July 31, 2009
We’re all happy to own, sort of, a share of GM or whatever it’s called today. Buying, sort of, Detroit, Wall Street and many a bank will no doubt be the greatest thing since sliced shoes. Some of us would have preferred to keep our house, job and car but that’s the way the buck rolls. There is no use whining. Remember “Yes We Can”? Of course we can. What is happiness anyway?
The financial crisis resembles a black hole. Black holes possess a gravitational field so powerful that nothing can escape its pull. The hole has a one-way surface into which objects can fall, but out of which nothing can come. By fall, Obama will have plugged this particular financial black hole by dumping all your money into it, or so he says. Time flies and fall is almost upon us. Obama in his tower may be more clairvoyant than you and I, but my pocket book still complains about an empty stomach. That hole is still here in spite all the good work by Obama, shoveling your money into it by the trillions.
Not every genius agrees with the generosity of Obama. I don’t mean ever-moaning, fat cat Republicans. Of course they disagree. I think of the prevailing, foggy as always, opinions of Nobel Prize (or not) economists. Generally, they point out that any bailout or relief effort, no matter how big, will be much too small to have an impact while being insanely too big, causing disastrous events such as hyper-inflation, fascism, divorces and reduced grants for Nobel Prize professors. In other words, the relief package is too small while being much too big. Got that? Me neither. That’s why we’ll never get that Prize.
Obama wants you to trade-in your old clunker for a brand new Eco-Green vehicle. Clunkers include your Cadillac Seville, BMW 8, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 968 and Toyota Supra. Obama recommends super-green replacements such as Cadillac SRX, Chevrolet Express Cargo, Chevrolet Silverado 1500, Dodge Ram Pickup 2500, GMC Savana and the Toyota Tundra. A mass of rules apply to clarify this eco-friendly initiative.
The old clunker faces immediate execution though crushing or shredding at a designated disposal facility, at the pleasure of the dealer who in folly accepted your poor old car. Maybe more than a few clunkers jump the fence and gain a new life as NYC or Cuban cabs. Perhaps your kid will buy it back with a McDonald’s paycheck. Often, killing off the old and the frail doesn’t quite work out as expected. Ask any Cuban driver. Remember the fate of Heinrich Himmler.
Of course, you will have to pay with taxes for this generous and forward looking idea to the tune of $4,000 a clunker, and up. To be sure, you’ll watch your neighbor trade in all six of his Cadillac’s, gaining some $25,000 at your expense. Meanwhile, you’re stuck with the full lease on that brand new Toyota Prius you patriotically bought last year. Timing is everything, Obama mentions, “Yes We Can”. Of course we can, but it would be nice if perhaps we had a say in the matter.
Incidentally, the $4,000 clunker trade-in could buy you two (2) Tata Nano, fully paid for. The same money could also pay for two all-electric 4-seater Tara Tiny (top speed 43 mph, range 62 miles, operating cost 1/5 of gas fueled cars). Why not one of each? Unfortunately, such as deal won’t be available for a while – the Indian manufacturers are scrambling to meet Indian demand and aren’t currently looking towards the US market. One might wonder why GM is completely incapable of producing a $2,000 car. Considering higher labor cost and higher standards in general, what about a $5,000 vehicle? I guess not. The tiny Smart Fortwo goes for almost $12,000 which is about as cheap as it gets in the US. A Segway (12 mph top speed, 20 miles range) sets you back $5,500, air conditioner not available.
In short, you sell the clunker while actually buying the thing through taxes. Then you pay so the dear old thing can become a tangle of shredded recycle materials. Top it off with a brand new, overpriced car from some company unable to grasp the basics of plus and minus. Are we all chasing our tails?
Here’s to success, sort of. In six days, the clunkers program chewed up $1,000,000,000.00, reaching the approved spending limit. 225,000 clunkers go to clunker heaven and an equal amount of green cars will hit the road. The program is on hold at the moment (late July 2009), looking for more funding.
