Reading, Michael Landon, Warren Buffet (Random Morning Observations).

  • I have been doing some very good reading lately. Many things contribute to good writing, but the most important is good reading.
  • In the books, Pa Ingells has a beard. When you’re producing television, you don’t cover half of Michael Landon’s face for the sake of accuracy.

After Minor League Hockey, Major League Soccer?

This report by and bizjournals is two years old, but I’m guessing the numbers, if accurate,  are fairly sticky.  The question:

“What North American cities are primed economically to host a major-league sports franchise and which ones are already overextended?”

The usual suspects emerge in most cases.  This interactive map displays them nicely.   It’s also how I learned that the numbers crunchers at Portfolio believe Allentown (the Lehigh Valley metro region, really) could support a Major League Soccer team.  Researchers looked at total personal income  (the total sum of all income in a given market) and concluded that while an MLB franchise requires a TPI of $83 billion, an MLS franchise needs a comparatively scant $13.9 billion.

Allentown metro’s TPI is $30.62 billion.  That’s $4 billion more than NHL city Winnipeg and 2 bills shy of Tucson for perspective. I know that Philadelphia (well, Chester) has a shiny new MLS team in the Union, but that’s not a TPI issue.  Given a local MLS team to go crazy for, Lehigh Valley soccer fans would buy in in droves, and so would a good many casual sports fans.  The Union would be our natural rival, with yearly Turnpike Grudge Matches and the like.  A-town would get a piece of the national broadcast action, with ESPN beaming live from our lovely new stadium on the Allentown waterfront a few times a year.  It’s too bad PPL, headquartered here, bought the naming rights to the Union’s home field. But those things can change.

Let’s put this on the fast track.  I’m willing to green light this ahead of my hoped-for Butz Tower (a hypothetical soul-mate for the Art Deco bachelor on 9th street).

Come on, Allentown metro.  You know you want to.

Cities and Prices (and Hockey), continued.

Friend of the blog Jon Geeting shared my Free Market post from yesterday with some good insights and responses at his blog today.  This is the kind of online discourse I really enjoy: people of good-will engaging each other respectfully across platforms. I encourage you to take part in the conversation at Jon’s blog, but I do want to share a small excerpt from my own response:

It’s fine by me that Rite Aid provides cheaper goods and medicines to Center City residents, and God bless them for it. But on the ground in Allentown, based on conversations I had downtown over the weekend, some civic leaders really are worried that it’s going to be hard to lure and place that kind of store in the near future. They’re not worried the same way about replacing the dollar store (which is also needed). Another question: why isn’t Rite Aid simply moving across the street or up or down a block? Why isn’t the efficiency of the market making it compelling for Rite Aid to stay in the city? And if Rite Aid won’t stay, why should we be confident that Walgreens will come? If the market worked exactly the way we wanted, there’d be no such thing as food deserts, or, in this case, prescription deserts, right?

For me, the immediate issue is also framed by the experiences some folks had at the three “arena open houses” last week.  For months, people have been complaining about the lack of transparency that seems to be guiding the hockey arena project.  Last week, open houses were held in which various stations were set up and the public could talk with city officials, developers, and the owners of the former Philadelphia Phantoms.  One of the problems with this format, well-intended as it might have been, was that there was no chance for real public discussion.  If I’m being cynical, I might suggest a sort of divide and conquer strategy at work.  In any case, the Rite Aid concern came to me from downtown religious and civic leaders following these open houses, and they are worried.  So am I.  I’m not at a point where I feel confident that the market, as such, won’t create a healthcare desert in Center City.

Thank you, Jon, for picking up this discussion!

The Free Market Works Best When (Or Hockey, Rite Aid, Thai Proverbs and Doubting Government and Business)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the free market lately.  In part, I’m wondering why Center City Allentown has one good drug store (Rite Aid), and why that one good drugstore is being displaced by the coming AHL hockey arena (I generally support the arena project), and what that drugstore is going to put up its next shingle in the suburbs, and where that leaves Center City residents no longer able to walk or take reasonable transit routes to a drugstore of any kind, and what all of that says about the degree to which markets are efficient at providing basic needs.

One might argue that the arena project would not be happening without governmental canoodling and the creation of a special tax district downtown.  Sure.  But that doesn’t explain why there’s only one viable option for prescription drugs within a reasonable distance for residents who either walk wherever they’re going (we all say we want walkable cities!) or take transit (we all say we want more people riding buses).  Some arguments will come and go from the fiscally arch-conservative side: the people downtown are poor because the government’s meddling keeps them poor.  If it weren’t for government, those people would have better jobs, cars, nicer places to live, better healthcare options and so on.

