Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Paradise Lost

In her 2010 Smith College Commencement speech, Rachael Maddow begins her talk with a story about Carrie Nation and the early Temperance movement in America over 100 years ago.  Ms. Nation helped to launch a popular movement, which, in a few years time would materialize into Prohibition, outlawing alcohol across the country.  Ms. Maddow continues, that so much more bad than good came out of Prohibition, including bootlegging, increased corruption at all levels of government, increased crime and an increase in alcoholism.  Though Carrie Nation’s Temperance movement had achieved the goals of a segment of the population, the country as a whole was worse for its wear.   Rachael Maddow summarizes that “Personal triumphs are overrated.”

This morning I was reading my Wall Street Journal on the train, this time from back to front, and just as we were pulling into Grand Central, I got to the first page, bottom left hand side, reading an article entitled ‘List Grows of Canceled Graduation Speakers’.  The article highlighted three recent cancellations of speakers due to protests from the respective student bodies: Ayaan Hirsi Ali was to speak at Brandies, Condoleezza Rice was to speak at Rutgers, and  Christine Lagarde was to speak at Smith.  Smith College makes the front page of the WSJ and it’s all for the wrong reasons.  I was besides myself.  This was nonsense. 

The crux of this article as well as another in the NY Times was not just that a few speakers would not go on as scheduled, but that campus protests were  creating a “Heckler’s veto” and that “…universities are becoming havens of the closed minded,”.  A few weeks ago, I was on the Smith website for something or another and noticed the College had announced Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, as commencement speaker.  I thought that was a fantastic selection.  I was familiar with her name from news articles here and there as a major female player in the Eurozone.   I was walking through the train station fuming.  What short-sightedness had taken over my college?  The WSJ article quotes a Smith student as saying, “ we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”  I disagree that a selection of a speaker is a blank endorsement for all they’ve done.  A college (should) select a speaker due to their achievements in life, and the perspective that their journey has to offer, whether or not you agree with their perspective is entirely your decision, but one that should be made after thoughtful deliberation.

It’s totally OK to dislike the IMF.  It’s totally OK to think the IMF has imperialistic tendencies and promotes Western agendas at the cost of developing nations.  That kind of sums up the world economy over the last 500 years (if not longer).  I really don’t like Condoleezza Rice or really anyone affiliated with the George W Bush administration, even if his mother went to Smith, but I am sure Ms. Rice would have much insight to offer.  I was working reunions during 1998 for the Elizabeth Dole commencement speech and you know most of us were not fans, but we listened.  My own speaker in 2000, Judy Chicago, well that was just a trainwreck of a speech.  She was a last minute replacement for Jodie Foster, but having Jodie Foster speak would not imply a blanket endorsement for the sexism in Hollywood, nor human trafficking because she played a child prostitute in Taxi Driver.  When Gloria Steinem comes to campus, we don’t riot because she once worked for Playboy. 

So feel free to hate on the IMF, but please don’t hate on Christine Lagarde, and please have the intelligence to know the difference. 

Here is the difference:  The IMF, like the World Bank and a bit like the UN, are international organizations, comprised of delegates from many nations around the world.  Both the IMF and the World Bank were founded in the mid 1940s after World War II as a kind of Marshall Plan of reconstruction and development programs around the world, but were not entirely funded nor led by the US.  In fact, the IMF has had 11 Managing Directors, and they are all Europeans.  The World Bank has had 12 Presidents, and they have all been men, and up until their current President, they have all been from Western nations.  Between the two organizations and their similar 70 years of service, Ms. Lagarde is the only woman to have headed either organization.  Her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in 2011 in New York City for allegedly sexually harassing a maid at a hotel.  He has also been reputed for soliciting prostitutes in Washington, DC, Paris and Lille (France).  So in 2011, Christine Lagarde comes in to head the IMF during a global financial crisis and to lead after DSK resigns in ill repute.  If she didn’t have her work cut out for her, I don’t know who does. 

If you think the IMF is perpetuating misogynistic policies in finance and economics, maybe you should consider their past leadership.

If you think finance and economics are fields which, on a global scale, are awash in diverse leadership and inclusive mindsets, please go back and read my blog post entitled ‘One is The Loneliest Number’, regarding the US and the world’s lack of female economists and central bankers.  

