Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Problem with Income Statistics

There's been some recent data on which both the left and the right seem to be concentrating.   It seems that this economic recovery has not been as robust as anyone thought it would be.   In some stats wages have actually declined.   The numbers have been very harsh on workers without a high school diploma but even not very friendly to college graduates.   In January, for example, total income (according to the Feds who keep those numbers) income declined month to month by 3.6%.  Real wages for many income groups have declined.

Some part of the left (like former Enron advisor Paul Krugman for example or Robert Reich) believe that incomes have declined because there is not enough government.   They continue to subscribe to the "public squalor" argument first advanced by John Kenneth Galbraith (if we only had more government we would be better off).   Some of the right (for example, John Taylor and Paul Ryan) sees the slow income growth as a function of too much government.   If we could just reduce the government's hand in the economy and reduce the level of debt, incomes and economic growth would be kick started.

The chart at the left is one from Catherine Mulbrandon's wonderful resource on income statistics.  It shows job growth by sector by income between 2000 and 2011.  So, for example,  during the period the number of government jobs in the economy grew and their average income was a bit over $60,000.  Health care and social assistance grew significantly but their median income was a bit lower.

Mulbrandon's chart, which was published widely this week in places like Wonkblog got me to think about the issue.   And while I generally subscribe to the arguments from people like Taylor and Ryan - there is a bit more going on.     As Mitra Toosi (of the Bureau of Labor Statistics) has suggested the workforce is composed of three groups (at least as it applies to this question) entrants (those starting to work), stayers (those continuing) and leavers (those retiring or leaving the workforce for some other reason).    The mix of those could have a profound effect on aggregate income statistics.   The chart above is from a paper by Toosi which projects workforce participation to 2050 by age.   Note that even then there will be some remnants of the boomers still in the workforce.  But the dynamics of the three groups may influence the aggregates.

Let's try an example to illustrate this.   I retired from my CEO position at the end of 2011.    My successor was hired with an income that was about a third lower than the final level of compensation I received.  Over time her compensation will grow to match or exceed what I achieved (assuming she does well - and I make that assumption).  At the same time, while I retired comfortably, my income has declined from when I was working full time.   If we had a two person economy, aggregate income would have declined.   But neither of us is worse off.

All this is not to denigrate the arguments for reducing deficits and for putting the economy on a sounder path to economic growth.   But it is to say that when you hear some politician or pundit making a point about income statistics, take the words with a lot of caution.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

50 Years after "I have a dream"

Over the weekend there was a lot of coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington(which is tomorrow) where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream speech."  I listened to some of the clips from the speeches and read a lot on the coverage of that much smaller event.

I had four impressions.

#1 - When you re-read the "I have a dream" speech you get a sense that Dr. King was particularly blessed that day.  His rhetoric was soaring.   The main premises were well thought out, but at least according to contemporaries, King extemporized throughout the speech which added substance to an already well done speech.

William Safire at one point did an analysis of the speech and argued that several of the key phrases and some of the cadence can be traced back to earlier speeches by other political figures in our history.  Bill was not making a criticism rather he was making the point that some of the best speeches build off others.  If Bill's analysis was correct, it does not take away from the impact that King produced.

#2 - The rhetoric over the weekend was not soaring but pedestrian.   I am not sure why Al Sharpton is presented as one of the leaders of the African American community.  But he showed himself again as a clumsy buffoon.    An initial premise of Dr. King's speech was that a good deal of the responsibility for civil rights came from self help.  That trend came from earlier leaders in the African American community like Booker T. Washington, Frederic Douglas and even A. Phillip Randolph (who spoke in 1963).   Sharpton tried to make the same point in at least two instances.   In one (trying to make the point that disrespect for personal dignity is not a way to develop) he defamed two of the icons of the civil rights struggle (Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer).   He also made the point that "We need to give  them (young men in the African American community) dreams again, not to worry about sagging pants, but sagging morality"   He never seemed to get the point that many of the things he has supported contribute to that sagging morality.

