Detroit is “Awesome”!

One of the biggest problems with the “word inflation” that permeates our culture is it makes it more difficult to explain the truly exceptional.  In an era when everything is “phenomenal” and everyone is “awesome”, it makes it that much harder to describe something that really is extraordinary.

Having spent the last couple of months working in the midst of downtown Detroit, I can tell you that the transformation going on down there is nothing short of amazing. When I take walks before work or during my lunch break, I literally (yes, really “literally”) have feelings of euphoria when I see all that is going on.

For the longest time, I’ve dwelled on the sad thought that Detroit was once the *fourth* largest city in the U.S. and a thriving center of both business and culture. All that was in decline just about the time I was born. I often hear Steve Wonder’s “Up-Tight” in my head while imagining Woodward jammed with cars from the early 1960’s. All the women look like Jackie Kennedy or Diana Ross. Some of the men wear hats and all of them are wearing ties whether they need to or not. It is a cool picture, but one I felt would always remain an image in my head and not reality before my eyes. Now, I feel as if I am going to be handed a chance to walk in the midst of what I once thought to be impossible – what it must have felt like to be my age now in the hustle and bustle of Detroit in the early 1960’s.

The largest and most obvious sign of this revitalization is the construction on the M1 Rail , a 3.3 mile stretch which has Woodard in various stages of demolition/reconstruction. Though it will be another eighteen months or so until the street cars are rolling, just crossing Woodward and seeing fresh, new rail running off into the distance already gets me pumped up.

Even more exciting than the M1 Rail is the number of buildings, both on Woodward and elsewhere, that are undergoing *major* renovations. There are any number of buildings where construction workers are tearing away the exteriors of building, soon to be replaced with….I don’t know yet! I’ll have to wait and see.  I’ve seen street-level businesses along Woodward with much of the store front missing as workers inside gut the interior and build it back up again, better, newer and wired for the 21st century.

As an unabashedly proud IT nerd, one of the most exciting things for me to see is the rise of the high-tech industry downtown. Just the other day I learned that Amazon.com actually has over a hundred software developers occupying an entire floor of 150 West Jefferson and that they’re adding more. There is a sky-scraper right off Campus Martius that, according to the large painting on its side, is the home of Galaxie Solutions, a software staffing company, as is Strategic Staffing Solutions which has taken up residence in the historic Penabscot Building on Griswold. Back on Woodward there is Detroit Labs which makes mobile apps and I have to say that their workplace is uber-cool…I’ve been to some Ruby meet-ups there. It is difficult to not notice the employee shuttles for Quicken Loans coming and going from the Compuware Building.  The company was voted the #1 best large-company employer for IT workers in the country last year. At the north end of downtown near Cass, signs in the window promote “Coding Bootcamps” where people can acquire the skills to hop on to the IT bandwagon. Our own IT department is growing seemingly every day, so forgive us all if the downtown crowd looks a lot like the cast of “Office Space”, with a dash of artists and a pinch of lawyers in suits tossed in for good measure.

I haven’t for a moment forgotten that all of this is “downtown” and that “the neighborhoods” constitute about 98% of the land space of Detroit, but I think the M1 Rail is going to be a catalyst to spread the growth, much more so than I ever thought.

As rents for downtown apartments continue to rise, the M1 Rail opens up a tremendous number of new possibilities as the areas a quarter mile or more on either side of the rail all become candidates for residential redevelopment. Work downtown? Live near midtown or New Center and ride the rail to your job downtown. Personally, I am looking forward to the completion of the line so I can expand my lunchtime possibilities up to New Center as well as be able to stroll the Detroit Institute of Art for forty-five minutes during lunch, getting there and back on the rail.

And none of this even counts the 50+ block of development known as “The District” undertaken by the Ilitch family.

So, forgive me if I a seem a bit upbeat and optimistic about Detroit, but from what I see up close every day, it’s gonna be “awesome”.

A Plea to Half of America

When I was a much younger man I spent four years as a United States Marine and one of those four years was spent practicing evacuating American embassies in places like Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. When I returned to the U.S. the very first thing I did was drop to my knees and kiss the ground.

At points of entry, to this very day, I get misty-eyed when I see the words “Welcome to the United States of America”.  Make no mistake, I love these United States…but America….you really need to get over yourself.