I was reading an article about the IMF the other day, and how it’s ‘bailed out’ the Ukraine with a $17Billion package.  But any person or organization that lends money is going to enforce restrictions on either the funds or the borrower, if not both, and set some guidelines.  For example, if I stop paying my mortgage, the bank can take my house.  When I had my public matching funds audit job, if a candidate spent money on an impermissible expenditure, our agency could levy a financial penalty.  When the IMF lends money out to countries in distress, it wants them to comply with certain public policies and/or fiscal restrictions.  This compliance with public expenditures, per the WSJ article, seems to be what the Smithies were taking offense with, in that these requirements are disadvantageous to women.   I don’t know but if I were in the Ukraine right now, with a troubled economy and Russia chipping away at me piece by piece, and the EU not really wanting me to be their friend, I’d feel pretty disenfranchised regardless of my gender.  I think women get the short end of the policy stick ten times out of nine, and yes, my math is correct.  And it’s not limited to the IMF, it’s a systemic, pervasive gender equality issue that seems more so exacerbated in the world of finance and economics because it’s a realm in which we are seriously underrepresented.  (Please go back and read my blog post entitled ‘One is The Loneliest Number’, I’m not joking).  And that is why we should be welcoming Ms. Legarde with open arms and listening to her every word.  We don’t have to agree with her.  We have to listen. 

And Ms. Legarde’s career is one worthy of note, however this pans out for Ukraine and the IMF (I’d bet the Ukraine will get shafted, if not by Putin, then by someone else).  The 58 year old Christine Legarde became the first female chairmen of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie, she specialized in antitrust and labor law, she has been profiled by the Financial Times and Forbes, and prior to her IMF post, she was France’s Minister of Finance, and Minister of Agriculture, and Minister of Commerce and Industry.   She may not work for the perfect agency (but who does?  I don’t) but she’s led a unique path for a woman in her field, and I believe she is deserving of the commencement speaker podium.

At 2:52 PM this afternoon I received an email from the Chair of the Smith College Board of Trustees informing me that Ms. Legarde had stepped down as commencement speaker on her own accord and was not asked to step down by the college’s administration.  I’m sure many others received this announcement too, but I wasn’t really infuriated with the administration either.  Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s President issued a statement as well, stating “An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads.  Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence.  Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion.”  Later, online I found an article on Masslive.com that linked to the Smith College Economics Department’s statement, which was signed by almost the whole department, half of whom I had taken classes under.  They state, “We acknowledge the controversy that surrounds IMF policies and, as individual economists, hold a range of views on these policies and the complex, difficult problems they seek to address.  We also recognize the evolving nature of the IMF as an institution and in that context, looked forward to hearing Madame Lagarde’s remarks.  The withdrawal of Madame Lagarde as our commencement speaker represents a lost opportunity to hear directly from the leader of this influential global institution and to use that address as a valuable input to a well-informed, multi-faceted, and nuanced discourse on our campus about crucial issues facing the world.”  I totally agree.

There was one Econ professor whose name did not appear on that letter, Prof. Reinhardt, I think she is on sabbatical, but I had taken her economic development class, which focuses on lesser-developed countries and policies that can help or hinder their growth.  I left that class knowing there is no quick, direct and guaranteed method to bring countries out of poverty for good, and if there was, wouldn’t the IMF/World Bank/UN have found it by now?  Economic development is all still a work in progress.  And last spring, I attended Prof. Mahdavi’s lecture in NYC on the EU and the financial crisis, and was surrounded by both Econ majors and non-Econ major alums.  A small chunk of the Econ alums were now employed by the (wait for it…) IMF.   Even if Ms. Legarde seems like just some well-dressed well-connected French lady, your sister Smithies are IMF’ers just the same!

The WSJ states that a petition was signed by students and faculty to prevent Ms. Legarde from coming to campus.  The petition had 477 signatures.  Out of a student body of 2100.  That’s hardly a majority.   A segment of the Smith community had achieved its goals, but the college as a whole is worse for its wear.  It’s a personal triumph for the protesters.  And it’s overrated.


As compensation for this event, next year’s speaker better be a woman who has made progress in the fields of finance and/or economics.  The Economics department is owed one, big time.  I nominate Janet Yellen or Elizabeth Warren.  Or I’m not making any more donations (but I may not be the only one)  And that sucks when next year’s tuition and fees come in at $61K, and the US median household income is only $53K.  Why doesn’t anyone ever protest that?