#3 Eric Holder described the broadening of the concept of civil rights - "Our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities. And of countless others across this great country who still yearn for equality" - which just about sums up the errors of political correctness.   Most of the people at the rally over the weekend believe that civil rights are created by dividing rather than unifying.   As Al Gore once remarked they believe that "e pluribus unum" means "out of one many" which is exactly the opposite of the meaning of one of the key phrases in our national lexicon.

#4 - Finally, as I reflected on both the 1963 march and the one over the weekend I wondered whether the key issues that Dr. King was trying to addressed have been morphed with 50 years of policies which create more dependence rather than independence.   Sharpton used a particularly powerful analogy that Dr. King used about collecting on the debt of equal protection under the law and turned the phrase to sound like his main goal was to get a lottery payoff.

Clearly, in spite of the rhetoric over the weekend, the country has made significant progress in assuring equal protection under the law.   And just as clearly, the mountaintop which King used as his final metaphor has not been achieved.  But at least some of the restraint from achieving the goals has been created by public policies which inhibit ultimate progress and low bar rhetoric of this generation of "leaders."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Steve Balmer, Steve Case and Tim Cook - the varying fortunes of Tech CEOs.

Saturday's WSJ had an homage of sorts to Steve Ballmer who announced last week that he would retire (young) as CEO of Microsoft.  I've written frequently about this inflated ego but as they say on ESPN let's go to the video tape.  The Journal, succinctly and elegantly summed up his 13 year tenure.   The chart at the right (red is 2000/yellow 2013) compares the valuations of seven tech giants during the period that Mr. Ballmer was CEO of Microsoft.  He took a $600 billion company and made it into a $290 billion company.  More importantly he let the company's most important franchise struggle while missing the boat on a wide range of other products in the tech space.  In the article (which was another demonstration of the WSJ mastery of this new age of journalism) they presented the financial data but they also presented a timeline - which looks a lot like a continuous set of missed opportunities - he did not scratch the Surface nor did he have an Zune of an idea.  (Puns intended)   He often looked during his tenure as a petulant child; he whined,derided,and chided his opponents while failing to guide his company.

But there is another story in the chart.  Notice that at the beginning of the period AOL was a $100 billion company and now is less that $3 billion.  At the turn of the century a lot of people talked about the innovative genius of Steve Case (the AOL CEO who pulled of one of the most significant disasters of modern corporate history - the merger of Time Warner and AOL).     What also caught my eye was the valuation of Apple.  In the middle of September Apple will launch the new iteration of the iPhone (the one Ballmer said would not sell).   In the last year or so, Apple has ceded market share of both the smart phone and tablet market.  That may have been inevitable.  (They still sell a hell of a lot of units in a much larger market for both products.)   Critics have argued that Apple without Jobs is not Apple.

I am one of those Apple fans that is waiting to see what they will unveil for the rest of the year.   A cheaper iPhone; new versions of the iPad(s), an iWatch, an iTV - or as Monty Python frequently said - something completely different.   Under Ballmer's leadership the arrogance of Bill Gates turned sorry - a malignant manifestation of the gang that could not shoot straight.   From my view Tim Cook, the current CEO of Apple has a lot more going for him than Ballmer ever did.   But beginning on September 10, we will see whether the press lives up to the reality.   In Ballmer's time, it never did.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Another Example of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should"

This is a short post.   The chart at the left shows the associated taxes and fees attached to a projected car rental in Seattle.   I say projected because on a recent trip I finally decided that I would not use this rental company (fees for other companies are comparable) because of the almost 40% rate of tax on the rental.

Most all of these except the sales tax (at a whopping 9.5%) are adopted because the state and local governments think they can get away with it.   Seattle got talked into building a new sports stadium and car renters are asked to help pay for it.   The cost of the concession granted the rental company is amortized out over all the renters.   The rental car company even asks to have renters pay for the license plates.   Oh, and we also get to pay for funding regional transit.