There’s a mindset, far too prevalent in this country, that America is the absolute best at absolutely everything. If you dare to even suggest some countries are equally as good at certain things, maybe even better than us, you’re decried as un-American, unpatriotic and…why, you might even be a socialist!

Have you ever heard any these phrases: “American Exceptionalism”, or how about “USA! USA! USA!” and my personal favorite “God, Guns and Guts made America Great!”

I’ll get back to the God, Guns and Guts in just a minute, but let’s first ask ourselves “what does it mean to be a great country?” If great is defined as being able to kill more people than any other country, then perhaps we are the greatest. Personally, I’d like think there’s a lot more to greatness than that.

There are many who would have you believe that every person not already in the U.S. is simply marking time through a meaningless existence, just waiting for their chance to come to America. Why? Because we’re so much better than them! Should you ask these people “What are you basing this on? How many other countries have you been to?” they often snap “None! And I don’t need to!”

There’s nothing wrong with having no desire to travel, but you shouldn’t then offer your emotionally-charged opinion that America is the greatest country in the world. It’s even worse when nobody asked you. It’s irrational.

Just recently I spent two weeks in the Netherlands. I stayed with friends in their apartment and was able to experience the Netherlands much like a local. From grocery shopping to visiting someone in a hospital to taking out the trash and washing dishes, I lived more as a local than a tourist.

After experiencing two weeks of life as lived by the Dutch, I came to the realization that a country’s “greatness” is measured simply by the quality of life of its citizens.

With that in mind the stage is set: The Mighty USA vs teeny-tiny Netherlands (one third the size of the state of Michigan). Let the battle begin.

As a framework for our battle, I return, as promised, to “God, Guns and Guts”.

God – The U.S. is one of the most religious countries on the planet. Only four percent of the population identifies itself as having no religion.

Conservative commentators and news outlets would have you believe that the four percent are winning a life-and-death struggle against the ninety-six percent over their right to exist.

Yet, our currency says “In God We Trust”. Several state legislatures open sessions with prayers and every single Federal office not related to defense, homeland security or law enforcement is shut down when Christmas falls on a weekday. So despite what the majority claims, religion is intertwined with many fundamental aspects of our society.

By contrast, forty percent of Dutch citizens claim no religion at all. That percentage will likely go higher as older generations fade away. The forty percent by and large aren’t anti-religion. In my time there, the Dutch didn’t look lost and aimless, nor did they look devoid of conscience. On the contrary, they were friendly, personable and helpful.

Guns – The gun situation in the U.S. is fairly well understood. There is no shortage of laws on the books, most of which are ignored. Following the inevitable annual “gun-in-school-tragedy”, the answer always seems to be more “soon-to-be-ignored” laws. However, there’s something much deeper that needs to be understood about the gun debate.

In the Netherlands you can purchase a firearm and you can keep it in your home. You must be a member of a “gun club” in order to obtain a permit to buy a firearm, however. That being said, we learned from people “on the street” that you can easily buy a gun outside of legal channels. So, based on the assumption that anyone who WANTS a gun can GET a gun, here’s a question that demands an answer: Why is the homicide rate in the U.S. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT that of the Netherlands? Guns are the means, not the reason. I can tell you part of the reason: anger. We are a very, very angry people. By contrast, the Dutch are largely content and happy. For starters, there seems to be much less of a class divide. Maybe guns would not be such a hot-button issue if we could figure out why we’re so damned angry and inclined to take a life without so much as batting an eye.

Guts – My favorite topic of the three. I have first hand knowledge of guts as I am in possession of one that is far too large. The rate of obesity and overweight adults in the U.S. is sixty seven percent!!!. It breaks my heart now more than ever because I’ve seen the answer… and it is so simple…yet so unreachable for us here in the U.S. The answer is “move your body”.

For two weeks in the Netherlands, I dined out every other night. I ate dessert at many of those meals. I ate many breakfasts consisting of eggs, toast, bacon or corned beef hash. I did all this…and lost five pounds without even trying.

