retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There are days that I wish I could get through an MNB without mentioning “recession”…but that seems pretty much impossible. No matter where I go or what I read, there seem to be implications for how we should think about the current economy.

The other day, for example, I was watching on iTunes a lecture given by writer Pete Hamill – one of my favorites – at the University of California at Santa Barbara on the subject of immigration. (By the way, this is one of the great things about the Internet in general and iTunes in particular – they make these sorts of things available to everybody, which can't help but us better informed than if we only read, say, magazines. But that’s another story…) Hamill made the point in the lecture that the only positive thing to come out of the Depression was the fact that it brought people together – it affected pretty much everyone.

In hearing this, though, I couldn’t help but think that I’m not sure that the same thing is happening now. I don't get the sense that we’re all in this together. In fact, just the opposite – I get the feeling that in some ways we’re being driven further apart. An that’s worrisome…because getting through tough economic times is difficult at best…but if there also is a kind of class/political/societal warfare taking place, getting through it may be next to impossible.

At least, that’s one of the things that I worry about.

Know what else I worry about? Spring training is about to start, and I’m not nearly as jazzed as I used to be.

I hope not, but I think maybe baseball – at least, all the crap about baseball – has finally worn me down.

Maybe it’ll be different when the games start.

On the other hand, there is a cheery essay on this morning by Richard Rodriguez, who writes, in part, that “the fallacy of American capitalism is the equation of our economic status and our mental well-being. In a country where we routinely define ourselves by our job, an economic downturn must lead to a psychological downturn. Right?”

Nope. At least, not according to Rodriguez: “Politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, have learned in these last weeks that Americans are not a people listless with dejection. Quite the reverse. Americans are angry at corporate incompetence that is rewarded. Americans are angry at having to bail out the institutions that so efficiently foreclosed on their mortgages. Americans are angry that rich people -- rich, smart, educated people who know all there is to know -- seem not to know how to pay their taxes.”

But depressed? Not so much.

And not even during the Depression, Rodriguez suggests: “As grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through the Depression will tell you, families were often strengthened in adversity, not splintered. And there was, in the constriction of family budgets, a sense of the essential. Today's economic downturn is the result of an unbridled credit economy – the expectation of ever-increasing earning power. In the past year, Americans have learned caution; we are saving money, not spending. Economists tell us we will extend the recession if we keep saving. But the question is whether Americans are going to find a sense of well-being by living modestly rather than by shopping.

“Finally, I would speak of the bravery of Americans. All over the country, people are uneasy, worried, yes. But they are getting out of bed to join job lines and job fairs. In Washington, there is much debate about the appropriate girth of a ‘stimulus bill.’ But responsibility is the stimulus that gets people out of bed and dressed and out of the house … We are more than the sum of our dollars. In adversity, this is what America is learning. The national mood is more complicated than an economist has the ability to graph.”

Great piece. I feel better already.

Advertising Age reported this week that the folks at Cessna are revving up advertising and public relations campaigns designed to “make a bold case” for why private jets actually are “productivity tools” not ego-driven executive toys.

One ad says: "One thing is certain: True visionaries will continue to fly. Because in tempestuous times, leaders recognize it's not about ego. Or artifice. It's simply about availing yourself of the full range of tools to do your job."

I can understand why Cessna needs to get into this fight – the current backlash against private aircraft is a direct attack on its business.

But the ads miss what I think is the real point. Most people, including me, even if they think that maybe executive compensation (especially the practice of giving huge packages to CEOs who fail at their jobs) has gotten a little nuts, don't want the government regulating how much people make or even whether or not they have access to a private jet.

What we have a problem with is companies enjoying such luxuries when they are simultaneously going before Congress to ask for money from the public trough so they can remain alive. In other words, paying big bonuses and flying private jets on our dime.

That doesn’t seem quite so fair at a time when so many people are struggling economically.

Besides, there are productivity tools and there are productivity tools.

When retired Citicorp CEO Sandy Weil took his family to Mexico recently, he had access to the company jet. (He reportedly paid for part of the trip out of personal funds, and now has decided to give up his access to the jet.) The jet was described in one press report this way: “Seating up to 18 passengers, the interior features a full bar and fine-wine selection, along with "$13,000 carpets, pillows that were made from Hermes scarves, Baccarat Crystal glassware and Cristofle sterling silver flatware…”

I don't know about you, but when I start sipping fine wine from Baccarat Crystal glassware, it doesn’t do a whole lot for my productivity.

And, from the files of our “Tone Deaf” Department…

Politico reports that “support is growing for a Senate pay freeze as the chamber seeks to keep its own pay in check while the nation’s budget deficit skyrockets and the economic recession deepens.”

I’m sorry. Did they say “support is growing…?”

Any bozo in public office that opposes an immediate pay freeze on all government officials ought to be impeached…yesterday.

Not to malign public servants, but you have to set an example.


I just finished reading a wonderful book entitled “The Invention of Air,” by Steven Johnson, which is nominally a portrait of a kind of lost Founding Father, Joseph Priestly, who was a contemporary and friend to the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Priestly was a remarkable 18th century scientific mind, but he also was a progressive thinker in the areas of religion and politics, and integrated these disciplines in a uniquely American way.

“The Invention of Air” is a fascinating book in how it shows a different side of the minds that shaped a number of revolutions, and makes scientific thought accessible to the non-scientific mind. I never was much of a science student while growing up, but in reading this book I realized that it may have been because science generally was taught in a vacuum. “The Invention of Air” puts science in historical, cultural and human context…and suggests that the anti-intellectualism that sometimes pervades modern thinking is, essentially, at odds with the kind of thinking that created America.

Fascinating stuff.

There is a story this morning in the Wall Street Journal that gives me hope that if this whole MNB thing goes south, there may be career options for me.

The story profiles how fiftysomething journalist Michael Precker, married and with a couple of kids, began to get tired of the daily grind and the career worries of the newspaper game.

So he got a job running a Dallas business that might best be described as a “gentleman’s club.”

(I think that there may be a couple of MNB readers who might argue that running such a club isn’t, from a morality/ethical POV, all that different from working for a daily newspaper. No doubt I will receive diatribes and manifestos from them any time now.)

Being a writer, one of the things that Precker (and yes, I spelled his name right) did was change the joint’s slogan, which used to be, “Where a man can be a man."

The new slogan: "For the finer things in life."

Hell, since Precker used to cover the Middle East, I’m surprised he didn’t change the name of the club to the Gaza Strip.

His wife apparently approves.

I’m thinking that Mrs. Content Guy might not be so amenable.
KC's View: