Saturday, January 10, 2009

A New Idea for President Obama

Like many people my age, for years I have scrimped in order to put away as much as I could in whatever IRA or 401(k) my employer offered. This past year was no different. For most of the time I was employed, I diverted 5% of my salary every month to the company retirement plan. (I stopped when I realized that I was losing money, dramatically, by doing so.)

By the end of the year, I added up my retirement accounts, like I always do, to discover a horrifying fact: My various accounts had cumulatively lost 50% of their value. Now these were not marginal funds. I chose mainstream mutual funds for my money. I read their prospectuses, I checked their ratings on Morningstar, I read their propaganda, including the fine print.

I thought I had chosen wisely. Until recently, I used to email my older kids about the main fund, which I try to manage myself, through Schwab. As for the risk/gain ratio, I chose medium to low risk over and over. But now, I would be humiliated to share with them what has happened to my account. In short, it is less than what I originally started with!

So, what went wrong? Why now, as I add up the damage, is my retirement fund only worth half of what it was on December 31, 2007?

Of course, I know I am not alone. Many, many people have experienced a similar fate. So, my personal idea for the new President is very simple...take a snapshot of every American's retirement account as of 12/31/07 and compare it with 12/31/08. If the person withdrew funds, reduce the "at risk" total accordingly.

Then, make a very simple gesture. Simply reimburse these savers for their losses. You can create a cap on this benefit; perhaps only reimburse those of us who are "small investors," at whatever definition seems appropriate. Given other programs that have been discussed, this benefit might only apply to the first $250,000 in any individual's retirement accounts.

To be explicit, if I had been able to save $250,000 through the end of '07 and it now was worth only $125,000, I would get a check for $125,000 that could only be used to rebuild my retirement accounts.

This program should probably be available only for older Americans -- perhaps those 50 and older. Why? Because younger people should have enough time for the market to rebuild their losses. In any event, it's a long time before they will need to tap into their retirement funds, hopefully, unlike those of us who were born in the '40s or '50s.

Our crisis is now. I doubt this proposal would amount to very much cash, in the overall scheme of things. Perhaps some economist somewhere could calculate the total. Plus, it is a highly selective idea; not everyone would benefit, not any of the neediest among us.

But I trust other stimulus packages will be devoted to the working poor. My concern tonight is the aging working middle class. This past year has destroyed our faith in the American economic model. We are the people who, rather than using plastic to go deeply into debt, tried to live within our means and set aside anything non-essential for the future, when we could no longer be as economically productive.

This may not be the demographic that is the new President's top priority, but it is one that deserves a "bailout" at least as much as GM, Citibank, or Freddie Mac.

Otherwise, all too soon, we will be joining the poor, swelling their ranks, even though for all of our adult lives we have been middle class people, consuming and keeping our economy strong. Now it is not economy that is vulnerable, because it will rebound, but those of us who have built it.

We are older. We are tired. We are disheartened. We still have lots to give. As for me, if I hadn't lost so much of my savings, now that I am once again unemployed. teaching might be a possibility. I am a good teacher, very experienced and motivated.

But given how much my future security has shrunk, I cannot even consider such a low-paid option. There are many like me.

Think about it.

Friday, January 09, 2009

All the Silent People

I'd forgotten how long and quiet a day could be. Luckily, I had an errand, which required taking a morning walk. Maybe I wasn't ready for prime-time yet. I found myself, uncharacteristically, avoiding people's eyes. I just trudged along with my face down.

Why is it, in our society and perhaps others as well, that the person laid-off from his job gets hit with such a bad bout of low self-esteem. As if the reality isn't bad enough.

There usually is a way out of this downward spiral, however, as I have found (through experience, much too much experience for that matter. It's invariably about connecting with others, even if only briefly.

Leaving the second of the two banks that I had to visit today, I heard a sound behind me. Glancing around, I saw that a small, elderly, African-American woman, who was also intent on leaving the bank, pushing her walker in front of her.