The point here is that at some point travelers are going to be less likely to rent cars or stay in hotels or even visit places if the hidden taxes that residents of the city think they are shuffling off on visitors become even more onerous.   From my perspective a 40% tax is a bit too dear.   So on this trip I cancelled the reservation and used a shuttle.  The cost of the shuttle (which undoubtedly also had some of these taxes) was even less than the total tax bill on the projected car rental.  Too bad Seattle.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Reagan Presidential Library

Last Monday we visited the Reagan Presidential  library.  I've only been to three of the libraries - the two in California and the Kennedy library.   Among the three, this is the most interactive.  All three have a quality which seems a bit guided - but with this kind of subject that may be appropriate. There are lots of interactive exhibits that are very engaging.    Like the other two, the library has biographical as well as political material - so in this library there is lots of coverage of Reagan's early life, his movie and TV career, his two terms as Governor of California and his two terms as President.

There are a couple of things about the museum that are unique.   First, the museum contains a pavilion that contains Air Force One as well as the Presidential limo and helicopter.    I was struck by how small Air Force One was - remember that this was 727 which began service in 1973.  According to the museum seven presidents used this plane.  

In 1971, while I was working for a US Senator who died in office.   I flew on the plane they called the "body plane" - I think its official designation was Air Force Four.   It was used to carry the bodies of deceased politicians.   It had a catafaulk as well as a private seating area and then regular (albeit first class) seating for another forty of so.    The plane was carrying my boss back to Vermont after his funeral in Washington.   The museum also contains a replica of the Oval Office - which is impressive although because the windows do not catch outside light is darker than I remember it.

Second, after you complete the Air Force One exhibit you return to exhibits which has an interactive set of games on policy - that use technology quite effectively.   Third, at least until September, there is a temporary exhibit on Lincoln - which contains historic materials on the sixteenth president as well as parts of the movie set for the recent Lincoln picture.

As James Swanson's excellent book pointed out (Bloody Crimes) Lincoln's supporters made the time immediately after his assassination almost a pageant.   Some of the myths of Lincoln were created around that period.   The exhibit, compared to the rest of the museum is a bit disappointing although there many interesting current and historic artifacts.   There are also some silly ones (as to the right).   Fourth, there is one section from the Berlin Wall (on the outside) and a long section on Reagan's foreign policy.

The museum is set on the top of a hill in the Simi Valley which is impressive.   The architecture is California mission.   All in all the site is very accessible.

One interesting incident before we got started touring the exhibits, we visited the restroom.  There was a guy dressed as Lincoln who was next to me at the urinal.   An odd experience.

All in all, whether you liked Reagan or did not (I think he was one of our greatest presidents), the library is well worth the trip.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Self Serving Prophecies - a Larry Ellison specialty.

Larry Ellison has a well developed sense of himself, an ego to out match almost all others.   He has a string of efforts - some portrayed as visionary and some as simply the reigning tech guru that are downright bizarre - and often fundamentally self serving.

Here are four - when Apple was relieving it self of the Pepsi, German and Italian CEOs who did not understand the company, Ellison proposed to acquire the company for a song.   Fortunately, the Board at the time, which had had a strong of horrible CEO choices (John Sculley who thought designing technology was similar to designing Pepsi cans; then the board hired Michael Spindler - no not the guy who created Spindler's list - who is a short footnote in the lore of the Silicon Valley; then the board lurched again to hire Gil Amelio - who seemed more capable of writing a very bad autobiography than managing a technology company) ultimately figured out that Steve Jobs could come back and within a short period of time rebuilt the company.   Ellison's "rescue" was rejected and the rest is history.   Ellison did not want to rescue a California company but to pick it up for a song.

A second one about the same time was his blathering about network based computers.  One could argue that with the expansion of the cloud that he was simply 15 years early in his call for dumb terminals.  But that would be overly kind.   Almost every modern device is connected to the cloud.   But unlike the vision which Ellison proposed - those devices are not dumb but use the intelligence of the network in new ways.  Ellison's thoughts may have ultimately proven correct but one must not forget that a good deal of his original speculation was based on the assumption that Oracle in this new world would be a controller of much of the data that went through those dumb terminals.

