Economic notes from a recovery summer
By Matthew Stevenson
Photos, Matthew Stevenson
Because I live in Europe and only travel around the United States in summer—America-on-five-relatives-a-day—I am sure my economic observations from this last hegira lack the rigor of a Gallup poll or a Brookings Institution survey.
Nevertheless, I did cross about two thousand miles of the country—from Maine to New Jersey and then up the Hudson River to Montreal—and came to the conclusions that: in most communities the real estate market is still dead; economic development means putting up a CVS opposite a new Duane Reade; college is a protection racket; public transportation isn’t very kind to the public; Amtrak’s problem is that it doesn’t like trains; Americans all sound like Best Buy salesmen; and, finally, it’s hard to get away from the War of 1812.
Sellers beware: I would like to report that I saw signs of economic recovery in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Apart from the bubble that is New York City’s co-op market, most conversations I had about housing prices indicated that, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, the recovery “waxes desperate with imagination.” I drove through a working class neighborhood in Bangor, Maine where it seemed almost a third of the houses were empty or boarded up. In New Jersey, it has taken more than ten years for the houses and apartments in my father’s retirement community to sell, and still vacancies remain. Forlorn towns along the Hudson River look like they are waiting for a revival of the whaling industry.
Build it and they will shop: At each stop I found myself wondering about an economy that to show growth needs to build more drug stores. Banks aren’t lending to small- and medium-sized businesses, but they will fork out any amount of money to put up another drive-through pharmacy, no doubt because the government is now in the pill-giveaway business and doctors prescribe medications by the fistful. Whatever the benefits of Obamacare, it is a gold rush for chain drug stores. Even small towns have two or three of the national brands, all selling flu shots and Oreos. (Aisles 1 to 6 make you sick; in 7 through 12, you feel better.)
Knowledge is good, if pricey: Within the SUV classes, all anyone talks about is getting their kids into college, be it Pomona, Penn, or Perdue. It used to be, in summers, most high-school kids had jobs scooping ice cream or, in my case, pumping gas into motor boats. Now, summer work involves SAT booster courses, essay-writing tutorials, vocabulary enrichment, and application-building volunteerism that usually includes a side trip to Shanghai. I shouldn’t complain, as I value the liberal arts and and touring colleges is clearly a boom industry. But what society wants—on top of the $200,000 in college tuition costs—to limit its university applicants to those who can attend SAT summer camps?
Safe, dependable, cramped: I try to connect the dots of my family with public transportation, even when it involves a bus ride. On this trip, I took Greyhound from Burlington, Vermont, to Montreal. To catch the bus, however, I had to take taxi out to the airport, as the long dog no longer serves downtown Burlington or the University of Vermont. Greyhound is a dreary experience (don’t bet on its wi-fi working), and for many American towns it’s the only hound in the hunt—a virtual monopoly on long-haul bus routes. Nor does it bother with many secondary towns. When you are without a car in Homeland America, the country lives up to Dr. Johnson’s observation about the Giant’s Causeway in Scotland: “Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”
Your stimulus money at work: A handful of American cities and towns are granted an appearance from Amtrak, although it’s generally so spotty that only those down on their luck or with time to burn chance it for a connection. (Down on my luck?) I took the all-day train from Pennsylvania Station to Plattsburgh, New York. The train was an hour late (at least we had views of the Hudson). The train crew of three conductors (who passed the time reading newspapers in the club car) still managed to strand onboard a passenger who tried to get off in Ticonderoga. The diner ran out of coffee. The old, but charming depot in Plattsburgh had a hand-lettered sign on the door: “This station does not sell tickets,” but noted an 800 number and stated “Reservation Required.” (Is that for the call or the train?) Amtrak is the same organization making the case to be in charge of President Obama’s $128 billion stimulus proposal for high-speed rail.
The attention span of iCats: During my vacation travels, most rooms that I was in had either a new flat-screen television or some other electronic device as alluring as Mecca. Chatting with Americans now is like talking to monks whose heads are always bent in prayer—on the altar of a smart phone. It used to be every American room had television; now it is every pocket. Most conversations touched on the next upgrade.
For solace, I retreated into Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In delivering a bromide against the evils of television, making the distinction between a “word-centered culture” and an “image-centered culture,” he writes: “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment then vanishes again.” He wrote this before there were iPhones.
The battlefield business: Given that Revolutionary and Civil War touring is big business, why not make more of the War of 1812? I enjoyed tracking down the decisive battle of Plattsburgh and its offshore equivalent, the Battle of Lake Champlain. I met Keith Herkalo, the president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association and its 1812 Museum, and he walked me through the now-forgotten battle that, more than Yorktown, preserved American independence.