And yet, at a time when rental prices and retail space downtown are likely to be at their lowest points ever (so much vacant space, but lo, an arena project looms), I don’t see a whole hell of a lot of savvy business types flocking into even the nicest, newest spaces the city has to offer.  If ever there was a time to come in from suburbs to set up shop, surely it is now.  And yet. Indeed, the coaxing of various businesses with tax breaks and economically favorable statuses is a tweaking of the supposedly pure state of equilibrium the market is thought able to deliver.  We’re in an economic mess, say some, because of government meddling.  In the process of wars on poverty and building great societies, lots of people got screwed.  These are not of themselves outlandish hypotheses. But when some fiscal conservatives take the next step to say that government has no real, legitimate role in trying to fix the mess it has created, I get confused, Columbo style.

Government makes mess.  Government perpetuates mess. Government never should have made this mess in the first place, so now government has no role in trying to fix it.

That doesn’t sound right, does it?  The real kicker: let business do what business wants and business will save everyone.

I’m not anti-business by a long shot, but I am very anti-dogma.  Enron was a business.  All those big banks that helped bring us to the brink of ruin were businesses.  Wall Street is a business.  Yes, Congress is a business. Like government, business can do harm and business can do good.  Like government, business can be generative.  Like government, business does not deserve our total, utter, faith and trust.

Here’s when the market really can cure all that ails you:

  • Perfect information is universally available, obtained, and understood on all sides of every transaction and hypothetical transaction.
  • Every consumer or investment choice is made by perfectly rational beings with the same exact meta-goals.

So, in other words…yeah.  Sounds good on paper.

Unfettered beliefs in the efficiency and tangential goodness of markets or government aren’t tenable forever.  At the local level, we long to believe that a rising tide will lift all boats, and, to a degree, I think it will.  But I also read a Thai proverb today that gave me pause:

At high tide, the big fish eat the ants.  At low tide, ants eat the fish.

I’m not calling anyone an ant.  But isn’t this idea basically the fear behind the fear the well-horned have of the Occupy movement?  And isn’t it the fear most people caught somewhere in the disappearing middle have in general, that when push finally comes to shove, when things get REALLY bad, it won’t be push and shove but blocks on fire, looting, violence, chaos?

Even if high tides lift all boats, low tides come regardless. Will we trust the government, the market, or will we invest now in each other, in communities, in partnerships, in new ways of being neighbors?

This Is Not Recovery: Reading the Economic Indicators of Place

For at least the past five years, most of the new commercial development I’ve seen with my own two eyes has been the frenzied building of shiny new banks and drug stores. This has everything to do with the credit bubble, aging populations, strengthened lobbies, and thickening anxieties. And of course, we ought to be anxious. But there’s something not quite right about this tandem proliferation, is there? Something not quite right about the idea that as banks continue to prosper, even in the worst economy most (if not all) of us have lived through, so too do pharmaceutical companies. The less money we have, the less health care we have, the more anxious we are because of these things and countless others, the more, it seems, we spend on medicine. This is anecdotal, yes, but someone ought to look into the relationships between Big Pharma and Big Money. There’s absolutely something there.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen a new business trend. “We Buy Gold” and “Cash For Gold” stores popping up where suburban notaries, sub shops, and dry cleaners used to be. The economic indicators of place tell me, friends, that this is not recovery. This is not a healthy middle class. But the banks bank on, and the drug stores keep building. Now a new class of opportunist arrives, producing nothing. I like Pawn Stars just as much as the next guy (I really do), but we’re quickly becoming a nation of emergency liquidators prime for the picking. This isn’t recovery, and it’s not justice, either.

Oh, justice. No, the spread of proxy pawn shops to the suburbs doesn’t feel like you in your purest Form, but there’s a poetic justice here, a kind of irony: the struggle the middle class is facing is no news to the poor, to our cities, to our always-disenfranchised. But now it’s here for everybody else. Everyone without big pensions, bailouts, or golden parachutes. Everyone with a mortgage, a car payment, tuition. Almost everyone I know.

The High Cost of Cheap Goods: Going to Hell In a Hand-Held Device

091208- Mike Daisey @ TBA08 1c
Mike Daisey image by djbrokenwindow via Flickr

Three Pillars Trading Company is a client of mine. I’m producing blog articles for this fair-trade, sustainable import business, and from time to time, I’ll be sharing pieces of them here. My first post at Three Pillars is about the disgusting conditions that factory workers in Shenzhen, China endure while they put together our computers and hand-held devices. Yes, as fellow Apple fanboy Mike Daisey exposes, even our MacBooks and iPhones.

