November 24, 2008

The End

The front cover of the December 2008 issue of Conde Nast Portfolio magazine shows a different view of Arturo Di Modica's bronze sculpture "Charging Bull" than what New York City's tourists are used to seeing. Photo-illustrator Ji Lee reinterprets the normally aggressive bull figure, a popular attraction in Manhattan's Financial District, for the magazine as being outright dead. The copy on the cover reads "After the Fall - Greed, stupidity, and really bad luck: How Wall Street did itself in" by Michael Lewis.        

Author Michael Lewis is known for writing the scandalous "Liar's Poker" a thought-provoking insider's account of his four year work experience with the Wall Street firm Salomon Brothers (published by Penguin, 1990). In the Portfolio magazine article titled "The End", Mr. Lewis lays out (with help from Meredith Whitney and Steve Eisman) the eye-opening details of the current financial crisis for readers to digest. It isn't pretty and listed below are several excerpts.

"To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital - to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn't the first clue."

"Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people's money, would be expelled from finance."

"In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents' world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?"

"I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn't give a shit what it sold."

"The juiciest shorts - the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default - had several characteristics. They'd be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada. The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking homeowners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000."

"The one thing Steve always says," Daniel explains, "is you must assume they are lying to you. They will always lie to you."

He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. "That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice," he says. "They fucked people. They built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience."

Trickle-Down Economics

I first became aware of Ai's writings in the early 90s when I stumbled across a volume of her poetry in my university's library. The strength and forcefulness of the author's writing in poems such as "The Kid" literally slapped me awake from the everyday workings of academia. (see "Vice - New and Selected Poems" by Ai, published 1999 by W.W. Norton & Company, author photograph by Heather Conley)  

Speaking of being slapped awake, it seems appropriate to mention at this time of economic turmoil, that the beast known as America's middle class (consumption or die!) might finally get an inkling that it was just playing the part of obedient sheep all along. As is often the case, the misinformed of America's middle and lower classes were fooled by a dangling carrot. The sad truth is that the idea behind the building and distribution of wealth, and a fair shake at life has always been and continues to be a major problem in our country of stars and stripes       

It is said that in the United States alone, the top 5 percent of the wealthy controls nearly 50 percent of the nation's wealth. How do you suppose this imbalance affects the lives of just one group in our great society, that of black men for instance? An article written by Erik Eckholm for the New York Times on March 20, 2006 notes that "The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless - that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000."

The article continues "Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison."

An so it is that in these troubled economic times, I ask everyone to think back to April 29, 1992 and reflect. Who or what is the real enemy? On that day, the acquittals on the main charges of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King sparked a series of riots across Los Angeles. Having grown up in the inner city, I remember being shocked at the time that many of my middle-class classmates and coworkers could only focus on the "horrifying" news images of looting, fires, and street violence across L.A. Somehow we're trained to look at the aftermath, but not at how we got there in the first place.  

In her poem "Riot Act, April 29, 1992", the poet Ai saw so much more. The issues of excessive force, pent-up anger, racial profiling, rampant unemployment, and the inaccessible American Dream were finally on view for all to see on prime time television! This is what happened to society's carefully orchestrated house of cards on "the day the wealth finally trickled down to the rest of us." - PS

November 18, 2008

Freddie Mercury Lives!

Seen in NYC. Channel your inner Rollie Fingers or Freddie Mercury!

Sardines Never Change

A story in today's New York Daily News (November 18, 2008) speaks of the MTA's emergency plans due to the current "weak economy and dramatically declining tax revenues." The "doomsday budget" plans include raising fares, shutting down the W and Z subway lines, decreasing service, and cutting staff positions. Subway riders will of course pay the price not only in higher fares, but also with longer waits for trains, and increasingly crowded rides. Notice the headline "You'll Feel Even More Like Packed Sardines!" 

Wouldn't you know it, earlier this summer I received the mailer illustrated above from a local realtor showing a NY Times ad from September 1928. The ad promotes the joy of living in Tudor City on the east side of Manhattan and being able to walk to work, shops and entertainment (and thereby avoiding the unpleasantness of the daily subway commute). The headline reads "Poor fish" and the first sentence begins "Packed like sardines, they stand for thirty minutes every morning and evening in badly ventilated discomfort..." Well, I guess sardines...or rather some things unfortunately never change.

November 9, 2008

L. Parker Stephenson Photographs

Anna Tan Graphic Design has just completed the design of an elegant website for L. Parker Stephenson Photographs. Ms. Stephenson is a private photography dealer in New York who carries artwork by classic photographers such as Paul Strand, William Klein, and W. Eugene Smith. As well, she represents the work of imaginative contemporary artists such as Yuichi Hibi and Gregori Maiofis. Please visit to learn more about the art of collecting fine art photography.  

He's A Gun-Snatcher

A New York Times article by Kirk Johnson reported that "Sales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the last week, according to gun store owners around the nation who describe a wave of buyers concerned that an Obama administration will curtail their right to bear arms." Just a day later, a horrifying article detailed how an 8-year old boy killed his father and another man with a .22-caliber rifle in Arizona.

The haunting (and seemingly everyday) image above, from Bill Owens' telling photo essay "Suburbia" published by Straight Arrow Books in 1972, immediately crept into mind.

A caption for the photograph reads: I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality. (He already wants to be a policeman). His childhood gun-playing won't make him into a cop-shooter. By playing with guns he learns to socialize with other children. I find the neighbors who are offended by Richie's gun, either the father hunts or their kids are the first to take Richie's gun and go off and play with it. 

Nice, Nicer, Nicest

Seen in NYC.

November 2, 2008

Let My People Go Surfing

We have been fans of the clothing & equipment company Patagonia for quite some time now. Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia's founder has instilled in the company a measurable sense of cultural and environmental values. It also doesn't hurt that Patagonia combines great art & design with all-important functionality. As you can see, we have amassed a small collection of Patagonia's socially conscious t-shirts.

Design without content (like many other aspects of life) often becomes just eye candy. The "Live Simply" t-shirts above, designed by Geoff McFetridge, gently gets across a large and important message using the simplest of mediums.  

Geoff McFetridge of course is the L.A. based artist and graphic designer who is known for paring big ideas down to a reductive visual core. His early "I'm Rocking On Your Dime" t-shirt is still an eye-catcher.

Yvon Chouinard shared his thoughts and philosophy on responsible business in "Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman", published by Penguin, 2006.

We think the message on this last t-shirt says it all. - AT & PS