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Bronx is Burning

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence

-          Paul Simon


Paul Simon is many things – musician, lyricist, poet, New Yorker, but I’d bet he has yet to become a very pregnant lady lying awake at night trying to get comfortable and fall asleep.  I doubt Art Garfunkel could make that claim as well. 

Up until recently, these days, or rather these nights, lying down for the end of the day was a lovely reprieve.  Day is done, gone the sun, catch some zzzzz.  Now I just roll around with some arraignment of pillows hoping to succumb to sleep rather quickly, but to no avail.  And then after I do fall asleep, I wake up only 2-3 hours later to pee or to realize my pillow fort has fallen off the bed or my hands are numb or I was having some very bizarre dream or drooled all over my face or my hip aches and it’s time to change positions.  Or any combination of the above.   And so I fix the problem and have to get back to sleep again, though I usually lie there for another silent, dark eternity hoping to succumb to sleep but my mind fills up with all types of ideas, mostly involving how to function with two small children in the house, and here I am again listening to the sounds of silence.  The sounds of night.  The sounds of a bedroom community, who are, at these hours, mostly in their bedrooms, also asleep (I assume). 

For the most part, the Seventh Borough is pretty quiet at night.  The polar vortex has kept everyone inside for a very long time, but we’re turning the corner, and it’s that time of year to sleep with the windows open again, and the delineation of inside sounds and outside noise starts to get fuzzy.   We’ve traded in the sound of the lone, brave, early morning snow shoveler with that of the hum of lawn-care equipment, obnoxiously running at first light.  Open windows bring in the sounds of tweets and chips and bird conversations, and it seems they always have much to say.  Two blocks away sit the train tracks to the commuter rail.  I’m pretty sure I can tell the difference between the electric and the diesel engines by now.  The diesels are so much deeper and like to make their presence known.  The express trains zip on by with a very matter-of-fact rhythm to the pattern of wheels on tracks.  The locals, just pulling out of the Seventh Borough station a mile away give off a more labored sound, as if they are uninterested in speeding up, to just stop again three miles down the track. 

Living on a steep hill of a street, I sometimes hear the acceleration of a car engine, just to get up the hill.  But we really don’t get much street traffic at night.  Just after six AM each week day, a car slows down in front of my house to hurl my newspaper at my driveway, then it hits the gas to make it back up the hill.  Breaks, thump, acceleration, every morning.  But I’m usually awake by six, with the sun rising earlier, waking up the critters and my hips looking to evict the excess baby load soon, I’m well awake by six.   And on weekends, if I get some divine luxury to sleep to well, 6:30, I get to wake up to “Mommy(.)  Mommy(?)  Mommy(!)  Mommy (!!!)” and the toddler comes to my side of the bed and puts his wall decal stickers on my face.  

One noise I welcome at night is the static coming through on the baby monitor.  Static means it’s working but as long as there are no child noises, then he’s sleeping.  We now have the baby monitor rotating from picking up sounds in Nick’s room as well as the nursery, which no one sleeps in right now.  But after watching way too many Ghost Adventure type of shows, I’m just waiting for some other ‘resident entity’ to make their presence known through the baby monitor. 

The Seventh Borough would be a very peaceful place for sleeping, if it were not for the inability of little children to sleep late, and the abundance of trees, which brings about the abundance of early-morning chirping birdies.  I spend a good number of sleepless nights here and there in the Second Borough, and grew accustomed to a whole different set of sounds, many of which you learn to sleep through, like heavy rain beating down on a window air conditioning unit or the advertently/inadvertently triggered car alarm.  Twenty-five plus years in Bay Ridge, one grows accustomed to hearing the fog horn of large container ships entering or leaving the mouth of the Hudson River, it’s a deep moaning sound, often two-toned, with the second tone deeper than the first, and it lingers, and lingers, and reverberates off the water until the tall building density of the Second Borough thickens enough to absorb it.  The more fog horns you hear, the thicker the fog.  And on rarer occasion, the ding-dong-ding of the harbor channel markers makes its way off the water and into the Second Borough neighborhoods.  An excess of fog horns and buoy dings means that you know before even getting out of bed in the morning, that skies won’t be clear and the weather will be unpleasant.   Also, due to our proximity to Fort Hamilton (I assume), our neighborhood seemed home to frequent helicopter traffic, and after time helicopter noises seemed like no big deal, except on the occasion where they sounded really, really, really close, like on your roof close, and then you wonder what’s really going on, or is someone filming a movie, and can I be in it?

