Saturday, October 23, 2021

An Open Letter to President Joe Biden

 

Mr. President:

 

I voted for you in the Democratic Primary. I did not vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but it seems you are trying to implement most of their policies to a T, a wholesale expansion of the welfare state. I guess you visualize yourself as the second coming of either FDR or LBJ. I hate to break it to you, but you do not have their raw political talent, and more importantly you don’t have their huge majorities in Congress to implement your program.  When I voted for you in the general election I had more modest aims, to restore respect for our government and achieve at least a modicum of competency. Given your predecessor that would be a huge accomplishment and you were terrific out of the starting gate.

 

However, with respect to competency, you botched up our withdrawal from Afghanistan, you are presiding over an immigration crisis on the Mexican border, and it appears, at times, that the CDC doesn’t know which end is up. Your climate agenda is a theme park of policy incoherence. You ask OPEC to pump more oil, while at the same time working to shut down domestic production. And you rejected out of hand a carbon tax which your Secretary of the Treasury fully advocated before she entered government. Further it is beyond me why you didn’t push for an immediate vote on the infrastructure bill when you had the chance. Its passage would have been a great confidence building measure all around. Instead, you listened to the shrill voices on the Left.

 

With each passing day I am losing respect for our government with a host of small unforced errors based on the faculty lounge world of political correctness.  Why did your Administration put out documents calling mothers “birthing people?” Your administration uses the term “Latinx,” a term by and large rejected by the Hispanic community. Come on Mr. President, these are not the words of a kid from Scranton.

 

In my view Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are saving your presidency. The two of them are pushing you into the middle so you can be the candidate I and I believe most of the country voted for. Listen to them and the path will be open to a very successful presidency.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

My Amazon Review of Ivy Zelman's "Gimme Shelter........."

 

Housing Maven

 

Ivy Zelman overlapped with me at Salomon Brothers. She has written a short autobiography discussing her improbable rise in male dominated Wall Street and the complications that arose with her being a mom for her three children. In many respects her autobiography has much in common with national security professional Fiona Hill’s, a book that I recently reviewed. (Shulmaven: My Amazon Review of Fiona Hill's "There is Nothing for You Here")

 

Ivy was a scrappy kid from suburban Long Island who after a short stint at New York’s Baruch College, she ended up graduating from northern Virginia’s George Mason University with a degree in accounting. This was and is hardly the profile for a starting analyst on Wall Street, yet Ivy talked her way into Salomon Brothers investment banking. After being harassed in the transportation group at Salomon she ends up in the research department where there was an open position for covering the homebuilding industry. She was an unlikely hire, but with Salomon in the midst of its treasury scandal, internal opportunities opened up.

 

From 1993 to 1997 she rose from being a nonentity to being ranked Number 2 by the all-important Institutional Investor survey. However, with Salamon’s merger with Travelers and its Smith Barney subsidiary she was fired because the Smith Barney homebuilding analyst was ranked Number 1.  I too left Salomon that year for a hedge fund. Ivy quickly found a home at Credit Suisse and was treated like a star and was quickly ranked Number 1 in the survey.

 

While there she understood better than almost everyone that the asbestos litigation was going to destroy such building products companies as U.S. Gypsum and Owens Corning. By then she had picked up coverage of that industry. She later made the biggest call of her life in 2004 turning bearish on the homebuilders accurately foreseeing the debacle to come. However, she was early and was subject much ridicule as the stocks ripped higher in her face. She lost her Number 1 ranking and many in the industry called he “Poison Ivy.” Her conviction was based on the fact that she developed a coterie of private homebuilders who were far more candid than the public homebuilders she covered. 

 

Along the way she married her husband David who was a salesperson at Salomon. David talked her into moving to Cleveland and she received the blessing of Credit Suisse to make the move. In the Cleveland suburbs they quickly had three children. Believe me having three children and a Wall Street travel schedule is no easy task.

 

In late 2006 she breaks with Credit Suisse to form Zelman and Associates to better monetize her contacts and her still very strong franchise value. Remember she does this with three small children under the age of seven. In a way it was perfect timing as the housing boom began to unwind with vengeance. Within the year because of her prescience, her views were thought out by lenders, the entire mortgage securities industry and government.

 

While basking in her new prestige she was stricken with breast cancer that required a double mastectomy and many subsequent surgeries. Nevertheless, she plowed on with the support of family and a host of friends. Her book brings how caring and curious person she is. She has friendships ranging from CEOs to secretaries to drivers.

 

This is a short and easy book to read, but do not mistake it for a work of literature. I may too close to it, but there is much to be learned in her book. I am going to give it to my youngest daughter who works for a major securities firm.