Ellison is also is responsible for the rejiggering of the America's Cup.   The design specifications for the current series make the competition (which was already expensive) outrageous in cost producing very fast yachts which are also a bit hard to handle.   One wonders whether Ellison thought this new design would guarantee him the America's Cup once again or whether he just did not care about this historic race.

But then Ellison sounded off about whether Apple could survive without Steve Jobs- remember his earlier gambit where he tried to acquire a company he allegedly hated - in an interview on Charlie Rose.    Apple has been slower in this round ASJ (after Steve Jobs) in producing new innovations.  In the earlier period when Ellison tried to acquire the company BSJ (before Steve Jobs) their innovation cycle was a bit off pace.   But there are differences.   First, the market for tablets and smart phones began to change when they both became dominant platforms in their arenas.  

While the market continues to expand the need to get a new phone every few months is no longer as strong as it once was.  The key and simple fact is that IOS users have a much higher attachment rate than Android users to keeping up with the operating system.   As noted in a much earlier post - Android users operate on a variety of platforms while IOS users are predominately on the same platform.   That interoperability among devices is important and useful.   Apple will address the need for a less expensive smart phone and if the projected September 10 announcement on a new phone and a final version of IOS 7 is realized and it is followed up by an upgraded tablet set (full size and mini) then Apple will be in fine shape.

As we saw in the America's cup leadership it is not clear what Ellison was trying to accomplish - to add something or to cement his own position in the competition.   The same can be said of his pronouncement on the future of Apple (both before and now).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Winston Churchill - Hedgehog or Fox?

When my wife and I take a longish car trip we listen to books on tape.  On this trip we are listening to the Churchill biography the Last Lion - which I read when it came out but I am such an admirer of Churchill that I never cease to enjoy hearing more about him.

He was a master of phrases - when the labor party took over he said that "what had started out as utopia is now queue-topia."   Many of his wartime speeches represent economical use of the language that almost no other politician could master - "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

But as you go thorough this very thorough book I began to think about Isiah Berlin's famous essay on Hedgehogs and Foxes.   Berlin divided the world into two types of people - people who attempt to define the world through a single lens (Hedgehogs) and those who extrapolate off a wide variety of experiences (Foxes).  

Churchill was clearly a product of his time who viewed the world through a particular lens or set of lenses.   One can pick out elements in his life from fashion, to speech patterns to even great speeches like the Westminster College Iron Curtain speech - where he seemed to be defining the world that most had not recognized.   That would make him a hedgehog.    And yet, as you look at his life's work, especially his stint as a war time Prime Minister - he often seemed to have figured out how to fit the facts to the situation.   In some cases the perception of a single lens was completely off base.  That makes him look a lot like a fox.

So what do you think?


Today, I went back to Manzanar after about a 20 year absence.   When my daughter was in college my son and I drove by the spot where we interred Japanese Americans for a couple of years during WWII.   At the time I was first there, it was an abandoned spot.   There were some remnants of foundations of some of the buildings, but that was about it.

The climate in that part of Inyo county is hot in the summer and cold in the winter and often windy.   So one would expect that the temporary structures would not have survived.   And yet we should not forget this incident in our history.

Since about 2002 there has been an interpretive center and some reconstructed buildings including the guard tower in the photo to the left.  The exhibits are well done.   This is a place where every American should go.

The interpretive exhibits are actually almost unflinching in their description of what happened after December 7, 1941.   Within a very short period of time, Japanese Americans (many of the Californians were fishermen or farmers) were rounded up - many of those families eventually wound up in one of the relocation centers.  Some were allowed to relocate to other parts of the country - but many were simply put in the camps.   The federal government explicitly violated Constitutional protections yet at the same time they were imbued with the worst kind of bureaucratic speak possible.  The original director of the WRA was Milton Eisenhower.  The project director for the WRA was a person named Ralph Merritt - at one point in 1943 he said the following (it is not recorded whether he understood the irony of his statement) about the process of governance in the camps - Self governing is a process of growth from within, not the imposition of authority from without.   It is a slow process based on bitter experience."

