Friday, April 30, 2010

Two Views

Robert Irwin, the west coast artist most famous for his designs for the Central Garden at the Getty, said in an interview (Robert Irwin, "The State of the Real, Part 1," conversation with Jan Butterfield, Arts 46, no. 10 (June 1972), p. 48.) that he felt as if he was straddling a mountain; one leg placed him in "now time", the other in "real time." An example of what that meant to Irwin was the controversy that exploded when he "finished" the build out of the garden in 1997 and it was opened to the public. The public howled at what appeared to be the absence of plants, the lack of green, the barrenness of the landscape in "now time". Irwin had allowed for the garden to grow, to fill in, in the fullness of "real time", and now of course it is appreciated as one of the great gardens of the world.

We are burdened by two great calamities occurring in tandem. The links between the environmental and economic crisis are obvious when we have a "now time" event like the gulf oil spill threatening the shore line, and what are surely going to be the economic consequences of slowing down off-shore drilling.

What hinders resolution of either of the "real time" crisis, the profound problems of the environment or the world's economy, is the fact that the problems are even harder to imagine then Irwin's garden. It is hard for the average citizen to imagine the consequences of his/her acts. Even harder is imagining how invisible co2 emissions are warming the planet. The images that reinforce an "Inconvenient Truth" are either too removed; impacts are 50-100 years off, too remote; Greenland, or too special; polar bears, to have any profound impact on the way we live.

There is the attendant problem of denial when the implications are that one must change his or her behavior, exacerbated by "deniers" who supply an alternative reality. I learned not to jump to any quick conclusions about who those deniers might be. When I moved to Maine on a grant to work within the University of Southern Maine, I was asked from time to time to speak to groups of students. In every case I was forewarned NOT to be the bearer of bad news. Their faculty felt that the students couldn't take a nightmare scenario of environmental change.

We are learning that the effects of the economic crisis are more immediate. As troubling as the nightly "now time" news is, limited though it may be, a daily dose of evidence of job losses, foreclosures, and the failure of sovereign states, doesn't seem to have the impact on personal behavior that one might imagine. I believe that the same conspiracy of silence prevails among the chattering classes who fear that if the citizenry were aware of the depth of the "real time" problem, they would amplify the problem by say, saving, or scaling back their consumption. Their protest and rejection of the current regimes that brought them the end, if indeed it is the end, would be louder and uncontrollable. An example of a news organization at least trying to inform its public is evidenced by the BBC airing a story that all three of the parties running in the current election are underestimating how they would achieve fiscal responsibility by a factor of at least three. That is too say that each party's proposals to cut expenses and tax to raise revenues misses the mark by two thirds. Their burden of debt is not being addressed. The British will not have to face their real problems, yet.

If you are willing to dig a little deeper on matters of debt, toxic assets, and exposure you will find The International Monetary Fund is forecasting that global bank losses from the financial crisis will total $2.28 trillion, in 2010, a drop of $533 billion from an estimate made last October.

As this plays out on the world stage the NYT blog Economix asks if Europe can save itself? (answer no). By now you can see the similarities to those eco-issues that seem of another place, another time. They do not effect us.

And if we can't absorb the scale and meaning of the current crisis what of the potential of the next real crisis. This is even harder to imagine as the masters of the universe let us know in their congressional testimony. Included in that mind numbing exercise was a statement by one master that only the hedge fund guys know how it works, the "buy what the rating agencies endorse players" won't know. FYI that includes pension funds, trusts, endowments, states, the institutions we depend on to secure our lives.

An even larger example of what we can't get our heads around is the following: The WorldBank calculates that the world's GNP is roughly 60+ trillion dollars.

Now consider that the Bank for International Settlement, that keeps track of these things, calculates that the OTC Derivatives Market "Notional amounts of all types of OTC contracts rebounded somewhat to stand at $605 trillion at the end of June 2009, "

The value of these derivatives are ten times the world economy on any given day and they are not regulated. The potential for the next blow up is enormous. But I can't see it, I can't touch it, I still have a job, my house is still here, the cars run, the planes fly. Why worry? The nightly news reports the markets are up, consumer confidence is raising, home prices are stabilizing.

Sen. Alan Simpson got to the issue last night as he spoke about the new commission he co-chairs to deal with our national debt crisis:
"If we don't solve this problem, its not like we won't be here. We'll still be here. Its just that everything we know and love won't."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Divide

You can go home again. It just won't be the same. So it was discovered as we roamed our old neighborhood, the now "notorious" upper west side of Manhattan. In the day the neighborhood's notoriety came from being sketchy, slummy, and home to a disproportionate number of half-way houses. Columbia hadn't expanded beyond its gates and classic prewar 6 room apartments were divided and sub-divided into "affordable" housing for smaller families.