Shared walls in apartment buildings can give your ears more entertainment then necessary in the middle of the night.  One of my neighbors kept blaring ‘70’s and ‘80’s rock music late at night when they were going through a divorce.  I had another neighbor leave his gas stove on (on purpose) which would bring the fire department through to wake you up, just in case evacuation was necessary.  A fire truck siren or a police car siren was really no big deal at night, but other times sirens would go on and on as if there were a parade of emergency vehicles headed to your house.  So you’d listen, and hope they’d pass, that the sirens were going down your block but not stopping on your block, and you could roll over and go back to sleep.  Usually nothing was worth getting out bed for.  Usually. 

As we got more acquainted with each other's neighborhoods, Rob would find himself in the coastal Second Borough more often, and I would find myself in the hilly, north Fourth Borough, we got accustomed to each borough’s respective sound patterns.  I remember the first time Rob heard the fog horns, he seemed a bit nervous.  I said don’t worry, as long as you’re not part of the Coast Guard or the Merchant Marines, it just means a cloudy day for you.  In fact, I think I was pretty surprised at how little noise I heard from the Fourth Borough.  His apartment was in the back of the building so he didn’t get much street noise.  The adjacent building had some pretty hostile neighbors, and you’d hear some yelling here and there, but the apartment across the hall was vacant and the next building over was a funeral home, so things were quiet.  
Neighborhood sound test:  1. Win a major championship 2. Listen

In 2007 the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win the Superbowl.  I was excited because I went into the office pool and was getting some winnings from this game.  But I was home alone in the 2nd Borough and congratulated myself with my inside voice.  But just one avenue away, I could hear people coming out of bars and restaurants yelling and cheering and screaming with delight.  Drivers honked their horns.  Parked cars were getting their horns honked.  My neighbors cheered.  It was January, and I’m sure my windows were closed, and I could still hear the jubilation blocks away and the boom boom pop of (probably illegal) fireworks going off in the distance (aka Dyker Heights).  You’d think it was New Year’s Eve.  Bay Ridge was happy the home team had won.  You could hear the celebration in the streets.

In 2009 the New York Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies (and that nasty green offspring of a Snuffalupagus and a feral chicken – the Philly Phanatic) to win the World Series.  I was not really excited (because it was the Yankees) but I was excited that the home team had won, and I was in the Bronx, in Rob’s apartment eating dinner and watching the game with him.  It was October, and I think the windows were open, a bit.  After about 30 seconds of gloating by my then-fiance, that the Mets didn’t even make it to the post-season (what else is new) I waited for the (illegal) fireworks, the honking horns, the neighbors to come out of their apartments and cheer, the yelling (happy yelling).  I was waiting for the Bronx to cheer their Bombers and all I had was the Sound of Silence. 

Out of all the ruckus I am sure Bay Ridge was making that October evening, probably a few people are really drunk, but no one will get arrested.  It’s a joyful noise.  Some will take a 'sick day' for the ticker tape parade, and life will go on.  But there was no celebration for the Bombers in the Bronx that night.  Nothing. 

In 2012 the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win the Superbowl (again).  Sitting in my Seventh Borough home, I thought to myself, well listen up and see if this is like Bay Ridge in ’07 or the Bronx in ’09, but I had a ten-day old newborn baby at home and I can’t remember a thing. 

A few weeks later, right around Halloween 2009, I woke up to the sound of helicopters.  At first I thought nothing of it, then I reminded myself I was in the Fourth Borough and we don’t usually hear helicopters in this neck of the woods.  My lease was up, and I moved in with Rob for a few weeks while we waited to close on our house.  This was a lot of noise for the middle of the night, but it was around Halloween so maybe there is some mischievous ruckus going on the main avenue, just around the corner.   Usually no ruckus was worth getting out bed for.  Usually. 

The next day we found out that a bunch of attached stores had burned down (due to arson) on the main drag, from a Dunkin Donuts to a bakery and a few smaller places in between, but half a city block was now a pile of ash and charred metal. 