For the full Amazon URL see: 

Amazon.com: Customer reviews: Gimme Shelter: Hard Calls + Soft Skills From A Wall Street Trailblazer


 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

My Amazon Review of Fiona Hill's "There is Nothing for You Here"

Coal Miner’s Daughter

 

On November 21, 2019, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council staffer in charge of European and Russian affairs, made headlines around the world with her explosive testimony at President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. I was prescient enough to review her coauthored book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” on July 19th.  ( Shulmaven: My Amazon Review of Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy's " Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin" ) Although her biography touches on her experiences as a National Security Council staffer, Hill spends most of her time recounting her experiences of growing up in the northeast England coal mining town of Bishop Auckland and her overcoming sexism and classism in both England and the United States.

 

Her life experience in Bishop Auckland gave her great insights into the rise of rightwing populism in the U.S., England, and Russia. She witnessed firsthand in her family and her town the debilitating effects of the collapse of the coal mining industry. It helped her understand why previously Labour voters in England and Democratic voters in the U.S., supported Brexit and Trump, respectively. Further she understood how Putin built his political base among the industrial workers and miners in Russia’s declining cities. She clinically observes that instead of Russia becoming more like the United States, the United States is becoming more like Russia in seeking out authoritarian leadership as our political divisions deepen. The Russian intelligence services successfully exploited those divisions during the 2016 presidential election, but the divisions go so much worse that they didn’t have to lift a finger in 2020.

 

While Hill lived in a depressed community, her family was intellectually curious and encouraged her education.  She took her father’s advice when he told her, “There is nothing for you here.” In order to advance she had to overcome three very English questions (where are from, what does your father do, what school do you go to.) Further her northern England accent was a telltale sign of her lower-class origins. She overcomes it all graduating form Saint Andrews College and then goes on to a Ph.D. program at Harvard. She made her own breaks by meeting influential Americans as an interpreter during a Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow which opens the way to Harvard. She is an almost pure example of baseball executive Branch Rickey’s aphorism, “luck is the residue of design.”

 

At Harvard she shines, but she was aided by an administrator who told her that torn jeans and a sweatshirt were not the appropriate attire for high-end Harvard seminars. She took her to T.J. Maxx and bought her more professional attire which opened the way to seminars with Professors Graham Allison and Richard Pipes.

 

From Harvard she goes onto posts at the National Intelligence Council and the Brookings Institution. At both places and at Harvard for that matter, she was grossly underpaid and that carried over to the National Security Council. At various meetings she was assumed to be either a tea lady, a secretary or while in Russia, a prostitute. Simply put, sexism at work.

 

In discussing Trump, she does not believe that the Russians had something on him. Instead, she views him as a person with a very fragile ego who has a deep admiration for authoritarian leader. Hence his bromance with Putin. She found that Trump had a complete lack of intellectual curiosity about foreign policy with the glaring exception of nuclear arms control.

 

Fiona Hill is a remarkable person who I highly admire. Nevertheless, I have a few quibbles with her book. She places much of the blame for the post-1980 industrial decline and the rise of rightwing populism on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The decline long preceded them. The coal industry has been in secular decline since World War II and the collapse of the great steel mills in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley occurred in 1977 when the Democrats controlled all of the power in Washington D.C. Hill mentions once that there were broad impersonal forces at work that led to deindustrialization, but she goes back to bashing Reagan and Thatcher. She also fails to note that across Europe parties of the right have been strengthened. (e.g., France, Hungary, and Poland)

 

She also believes that the polarization of American politics is due to economics. Although economics has a role to play, it is not surprising to see Americans living in the South and the middle of the country to resent a very haughty cultural elite on both coasts who look down on all too many Americans. I fear that the coal miner’s daughter may have joined that elite.

 

At the end of the book, she presents a host of policy prescriptions that come out of the Brookings think tank. Some are sensible, some are not, but I am especially critical of her support of place-based policies as opposed to people- based policies. Put bluntly some towns and cities deserve to die; it makes little sense to prop them up.

 

With these criticisms aside, Fiona Hill has written a remarkable autobiography. I am so glad we welcomed her into our country and that she has done so well.


For the full Amazon URL see: Coal Miner's Daughter (amazon.com)



Monday, October 11, 2021

My Amazon Review of Rudiger Barth's and Hauke Friederichs' "The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic"

 

Game of Thrones

 

Rudiger Barth and Hauke Friederichs have turned history into a real political thriller. Their version of the fall of Weimar and the rise of Hitler should be made into a television series on the order of Babylon Berlin. The book opens with the resignation of Chancellor Franz von Papen on November 17, 1932, after the November 6th elections left no clear majority in the Reichstag with the anti-democratic parties of the Left and the Right squeezing out the Center. It ends on January 30, 1933, with Hitler being named Chancellor. Although Papen has been called the gravedigger of the Republic, he had many accomplices and Hitler’s rise to power was by no means certain.