This particular bank, for no particular reason I can imagine, has a series of three doors one must pass through whenever entering or exiting. Of course, I held the first door for this woman, who glanced up at me and said, "Why, thank you, sir."

At the second door, I pointed out to her that "It says this is automatic but there's nothing automatic about it, is there."

"No, there isn't," she said, "and thank you once again."

I moved ahead to open the third and final door leading to our mutual return to freedom.

"Okay, now I can send you on your way, Ma'am," I quipped. She beamed at me a moment, and said, "I hope you have a very nice day."

So I did.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Goodbye, Once Again, To All That

In the great scheme of things, it was a minor event, I know, but whatever is closest is also always largest, right?

Perspective is one of those magical mysteries of our lives. There is a famous writing exercise, courtesy of the late novelist John Gardner, in which you ask the student to write a description of a pond in a park.

First, write it from the point of view of a young woman who has just now been asked by her boyfriend to marry.

Then, write it from the perspective of an elderly lady, whose abusive husband has just now died.

There may be other parts of the exercise, but you take the point. I have used this, several times, with various groups, with wonderful results. How we humans view our collective reality seems highly dependent on our personal sense of where we stand in the bigger picture around us. Becoming conscious of this fact can inform our ability to create stories, drawings, paintings, music, or even (gasp) algorithms that resonate with others.

Today, I was laid off. There are sad parts to this story: I loved my job, as it was the first in my long life that allowed me to exploit both the verbal and the math parts of my brain. Up until the moment my boss called me into a conference room to tell me the sad news, I was doing my job, as I have done every day since the middle of last May.

Ironically, the last headline I ever wrote for this wonderful content site was "Remember Back When We Had Jobs?"

There must be some strange prescience that flows throw a brain like mine just as I was about to be remaindered. Now, if only I could bottle that!


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Why "No Fear" is the New Teeshirt of Choice

It would seem to be obvious, here in America, with our shameful racist history, but the occasion of the inauguration of our new President raises the horrible possibility that an assassination attempt or some other terrorist event may occur, for the first time in our history.

From what I've been able to glean, the Secret Service should be fully capable of protecting POTUS, but if you consider the massive concentric circles of admirers who will be witnessing this historic event, it does seem that Washington, D.C., may well be vulnerable to a terrorist attack two weeks from last night.

So, only because I am currently the Editor in Chief of Predictfy, I am going to make this prediction: No terrorist event will occur during Barack Obama's Inauguration.

My reasoning? The would-be assassins will never be able to get close enough to cause any damage whatsoever.

The other terrorists of the al-Qaeda stripe, are media whores. What value would they gain by killing some innocent civilians far from the new President? None.

Case closed.


Things My Kids Teach Me

As some of you may know, I blog professionally about the media industry over at Bnet, which was recently absorbed by CBS. So now I receive a (modest but extremely helpful) monthly check from CBS, which means yet another entry to the short list of media empires who have paid me by during my career -- Murdoch, Time Warner, Hearst, The New York Times, and so on.

The nice thing about covering an industry like media in our era is the oft-noted truism that on the Internet, everyone is a publisher.

Today's post, should you care to check it out is called "What Can a Media Exec Learn From Xbox 360?" It as inspired by the sight of all three of my sons (aged 12-27) grouped around a game console last weekend.

As I watched them, it occurred to me that Microsoft (which makes the Xbox) is doing a lot of things right, in this new age of information technology, even as so many conventional publishers are doing almost everything wrong.

That led to today's work, one of the longest posts I've ever published for Bnet. According to that site's ranking system, whereby users can "recommend" an article, the previous post I did about the XBox last summer was my most popular ever -- over 150 users have recommended it to date.

Maybe this one will someday eclipse that record, who knows. But I'm indebted to my boys for even knowing what an Xbox 360 even is, let alone its implications for the industry where I've spent almost my entire career.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Time for Change

It was not always this way. (Nothing ever was.) The state of Israel was carved out of the ancient territory 60 years ago that is the birthplace, not only of Judaism, but of Christianity and Islam.

