall of 1971, I returned to the States after a three month seat of the pants cheap and wonderful vagabonding trip around most countries in Europe with two friends from college.  They lived in New Jersey and went straight home.  Being in New York City upon arrival and with no reason to head back to a hometown in Virginia, a call to a Manhattan born and raised college friend led to an invitation to visit.

There had been several visits to New York with him while in college but just for a night or two.  This time he welcomed me to settle in at a sub-floor in his parent's high rise building where they had a massive apartment with large window views of the East River.  Where I stayed was a combination storage area and servants quarters, perfect.

He was adrift like me, and had decided to got to law school.  He had time.  One of our night's outings included a trip to Slug's, a jazz bar downtown, very downtown, on East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C, alphabet city.  At this time there were no streetlights in that area, few cabs dared go there, and street traffic was minimal(it was still that way in the '80's when I moved here but somewhat accessible to A).  The walk there was a bit unnerving with no pedestrian traffic and no cars around.  It was a place where only people who knew what they were doing and where they were going had a chance of being safe. Looking a few yards short of being a homeless person could be helpful.  That may have been me after that long trip.

How my friend Scott knew about this place so well is unknown.  He was completely comfortable there, even known, as I was soon after the music took hold.  We had arrived at around one in the morning and left at near daybreak.  It is an experience long remembered.

Today that club is much more than a footnote in jazz history.  It opened in 1964 and closed in 1972.  I have no idea who was seen the very late night that we were there, but during the club's time everyone, important including Miles played there.  It can be thought that I went to Joe's Palm Room, Chez Allard, Fillmore East, the 17th street Tramps, Pete Fountains, the Dragonette, the first Quattorze, the Cellar Door, and many other fine intimate places, but Slugs is perhaps the most unlikely for me and the one that is still vibrantly alive in history today, as it will stay.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Doctor's visits

Over the last two days we have had three visits to doctors, all part of a normal schedule.  They were each handled efficiently, meaning no long waits.  One was completely easy and two were tedious as it's a new year, the first appointments in 2017, and forms filled out previously needed to be completely redone.  Since they already had all of information from before, this was mildly annoying.

There was no news.  The old adage of  "no news is good news" could apply, but of course there is always the hope of an "Aha" moment from a doctor who would recommend a new medication that would be beneficial.  That did not happen.

Overall it felt like a great deal of effort for no benefit.  The best thing that can be said is that those "necessary" appointments are done for the moment.  This is the upbeat comment for the day?

Postscript:  medium rare New York strip steak and salad tonight, plus sauteed spinach and sauteed broccoli, both with whole garlic which K loves, from a local restaurant as well as some pasta marinara.  That's the reward for duty done.  Still cooking here and making the usual mess.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"The New Yorker Today"

As a long term subscriber to "The New Yorker", I am addicted to the style and content of the magazine.  Some of its regular contributors are "must reads" as soon as the magazine arrives each week.  Now there is an almost overwhelming additional benefit.  "The New Yorker Today" shows up via e-mail most days.  Can someone remind me when this started?

Articles in the published magazine will be included, but new articles, updates, and even a new cartoon show up on "Today".  This is quality writing and news daily, such that a new softer desk chair may be needed.  This may force me to buy an IPad, belatedly is too weak as a modifier.  What a bargain this magazine has become with this regular feed of new material and thoughtful comments on completely current news.

With a few exceptions, equity market remains relatively stable

Market averages today were driven by some major declines in a handful of names.  The largest individual stock positions in portfolios here are not surprising --- Apple, Google(the Alphabets), Johnson and Johnson, Visa, Costco, and Facebook.  JNJ took a hit today that was noticeable.  Among the next tier of large exposures are GE, Kimberly Clark, Lockheed Martin, JPM, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and smaller caps Insteel, Hexcel, and Valmont Industries.  Goldman Sachs was whacked today after what on the surface looked like decent earnings.

When names like those two that were hit today take such material declines, it sets the overall market on edge.  An investor does not want to buy a stock one day that looks like a market leader, and then see it create a large loss within a few days.  It is a diminution of their portfolio that can likely be absorbed, but it can also be an aggravation that is taken like a personal insult.  It creates caution in the market.

JNJ and GS are both long term positions here and prior gains make today's declines feel like a normal part of ownership.  For more active traders, it could sting.  We watch for more reactions in the next few weeks to any earnings misses, wondering how punishing the market will be.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Sully", the film

This film was watched here yesterday.  For the most part it was an unremarkable film but good enough to sit through.  What was most interesting was the way that the National Transportation Safety Board(NTSB) questioned Chesley Sullenberger about the flight, suggesting emphatically that he had the capacity to reach either LaGuardia or Teterboro rather that land on the Hudson.  While the NTSB disputes that account, the film unequivocally shows hostile bureaucrats berating the hero pilot for his actions.

Ultimately Sully is vindicated, but not before being put through significant stress and uncertainty.  As a family man with bills to pay and not exactly a perfect marriage as this is presented, it is a difficult time for him that the world could not see. What is noteworthy about this is that the film was released in September 2016, two months before the election.  Government bureaucracy was depicted as the villain in the film.  A producer of the film was Steve Mnuchin, at the time Trump's fundraiser and now the Secretary of the Treasury.

Is this all just a coincidence?   Who knows...