Every “city” of any size in the Netherlands is designed from the ground up to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians as equally as cars. I was astonished to see seventy year-old men and women riding bicycles through crowded streets, in the rain, on their way to buy groceries. Young parents pick up their children from school or daycare by bicycle. I’ve seen the mother of twins with one infant in a basket over the handlebars and their sibling in another basket over the rear tire. This was in February! The baskets are warm and padded and have a plastic cover to keep the cold wind off the infant. Lest you think this is harmful to the child, consider that the Netherlands is ranked 18th best in infant mortality rates and the U.S. 34th. Yes, simply by living their lives the Dutch stay slim and fit.

When I returned home and realized that I had to get into a car to go anywhere, I was furious at how badly we’ve failed to take lessons from countries who have better ways of doing things. No need to carve out an hour for the gym each day. No need for endless pills and fad diets. Ride your bike to work. Or as many Dutch do, ride your bike to the train station, lock it up in a bike rack, take the train for a bit, get out, unlock your OTHER bike from the bike rack in THAT train station and then bike the rest of the way to work. Given a choice of an hour in a car or thirty minutes biking and thirty minutes on a train, I’ll take the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

So, there it is. A three-round knockout. The Netherlands, with its fit, healthy population, walking around content and happy, not shooting each other like characters in a video game and doing all of this despite the fact that they should so obviously be lost souls because they’re just not that into religion. It is no wonder that year after year after year different polls and organizations cite The Netherlands, Denmark or Norway as having the highest standard of living/quality of life in the world. Three countries for sure that would be decried by half of America as “socialists!!”. At the end of the day, does anything matter  other than  happiness? I’m not saying The Netherlands is the greatest country on the planet. I’m just saying it sure the hell isn’t the U.S.

So…I would respectfully submit that when people who’ve never been outside the U.S. declare us the best, at everything, they’re shouting while having their head stuck in the sand.

You might think that so many Americans saying this nonsense would anger people in other countries, and to a certain degree it does. But mostly, they’re not angry with you, America…they’re laughing at you. We have the lowest rate of international travel among the developed countries of the world and yet have all these grandiose opinions of our place in it.

In closing, I would ask you to make it a goal to visit countries on other continents and above all, don’t define your worth and identity based on whether America is or isn’t the best at something. Get out there. Travel, meet different kinds of people and experience different cultures. You’ll be a better person for it.

ADD and Me – Part 2

When we last left our heroes, I had just taken my first pill for ADD. In fact, I took it at 10:10 AM yesterday. I had a meeting at 10:30 AM and as I walked to the conference room, a feeling came over me akin to drinking 10 espressos. I felt pretty wired. Taking the pill on an empty stomach probably accelerated that feeling.

The meeting was about the design of some financial reports, a topic that would have had me fighting to stay awake and fighting even harder to focus on the mundane details of credits and debits. Instead, I felt alert, energetic and was intensely aware of the conversation. In the past, I would have drifted in and out of listening to people speak and have had to “catch up” by gleaning things from the conversation and trying to piece together things I had missed while my thoughts drifted elsewhere.

In fact, it seemed I spent half of the meeting out of my chair and pointing to the project on the screen to suggest changes to the report to make it easier to read. I left the feeling extremely excited about my new found attention abilities.

The next thing I noticed was my unwillingness to have unsatisfactory things around me. For months, the network cables that connect my VOIP phone were about 2 inches too short, causing my phone to rest nearly on top of my laptop keyboard. I just never did anything about it. It reminds me of a joke I once heard told by the motivational speaker Les Brown. It went something like this:

A man was walking down a dirt road down south. He passed an old rickety house and on the old rickety porch sat an old man and an old hound dog. The hound dog was just moaning and groaning. The passerby stopped and asked the old man “why is that dog moaning and groaning?” To which, the old man replied “because he’s laying on a nail”. The passerby, not quite able to believe it said “well, why doesn’t he get up and move?” The old man responded “because it doesn’t hurt bad enough to get up and move”.

On the surface that sounds like a story of incredible laziness. But.. what if one’s mind is just wired differently? In the eyes of a person with a brain wired correctly, it seems like a rational statement, but not when you’re brain is miswired; not if you suffer from ADD (BTW, I do not suffer from ADHD. No hyperactivity, just attention deficit)

And so, I wrote an email to request a couple of longer network cables. When they came, I calmly untangled the wires under my desk and plugged them into the phone and now the cables have sufficient slack to put my phone anywhere on my desk. I next tacked my chronically messy desk. I sorted the stacks of papers on my desk, filed everything in its place and cleaned up my top desk drawer. I’ll get to the others in due time.