An excerpt:

Monologist and raconteur Mike Daisey recently spent hundreds of hours exploring the treatment of industrial workers in the Shenzhen region of China. His findings are nothing short of chilling, and he’s taking to the stage (and Internet) to get the message out. Mike makes the stunningly simple observation that while most justice-minded people work very hard to integrate their ethics and consumer choices when buying socks and sneakers, very few of us ever really stop think about the fabrication and delivery chains that produce our favorite hand-held devices.

Continue reading here. Whatever you do, be sure to click through and watch the video interviews TechCrunch conducts with Daisey. They’ll make you angry, sad, and sick. The fact that people like Mike Daisey exist might also make you feel some hope. As I’ve said before, if I ever link to anything I’ve been paid to produce, I’ll say so. That’s the case here, but, as you might know, I only take jobs from organizations I can get behind.  It would be great if you surfed from here to my cool new client, but much more important to me and to Three Pillars is that you please, please, please hear what Mike Daisey has to say. In fact, here’s a direct link right to the TechCrunch article with three video segments. They are worth your time.

As for Three Pillars, one of the chief goals of their blog is to provide a place of interest and information gathering around the the kinds of issues that people interested in fair-trade goods are likely to also care about. If you do make your way there, I know the Three Pillars folks would appreciate any feedback or comments you might have about how to make the blogging experience on their site all it can be. My job is strictly on the content side and I get to pick the issues I blog about there.  If you have suggestions, please let me know.

While we’re on the subject of sustainability, and since I used “hell” in the title (that’s just a figure of speech, Rob Bell), I’ll also say this: after watching Daisey speak, I’m seriously worried about the state of the Western soul. Most of us don’t know that a company as seemingly with it as Apple is party to the things happening in Shenzen. We get great products for low Western prices, but at an unknown human cost to people with even less access to power than most of our own unemployed homeless.

I’ll be honest. This makes me feel like shit. Since I read Karl Rahner in div school (Savvy Sister, are you a fan of his? I am.), I’ve always thought his take on original sin made the most sense: everyday, we’re part of sinful, evil systems that we don’t even know about. Doing something as simple as buying a banana (let alone an gallon of gas or an iPod) might end up supporting unspeakable evil. The same goes for your retirement funds. Unless you’re in a socially aware mutual fund, chances are your IRAs are funding weapons and Chinese petro companies with dirty hands in Darfur. Shit, when I worked in finance, even the so-called “socially responsible funds” invested in Big Pharmaceuticals and Big Banks because after taking out cigarette makers,  arms makers, gambling companies, pornographers and environmentally destructive firms, Banking and Medicine were the only two industries left. If you want a brief rundown on how powerful those industries are, consider if this is true where you live like it is here: most of the most consistent new construction going on prior to the banking crisis and even after was and is for new banks and new drugstores. I’m not saying prescription drugs aren’t legit or that there’s something wrong with taking medicine as directed, but we all know that on the R&D and supply ends, opportunity for corporate abuse is rife. I don’t think I need to say anything at all about banks and financial institutions. You know where I’m going.

Where does all this bullshit evil come from in the first place? I know the following:

  1. everyone we meet is fighting a great war.
  2. Karl Barth, (Karl Rahner’s Protestant Number) said that evil is the aggregation of humankind’s repeated choice of Das Nichtige (very basically: choosing “Not God” (aka “Nothingness”) instead of God, who is life) played out in history.   He’s not very far from Rahner here when it comes down to it: Evil is a given, and it gets amplified as we continue to choose it (or, finally, participate it in unknowingly because it’s so entrenched).  Its the manifestation of everything that isn’t God, actualized by aggregate choices and non-choices framed by the earlier actions of others (which, in fact, may not have been truly free choices, given #1).
  3. be kind, because (see #1).

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

A dear friend of mine, wry with a sort of common-sense Pennsylvania German-Lutheran fatalism would say this leaves us pretty screwed.  But I’m not so sure about that in the end. Shortly after I got out of the mutual fund industry, another friend of mine with many years in the retirement-planning business told me that it was impossible to invest with your conscience. As you might expect, I disagree. You probably do, too. Whether you’re a person a faith or simply a person of faithful ethics, you already know that voting with your dollars, so to speak, requires certain sacrifices. I’m due for a phone upgrade this month. Oh, how I want an iPhone. But maybe I won’t get anything. I know the phone I would have bought will still be made in shit-hole conditions and will still be sold. I know it will be the best looking chunk of original sin on the market. How funny that it’s made by a company who’s logo is a piece of bitten fruit. Well, not funny ha ha. Funny strange. Actually, not so funny at all.

So, friends, what we do we about all of this?