 

The cast of characters include:

·       Adolf Hitler – Fuhrer of the National Socialist German Workers Party. (NDSAP)

·       Kurt von Schleicher – Defense Minister and Chancellor who was caught between a crossfire of the Right and Left. Earlier he was in up to his eyeballs in the secret Russo-German arms agreement.

·       Paul von Hindenburg – German president, World War I general and monarchist. 

·       Alfred Hugenberg – Media baron and leader of the rightist German National Peoples Party. (DNVP)

·       Gregor Strasser – A leader in the NDSAP who breaks with Hitler.

·       Kurt Schumaker- Leader of the Socialist Party of Germany. (SPD)

·       Ernst Thalmann – Leader of the Communist Party of Germany. (KPD)

 

After Papen resigned Hindenburg faced great pressure to appoint Hitler as Chancellor because he represented the largest party in Reichstag although the NSDAP lost seats in the November election.  However, Hindenburg wanted Hitler to form a coalition government, which he refused. With that Strasser broke with Hitler in that he supported a coalition government. There is much maneuvering to get Strasser into a coalition government, but that fails.

 

Into the vacuum comes Kurt von Schleicher who forms a minority government which is constantly under attack by both the NSDAP and the KPD. While Schleicher is in office the army runs a simulation that concludes that it could not maintain order should a civil war breakout. This increases the pressure on Hindenburg to seek a stable governing coalition. However, Schleicher is ultimately not up to the task.

 

The knives come out with Papen scheming to bring Hitler into power with him as Vice Chancellor. To make it work Papen makes a deal with Hugenberg which brings the NSDAP close to a majority; good enough for Hindenburg and Hitler is named chancellor. Hitler, with his will to power, played a bad hand very well because his party was hemorrhaging members and cash. However, there wasn’t much on the other side to stop him.

 

Why? The socialists and the communists were at each other’s throats. Instead of allying against Hitler they fight among themselves. Of course, Thalmann’s KPD is following the strict orders of Moscow. Had the two parties of left united, history would have been different. Further once Hitler was appointed, the KPD went underground and the SPD quietly acquiesced. Thirteen years earlier the SPD responded to the Kapp Putsch with a general strike that broke the back of a fascist coup. Simply put they were exhausted.

 

One of the real beauties of the book is that the authors rely on the diaries of Bella Fromm and Abraham Plotkin. Fromm was a society columnist who was very close to Schleicher, and we get a sense of what high society was thinking that winter. Plotkin was an American labor organizer temporarily in Berlin where he is close to the SPD. From him we get a sense of what was like to be a member of a politicized member of the German working class.

 

If you are into history, intrigue and political thrillers, this book is right up your alley. I do hope the authors make a television series of it. There is much to learn. After reading this book I have become even more convinced that had Gustav Stresemann, Germany leading 1920’s politician, lived he just could have stopped Hitler.


For the full Amazon URL see: Game of Thrones (amazon.com)

 

 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

My Amazon Review of Edward Glaeser's and David Cutler's "Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation"

 

Sickness and the City

 

Harvard urban economics professor Edward Glaeser and Harvard health economics professor David Cutler have teamed up to write a book about the post-Covid environment for cities. They rightfully note that isolation and social distancing caused by the pandemic are city destroyers in that they break the bonds of agglomeration economies that are so necessary for cities to succeed. In a word they represent an “existential threat” to a city’s viability.

 

There is quite a bit of history here in that they discuss role of cholera, typhus, bubonic plague, and influenza in determining the development or nondevelopment of cities. Early on city leaders understood the need to quarantine sick individuals and travelers from lands where sickness was evident.

 

To deal with future pandemics the authors call for strengthening the public health infrastructure to deal with stockpiling protective equipment and the delivery of healthcare services. They propose a global public health NATO to supplement the World Health Organization which would intervene in health emergencies. This NATO would also help fund vitally needed sanitation infrastructure in less developed countries. Given NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan, it has become far less of a role model.

 

They view urban America largely through the narrow prism of New York and Los Angeles where the struggle is between the insiders and the outsiders. Homeowner insiders control local zoning which restricts housing supply that makes housing unaffordable for all but the wealthy, and the police and teachers’ unions insiders make reform of policing and education difficult. It is these insiders who prevent cities from achieving their natural function of being the engine for intergenerational mobility.

 

Going forward the competitive environment for the so-called super star cites is going to get tougher. The authors believe they will continue to thrive, but the breakthrough of remote work is going to make it more difficult. Simply put, there is too much office space and the businesses that live off dense concentrations of office buildings will suffer.

 

My main criticism of the book is that it is way to New York and Los Angeles focused. It ignores the very exciting urban environments of Houston, Nashville, Austin, and Denver, for example. Those cities are thriving amidst the pandemic and will do far better once it ends.     