Notorious now for being described as a bastion of knee jerk liberalism by jerky journalists looking for an easy way to malign the city, the facts on the street are far more complex and interesting. Carrie and I chose Columbus Ave. for a northward stroll from 79th street. The avenue contains all of the trendy and smart shops and restaurants indicative of gentrification, with a particular emphasis on child related toys, clothes, and services. The numbered streets contain the mix of tenants that have been there forever with new families gaining a foothold. As we gazed further up the avenue it was shocking to see new towers standing in what had been the worst of the old hood. The store fronts of this project starting at 97th street contain a block long Whole Foods.

If you turn west on 100th street you enter the great divide. The block contains the 24th police precinct, a library, health center, church playground, and social service center. On the corner of Amsterdam Ave. is a new see thru condo project (apartments start at 1.5 million).

Behind the precinct, to the north, stands the Fredrick Douglass housing project. The original portion of the complex consists of 17 buildings — 5, 9, 12, 17, 18, and 20-stories tall — completed on May 31, 1958 on a 21.76-acre (88,100 m2) site. The development includes 2,054 apartments housing some 4,588 residents. The Frederick Douglass Addition, completed on June 30, 1965, is a 16-story building with 306 residents on .55-acre (2,200 m2) on Amsterdam Avenue between West 102nd and West 103rd Streets.[1]

I don't think there is anyplace where the economic conditions change as fast as they do in NYC. Standing in the middle of this class divide two officers in plain clothes from the 24th are shooting the breeze on the ramp leading into the precinct house. As we approach them with the intent of having one or two questions asked and answered, Dave starts profiling us to his friend. He's funny and clever. He tags us as: "coulda been rich but gave it up for causes, getting along well together, been married forever, probably once lived here and want to find out what's up". All of this is conveyed with a big warm smile, cracking up his friend, a community liaison officer named Phil. I am speechless, a rare condition. "Am I right, Am I right? Gottcha didn't I? And you are way left, liberal, well Ok, not too far left but left right?" I'm looking for pins or some other clues. We are both wearing slacks and light sweaters. "Me I'm in the center. Don't vote. Gave up on them. They're all crooks."

"Hi, I'm Will and this is Carrie, and we did want to get a scope of what has happened and figured you could name it. But what's with this won't vote thing?"

"So you voted, and now you are happy with Obama? Let me guess, Not so." I just got there sooner than you did."

A very special NY minute turns into over an hour of what's happened in the neighborhood, the city, the country. We meet the morning shift as they arrive for work Dave hauls them over to make a point or emphasize one of his. These guys, (the only woman we meet is in fact the captain of the precinct and she can't stay) are sharp, tough, and getting it done (the one murder in the precinct has them all crazy with why. There used to 38 a year on average). Suddenly there is a subject shift. Dave points down to Carrie's sneakers and asks her what she paid for them? Before she can answer he asks me and points down to his own year old no name tennis shoes. He turns us around to point out the woman walking down the street and sotto voce' suggests that her shoes cost hundreds. The small group mumbles their affirmations. We are in the shit now and Will rises to it.

I'll spare you the obvious opening salvos of class war and get to the quick of it. "Once again you guys have missed the target. You are going to lay the blame for the deterioration of this country on a poor black woman's back. That might play in Iowa, but here every day you have visible reminders of who's zoomin who and I don't see any perp walks. One, One of those bankers not 2 miles from here rips off more of your money than every so-called welfare queen in these projects, combined, and you don't raise your voice or cry for justice." Eddie joins the fray: "We have to enter the project for an investigation, enter one of their apartments, there it is, 47 inch TV, cell phone, boy friend with a beemer. Don't tell me they aren't ripping off the system."

"Ok Eddie, lets add it up. Let's take every one of the 5000 residents of these projects, give them all you said, what's it add up to? How about 100 thousand per person. That's 500 million dollars. One guy, one, former Lehman boss Dick Fuld, was paid $485m in salary, bonuses and options between 2000 and 2007. And he destroyed the company. And we are bailing him and his pals out. "

"Don't give me this "but, and" argument, what are you going to do to solve this problem?"

"Here's the problem. If these two parts of the city get any further apart, if the rich keep getting richer leaving these people in despair, and they act out, where are you going to be. History tells me that if the rich man tells you to suppress the poor you're gonna do it. You can't imagine that you have more in common with that poor woman then the guy in Wall Street. You have bought the myth that these poor, lazy, shiftless people are tearing you down. But let me point out the fact that millions of new poor, who thought they had it made, have joined their ranks this time, and they look like you. Are you going to put them down?"

I think we made a tiny inroad. As we left they were less a chorus and more a discussion.