Saturday, January 26, 2008

Recovery culture

Here's the gut-wrenching line from the Joe Nocera business column in today's NYT:

"Are you ready to face a world in which your two biggest assets, your retirement account and your home, don't automatically go up?"

As he points, there was a time a generation ago when Americans didn't need the stock market or home appreciation to live well. "Now we do."

The economy runs on spending, and borrowing against those assets, to spend more than we make (I use the "we" figuratively, btw) and keep those assets humming along.

We may be on the threshold of a massive, countrywide cold turkey withdrawal from the addiction of shopping.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No Crying

Several posts ago, I wrote about my concern of the, well, Argentina-ization of the U.S. economy. OK, I was exaggerating to make a point, but the point is still valid. My point is that the U.S. could, through mismanagement of our economy, squander our riches and create an institutional rut of impoverishment that would remake our society, none for the better.

Here's another parallel: boom and bust cycles.

The causes are different in the U.S. and Argentina cases but the crippling boom and bust cycle of Latin American economies of the 20th century could see a parallel in today's bubble and pop cycles. The question to ask: is our economy now structurally dependent on these cycles? Economists would probably laugh their heads off at what I am writing here, but the issue is one that worries people more erudite and knowledgeable than I.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Detritus as Art

One of my clients has me thinking about how artists engage with global problems, render them visually expressive, and thereby raise awareness of them with leaders and sometimes the general public. This certainly seems to have been a function of art for a while; witness the harrowing paintings of some of the Blaue Reiter, the early German Expressionists, predicting WWI when state leaders scoffed at the idea.

Artist Valarie James scours the Arizona desert for shards, leave behinds and things forgotten by the Mexican migrants making their furtive journey to work in the U.S. From them, she makes timely art. It strikes me how much of this detritus is so much a part of our own Anglo culture: the Spanish translation of everyone's middle school favorite, "The Diary of Anne Frank"; Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo; the Barbie and Batman backpacks; the scraps of torn denim; and Bibles. But for the grace of God, go we.

Now, why would fathers, mothers and children make this trip if not out of desperation? The routes are littered with trash, evidence that this is a steady stream of would be workers, not a small trickle. Some of course die in the desert during the trip. "For those of us who live close to the border, the humanitarian crisis is not an abstraction," says James.

"If these clothes weren't found and brought in, we wouldn't know these people existed," she says. Today I took a close look to see if I saw them: the landscape crews in my neighborhood, the painters and drywallers at a client installation, the clean up crew at my gym. Maybe a local artist should interview them and make them visible.

(Painter: Franz Mark)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The authenticity of hope

So, IMHO the Obama and Huckabee surges come down to this: authenticity. It is a sweeping cultural trend, particularly in the U.S., particularly among young adults, and as such has a huge impact on the electoral campaign. I say "campaign" because I don't hazard a guess as to how strong an impact it will have ultimately, once it passes through the meat grinder of electoral politics and machinery.

With both of these candidates, there is a sense of "what you see is what you get." No artifice, no spin, no obfuscations. Authenticity is very powerful if you have it, because it is a shield against slings and arrows in the form of barbs and attempts to get you to make a gaffe. If you are yourself, there is no such thing as inconsistency.

A client has done a lot of thinking about this and has created a tidy framework within which authenticity operates. One factor is time and place -- yeah, that would be NOW, a demographic moment. Another is story -- yeah, Obama and Huckabee both have strong personal stories rooted in place. Something to say, a strong point of view are others. In other words, what's the moral to your story? Transparency is also an important factor.

People are summations of their stories, and if they have a good one and can communicate it, they tap into the human need to hear them. It goes back to that primitive urge to sit around the campfire which evolution has not deprived us of just yet.

I like this Fast Company article
and this line: the opposite of authenticity isn't "fake"; it is cynicism.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Solastalgia for Joshua Tree

See previous post (and comments section) and then this update.