For the full Amazon URL see: Sickness and the City (amazon.com)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

My Amazon Review of Bob Woodward's and Robert Costa's "Peril"

 

Dangerous Transition

 

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa have written a widely quoted book on the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency and the first six months of Biden’s.  When reading about Trump’s last days in office I was expecting the worst and it was far worse than what I imagined. The man is evil. Fortunately, there were a few people in the Trump Administration who put the Constitution over their boss.

 

Now when reading an unsourced book that is Woodward’s style you have to guess who his sources were and what were their motivations. It is obvious that Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley was a source and he just today admitted he spoke to the authors and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was obviously a source. They both come off well. A.G. William Barr was certainly a source and after enabling Trump early on, he refuses to go along with Trump’s “stop the steal.” My guess in talking to the authors he was trying to salvage his reputation. We also have Senator Lindsey Graham singing arias to the authors. He wants to have it both ways by saying Trump lost while remaining his golf buddy.

 

We saw a torn Vice President Mike Pence who finally goes along with Dan Quayle’s advice that he had no discretion in counting the electoral college ballots. How after the January 6th insurrection, could Pence remain loyal to Trump is beyond me? Indeed, Milley characterized January 6th as a dress rehearsal for what was to come, alluding to the 1905 uprising in Russia. Further Utah Senator Mike Lee played an important role in keeping Pence on the straight and narrow. Further with all of the subpoenas flying from the January 6th Committee we will soon find out what exactly happened in the Trump White House on that day. What Woodward and Costa disclose has been widely reported, but I am sure there is much more.

 

The authors also discuss the Biden campaign and the early months of his administration. They portray Biden as very hands on with COVID-19 asking penetrating questions and the same goes double for his questions on Afghanistan. My guess the authors got their information from Mike Donilon and now Chief of Staff Ron Klain. I wish it were true, but my guess is that they were exaggerating.

 

With respect to Afghanistan, we all know that Biden supported withdrawal in the early days of the Obama Administration. Biden believed that the military rolled Obama and that was not going to happen to him. Simply put he was dead set on withdrawal. According to Woodward and Costa Biden asked many questions pertaining to Afghanistan, but not very many about the geo-strategic consequences. Several years ago, I had the good fortune to discuss this issue with former Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen and former Secretary of Defense/CIA Director Bob Gates. My question to them was whether or not the U.S.’s retreat from the broader Middle-East (Morocco to Pakistan) was strategic or tactical? Both answered tactical with the hope it wasn’t strategic. Well, Biden answered that question with disastrous consequences. It is strategic. Further the way too academic Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan turned out to be completely clueless about what would happen after the U.S. announced its withdrawal.

 

With respect to domestic policy the authors go into a great deal of detail in examining how the $1.9 Trillion rescue plan passed. Then as now Senator Joe Manchin was a key player. The bottom line is that Manchin did not want Biden to fail on his first major effort and that is why it passed. Biden may not be so lucky with his reconciliation bill now before the Congress.

 

Woodward and Costa have written a very important first draft of history. It is well worth the read. And with Trump still holding sway over the GOP, we are still in peril.


For the full Amazon URL see: Dangerous Transition (amazon.com)


Sunday, September 19, 2021

My Amazon Review of William Silber's "The Power of Nothing to Lose: Hail Mary Effects.............."

 

Asymmetric Bets

 

N.Y.U. emeritus professor William Silber has written a book about the influence of asymmetric bets have had on our lives. He is basically writing about the importance of high payoff low risk bets in the sense that the better has nothing to lose and much to gain.  As his title notes the “Hail Mary” pass in football comes into play when a team is losing by less than a touchdown with seconds to go. Thus, the quarterback has no choice but to throw a long pass for a score. If he connects the team wins and if he doesn’t the team loses, but it would have lost anyway. Hence, nothing to lose.

 

In series of vignettes Silber discusses the risks that second term president take when they know they don’t have to face the voters again. His example is Woodrow Wilson going from anti-war in 1916 to all-out war in 1917. Other vignettes, among others, include Rosa Parks refusing to leave a white only section on a Montgomery bus, Hitler’s gambling it all at The Battle of the Bulge, Washington crossing the Delaware and Nick Leeson’s ever larger positions in his failed attempt to cover up his trading losses at Barings’ Singapore office in 1995.

 

This last example is of personal significance to me. I was working at Salomon Brothers at the time and was quoted in a Bill Safire column in The New York Times saying that what Leeson did could not happen in the U.S. securities markets. Everything hit the fan at Salomon’s Singapore office, and I was required to grovel which included writing a letter to Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew himself.

 

There are real lessons here, one of which is be wary when you are opposed by someone who has nothing to lose. My one wish would have been for Silber to discuss the power of nothing to lose in academic politics. Simply put, there is much merit in the wag that the reason why fights in academia are so fierce is because the stakes are so small. Tenured faculty have nothing to lose.


For the full Amazon URL see: Asymmetric Bets (amazon.com)