Critiques & Commentary

And here I stand…

I will not vote for Trump. He is an ignorant cretin, and he is a bully, which I truly can’t stand. He has raised some issues that are important, but it is impossible to imagine anyone less equipped, in any way that can be cited, to solve them, or even to cause them to be discussed halfway reasonably. That said, I don’t much like HRC either. Too much baggage, too many due bills streaming behind her like the tails of a kite. Moreover, as a New York voter, given this state’s skewed voter registration, so heavily weighted on the Democrat side, I have the luxury of not pulling the lever for her, knowing that she’ll carry New York come what may and hardly needs my vote. Still, when the moment arrives, I imagine I’ll hold my nose and vote for HRC. This may upset friends who are Trump adherents, either vocal or (mostly) clandestine, people who should know better but are thinking with their wallets (and might be in for a big nasty surprise involving pitchforks should Trump prevail), but I think the elements shrieking for Trump truly are  – yes – deplorable, especially given the fragile emotional state of the country, and it’s against them, as much as against Trump himself, that I’ll be voting. So be it.

Just asking…

Everywhere one turns these days, one hears an outcry against the purported evils of “cultural appropriation.” This got me thinking: what about “Hamilton”? Couldn’t the show be described as an example of “cultural appropriation” –  albeit differently triangulated subculturally and infinitely more lucrative for the appropriators than the usual suspects? Just asking…

Casino Banking…

It strikes me that what’s going on in banking parallels the way Las Vegas evolved. Initially, the big Las Vegas casino-hotel operators threw in the rooms and lounge acts to lure gamblers. The technical terms was “comping.” The money was in the slots and craps and roulette tables. Gradually, however, the “comping” elements took on a profit life of their own. Today, tourism, and the many, many ways it throws off revenues, has become the straw that stirs the drink. Relatively speaking, gambling has been eclipsed. But the amount of money being spent on newer, fancier hooks with which to catch the tourist trade, everything from Mom and Pop on a 3-day weekend package to conventions of people who on’t drink anything that costs less than $1000/bottle, is squeezing profits, and so the focus is on brining back the high rollers.

Look at banks. When I was on Wall Street in the 1960s-70s, banking was supposed to be boring. Banks took deposits, made loans, originated mortgages that they sold to insurance companies and operated trust departments that took care of their wealthier customers. Plain white bread, you might say. Then along came Walter Wriston at Citibank with his eloquent focus on EPS growth and go-go “petrodollar recycling”, and then Ira Harris and his colleagues at Salomon invented mortgage-backed securities, credit cards became popular, and then electronic payments of all sorts, and after that a series of hops, skips and jumps, and what evolved into bread and circuses now was 5% bread and 95% circuses, with the ace performers working without a net, doing riskier and riskier stunts . But of course all that blew up and in this morning’s Bloomberg we read that the banks are now facing a profitability crisis. In 2008 it was a solvency crisis – or, if you prefer, a liquidity crisis. The inference, of course, is that the banks have lent all this Fed-directed free money to the wrong borrowers at too low rates and thus financed their principal competitors, the shadow banking industry.

So back to the drawing board all go. Saner heads will have to prevail in the banking industry. Today’s banking news is all about the resignation of the unhappy John Stumpf at Wells-Fargo, until recently the country’s best-regarded bank along with JP Morgan Chase. Frankly, I wonder if in Stumpf’s defenestration one doesn’t sense the fine Venetian hand of St. Warren of Omaha, the beleaguered bank’s largest stockholder. In all particulars, save the degree  of visibility, the situation at Wells-Fargo parallels what took place at Salomon, another dominant house of finance where Buffett was also the largest shareholder, and where he engineered the departure of the late John Gutfreund, who was  Salomon to many people, when that fine firm was engulfed by a wholly unnecessary scandal engendered by pure greed.

And technology has a hand in all this. As one old Wall Street hand remarks in my novel FIXERS, “the trouble with computers is that they enable people to trade obscenely small fractions of money.” As someone once remarked, or should have: “watch the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” To which might be added: if they don’t take care of you first.

10/12/16 The Regulatory Conundrum

In a nice piece in Vanity Fair my friend Bill Cohan properly deplores the strangulatory over-regulation that has ensued in the wake of the financial crisis. But that points up an interesting paradox. As the regulatory and fiscal authorities seem unable – largely I suspect thanks to a corrupt Congress and the corrupt majority on the Supreme Court prior to the death of Justice Scalia –  to bring criminal prosecutions of the big shots and big “bonusees” responsible for the crisis (take a bow, former Deputy Attorney General Breuer) all they can fall back on is an attempt to weave a net of regulation that vainly attempts to proscribe every sin that turned up in the wake of 2008. Thus does the cure become as counterproductive as the disease. It’s like one of those trawlers whose net, being dragged up from the depths, ensnares not only the cod or herring that are the point of the exercise, but all sorts of other useful sea creatures, and thus upsets the essential balance of nature. The sensible solution would be to bring back the stocks of mediaeval and Puritan times. Set them up, say, at Ground Zero, and put the Stumpfs and Mozillos of this world in them – to be pelted with eggs and offal by passers-by.

