Monday, November 24, 2008


Word came early Saturday that a friend of my brother's, Scott, was killed during a robbery in Reading. Scott died later Saturday as a result of the gunshot wound.

Apparently it happened quickly and brutally. Two gunmen stormed into Scott's shop, ordered the four barbers and two customers to the ground. Scott reached for a gun. One of them shot him in the head at close range.

Scott had been robbed before.

The cynic might say Scott should've been more careful than to operate a business in an area of Reading notorious for its roughness. The cynics don't know Scott.

Scott was a man who genuinely liked other people and who worked hard. How else does someone who is only 31 become so successful in a trade like that of a barber? More importanly, he had built himself into one of his neighborhood's most widely-known and respected figures. He was beloved by many. A kid from a farm in northern Chester County carves out a niche for himself among the people of an area in reading far more diverse than Knauertown, where he grew up. The guy was special.

The guy was murdered.

When I talked with my brother about it Saturday, all I could say was "Not a damn thing fair about it." That's what has moved around in my mind since Saturday. It's horribly unfair.

Unfairness happens. It strikes all - the happy and good, the miserable and sour. Unfairness might hit my family someday - I am a fortunate man. My faith in God instructs me to have faith in Him to keep us safe. But my faith in God also tells me to brace for the unfairness that could someday descend upon my home, and to raise my son and daughter to have the character to persevere through unfairness when it (hopefully never) befalls them.

Friday, November 21, 2008

So, about that market (again)

When I teach about the Great Depression, I try to convey to my students as to how that tragedy was the consequence of a seismic shift in how business was conducted. It was a response to the maturation of heavy industry. Or, the logical outcome of an economy that had become truly proficient producing durable goods, and of a marketplace that couldn't maintain the demand to keep those factories running.

So, forty years from now as we analyze this economic malaise, what will the lesson be? I think, largely, we will look at this recession as the consequence of technological transparency in the marketplace. Since 2000, we as consumers have developed unprecedented means by which to see why we should be paying x price when buying a good. The way in which the internet allows us to see what price is fair and see what competitors are selling a good for has tremendous power to lower the prices of what used to be high-margin goods. Further, how often do we purchase now without the assistance of a salesperson who, by the way, cannot as easily upsell us on something we don't need. Heck, this laptop was purchased via a merchandizer's online ordering system: I ordered it, and never talked with a store employee until I was at the brick-and-mortar establishment to claim my box.

Couple this transparency with the irony that the technology that empowers consumers so greatly also costs jobs. Technology always works to devalue a worker. How many jobs have been made redundant by web-based tech. support, catalogs, and customer service?

There is also the great irony that in the middle of this decade there has been a keen increase in consumers' awareness as to how credit cards operate. Card users are becoming more wise, generally speaking. Fuse this with the evangelical zeal of consumer gurus like Bill Ramsay and the increasing tendency in my generation of two-income households to fold into one- or one-and-a-half-income households after babies arrive, you see a real slowdown in consumer demand.

There are too many good minds out there for this recession to last indefinitely. Yet our shift to a society in which face-to-face interactions between somewhat ignorant consumers and knowledgeable salespeople/employees becomes a thing of the past is a traumatic shift. And it will take some time for the rejuvenation to occur.

So, about that market

My mother-in-law's blog talked about the demise of Rizzo's, a wonderful Italian place in Glenside. I had driven by the empty business a couple of weeks ago and wondered aloud to my wife that it might have closed. We both discussed how that couldn't be true.

So, the demise of that Glenside landmark made me do something simple - patronize a pizza place in Lansdale I like too much to see it go away.

Not too long ago a small grocery store in Lansdale, Vidalia, closed because they couldn't maintain enough of a customer base. It was a shame, and it saddened me that they closed, but I realized that I had maybe spent $300 there in the 13 months. If I really wanted it to remain open, I should have shopped there more often.

As the economic times get trying, I cannot help but think of two lessons I try to impart to my students but am just now learning to articulate. Namely, whenever we spend money we are transmitting two messages: a) we're rewarding someone for the way in which they conduct business and b) we're expressing some level of confidence that we will be able to replace the money we just spent. And in a time of recession, it's so easy for us to pocket our own money and save (with good reason). For me, I'm thinking more about where I want to spend that money. Whose approach to business do I wish to reward? Whose work ethic do I wish to reward?

It leads me to think about Detroit, and how, as a car lover, I cannot fathom a world without the big three. However, twice since the 21st century began I had the chance to replace automobiles. Each time, I rewarded a Japanese automaker with my hard-earned money. Do I regret my choices? No. And I don't like the idea of Congress siphoning large amounts of money to Detroit in order to rebuild. The long-term prospects of doing so don't seem to justify the use of my tax dollars. Me and the millions of Americans who have rewarded Detroit's competitors should be wary of our government using our money to prop up businesses to which we, at some point said, no thank you.

However, perhaps the third message I need to convey to my economics students, aside from spending money as an expression of reward and confidence, is that we need to live with the decisions we make.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Feeding Frenzy

Months ago I speculated about the impossibly high expectations Senator Obama was creating for himself, and how this might be something of a trap for him. In the past couple of days I have seen an onslaught of ideas from liberal pundits as to what Obama should do from the op-ed sites I like to visit. To wit:
  • a reversal in funding protocols for abortions in and outside the U.S.
  • a dramatic change in the funding of public education, including merit pay (is that really liberal?)
  • a dramatic infusion of money to poorer families in the form of seed-money savings account for children born into poverty
  • a bailout of the Detroit auto industry (oh, wait, let's get President Bush to do that and take the bullet)
  • a reversal on most federal policies governing stem-cell research
  • an infusion of financial aid to Africa
Perhaps all this is normal speculation for adherents to a political faction that finds itself suddenly empowered. Yet political capital is a finite good, and the president-elect must be judicious in figuring out how to bring his weight to bear for a rather daunting set of economic and political issues.