Likewise, when I went home, I tamed the beastly stack of weeks-old mail and magazines from the top of the dresser in my bedroom. Each day, I would check for important mail on top of the stack, but anything unimportant… I would just leave there until the stack was so obnoxious that every couple of months, I’d waste an entire evening sorting and trashing stuff. Now, I have made a stack of magazines and have resolved to skim through one a day and then discard them until the stack is gone.

Returning to the workplace, the quiz I took to determine if I may have ADD ( http://add.about.com/od/evaluationanddiagnosis/a/adultaddsymptom.htm ) mentioned that many people feel completely stressed out, that the world is moving to quickly and that what they may actually be experiencing is undiagnosed ADD. I can complete testify to this. Whenever I worked on one task, I stressed that all my other tasks weren’t getting worked on. The bigger the list of tasks became the more I stressed because now I was spending ALL my time analyzing the tasks, trying to determine which was the highest priority. As a result, EVEN LESS would actually get done, intensifying the stress even more. I felt paralyzed.

Now.. I am still aware that all of these projects/tasks exist. I also know I can only do so much. I take what I think is the highest priority task and I work on it until it’s done, or until somebody decides something else is a higher priority. It such a relief to not feel that self-induced stress anymore.

In the past I’d either be unaware of them or ignore them with a nagging feeling of guilt.. “but not enough to do something about it.”

In the 21 years I’ve been married, the words my wife (Ramona) said the most to me were not “I love you” but… “you only hear half of what I say”. It was true. It was very hard to keep my mind focused on the person in front of me if my mind wanted to be somewhere else. All I can do is thank her profusely for hanging in there with a guy that must have not been too much fun to live with at times. I will make it up to you… I promise.

One last thing I thought was interesting about the conversation with my doctor… I told him that despite the fact that I have a great career and do very well, I have ALWAYS felt like an underachiever. I look at people my age or younger who are CEO’s, successful entrepreneurs, governors, congressman, etc and I think to myself “where did I go wrong? I think I am fairly smart guy…what do they know that I don’t know?”. And I’ve discovered that in the great competition of the business world, I’ve been battling with my hands tied behind my back, relative to my competitors. At this point, I have no great aspirations, but it IS helpful to finally know the answer to this mystery.

OK, I lied.. one more thing. The medication I am on.. Adderall is a pretty strong appetite suppressant. Today, I ate lunch BECAUSE I know it’s important to eat something, but I had absolutely no desire to eat food. I have a feeling there will soon be a lot less of me, and that’s OK 🙂 I have a bit of circular question though. If I lose a significant amount of weight, the first explanation people will come up with is “well, you’re on this medication and it causes loss of appetite. Of coure you’ve lost weight.. you can’t help it.” They may be right, but, we’ll never know if that’s the ONLY reason. In other words, I used to spend time on what I wanted to spend time on, oblivious to important but “mundane” things that needed doing. Likewise, if I wanted to eat, I ate. Was it a lack of “will power” or was it my brain simply focusing on what I wanted to do and not caring about the consequences. Interestingly enough, if Adderall had no appetite suppressant to it whatsoever, I think my whole approach to my diet and eating habits would be different now… now that I can think clearly and do what’s right, not just want I want to do.

But, I guess we’ll never know, because the medicine IS an appetite suppressant, so it will remain a mystery. If you suffer from the symptoms I mentioned in part one of this note, please take the quiz… a much more satisfying life could be just a doctor’s visit away.

Angels and Spirits

At risk of sounding like a nut… I’d like to share with you a couple of incidents that have made me an absolute believer in angels and spirits.

To truly get the most out of this blog post, you should first read another blog post of mine and then come back to this one.

I have two specific stories to share.

The Calculator

 

In the summer of 1992, I was taking an economics course at Macomb Community College. It was one of those summertime cram-down type courses that are only six weeks long when the regular courses were many more weeks in length. I think this course met twice a week, four hours at a shot for six weeks.