Convert 225,000 clunkers to new green cars. It affects only less than 0.1% of the US car inventory. There may still be 10 million clunkers on US roads. Don’t look for a meaningful reduction in pollution, safer traffic or better looking parking lots. Things will look pretty much the same, except in the eyes of Obama and his spin machine.
Letting those clunkers die in peace, here’s a reality check. A recession is generally defined as two or more successive quarters of negative growth. Presently, that applies to many countries around the globe. A GDP drop of 10% or a recession lasting for several years is called a depression. Here is a Wikipedia description of a depression:
- “Considered a rare but extreme form of recession, a depression is characterized by abnormal increases in unemployment, restriction of credit, shrinking output and investment, numerous bankruptcies, reduced amounts of trade and commerce, as well as highly volatile relative currency value fluctuations, mostly devaluations. Price deflation or hyperinflation is also common elements of a depression.”
That is depressing, to be sure, and unfortunately very real. Recessions are common and happen about every 3-5 years. Depressions occur every 20-40 years on the average. As an exception, the last hundred years only produced one major depression: the great depression of 1929 -1939. Two World Wars starved off further depressions. We may all be excused for being out of touch.
Only history will tell whether the current crisis is a mere recession or a full blown depression. At worst or best, depending on your point of view, it could mark the end of capitalism, democracy and many a marriage. Covering the issue, the observant elite, such as Conan O’Brien and 360 Anderson Cooper will amuse us for years to come. Clever, or not, bloggers will pipe in with great enthusiasm. The rest of us will not care about the fine print which may not be the best game plan. After all, this is your chance to get a subsidized Kia Soul or to dump your mortgage to end all mortgages on your neighbor.
The US GDP shrunk by 6.3% in late 2008, followed by a 5.5% drop in early 2009. The 2nd quarter of 2009 continued down by 1%. The US economy has declined for four quarters, a continuous drop last seen during the Great Depression of the thirties.
Many other countries share the same deep hole: UK is off 5.6% year-over-year. Germany was down almost 4% early 2009 but may be recovering. Spain is suffering an unemployment rate of 18%. France, Italy and Spain are down by 1% or so. Ireland is off 6%, Sweden down 5%. Japan GDP is down almost 13% and Iceland is off 12%, Lithuania off 24%, Ukraine down 9% and Russia down 2-3%. Asia is slowing drastically but is perhaps still in the black. OPEC and oil and gas producers see huge declines.
Dubai and East Baltic house prices are off about 40%, worse than the crushing 24% drop in the US. Real estate prices in central London are down by 15-20% with more than a few owners wishing they never had heard of Notting Hill. With financial fat cats scrambling to get out of town, Manhattan real estate is in for a beating. Sales of $5 million homes are reportedly slower than watching grass grow in Antarctica.
That is an astonishing array of synchronized red. Often in the past, recessions have been localized or at least lagging each other. One country is up, the next one down but smoothing the overall effect. This time the house of cards is tumbling down simultaneously all over the world. Just about every major economic indicator around the globe has hit record lows at about the same time.
Every one of those indicators affects our lives, one way or another. It might be hard to believe that the melt down of Icelandic banks and the catastrophic state finances of Lithuania will affect you. Not so. It does affect you in a confidence driven world. That Hong Kong fund manager will see the headlines of Iceland crashing and promptly dump every UK share in his portfolio. Then the Pound will drop and the dollar go up, hurting wheat exports from Western US, dropping the peso considering the money inflow from migrant workers in the US West took a dive.
To some, the effect is more dramatic. 1.2 million Swedes placed their savings in fast growing East Europe funds. Today, those savings are off 60% in value. The overall value of Icelandic stocks is down by 90%. The cost of the Icelandic meltdown is close to 75% of its GDP. Perhaps 300,000 UK savers see their Icelandic assets disappear as do 120,000 Dutch, all pending actions by various governments far beyond that of Iceland.