Monday, November 10, 2008


So, should I be worried that last night's Eagles game meant to me as little as it did? I half-heartedly watched the first half as I inputed grades for school, turned it off for nearly a half hour to talk finances and work with my wife, and effortlessly flicked it off in the fourth quarter when I thought the Eagles' cause unlikely.

This might be the result of kids around the house, who give me so many distractions from what used to seem so important.

It might be because of the game the Eagles played against Tampa Bay two seasons ago. I found myself so aggravated over that poor effort I turned off sports talk radio, the sports page, and sports websites for a week.

But I think it's also hangover from the Phils' victory two weeks ago. In their last month and a half, the Phillies played profoundly good baseball. And baseball is a game constructed around players doing their job with precision and accuracy (unlike football which is more about one-on-one physical and mental matchups). After a while, I started to watch those baseball players as if they were more like classical musicians in that they were so trained and disciplined that mere mortals couldn't understand the extent of their proficiency. All the while that playoff baseball is nerve-wracking, there is still the mathematical simplicity of the sport.

When you're coming down from championship caliber baseball, the NFL mid-season product seems so manufacture, so ersatz, so blase.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Proud to be a Pennsylvanian

As many of you know, Pennsylvania boasts some of the most anachronistic laws regarding the sale of beer one can imagine. So, like most Pennsylvania beer connoisseurs, I buy my beer in cases of 24 at a time. My rhythm has become one of buy a case of Yuengling lager, buy a case of something else, buy a case of Yuengling lager, buy a case of something else (and so on and so forth).

I think one of the truly great pleasures in life is that first and second bottle of Yuengling after about two weeks without. I've been to Germany, and to Belgium. I've bought beers that ranged in price and quality from $15 to $50 a case. Yet I still have yet to find something that matches the all-around satisfaction a Yuengling Lager brings. What a beer!

By the way, there is an interesting alternative out there for Yuengling drinkers. Recently, a Wilkes-Barre brewery started brewing the old Reading label. It's decent. I remember encountering a clerk at a distributorship last spring who suggested I buy a case because "If you like the taste of beer, you'll like Reading." Strange thing to say, I thought. He eventually just gave me a bottle to try at home. I tasted it and immediately thought, da*n, that tastes a lot like beer.

Sorry, folks, no politics today. Too much, and then again, too little to say.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Tactics and Strategy

Already I'm reading political commentary positing who should be the GOP candidate for 2012. One post by Novak at The Washington Post speculated about Newt Gingrich as a possibility. Okay. I can see advantages and drawbacks to him. However, Mr. Obama's election probably signals a generational shift, and unless he has a dramatic and tragic gaffe in his administration (which I think unlikely), it's time for the post-Baby Boomers to be leaders in Washington.

I guess Obama isn't a post-baby boomer by definitinon - he was born before 1964, after all - but he seems of a completely different generation than President Bush, former President Clinton, and Senator Clinton. In fact, his triumph (narrow as it might have been) over Clinton in the primaries signified a fatigue with Baby Boomers. Their time is done, as long as Obama exhibits competence.

So is Newt therefore damaged goods? I think he is, unless there's a catastrophic first term by Mr. Obama.

More than speculating which Republican might give the party a tactical edge in 2012, I'd rather see the party work in earnest to define its core values for 2010, 2012, and the future. The Republicans are the minority party of this nation, which is fine. But the minority needs to have a core philosophy around which they can rally the support by which they challenge unwise legislative ideas from the majority.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An interesting way to word something . . .

So, I have one student who happens to be Canadian, and from my last graduate program, I learned that Canadian schools tend to emphasize different skills and knowledge when teaching the English language. I've seen different skills in his writing - which is quite good - namely that it is more lyric, and more "top-heavy" (strongest at the introduction and beginning of body).

Today he related a writing strategy an English teacher used to offer, and I love the terminology: When ordering body paragraphs (arguments), go Ace-Queen-King.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Day After

In my classes I set forth a set of values. The purpose of these values is to be a guidepost when students and I disagree on a given situation. The first value:

"Intelligent people can disagree."

Boy, is the fallout of this election testing that value. Even my lovely, beautiful, intelligent wife and I, who for years have joked at how we cancel out the votes we have each cast on election day, were finding it hard to converse politely about the election's results. Actually, it's better to say that we had a hard time navigating how differently our respective families are digesting the news, and how each really can make us feel like strangers in a strange land.


Neat post at Time's Real Clear Politics Blog about the transition of power. It is an awesome thing that this country does when one president gives way to another. I remember once hearing an anecdote about how George Bush (41) once called the White House the February after he left for an update on some foreign relations matter (perhaps Israel-Palestine). Supposedly, a secretary politely said, "I'm sorry, Mr. President, but you're not the president anymore and we cannot provide that information to you" (not a direct quote).

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4

It would seem that the election is over now, and that Senator Obama was victorious.

To my friends who had a lot invested in his candidacy, enjoy his victory. He ran a very good campaign and I hope and pray he has a successful presidency.

Though I don't regret my support for Senator McCain, I can't help but think of something a Pennsylvania woman said of General Robert E. Lee as he marched with his men into the state in 1863: "I wish he were ours." In some ways, I feel that way about Obama.

God bless America.