It is hard to imagine the frenzy in the US, especially on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor.   So some supporters of the forced relocation justified it in two ways - they said a) this is not a concentration camp and b) it is being done for their own safety.  A young Warren Magnuson (who was later to be a US Senator from Washington) is quoted as saying "there were not 50 Japanese among the evacuees who are loyal to this country."  There were some Californians who were not taken up in this bigotry including the Presidents of UC Berkeley and Stanford who formed the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play.   But for the most part Americans supported these actions.  Near the end of WWII the Gallup organization polled people in five Western states (Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Arizona) on the following question -

Do you think the Japanese who were moved from the Pacific Coast should be allowed to return to the Pacific Coast when the war is over?
Results for the five States are:
  • Would allow all to return: 29%
  • Would allow only Japanese who are citizens to return: 24%
  • Would allow none to return: 31%
  • Undecided at present: 16%
The WRA is a blot upon US history that was only partially rectified when President Reagan signed an act offering partial reparations for the expropriation of all those people's property.

I was particularly struck with the work of the WRA because soon after I moved back to California, a farmer whose family had been relocated  told me his story.   He had offered to support me for a position on a planning board and I was at his property, near my house in the Natomas area (which was just being built), to talk to him about the position.   In his barn was a 1936 Dodge tractor that was in mint condition.  After we had gotten to know each other, I asked him about the tractor.  He said his family had bought the tractor before Pearl Harbor.   His family was forcibly relocated and like many other Japanese Americans who faced this peril, had all of their property expropriated.   When the war ended he and his brother who both served in the 442d in Italy with distinction, found the serial number of the tractor that the family had bought, found it, bought it back and ultimately restored it.   He said, without emotion, "as long as I am alive that tractor will never leave me."   It was a point of pride.

Sinclair Lewis wrote a semi-satirical novel about the rise of Fascism in the US called "It Can't Happen Here."   As one thinks about the WRA, one could have said , "it can't but it did."   We need to be on guard against the potential for wretched excess in government.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Political coverage in the news.... -

From the HUFF POST - Chris Christie Signs Gun Control Legislation In New Jersey

"New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a likely Republican contender for the White House in 2016, on Thursday signed into law 10 bills tightening restrictions on guns in the state....."

OK, so this is a story about the New Jersey Governor seeming to go against his GOP base.
So what did the legislation do?  The signed measures including 1) banning the purchase of handguns by people on a federal watch list of potential terrorism suspects, 2) stepping up penalties on some firearms violations and 3) exempting gun records from the state's open public records law.   None of those would seem to limit Second Amendment rights.

The bills also include bans on sales of .50 caliber weapons, institute background checks for private sales and require gun buyers to go through a safety course (which is currently required for to be eligible for a hunting license in California).   Those might be a bit more problematic but this is a state law not a federal one.

The Governor took no action on three bills which were of concern to gun activists.

What concerns me most about the headline and the subsequent story are two things.   First, accuracy - the first three bills, in my opinion are not gun control measures.  The second three are measures that, depending on local conditions, make sense.    

Second, despite the gun violence in the last year, I do not see a clamor for gun control legislation - but every state is different.   When I begin to look for candidates for President in 2016, gun control stands will not be an important part of my search.  Based on national polling - most Americans feel the same way.   The political conditions in New Jersey may warrant some new laws in this area, but as long as Mr. Christie respects the fundamental Constitutional rights in the Second Amendment, his actions as governor have no interest to me.   

I am not criticizing Huffpost exclusively.   I am sure some conservative sources are yammering about the Governor's signing of legislation - but as always one needs to look well beyond the headlines.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

What Passes for Diplomacy these days

The White House announced today that it would cancel a private meeting between Vladimir Putin and the President that would have taken place during the G-20 meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia.   The move was taken to reflect the general grumpiness that the Administration holds against Russia as a result of their decision to allow Edward Snowden asylum.

I find this quite amusing.   Let me understand this.   We are so grumpy that the President won't meet privately with Putin but we will meet with him in public.   Can they say hello across the table?  Does it mean that the president (ours) will glare across the table during the meetings or throw spit balls?   There are a several possible explanations of this move.   There are so many good choices it is just hard to choose.....