At the time of taking this course, my wife was very pregnant, expecting our first child, a boy, we had already named Joshua Grant. And then… the unthinkable happened. Joshua was stillborn at full term. The “review” session for our final exam fell on the same day as Joshua’s funeral, and I was in no shape to attend class that night. I missed the review. Two days later, I arrived to take the final exam. I was in shambles. I could barely focus and I had missed the review. To make matters worse, as we sat down to start the final, I noticed everybody placing calculators on their desk. We NEVER used a calculator in this class, as the math was very basic. I had never brought a calculator with me to this class.

I asked the person sitting next to me “why does everybody have a calculator? We’ve never used them before.” My classmate whispered back – “he said last Tuesday that on the final, we’ll need a calculator”. So now, on top of being a wreck over the loss of our child, I was panic-stricken that I was going to fail this exam.

I bent over to my book bag to get a pencil and some blank sheets of paper. And there, in my bag…..was my calculator. I never brought that calculator to class, ever… and I know I did not put it in the book bag… and yet there it was. I felt my eyes well up with tears, by now convinced I must REALLY look like I was out of my mind.

I took the final and amazingly.. I’ll never know how, I got an A on the final and an A for the course. And I owe it all to my little Joshy who made sure his daddy had a calculator.

The Voice

 

In 1996, we were finally blessed with a baby, our daughter Monica. My wife had undergone a cesarean delivery and so for the first several weeks, I was the one who got up at night with Monica.

One night, she awoke crying and I went to feed her. She was really crying quite intensely and she didn’t seem to be hungry. I checked her diaper… dry. I rocked her, sang to her and walked around with her, to no avail. After a while I was really getting concerned because she was unconsolable.

My mind began to wander into that “what if something’s REALLY wrong with her” territory. You know, the one where a trip to the emergency room enters your thoughts.

By now, I was really starting to panic. I didn’t know what to do. And then….. as plain as day, I heard in my head a male voice say “her throat”. I looked down and realized that Monica’s pajamas were snapped right to the very top and appeared to be snug around her neck. I unfastened the top snap and she instantly stopped crying. Considering her brother, Josh, was stillborn due to the umbilical cord being wrapped too tightly around his neck, it sent shivers up and down my spine as a I realized that her brother truly was acting as her guardian angel.

ADD and Me – Part 1

Back in the seventies, John Denver sang “Rocky Mountain High”, which contained the lyrics: “He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he’d never been before”.

I’ve always understood what those words meant, but from a distance; they weren’t personal, until yesterday. At the behest of my wife, I went to see my family physician to see if I suffer from ADD. I took a brief quiz prior to visiting the doctor’s office. I sure seemed to have most of the symptoms: frequently losing things (wallet, keys, etc), disorganized, starting projects and not finishing them, etc.
After a semi-lengthy discussion with the doctor and a review of the quiz results, he agreed that I do indeed suffer from a mild case of adult ADD. He prescribed a medication and talked with me about it. He said that unlike heart or blood pressure medication which must be taken daily, I could decide when I needed to take the medication, though never in excess of the prescribed dosage. For example, if I don’t need to focus that much on the weekends, no need to take a pill that day.
At any rate, I filled my prescription and took my first pill. Within twenty minutes, life as I knew it changed. And so like the object of the song “Rocky Mountain High”, I’ve been born in the summer of my forty seventh year. Better late than never, I always say.
Tomorrow, I will post some details about how life is different. It is amazing the difference a day (and a pill) can make.
Loving life even more than before,
Joe

Atlas Shrugged Pt. 1 – Movie Review

 

I was the second person in line outside theater #13 (?) at the MJR Theater in Sterling Heights, awaiting the 7:20 PM showing of Atlas Shrugged. By the time the film started, I had counted approximately seventy-five people in the audience.