On September 11, 1814, American soldiers in Plattsburgh and ships on Lake Champlain held off the attacking British forces from capturing the waterway, if not the Hudson, with a brave stand against numerically superior forces. In his history of sea power, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan calls Lake Champlain “decisive.”
Plattsburgh might have saved the American republic, but the ferry across Lake Champlain to Grand Isle, Vermont left me high and dry, about twenty-five miles from Burlington and without a bus to the city. I ended up in an expensive taxi, in which the driver’s girlfriend talked for most of the ride about the novels of Stephen King. (“That’s the one where his head explodes…”)
The sun was setting across the lake, and Vermont had the summer smell of fresh corn and cut grass. It made me forget my late train, all those flat-screen TVs, fragmented conversations, and indebted students. In Burlington, it took me forever to find a hotel (they’re out by the interstate). At least the funky and charming downtown has lots of restaurants, boutiques, and even sidewalk bricks that celebrate cities like Ulan Bator and Chongqing—and, of course, drug stores.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is “Whistle-Stopping America.”
By Peter Gaechter
The news that the Basque separatist group, ETA, had called for a ceasefire last Sunday, 5 September caused little commotion in the Spanish capital, Madrid. The Spanish government rejected ETA’s offer as “insufficient” saying the armed group had not unequivocally renounced the use of violence.
The story behind the news was that Sinn Fein, the political wing of the erstwhile Irish Republican Army, which waged its own decades-long armed struggle against Great Britain, had been “heavily involved” in ETA’s decision to put down its arms, “the culmination of years of debate, discussion and strategising among Basque activists”, according to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader writing in the Guardian 6 September.
Why Spain won’t accept the ceasefire as is
Adams is optimistic and urges the Spanish government to seize the opportunity to enter into a political dialogue with ETA. The Spanish government is understandably reticent: experience, including the breaking of two previous ceasefires called by ETA in the past dozen years, argues against it; politics stays its hand too: the political right in Spain is not willing to cede an inch on the matter, and Spain’s ruling Socialists are in for a drubbing over the economy in next year’s elections.
ETA is on four different “designated terrorist” lists. Sinn Fein met with ETA “in the Basque country, sometimes in Belfast, and on a number of occasions in recent years Sinn Fein representatives travelled to Geneva for meetings with Basque representatives”. According to a strict interpretation of a recent US Supreme Court ruling, such activity may be illegal.
What is material support?
Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project, a case that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in June 2010, argued that portions of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 were too vague. The Humanitarian Law Project argued that sitting down and talking to armed groups who are on the State Department’s terrorist lists could not be viewed as criminal activity. The Supreme Court held in July that providing “material support” to an armed group, which may include legal or other advice, frees up resources that the group may use to further its violent cause.
Correct. But in Sinn Fein’s case it may have been providing advice about a peace process that worked out relatively well. In other words, the advice seems to have been clearly to convince ETA that a ceasefire may be an important first step in a political process that could actually save lives.
Don’t criminalize dialogue
Other actors are also involved in furthering peace processes. Many NGOs need to talk to armed rebel groups in order to negotiate terms for humanitarian assistance of some sort or another. The International Red Cross springs to mind, as do countless others who operate in conflict zones around the world. Denying these groups the possibility of at least talking to armed groups because they appear on the designated terrorist group list seems short-sighted and counter-productive. Past US actions now also seem hypocritical. For years, the IRA raised funds openly in the USA to the chagrin of the British government.
What happens next? It is unlikely that Gerry Adams is going to be held up by Homeland Security officials at JFK airport the next time he visits the USA. But what exactly is the US government’s position on close ally Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s subtle dealings with the Taliban in that benighted country? What would happen if the US military found it expedient to open a dialogue with the Taliban itself? It strikes me that the US Supreme Court has painted itself into a very sticky legal corner.
By Bill Harby
Expatch, the Swiss (mis)adventures of a CH-ophile writer & photographer from Hawai’i
I’ve been doing a lot of driving recently, and am happy to say that I am no longer terrified of causing an international fender-bender incident because I didn’t know whether a certain sign meant I was going the wrong way on a dead-end street, which, if you think about it, is impossible anyway, even though I’m pretty sure I was doing exactly that the other day on a street with alarming red and blue signs apparently telling me not to proceed and not to go the opposite direction.
Negotiating Swiss streets requires speed-reading. There are signs over the road and beside the road, and even signs written right on the road. It’s kind of like playing 3-D chess. Fighter pilots are required to have superb “3-dimensional situational awareness.” Ditto for European drivers, for whom the next piece of life-saving information could be written virtually anywhere, including on that window-box of tulips outside the neighborhood bordello.