#1 - The Administration is really not that angry about not being unable to get Snowden back.   Any intelligence service with a brain might understand that every country of substance is constantly trying to find out stuff about every other country of substance in all sorts of ways and that Snowden's leaks are not that important.  We would never allow a low level contract employee access to all the good stuff.  (nah, at least to the last part).

#2 - The President believes that anyone deprived of a chance to meet privately with him will cycle into a round of depression unparalleled even in the Russian character that produced such uppers as War and Peace and that he will then have his revenge for allowing this leaker to get away with leaking stuff.

#3 - The President's pique with Assad and other tyrants has been so successful in achieving the administration's policy objectives that they will try the same thing again - another example of leading from behind.  He is creating a new standard of engagement (or is it disengagement?).

#4 - The President does not have a clue about how to get Snowden back and this is the best they could come up with.

#5 - This is a considerably better response than what the Administration put up in Benghazi.

#6 - Diplomacy is not in the learned portfolio of a community organizer.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

WAPO reconfigured

Yesterday the Washington Post was sold from the Graham family to Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) for $250 million.   In an open letter to the Post Community Bezos said the following - "So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely."

Donald Graham described the deal and explained that the Post has been bleeding cash (duh).  He looks a bit downtrodden but then with the last seven years of numbers it might be easy to understand.   Bezos will own this personally not as a part of Amazon.   But the synergies that could be produced are huge.  Post content could be integrated into Amazon content in many ways. The Post has always been a couple of steps off on the electronic side of the business especially from where the NYT and WSJ are in development of content and in making the format friendly to the electronic edition.   For the summer the WP has offered a free version of the paper and while it looks a bit better, when the trial ends I would not spend money to buy the paper.

The Post is also a paper in the middle.   It traditionally was a local paper, when I first lived in DC it had a raft of coverage of all the social events - political, diplomatic and community along with political news.   After Watergate it aspired to be a national paper of the stature of the NYT.   From my perspective it never made the cut.    Over the same period the WSJ moved from a paper focused on one audience to a national paper.   But the WAPO was stuck.   Of course, it had occasional stories that put it in the limelight but it never seemed to stick there.

During the Graham holding of the company, it diversified a bit by purchasing a couple of other newspapers and some related businesses and Kaplan.  As the details seems to have come out the rest of the Post empire which includes Kaplan and some other stuff, is not a part of the deal. That looks like a smart move.   This looks like a pure media play without all the baggage of the rest of the Post's things.  So this is Bezos using about 1% of his fortune of $25 billion to buy an asset that looks quite distressed.   But with some work and effort it could become a jewel.

My impression of the Post since I lived in Washington has been that it is a bit stodgy(indeed not just a bit), very connected to a part of the Washington establishment and not quite in touch with the rest of the country - but with some reporting abilities around the world that are pretty good.   In essence, it is a classic possible turn around story.    What interests me is whether the editorial policy of the Post will change.   Bezos has some libertarian leanings and those could benefit a paper which has been lapdog to the DC establishment for too long.

Bezos made a good point, he lives in the other Washington and claimed he does not want to become a part of the D.C. establishment.   Let's hope that happens.   The Post could benefit from some DC detachment.

One of my colleagues from work, when Amazon began, scoffed at the press that Amazon was getting.  He was an old time newspaper reporter who had had posts in London, Boston and New York.   He argued that the economic model for Amazon was flawed - but he did not understand the inherent ultimate economies of scale as things become digital (a key point of Chris Anderson's superb book Free).   If Bezos can combine an in depth ability to report the country's political news without becoming caught up in it, and if he can transition the Post into something more than it has been, then the NYT and the WSJ will have serious competition as the nation's newspaper.   We'd all benefit from the competition.

Great Satire - but of who?

Clark and Dawes are two wits in Australia that I first came into contact with when they did a Youtube on financial derivatives.    This edition is an "interview" with an opposition leader.   It is a great picture of the life of politics today - in most countries.