A few weeks later, right before Christmas, I woke up to what sounded like someone cutting through metal.  I assumed it was someone working on their car, in the middle of the night and right after a snow storm it seemed like a very odd noise, for what had been a very quiet street.  But I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.  Usually no ruckus was worth getting out bed for.  Usually.  Rob’s cat, Cosmo kept mewing at me.  For a while, I thought this cat hated me and wanted to have nothing to do with me, but now he was telling me in cat speak to get up.  (Do you notice the theme here, I keep waking up.  My husband sleeps though everything and anything).  It was just before 5 AM so I could only sleep a little more before getting up for work, I gave Cosmo some attention and then went to the bedroom window to see what this early morning car-repair clown was up to, but all I saw out the window was black smoke and flames.  I freaked out.  Cosmo freaked out.  Rob was still sleeping.  WTF?

I woke him up and paced around the apartment for a little while, then got dressed.  Our building was not on fire but we were very close to it.   Stay in.  Get out.  What do you do?  Would we be evacuated?  It was December and it was freezing cold outside, but we were in the back of a building looking at the back of another building on fire.  So we gathered up a few important items into a backpack, bundled up and got out.  Cosmo went into hiding, we couldn’t find him, and left him in the house. 

I called my mom at like six AM, probably freaking her out.  I said, "Don't freak out!" and not to worry, I’m ok.  If you turn on the news and see Rob’s block on fire, we’re ok but the cat is missing.  Then I called my boss to say I wouldn’t be in.  I needed a personal day because my block is on fire and I don’t know if I’m going to be homeless in few hours. 

We spent the next 5-6 hours just hanging around on the street.  The fire seemed unable to be tamed, but yet Rob’s old brick apartment building did not seem to be in harm's way.  We saw some neighborhood people and chatted with them, we were in and out of a deli just to keep warm.  It had recently snowed and the gallons upon gallons of water the FDNY kept spraying on the flames was creating more patches of ice all over the sidewalks.  Everything was treacherous  There must have been six or seven fire crews working the fire and another one sanding down all the ice.  The fire had started in a diner, taken out a dentist office, a travel agency and a supermarket .  The supermarket would not stop burning.  It smelled awful.  I guess behind the supermarket was like all its storage and garbage and the way the rears of the buildings came together, they were all attached.  The end of the block was home to a Bank of America, but it was in an old-fashioned bank type of building, with a clock tower on the façade and made of stone and marble.  It was such an old stone building, it was non-flammable, and probably helped contain the fire.  Next to the bank was the funeral home, which was slated that day for a viewing.  A bunch of firemen and the funeral director (who lived upstairs from the parlor) took the corpse out of the building in its coffin.  I figured why bother, when you’re dead, you’re dead, but I guess cremation was not one of the deceased’s last requests.  The funeral home had been recently redone and its façade painted, but its new exterior was getting singed from the still-burning supermarket.   Apparently the funeral director also kept a large stash of (legal??) guns and ammunition in the basement (why- his clients are already dead?) and the FDNY urged him to get them out in case the building were to also catch on fire.  I guess you never really know your neighbors until you all risk homelessness and destruction.  FDNY went to the roof of the funeral home and tried to keep the fire from spreading by spraying it from the roof down into the pit that was probably once the basement of the supermarket.  This seemed to keep the flames at bay.  By midday the fire was under control, but so much was still smoldering.

For the next three days, I’d lay in bed listening to the sounds of firemen still watering down a smoked out mess, which sounded like a very localized heavy rain storm, and smelling all that burnt stuff.  Later we’d find out the owner of the diner paid someone $2,000 to set it on fire so that he could collect the insurance money on the business.  All involved were arrested.  For a stupid insurance plot, two people went to jail, four businesses were ruined, a few others almost ruined and an entire neighborhood lost its supermarket just in time for Christmas.  One week later, we closed on our house, and moved in with whatever we could fit in our car.  We slept on an air mattress in our new home that night, as empty as it was, it was smoke-free and not under constant police surveillance, like a neighborhood suffering from two major arsons in as many months. 

And that would be the beginning, of the sound of silence, the sound of nothingness, the sound of very calm, mostly calamity-free suburban night times.  Peace.  Quiet.  Diesel trains.  Birds.  And the sound of what we could not hear, but would become evident every morning – the sound of a very slow air leak in an inflatable mattress.  I’d wake up on the floor.  And Rob, well he sleeps through everything.