Recessions, depressions, famines, swine flues and Katrina’s are hardly unique events. The swine flu related influenza of 1918-1920 killed about 75 million and infected 500 million more. Bengali cyclone flooding kills 100,000 on a regular basis. The 2004 tsunami death toll was 225,000. Katrina is hardly in the same league with a toll of about 2,000. 9/11 killed 2,974. By contrast, the Rwanda tribal war of a few years ago killed almost a million. The recent Darfur war killed 400,000 and displaced 2,000,000.
In 1923, Germany issued two-trillion Mark banknotes. Postage stamps had a face value of fifty billion Mark. In 1946, the Hungarian National Bank issued bank notes in the amount of 100 quintillion pengÅ‘ (100,000,000,000,000,000,000). Recently, Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate reached 89.7 sextillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000)) percent.
On the other hand, green gas emissions from some fourteen GM plants will shortly go to zero. Titanic’s New York docking fees are null. Unemployment instantly went to zero in Hiroshima on an August day in 1945. So did employment. Trade Center elevator maintenance cost is zero. In one single day, some 26,000 Lehman Brothers employees walked out the door, never to return. Their employer declared they could not pay back the $770 billion they owed and walked out the door, never to return.
As you see, real time events progress far faster than the responses, bailouts and clunker programs devised by governments, homeland security forces, local police and Greenpeace. Events are crushing, sudden forces. Officials such as FEMA (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) can only react to the unexpected. They never seem to be on top of anything, whether providing disaster relief (“Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”) or dressing properly (“Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt?”). All Quotes, thanks to Michael Brown, were made as thousands died in New Orleans.
Your financial woes are sure to disappear. Your beloved wife will stop nagging you. A husband will end his obnoxious ways. IRS will stop harassing you. Parking tickets may be excused. You won’t have to get up in the morning to face that hopeless job. One day your troubles will be over forever.
A really bad recession hits the pocket books of all of us. Unemployment will hit tens of millions of Americans and multiples more around the globe. Untold masses of house owners face disaster that Obama’s trillions will not cure. Some will freeze and starve. Others will lose their health, families and self respect. Production of babies will skyrocket while the manufacturing of crappy cars will nose dive. Widows relying on GM stock won’t dine on truffles anymore.
Even the rich suffer – with or without an end to Bush’s tax subsidies. Bill Gates is almost poor by historical comparison. Microsoft stock price is half of its former glory. Saudi royalties, sultans, princes and Halliburton kings walk on slippery ground as oil prices went from almost 150 to below 40 bucks a barrel. The Kuwait Central Bank was about bankrupt. Middle East palace production is way off. Foreign workers are fleeing, abandoning their mirage Hummer windfalls in the airport parking lots. When it is over, it’s temporarily over. Luckily for the Kuwait Bank, oil prices are scrambling up towards $70 as Americans hit the vacation trails.
As for myself, a rather obscure web site informed me I rank at about 700,000,000 in the list of the richest people on earth. Frankly, I’m not real sure if my fortunes are up or down. I do know that filling up my Mini with gas is a lot cheaper than a year ago. But then my rent is way up, mysteriously. What else changed? I don’t see too many bargains beyond the norm. Do you?
Government isn’t really any better at figuring out how to tie shoelaces than Joe the Plumber. What might be obvious to you and me rarely is evident in Washington and other capitals. Government tends to spend their trillions of recovery bucks too late in the cycle and thereby causing the upward cycle to overheat, which leads to the next crisis. The result is unfinished bridges, mysteriously enrichment Florida sugar kingpins, more awful Detroit Hummers with no buyers, luxury school buildings with no students, hyper inflation and untold other disasters.