The establishment of Israel was a direct consequence of the holocaust during World War II, and the collective guilt felt by Western governments that were complicit, if only by their silence, in the genocidal extermination of millions of innocent Jews by the Nazis.

First: No one can question Israel's essential right to exist. But, as is the case with any religion-based nation state in this era, why should any of us support this concept?

We live in a global political economy that is not based in any idea of religious law but in the concept of democracy and justice, free trade and tolerance. At the end of the current military drama, and its according humanitarian tragedy, what will have to emerge, not only in Israel, but in Iran and many other religious-based states, will have to be a willingness to compromise in order to be full members of the new world community.

To be blunt: It is time for all people to put aside their religion in matters of governance. There is no place for any private biases in our public business. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and all other faithful adherents to some faith or another must come to realize that their beliefs are simply private, not public matters.

When I think about Israelis, I cannot help but wonder whether they feel that just because they currently happen to have the upper hand, in pure military strength, courtesy of the U.S., do they therefore feel the horrible suffering they are inflicting on the Palestinians is justified in the eyes of God?

If so, who exactly is that God?

Perhaps the same one Adolph Hitler would have worshiped?

Think about it.


An American Family, 2009

(Photo courtesy of Derek Chu)

I've been laid low by a vicious stomach flu, as have my younger kids the past few days. The nice thing abot it is I've lost a few pounds.

Now, that is an example of Midwestern optimism.

We'll get into this new year pretty soon, I hope. It feels like everything in America is on hold, waiting for Obama. Expectations are too high, I fear.


Monday, January 05, 2009

2008: The Year of Celebrities

It was (sigh) yet another big year for celebrities, from Paris Hilton’s cheeky faceoff with Sen. John McCain to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s huge and growing family, to Madonna’s renewed performance success, Kanye West's declaration that he is the "voice of this generation," former child star Lindsay Lohan's relationship with Samantha Ronson, Tom Cruise’s strange antics, and the emergence of teen idols Miley Cyrus (and her controversial Vanity Fair photos) and the Jonas Brothers.

But topping the list was the irrepressible Britney Spears, who went from failing drug rehab and having her children seized by the court to an apparent comeback late in the year with a number one hit song.

As far as TV and Hollywood were concerned, it was a very weak year indeed. Starting the year with a writer’s strike was a harbinger of what was to come, or rather, not to come. Had it not been for the election, in fact, audience share and ad revenue for many TV networks would have been in the toilet.

As it was, few TV shows of note emerged; at the movie theatres, “Batman: The Dark Knight” won acclaim as actor Heath Ledger, who died before the film was released, seemed poised to win an Oscar for his role as The Joker.

The popular TV show from the past, “Sex in the City” made a comeback as a movie; a new Harry Potter sequel opened; and the indie filmed in India, "Slumdog Millionaire,” impressed critics.

Perhaps the industry’s greatest hit was the (by TV standards) ancient comedy show SNL, where Tina Fey parodied Sarah Palin with such comic precision that when Palin herself visited the show, viewers had difficulty telling them apart.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Wasting nothing; Saving Less

On one hand, I'm a classic pack-rat. Anyone who has visited my flat will attest that there is one hell of a lot of junk around here. Much of it is of my own making. There are boxes and boxes of writings, published and unpublished, all along the range from good to terrible, from the past 40 years or so of my life.

Lately, as I have realized just how relentless the process of aging actually is, I've started to wonder whether I should destroy much of this stuff. Part of me thinks I should dump it into a pit in the backyard, just like all those ancient bottles I recovered from the 1880s, safely ensconced in ash from the fireplaces that were dumped into the old privy here once modern plumbing was introduced in the Mission in the 1890s.

I could wrap this written trash in plastic bags, which probably would survive a few decades (?) until someone dug them up and determined they were "exotic" remnants of the pre-digital age.


Above is our first effort at wax art. We call this one "turtle."

(He will not be saved in our next cleanup.)