Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It's Time to Put the Fun Back in Dysfunctional

Several years ago the New York Times ran a Sunday Magazine profile of several young and successful TV sitcom writers. They spoke of their therapy sessions, their shoes and their families.

"You can't write for television" said one comedy writer, "if you didn't grow up in a dysfunctional family."

Okay, I admit it. I love oddball families.

There were the Dowds, the extended family of Harvey the six foot rabbit. In You Can't Take it With You the Sycamores took in every misfit in town, even the wealthy son of the bigshot banker who was trying to evict them.

And of course my personal favorites, those lovable Brewster sisters of Arsenic and Old Lace who buried their problems in the basement.

Did anyone who went to the theater ever believe that these were authentic slices of American life?

Of course not. The Dowds, the Sycamores, the Brewsters were all fictional. And that's the point.

So, for anyone here with a sensitive nature or a fragile ego, cover your eyes, ears, nose and throat. What you are about to read will shock and amaze you. It may revolt you. It may even enlighten you, although I doubt it. The reason is that my conclusion is so basic and so self evident that for those that understand the concept it's as clear as crystal. For those that don't it's as dense as treakle and ten times more unpatatable.

Here goes. You have been warned.

There is no such thing as a dysfunctional family.

You read it right. There is no such thing as a dysfunctional family. It's a fiction. What we have today is a pathetic legion of dysfunctional people, aided and abetted by an army of psychologists and social workers, who have slithered out from under their beds to blame those that love them most for all their problems and difficulties.

It's nearly impossible to miss the symptoms.

Bad habits become addictions.

Anti-social behavior is defined as a public health problem.

Unpleasantness is defined as honesty and "speaking my mind."

And all personal failures are ascribed to an all-consuming but nebulous family pathology, i.e. dysfunction.

So, not only do these dysfunctional people make life a hell on Earth for family and friends, they also turn the mirror toward the wall and blame everyone around them for their own shorcomings. Worse, these losers have now reached a critical mass as the designers of the popular culture. They are eroding our objective sense of right and wrong, human and inhuman, functional and dysfunctional.

When I turn the key to start my car and hear nothing but a faint clicking sound, I can be fairly certain that my battery is dysfunctional. I don't blame the entire automobile industry for inflicting dysfunctional cars on an innocent and unsuspecting public. Then, when I notice that I had left the lights on the night before, as a relatively sentient being I blame the occasional dysfunction in my own brain rather than any defect in the battery.

Not so for the dysfunctional person.

"That battery should know that I'm imperfect. It should recognize my weaknesses. It should adjust and accomodate. It's that damn battery that doesn't understand me!"

As Elwood P. Dowd told us so eloquently, "In this life you have to be oh so clever or oh so pleasant. I decided to be oh so pleasant."

It seems that the designers of today's popular culture have decided that they want to be oh so unpleasant. Tragedy is, there's not a thing that's the least bit clever about any of it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Milestone

December 27th, 2008

Today marks an important milestone for me and the fact that I'm here writing this blog entry on this dreary afternoon is the proof. On December 27th, 2003 I was diagnosed with tacchycardia-induced cardiomyopathy which caused severe damage to the left side of my heart and a 35% loss of cardiac function. On that day, the odds of me being here to tell this story stood at less than 50/50.

So... it's time for a little history.

I've never been in really good shape. Even during my high-school days when I played baseball and ran track, I would often cross the finish line after a sprint and collapse. In the past twenty years, other than running around with the kids I've done virtually no exercise.

Then, about six years ago I started having dizzy spells. Doctors couldn't find a cause, other than thallysemia or "stress and anxiety", and it went on for a year. More than once the attacks were so bad I had to go to the Emergency Room. Early that same year I cracked up my motorcycle and broke my collarbone and four ribs. (Doctors had no problem with this diagnosis)

After the crash I spent two months sleeping in a recliner (out of necessity) and another four months spending most of my time in that same recliner (out of de-motivation).

Finally I saw a doctor who diagnosed atrial fibrillation. The good news: A calcium-channel blocker cured the problem in about a day.

The bad news: I had 35% loss of cardiac function (cardiomyopathy) on the left side of my heart. Just my luck, it’s the type of problem that kills 50% of patients within 5 years.

When I asked the cardiologist if my heart damage could be reversed he looked up at the ceiling and said that it's been known to happen... in some patients... some of the time...

I sensed immediately that he was blowing smoke up my shorts.

Dr. Zaman told me to go on a light exercise program so I bought a treadmill and a Total Gym. Good news again. After about five months my heart function started to rebound slowly. Little by little I was up to 75%... 85%...

In a year I was back up to 95%. Then 100% in less than two years. But the heart damage was still there.

Still, I felt as if I had been reborn. The A-Fib episode gave me all the motivation I needed and I resolved that I was not going to make the same mistakes (no exercise) again. I had been 175 pounds, 149 cholesterol and normal blood pressure for the last 30 years, but I WAS SQUISHY.

The treadmill and the Total Gym worked fine, up to a point. Then I hit a plateau.