Where to start? First, if you’ve read the novel, you know that Atlas Shrugged (AS) is a monster-sized novel. over 1,000 pages and the print is small to boot. There’s a TON of material in this story. Worse, much of the most meaningful story as told by Rand occurs in the minds of the characters which then explains their actions. This meaningful information is difficult to get out on to the screen.
Secondly, and I may not have every exact detail on this accurate, but.. this movie was allegedly made for ten million dollars, which is to say, next to nothing. The story goes something like this. A group of people including the producer of this movie procured the rights to make the film from the estate of Ayn Rand. How long they had them, I do not know. But supposedly the rights were to expire within a couple of months and if the film had not started, the rights would revert back to the Rand’s estate and we’d probably be waiting a few more decades for AS to come to the big screen. So, instead with only a few months to go, a script was written, characters cast and filming began. Both the screenwriter and director are relatively inexperienced.
Even in three parts, AS may prove to be too much material to be adapted to the big screen, at least too much for three parts, if part one is any indication. As I watched the film, my mind was equally focused on two different tasks. Task number one was simply to enjoy the film as a fan of the story. I very much did enjoy the shift in time period to 2016 as opposed to 1950 or so. The second task I tried to keep in mind was watching the movie as if I had not read the book. My recommendation: read the book before seeing the movie. The material is simply doled out so fast that I can’t imagine what was going through the minds of viewers who haven’t read the book. Clearly at least some of the audience members at my showing had not read the book. This was evident by sincere whispers of “who is that guy?” when clearly the character on the screen was John Galt.
At times the dialogue is a bit contrived, but not too badly. At other times, it matches the book verbatim. And at other times, it is dialogue in the spirit of AS splashed with a hint of the twenty-first century. Random things I noticed… Frisco calling Dagny “Slug” with audience having been given no reason why. It is revealed in the film that as young adults they were lovers. It was not revealed that they had indeed been childhood friends and Slug was Frisco’s nickname for Dagny.
I ***VERY MUCH *** like the casting of the characters of Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and especially Francisco d’Anconia (Jsu Garcia). Though Bowler makes Rearden more charming and less “intimidating” than the book-version of Rearden, he is still excellent in the role of Rearden. In the case of Taylor Schilling, she does an admirable job portraying Dagny Taggart. That she is extremely attractive certainly didn’t hurt the cause. However, at least to my mind’s eye, Jsu Garcia’s appearance comes the closest to what I expected Francisco d’Anconia to look like (and he’s my favorite character from the book as well!). Other characters were nowhere close to what I visualized them as…Ellis Wyatt, nope, Owen Kellog, no way and Paul Larkin.. NOT! Especially troublesome is John Galt himself. While we see him only in the shadows I could tell he’s tall and normal-to-a-bit-larger-than-normal build. With Paul Johansson as John Galt, believability could be in doubt in parts 2 and 3. Remember, John Galt is the man whom Dagny has been searching for her whole life.. the man at the end of the railroad tracks. In the book, Galt is very slim and slight in stature (maybe 5′ 10″, tops. Johansson looks like an NBA-power-forward in a trench coat and hat. How this resolves itself will remain to be seen.
One quirky little minor thing that I really enjoyed was the appearance for all of one minute by Rearden’s secretary, Gwen Ives. Her appearance is short but extremely enjoyable. She’s like a twenty-something clubber, but very competent in her job and the brief interplay between her and Rearden is cool.
Lastly, the first run of the John Galt Line on the Rio Norte Line is actually quite magnificent, especially when they cross the new, ultra-modern bridge made of Rearden Steel. Dagny is so relieved that the track and bridge held together she gasps and hugs Rearden, which is of course is a harbinger of their activity later that same night.
In the end, AS Part 1, can be in no way a “short cut” to “get” what Rand was trying to say in the book. Rather, I view it more as a visual reward, long over due for those devotees of the book who already “get it” and simply want to give their overworked “mind’s eye” a rest. They can finally relax and watch the timeless story retooled for the 21st century. If you’ve read the book (at least once), you’ll enjoy the movie. If not, you may be scratching your head and wondering why this story has such a devoted following.

MCTWF 2010 Christmas Party and the IT Band

Well, thanks to “da boss”, we finally have some of our Christmas party band performance on YouTube. As the tape is slowly digitized and the links trickle in from YouTube, I’ll amend this page so all links are in one location. Enjoy!



The Fray – You Found Me

ColdPlay – Clocks

ColdPlay – Yellow

The Allman Brothers Band – Whipping Post

Happy New Year 2011!

It’s back to work today. First work day of the New Year. I fought vicious “tug-of-war” battle this morning… to get out of bed or to stay in bed. Of course, I lost.