Governments aren’t real good at managing their affairs. Consider the “-gates” incidents, each one casting a bit of doubt not only on management skills but on the general sanity of those involved. Here is Wikipedia’s list which covers 106 known cases only. The real list is no doubt miles longer:
- “Angolagate, Baftagate, Bandargate, Bertiegate, Betsygate, Billygate, Bingogate, Bittergate, Blagogate, Bonusgate, Boozegate, Buttongate, Camillagate, Cheriegate, Chicanegate, Coingate, Colegate, Comet Watergate, Contragate, Contragate, Corngate, Debategate, Dianagate, Dijongate, Donnygate, Ettehgate, Fajitagate, Fallagate, Fiascogate, Filegate, Flakegate, Gatesgate, Gerstmanngate, Grannygate, Guzzlegate, Hookergate, Hot Coffeegate, Iguanagate, Indygate, Irangate, Iraqgate, Jerezgate, Jerseygate, Katrinagate, Kazakhgate, Lewinskygate, Liegate, Lipstickgate, Mabelgate, Macacagate, Manuelgate, Monicagate, Monkeygate, Monstergate, Muldergate, NAFTAgate, Nannygate, Niggergate, Nipplegate, Noemigate, Officegate, Paintergate, Paragate, Partgate, Passportgate, Paternitygate, Peppergate, Petrogate, Picturegate, Pizzagate, Plamegate, Railgate, Rathergate, Reutersgate, Rinkagate, Sexgate, Sexy Photo Gate, Shawinigate, Shilpagate, Shreddergate, Sirengate, Slapgate, Smeargate, Spygate, Squidgygate, Stepneygate, Stormontgate, Strippergate, Strippergate, Strippergate (CA), Suitcasegate, Tailgate, Tasergate, Tevezgate, Tiregate, Toallagate, Toiletgate, Travelgate, Troopergate, Troopergate, Tunagate, Utegate, Wardrobegate, Watergate, Waterkantgate (Watergate an der Waterkant), Wheatgate and Whitewatergate”.
The government will occasionally get things right, by mistake most often. For instance, Hitler fixed the German unemployment problem in the thirties by massive investment in autobahns, Stukas, U-boats and black uniforms. Unfortunately, once he built all the autobahns and flooded the “flight clubs” with Stukas, what’s for dessert? World War II took over as employment source for the Aryan masses. The black uniforms were put to deadly use.
Stalin decided farmers were too uppity, especially in the Ukraine. By hiking tax rates in the form of wheat and barley deliveries to well over 100% of actual production all the Soviets suffered famine, killing millions. Mao in China did much the same thing. Today, the same story is repeated in Africa. The Beloved Son in North Korea also experimented with famine to show who is in charge. These are bad government programs.
FDR got it somewhat right with the Great New Deal but millions of Americans nevertheless suffered greatly. Some criticize the Deal, claiming it set out to rescue the Capitalist system that caused the depression in the first place. That’s a good point with relevance to the Obama rescue plans. Many agree with Obama that his deal is saving the day. Does the following ring a bell, in spirit if not in details?
- “When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the nation was in deep economic trouble. State governors had shut down every bank and every bank account was frozen—no one could get a bank loan or cash checks or get at their deposits. Unemployment was 25% and higher in major industrial and mining centers. The agricultural sector, with a fourth of the nation’s population, was in worse shape than industrial areas.
- Deflation was raging—prices were falling, making future planning difficult and raising the burden of existing debts. Mortgages were being foreclosed by tens of thousands. Worst of all, many people seemed to have given up hope for a better future and were desperately holding on. Unemployment was still high in 1939, with the tide only turning in 1941.”
FDR’s New Deal was a great political reform but it did not rescue Americans or others from the depression. It took 72 million dead in WWII to finally put that beast to sleep. GM’s tank business boomed. Boeing’s bomber business flew high. The unemployed millions found solid employment in the Armies. Women became riveters. Ship builders scrambled as U-boats drove shipping demand way up. The University of Chicago rode high with the A bomb as its star. All at a profit, you might add.
With another World War unlikely at the moment and only small time wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s trillions won’t do the job. It will require something real to pull the World out of the hole. Damn if I know what will do the job. Maybe housing, consumers, iPods, Bruce Springsteen or the NBA will save us all. One thing is certain – it will be the common man and woman that charges ahead and beats down the dragon.
You see the world fall apart. Fortunes disappear without a trace. Age old institutions are gone, leaving a tiny cloud of dust soon dissimilated. Surviving financial institutions, car dealerships and hot dog stands will never again be the same. Perhaps you will never be the same either. At least some of us will pay more attention to an elusive quality called happiness.