So I decided to increase the intensity. Working late one night I took a break and turned on the TV. As I was flipping through the dial I stopped on a fitness infomercial and made the first, and only, impulse purchase of my life.

Soon the DVDs, resistance bands and pull-up bar arrived and I started the program. Starting easy I went through the first twelve weeks, felt better and looked better. Then, during an echocardiogram Dr. Zaman said that there was something curious going on.

"Your cardiomyopathy has improved" he said.

That's when I told him that I had started an extreme exercise program.

I was supposed to consult with my doctor before starting, but I was sure he would advise against it. That was more than a year ago.

But there's more.

My last two echocardiograms showed no evidence of cardiomyopathy.

I asked the doctor if he had ever seen this before and he told me that in 37 years practicing cardiology he has had five patients who have improved their cardiac function, but only one patient who has completely reversed a cardiomyopathy.

Guess who?

BTW: The fibrillation was caused by a defect in the electrical impulses to the heart muscle, not any problem with weight, cholesterol or blood pressure.

My advice: If any of you have experienced a flushed feeling, rapid heartbeat and dizzyness don't take the doctor's word that it's stress or anxiety. Stress is the modern day equivalent of evil spirits. When they don't know what's wrong with you they blame stress.

Get yourself checked for atrial fibrillation. It's the most common and undiagnosed form of cardiac arrythmia and there are modern methods available now to treat it.

Hope this helps.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hobbyists, Take Heart!

Please read this disclaimer before proceeding:

I don't have a diploma from Harvard like John Thain, Rick Wagoner, Barney Frank, Jamie Gorelick, Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy and Eliot Spitzer.

I don't have any high-level executive experience at rock-solid enterprises like Lehman Brothers, Pan American World Airways or Studebaker.

Most importantly, I do not have any special insight or intuition regarding arcane, high-yield investment opportunities like Bernard Madoff, Ivan Boesky and Carlo Ponzi.

No, I'm merely a poor, starving writer with a degree in theater arts from a humble municipal institution of slightly higher learning. However, I do know that a business has to take in more money than it shells out, provide products and services that customers actually want, and pay back money that it borrows. Call me naive. Call it 19th century thinking. Call it anything you want, yet these simple facts of life remain in force today as they have for more than 5,000years. Surprisingly, these concepts seem to have been lost on most graduates of high-tone universities.

This isn't a new phenomenon and you don't have to look back very far for parallels.

During the dot.com bubble we were told that "old economy" metrics like share of market and price-to-earnings ratio were no longer relevant.

No, in this new Gilded Age investors foamed at the mouth to invest in startups with high share of mind and price-to-concept ratios.

Then, when the inflow of new cash couldn't keep up with the outflow of marketing funds (i.e. Super Bowl commercials necessary to maintain high share of mind) the house of cards came tumbling down. These were companies with no tangible products, services or value. In short, investors had no reasonable expectation of profit--long term, near term, any term. Oops, forgot to ask.

How is the Madoff scam any different?

If there's any lesson to be learned it's that traditional business models and metrics matter.

Today, any objective observer looking at General Motors would determine that GM is not, by any definition, a car company.

No, it's the world's largest nursing home with a small money losing operation that makes cars.

In spite of the fact that they employ the greatest minds in the automotive industry every car that rolls off the GM assembly line sells for an average of $900 less than it costs to produce. We can debate all day about the reasons, but--LISTEN UP CLASS--a company that continually produces products at a loss is not a viable business.

General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner acknowledges that his company loses money on every car they sell. His public statements suggest a belief that they can make it up in volume.

Do you get the message folks?

If Americans will simply open up their grandchildren's piggy banks to them they're confident they can come up with a plan to sell more cars at a loss. Is it possible that he learned of this curious business strategy while pursuing his MBA at Harvard? If so, I'll take my degree from UCLA (The University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue) any day of the week.

As an independent contractor I have to file a Schedule C every year detailing business income or loss from my modest enterprise. According to IRS rules any business that shows a loss in three of the previous five years is not really a business at all, it's a hobby.

Now, if GM gets its way, independent contractors from coast-to-coast will have a wide variety of opportunities to report losses from fishing, golf, TV watching, snowboarding, jetskiing and every other diversion they can conjure.

In its own way GM can almost singlehandedly transform the American economy. Rather than producing goods and services, Americans will be able to focus all their energies on avoiding the production of goods and services. That is, of course, unless your business happens to be fishing tackle and golf clubs.

Perhaps the best part of this whimsical adventure is that next year President Obama will get to change the name of the Commerce Department to the Federal Bureau of Diversion and the Secretary of Commerce will forevermore be known as the Hobby Czar.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Escape, American Style

One interesting demographic trend that was ignored in this past election cycle is the outmigration from California and the northeast by retirees and others who are trying to escape the oppressive burden of taxes in their home states.

When you look at the highest combined tax burdens among all fifty states the numbers are staggering. Connecticut: Number 1. New York: Number 2. New Jersey: Number 3.