Whatever lingering remnant of holiday/vacation bliss I had was shaken loose upon arriving at work. The typical voice messages, emails, pleas, demands, problems that make up the days of my life were there waiting, as if I had never left.
I’ve always wondered, from time to time… about the significance of how I spend my life and as I get older, I seem to dwell on this question more and more. I don’t have a definitive answer of what I should be doing, only nagging questions about what I am doing.
To make matters worse, I saw one of those year-end recaps on TV where they show all of the celebrities or otherwise notable people that passed away in 2010. Every year the list seems to contain more and more people representing a larger and larger slice of my own life. And naturally, you know where that internal conversation leads…how much time do I have left? What am I doing with it?
One of the things I am trying to do more of from here on out is writing on a more frequent basis. Frankly, that’s the reason I am writing this now. I need to write, write, write, every day… something… without fail. Very often, I am sure, it will not be good. That’s OK, but I must do it. Who knows, someday something good may come out.
That’s all for now… Happy 2011 and may you feel good about how you’re spending your days.

Crazy? Really?

Daniel Indiviglio of “The Atlantic” magazine has a piece published today that I read on Yahoo’s finance page.
The title of the piece is “Something Republicans and Democrats Agree On: Their Hatred of the Fed”.
There’s nothing earth-shattering in this article, but there is something with which I take exception:
In other words, a majority of Americans want changes. This goes beyond mere discontent. And this isn’t really a political issue. According to the poll, 19% of independents, 16% of Republicans, 12% of Democrats, and 21% of Tea Partiers want the central bank abolished. That last statistic isn’t terribly surprising, since one of the Tea Party’s favorite politicians, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is arguably the chief Fed opponent in Washington.
Yet the idea that the Fed should be abolished entirely is rather crazy. A complex economy needs a central bank. Some calls for reform could be more legitimate, however.
Hmmm…. The idea that the Fed should be abolished entirely is “rather crazy”. Really?
Let’s have a look at the history of the Fed, shall we? First of all, the Fed’s ORIGINAL purpose was to maintain stable prices and prevent panics, in other words, generally smooth out the ups and downs of the economic cycle.
Price stability: Since it’s inception in 1913, prices have increase 19-fold, or 1900 percent. Said another way, the dollar has lost 95 percent (or more) of it’s purchasing power. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact.
Grade: Complete failure.
Eliminate Panics/Smooth out economic cycles: Since the Fed’s inception, we’ve suffered through a crash in 1920, the mother of all crashes in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. We’ve suffered through stagflation in the 70’s, Black Monday in the 80’s and are currently riding out The Great Recession, as it’s been dubbed. These are not my opinions, these are facts.
Grade: Complete failure.
OK, so the Fed was a complete failure on it’s original two missions. You’ll have to forgive them. You see, these missions are what was told to the public. The real mission of the Fed was to have a never ending money supply so banks can lend money even when nobody is depositing money AND, here’s the biggie… to “privatize bank profits and socialize their losses”. What does this mean? That when things go well, the banks win and when things go very badly, you lose. Does the term “TARP” ring a bell?
This was in the plans from the beginning, commencing with the Indianapolis Monetary Commission starting around 1870. The goal of the IMC was to convince the public that fiat currency would actually end panics and benefit them. Surprisingly, the most uneducated farmhand in 1870 knew much, much more about the nature of money and how it works than does the average person today. The public was very much against central banks and had a deep mistrust of Washington and Wall Street (sound familiar). The IMC was in the battle for the long haul, however. For decades, willing accomplices in the media printed papers published by the IMC on how things would be much better under a central bank. After decades of being bombarded by these messages, the old skeptics eventually passed away and newer generations were more open to central banking.
In 1910, presidents and vice-presidents of the largest banks in America converged on Jekyll Island, Georgia and began crafting a plan for central banking. Keep in mind that these men were competitors, or at least they had to compete when money was honest. The fruit of their labor became the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and as I just mentioned earlier, the American tax payer has bailed out the banks. This is not some catastrophe. This was not unforeseen. This was merely part of the plan; the plan was activated and you and I are left with the bill.
Remember that mission about stable prices, one of the Fed’s original goals? It may interest you to know that from 1800 until 1913, the consumer price index was zero. That means that money bought the same general basket of goods in 1913 that it did in 1800. Disclosure: There was a central bank in the U.S. until 1811, until it’s 20 year charter expired an was not renewed. Incidentally, Andrew Jackson was the president who refused to renew this twenty year charter because he was vehemently opposed to central banking. Today, Jackson’s picture appears on the twenty dollar bill. Coincidence? I think somebody in the Fed at some point decided to have a bit of fun at Jackson’s expense, replacing Grover Cleveland’s face with his in 1928. Jackson actually warned the public about the dangers of paper fiat money in his farewell address to the nation.
But enough history. Back to Mr. Indiviglio.
Sir, are you really telling us, with a straight face, that 113 years of stable prices and far fewer financial crises is “crazy”…. and that a 1,900 percent increase in prices and severely deep recessions and depressions are sane?
Really? Really??