My favorite European traffic device is the ubiquitous rond-point. This is a circle of roadway that appears at many intersections. Instead of having to hit the brakes at a stop sign even if you can see that there’s not another vehicle within hundreds of meters, drivers decide for themselves whether or not they can safely glide into the circle and proceed to their chosen connecting street without infringing upon the grillwork of another driver. Even better, a rond-point is often covered with a mound of beautiful flowers or an interesting mosaic of bricks or stonework, allowing traffic to freely flow around it like chi around a lovely mandala.
Indeed, in the USA we sometimes call the rond-point a “traffic-calming circle,” or a “roundabout.” But mostly we don’t call it anything because it mostly doesn’t exist in our country.
In Hawai‘i, my previous home, there is little that is calming about such circles. When the county government announced plans to put in only the second roundabout in the state, certain concerned citizens all but mounted an insurrection, sending out a public letter calling on their neighbors to resist this crazy foreign idea, and instead “order up four stop signs … and tell the mayor and the Neighborhood Board to go away.”
But why do Americans have such antipathy towards this obviously efficient and graceful traffic device?
One day a few years ago, after considerable rond-point traffic observation from the vantage point of a Parisian sidewalk café table eventually festooned with carefully arranged empty wine glasses standing in for traffic cones, I figured out why Europeans love the roundabout and Americans loathe it. Europeans love it because they get to make their own Existential choice whether to brake or play poulet with that tilting Heineken truck heading around toward them. It’s that liberté thing. In the U.S. of A., we prefer a good sturdy stop sign because it’s completely clear what we’re supposed to do. Plus, it gives us excellent supporting evidence for our personal injury lawsuit.
In Peseux, the village just downhill from my house, there’s a place where two rond-points nearly touch each other. Together they form a sort of figure-eight. Or an infinity sign. I have to admit that this arrangement is rather too deep for me to comprehend yet. So tomorrow I plan to drive around both of them until things clarify — or until I’m chased down by a cop. But I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Certainly we’ll both be very calm.
Nyon Film Festival 2009
Peter Kerekes’ film, “Cooking History,” opens with an elderly German baker and World War II veteran proclaiming, “German bread is the best in the world.”
The film then cuts to the baker and three other war veterans trekking through the forest and singing battle hymns.
Nyon film festival 2009
by Jillian Hudson
The very essence of waiting and wanting seep through the screen in Bettina Haasen’s, “Hotel Sahara.” Heart-stopping cinematography coupled with a haunting soundtrack made this a film to remember. Haasen gives a voice to the dreams and desires of Africans in the westernmost point in Mauritania where they wait to attempt an illegal crossing to Spain by sea.
Nyon Film Festival 2009
The sound of dogs barking throughout sets the tone for this bleak film by Mathias Montavon and Marianne Thivillier. A bombed out or otherwise disintegrated Georgian infrastructure in a nameless city, serves as backdrop for the poetic text provided by Thivillier via a narrative voice.
Amazingly, according to Thivillier, the text was largely the product of spontaneous musings on the themes of war and destruction and was not written specifically as a counterpart to the imagery in the film, which is at least as bleak as the text. The dog howls add perfectly to the narrative depicting human regression to a feral state.
Nyon film festival 2009
by Jillian Hudson
“Spaghetti alle Vongole” was an excellent first attempt for director Lila Ribi. The camera captures her father’s severe depression and his difficulty in communicating with his daughter. Ribi manages to convey her feelings of disappointment and sadness at the lack of a father during her childhood as well as her desperation to establish a relationship with him now.
The sadness and the frustration are palpable in the intimate scenes in her father’s kitchen where it’s just a girl asking her father to let her in to his life. It was a very brave move for Ribi to take on a project that hit so close to home. If her father had been willing she could have taken the story even further.
Nyon film festival 2009
by Jillian Hudson
Yu Guangyi’s documentary “Survival Song” is a shockingly candid view into the lives of a Chinese working class family who has been forced to live in poverty and misery in the name of a new and modern China.
Nyon film festival 2009
by Jillian Hudson
“Cash and Marry” is the humorous portrayal of a man’s search for an EU (European Union) bride at all costs. Director and main character Georgiev Atanas calls upon his Bosnian friend Marko who is currently living in Vienna, Austria to help him find a bride who will give him papers to live and work in the EU.
This post appeared on brandingthroughpeople. Author Ago Cluytens has previously shared posts from his marketing blog with GenevaLunch.com
“Oh Father, I have sinned. It has been several weeks since my latest post.”
Lately, I have been experiencing a severe case of writers’ block, which has caused me to interrupt my usually steady flow of blog posts. For those of you that are regular followers of this blog, I sincerely apologize. I guess I could tell you that a lot has been happening in my life lately, but that does not justify not posting for such a length of time.
Still, sometime good came out of it: this morning, I started reflecting on the importance of being trustworthy and dependable in business (and personal) relationships. Recently, I have experienced several moments where people have been extremely reliable, but unfortunately also a few where they turned out to be completely the opposite.