A Social Anecdote

In his New York Social Diary of 10/12/16, there’s the following from David Patrick Columbia, writing of the late Edie Goetz, daughter of Louis B. Mayer (the second “M” in MGM), one of the real leaders of Hollywood society when there was such a thing:

“Edie was a lady. Several NYSD readers expressed their interest in Mrs. Goetz’ butler who had come from the Royal Household staff in London, comparing her to the Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. “She’s very much like the Queen,” he said when I asked how he liked working for her, “not the Queen, but the Queen Mum.” And how so, I inquired: “Her staff comes first, before everything and everyone else,” he explained.

To someone like myself, who has never had “staff” in any household of mine, I required some further clarification. “The Queen Mum was most concerned that everyone working for her was happy in their job and well taken care of. Not everyone in the Royal Family treated the staff as thoughtfully as the the Queen Mother.”

It reminds of a brief, one-sided conversation (in the “Shut up he explained” mode made famous by Ring Lardner) with our father, Joe Thomas told my late brother Jeffrey and me: “You boys don’t seem to understand. I can always get sons, but do you know how hard it is to find a good butler?” I’ve always wondered whether my old man was more than half-kidding. He did find a good butler: the late John Hare, an incomparable Scotsman who with his wife Alice, who cooked, ran the Thomas household for years and ran it wonderfully.  John’s moment arrived when he refused to bring the Duke of Windsor (on this occasion, guest of a guest) a drink. “I’ll not serve the wee man,” he told my father. “He did not do his duty.” Jeffrey or I – I forget which – was promptly commandeered to bring the miserable little shit his Scotch – which, in JAT’s household, was always Black & White.


Dept. of Agree and Disagree…..

From NY Mag:

I think is generally right. HRC must have known she intended to run, yet went ahead with these speaking engagements. Probably playing on her mind was the reflection that in 2008, Obama had somehow outflanked her on the Street (for how that happened, read my novel FIXERS).

Welcome to Midas Watch – A Mission Statement

For the last two or three years, I’ve used FB as a sort of blog, sounding- and bulletin-board and forum. I posted stuff I thought my friends might be interested in reading and thinking about. But I’ve grown sick of FB in almost every way. I’m sick of the intrusions: the ads, the puffery, the come-ons. I’m sick of the dialogue, the trolling, the cloying compliments, the unremitting delectations of the self-evident and the obvious. So I’ve decided to launch this website. If you’re looking for me, here’s where I’ll be.

I’ve given this website the title of the column I wrote from October 1987 until early 2009 for The New York Observer. Certain principles abide. I started by what the Brits call “taking a view,” and so I plan to continue. As I saw it, we had entered a new Gilded Age, dominated by what I thought of as “the Overclass”, a money-based oligarchy that was despoiling the public and private institutions of the country .  This Overclass was exhibitionistic, ruthless, shameless, solipsistic, humorless, with little concern for the sensibility or situation of those less plugged in. If you spoke to these people of noblesse oblige, you were greeted with a look that combined moral blankness and contempt. I had grown up in and with relative affluence; what I began to see ran in the face of every way I had been taught to behave, I found myself agreeing with Dorothy Parker’s famous quip: “If you want to see what God thinks of money, look at who He gives it to,” and that’s how I wrote about them. They didn’t like being made fun of, being tagged with schoolyard nicknames like “the Prince of Swine” or “the Wee Haberdasher.” I have always believed the bad guys and idiots have names – and I had no compunction naming them.

Not that I made any difference. The despoilers are more in control than ever – and not only thicker on the ground, but more contemptible and self-regarding. In 1993, Random House contracted and paid me for a nonfiction book about The Overclass (that was the working title), but for reasons that remain obscure didn’t publish it. I guess it was ahead of its time, and in American life, nothing has less cash value than that.

Speaking out – saying what you think – can cost you friends. It cost me, especially when more and more people I had been close to in younger days began to discover how much they really loved money, and to organize their social lives and acquaintanceships around the indubitable truth that wealth loves wealth. Or, as they used to say on Wall Street, friendship can’t buy money.

That sort of thing made me angry back then, but no longer. I was 51 when I began the Observer column. I had much to look forward to – or so I thought. My fuse was much shorter. Now I’m 80, and my thoughts turn mainly to the past. When shit happens – and it does – I find I’ve become surprisingly philosophical. I must also confess that after nine novels and a few false starts (including The Overclass), the inclination and mental stamina to write another book has all but petered out. Writing is great fun – but being published (or not published) is torture, and after the way my recent novel Fixers was received (raves in The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, but no other major reviews. None), what’s the point? Still, once opinionated, always opinionated, once a writer always a writer. So here we are.

And so it goes. I should end this overture as overtures should, on a joyous note. The day this website launches is the birthday of my darling wife Tamara Glenny and my grandson Cooper Thomas. He’s turning 25; Tamara’s a tiny bit older. And tomorrow, my youngest son Francis turns 30; he had just turned 1 when I began “The Midas Watch”; readers of the Observer column knew him as  “Master Francis”. My family is my greatest blessing.

One final note: I’m not trying to make debating points. here. Trolls need not apply. People whose reactions I care about can post on FB or reach me by email at [email protected] or any other address you already have.

I’m fond of declaring…

that the principal problem with the Internet is that it’s given millions of people with nothing to say a place to say it. But it also brings us people (present company most definitively excluded) with much to say who can say it well. One is James Howard Kunstler. Here’s a recent post of his that Naked Capitalism, the website/blog that I consider indispensable, has deemed the best all-around case for voting for Clinton:

Sizing Up the Endgame

Pin these on the blackboard….