Walking the Walk

“What have you done to increase your human capital today?”

This is a phrase that my friend Mike Miller and I coined while trudging through our masters degrees at Walsh College from 2004 through 2007. Human capital is a term economists use to to describe the set of skills accumulated by an individual, specifically those skills that are in demand by the marketplace.

Mike and I were both in the I.T. profession at the time, gainfully employed and making good salaries. And yet, there we were, once a week, sometimes twice a week at Walsh studying finance of all crazy things, specifically, personal financial planning.

First and foremost in our mind, we wanted to know how to do something other than I.T. just to broaden our job prospects in the future in case it ever came down to that.

Secondly, we wanted something that could complement our current positions and certainly the core financial classes in accounting, economics, financial statement analysis, fundamentals of finance, etc, can come in handy when dealing with our corporate “users”. We can speak their language.

And finally, on a personal level, it never hurts to know how to manage your own money and the specialization in personal financial planning provided us with those skills.

For three years while much of the country was glued to the T.V. to see who was “voted off” their favorite reality T.V. shows, Mike and I were glued to our books, to our computers and to the Walsh library. Many people would consider it torture. We considered it fun. We were increasing our human capital.

Sometime after graduation, Mike observed that the large, international I.T. company he worked for was laying off more and more people. He began looking for a way to utilize his degree and move into financial planning. If you know Mike, you know that the word “prepare” is central to everything about him. Finally after many close calls, Mike received word that he too was being let go.

Fortunately the severance he received worked perfectly into his plans to study for and pass the multitude of exams required by the SEC and State of Michigan in order to become a financial planner.

Mike stopped by my house last night, invited there by me to look over some life insurance questions I had. To watch him at work you’d think he’s been a financial planner his whole life. He is not only surviving but thriving in his new career and is on track to earn more than he ever did as an I.T. professional.

The purpose of this blog post is not to boast (or whine) about hard Mike and I worked, rather it’s to illustrate the way I think we should all conduct our lives. One does not have to spend money on tuition to improve your human capital. There are innumerable ways to do it if you’re determined. Every day we should go to bed knowing more than when we woke up that morning. Yes, I’d like to come home and relax and watch T.V. for four or five hours every night. And that might even be a great plan if “T.V. watcher” becomes the next hot career, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
In life, there are those that wait around, satisfied with the status quo until they become a victim. Once they become a victim there’s plenty of blame to go around: evil corporations, a bad economy, the governor, the president, the Congress… everyone except the one who’s unemployed. And there are those who make things happen. Mike and his family could have become just another “sob story”, the kind so frequently written about these days. But he took steps while he was working to drastically reduce the odds of that happening.Look, all the preparation and education in the world is no guarantee that you won’t become jobless. That’s not my point. My point however is that if you’re doing NOTHING to improve yourself then you have nobody to blame BUT yourself if you’re out of a job. If you’ve really made a good faith effort at improving or expanding your skills while you were employed and you’re still jobless, it doesn’t suck any less, but you can look at yourself in the mirror and say “hey, I did EVERYTHING I could to prevent this; it’s certainly not due to a lack of effort and preparation.”My buddy Mike refused to become a statistic. He worked his ass off, he studied the market and compared it to his own career likes and wants, he made contacts and preparations and when the time came, he activated the plan and came out smelling like a rose.

I want the very best for everyone. I want all the people reading this to never want for anything. My only question to you is, “are you doing everything possible to increase your marketability?”.

So, what have you done to increase your human capital today?