Friday, August 02, 2013

On the 44th Anniversary of Woodstock

I realize that the 44th anniversary of Woodstock is a couple of weeks away.   I will also admit that I was not a part of the million plus people who claim they who were among the 100,000 that actually attended the event.   I was getting married in Pasadena that weekend.

But over the last couple of days I had the opportunity to see the re-released movie put out by Warner Brothers.

I admit that I had not seen the movie in a couple of decades.   And some of the impressions that I carried in the back of my head were still there.   Canned Heat and Santana and Joe Cocker were great.   So was Sly and the Family Stone - I am not sure how Sly maintained that level of energy and performance for the sustained period of time - but he did.

There were also some inanities like John Sebastian and Arlo Guthrie who were great musicians if not a bit out of it.   There were several commentators who wanted to seem profound but now look odd.   And I wonder how some of those people in the movie look today.

But there is a sequence that starts with Janice Joplin's performance and then moves into the guy who cleaned out the porta potties and then shifts into Jimi Hendrix's performance.   Hendrix and Joplin died within a month of each other about a year after Woodstock - in September and October of 1970.   There are a couple of things which strike me about the sequence that may be a metaphor for the Woodstock generation.

I am not sure why the editors (Martin Scorsese was one of the original editors of the film) chose to include the part they did for Joplin - but the sequence is horrifying.   Joplin was a superb singer (and there is indeed a YouTube sequence (sound not video) which purports to present her performance of  Piece of My Heart at Woodstock.   But the piece the editors chose show someone who could not get close to holding a tune and rambled through some "lyrics" which were almost incoherent cries of desperation.    She says in the intro "music is for groovin not for putting yourself through bad changes..."  She seems an especially tragic figure.

I am not sure what the point of the sequence on the portapotty guy was.   The interviewer asks some questions and the guy who was working answers them politely - but the undercurrent was pretty negative.   It is almost a metaphor for what many have called the self-referential generation.    There are three undercurrents in the movie - the first is self important - we are changing the world; the second paranoic - I saw the helicopters seeding the clouds to cause rain; the third - mellow.   But in many sequences of the movie all three are bound up.

Then you get to Hendrix - who because of an unfortunate bit of editing seems to be playing to an empty crowd.   The Hendrix sequence is about 15 minutes and he spends most of the time demonstrating why many consider him to be one of the greatest guitarists in history. From my perspective it is well worth the cost of the whole movie.  He uses every inch of the Fender, and all three sets of pick ups and the tremolo bar.   He mixes a series of styles and inventions (for example in banjos you call his use of the left hand pull offs (technical term left hand pizzicatos) or hammer ons - he throws those in effortlessly) and a raft of other inventions to make the guitar sing.   It is almost as if we got to see him practice on stage but then he throws in the Star Spangled Banner and Purple Haze in almost a mosaic where he shows what all that thinking can lead to - it is a truly amazing piece of video.

I expect that as we begin to approach this 44th anniversary we will see several retrospectives on the festival and all the surrounding hoopla - but the sequence from Joplin to Hendrix actually sums up the event and the movement in pretty good fashion.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Perceptions of Progress

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities is a left of center Washington based think tank.   On Monday they published the following chart.

Note the title.   During the recession participation in what was once called the Food Stamp program (now called SNAP) the number of recipients (in the odd language of Washington when you receive your money back from Social Security you are a "beneficiary" - even though the return on capital is downright horrible; but when you receive SNAP assistance you are a participant) grew from just under 30 million (or about 10% of the population) to just under 50 million - or a bit fewer than one in six) and even though we are on a path to recovery - participation levels have been steady.    Question - if participation levels rose "because of the recession" and the recession is ending - shouldn't participation levels begin to drop?   Second question - was the slope of the increase in the number of recipients the result of increased need or increased recruitment?

Here is a key difference between the CBPP and most people.   The CBPP defines successful policy from Washington by how many people receive benefits; most people would define successful policy by how many people do not need assistance from Washington.   CBPP seems to have forgotten what Margaret Thatcher said about socialism - "The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money."