In fact, the only state in the northeast that's not in the infamous Top Ten is New Hampshire which ranks 29th in combined taxes and has no state sales tax. Maybe that's why New Hampshire is seeing an increase in population compared with it's neighbors.

But there's a festering problem on the horizon and the evidence is clear in the state-by-state election returns of last November. New Yorkers, and others from liberal enclaves move out to escape the oppressive burden of taxation.

Then they get to their new home and pull the lever on election day for the same scolds, bloodsuckers and losers who have made life unlivable in their former hometowns.

So, how do the rest of us avoid this tragic fate?

It turns out that we’re looking to make a move in the next few years to escape from sales taxes, state income taxes, five-figure property taxes, increases in tolls and fees, along with confiscations we cannot even imagine now as New York's deficit grows and its population dwindles.

In analyzing our choices we determined that our destination will have to fulfil several criteria.

It must be in the Bottom Ten in combined tax burden.

There must be no major cities.

It must have little or no migration from the northeast or any other liberal mecca.

This last factor is critical.

We were at a recent going-away party for friends who were moving to North Carolina because they could no longer afford New York. When I told Ben that we were looking to relocate and were considering North Carolina he raised his glass and said:

“Good. We’ll turn that red state blue in no time.”

I walked away shaking my head while making a mental note to cross North Carolina off of our prospective destination list.

Right now, our leading choices are Biloxi, Mississippi and Gulf Shores, Alabama.

When I mention these two destinations to friends here in Fun City they gag and become physically ill.

I think we're on the right track.

UPDATE: December 26th, 2008.

This morning, while browsing through the New York Times, I choked on my porridge when I got to the "Escapes" section. Seems that the Manhattan intelligentsia have discovered Gulf Shores, Alabama. Looks like we'll have to cross this one off the list as well. Costa Rica is looking pretty attractive.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Invisible Hand

I recently stumbled upon a very interesting website from a company in the Great Northeast that designs and builds high-end, high efficiency homes and commercial structures. This is a field that has interested me since my old advertising/public relations days with a great metropolitan electrical plug and connector manufacturer.

But enough about me.

On his blog page Tedd Benson (founder of Bensonwood, Inc.) takes his own industry to task for their complicity in the current housing collapse.

According to Tedd, the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) ignored the public good and continued to lobby for loose or non-existant credit standards in order to keep the housing bubble inflated. But for how long? The current bust, which may have broader implications far beyond our wildest nightmares, was both inevitable and predictable.

Tedd ends his blog entry with the following statement:

"Economist Adam Smith didn’t contemplate conscious, rationalized idiocy on such a large scale; his “invisible hand” was no match for such a massive, wanton snow job."

I enjoy Tedd's blog and often agree with his observations and conclusions. However, in this case I respectfully disagree.

Actually, Adam Smith anticipated exactly what has happened in this particular boom/bust cycle.

He made it very clear that considerable structure was needed before the invisible hand of the market could work efficiently.

For example, property rights must be strong, and there must be widespread adherence to moral norms, such as prohibitions against theft and misrepresentation.

In his time, property rights were only recognized among the aristocracy.

Adam Smith developed his theories in a centralized, heavily planned and dictatorial society where some individuals were above the law and others were effectively without any rights.

He saw the system of his time as corrupt and inefficient--a massive and wanton snowjob that enriched the few at the expense of the many.

He even anticipated the influence of special interests, writing that:

"People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or some contrivance to raise prices."

The two greatest misrepresentations (uhh... outright lies) of the modern liberal/progressive movement are:

- Those who favor an Adam Smith approach to economics seek a law of the jungle society where the strong devour the weak without constraint, and…

- Adherence to Keynesian macroeconomic theory can eliminate the normal ups and downs of the business cycle.

Rather than leveling the cycles the present economic crisis is the result of the massive doses of Keynesianism our government has given us for decades. John Maynard Keynes did not trust the market economy therefore he called for central management of the economy by governments and central banks.

According to Keynes, since spending and consumption drive an economy the more that is spent the better. Smith, on the other hand, recognized the distinction between productive and nonproductive consumption.

It seems axiomatic that productive consumption is an agent of economic growth while nonproductive consumption--paid for with money fabricated out of thin air--leads to economic impoverishment, but this fact is lost on today’s generation of economic experts, including Nobel laureates.

In my opinion the strongest reason for leaving the allocation of effort and reward to the invisible hand is that when it misappropriates goods it is usually on a small scale. Centralized methods of allocating goods are more prone to corruption and waste. More importantly, when centralized planning succeeds it succeeds modestly and when it fails, it fails on a massive scale.

Smith wrote about the spending of other people's money this way:

"It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense...They are themselves always, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society."

In place of kings and ministers substitute presidents, committee chairs, university professors and columnists… most especially columnists who are also university professors.

I don't blame the NAHB. They were advocating for their constituents. Where were our elected officials? Where was the adversarial press? Yes, there were some in 2004/2005 who wrote of the 18-year housing cycle and warned that the next bust could be deeper and longer than any in recent memory, but you really had to dig deep to find them.