Happiness is a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. Scientifically, human happiness correlates with safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. There is little or no correlation between income and happiness. The amount of spare time people have, and their control over how much spare time they have, correlates with happiness. Feeling in control of one’s own life leads to happiness. Losing control can be a great source of unhappiness.
The Eightfold Path leads its Buddhist practitioner to Nirvana, a state of everlasting peace. Aristotle stated that happiness is characteristic of a good life. The happy person is virtuous. Happiness is “the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason”: happiness is the practice of virtue. According to that idea, Conservatives are more virtuous and thus happier than Commies, Gays and Liberals, according to several scientific studies:
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to state that they are “very happy.” The gap, unbroken for almost four decades, has been unaffected by political fortunes. Republicans place a higher value than Democrats on marriage, children, and religion. They are more likely than Democrats to be married and attend religious services regularly. Shame on you Democrats.
The old satyr Silenus had been drinking wine and wandered away drunk, later to be found by some Phrygian peasants, who carried him to their king, Midas. Midas recognized him and treated him hospitably, entertaining him for ten days and nights with politeness. On the eleventh day, Midas brought Silenus back to Dionysus in Lydia. Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever reward he wished for. Midas asked that whatever he might touch should be changed into gold. Midas rejoiced in his new power, which he hastened to put to the test. He touched an oak twig and a stone; both turned to gold. Overjoyed, as soon as he got home, he ordered the servants to set a feast on the table. “So Midas, king of Lydia, swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold; but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane.
Mammon is a term describing material wealth or greed, most often personified as a deity. Here goes : Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Plutos was the personification of wealth. Blinded by Zeus, Plutos could dispense wealth without prejudice. He is often portrayed with a horn of plenty. Aristophanes in 380 BC wrote a play called Plutus. At first, Plutus did not distribute wealth to the virtuous, or necessarily to the non-virtuous, but instead it is distributed randomly. If Plutus’ eyesight is restored, these wrongs could be righted. The world would be a better place. Plutus’ eyesight is finally restored. He hands out riches to some and removes riches from those he sees as not being virtuous. This gives rise to rancorous comments and claims of unfairness from those that have had their riches removed. The rich audiences in Athens were not amused.
Dalai Lama, exiled from Tibet since 1959, recently said (slightly edited): “The ongoing global economic crisis is an opportunity to re-think values related to finance. This unfortunate crisis can be a lesson to start to think about other values of human beings, not only just money. In money matters we need truth, honesty — transparency is very essential. My knowledge, experience in the financial field is zero but money is important. Without money you can’t survive. But there are other values, happy family, happy community and more content. The crisis is rooted in greed and speculation and a lack of transparency in the financial world. All those business people should learn is that all their business work should be transparent and clean and honest”.
Greed is the selfish desire for or pursuit of money, wealth, food, or other possessions, especially when this denies the same goods to others. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism. Buddhists believe greed is based on incorrectly connecting material wealth with happiness. Happiness economics point out that acquiring material objects has less impact than we imagine on our feelings of happiness. Assuming a basic level of material comfort, more wealth does not increase happiness. That point is generally lost on many. We never pick our nose, fart in public, steal from supermarkets, rage at fellow motorists or lie to our spouses. As with these examples, greed does not fit one’s preferred self image, thus denied but acted on in secret.
The latest bout of naked greed started with Ronald Reagan. Remember him? He’s the guy who slept through various cabinet meetings concerning illegal US deals in Iran and Central America. He graciously allowed an obscure Marine Colonel by the name of Oliver North take the fall. Reagan soon retired to Santa Barbara. Digressing for a minute, Oliver North was sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term, two years probation, $150,000 in fines, and 1,200 hours community service. All convictions were later vacated. North became a celebrated Fox News political commentator and a NYT bestselling author. The FOX channel produced and aired a television episode in which Oliver North was elected President of the United States. No doubt Oliver is one of those happy Republicans.
Reagan pushed Supply Side Economics, also called Reaganomics. Oddly, the elder Bush labeled the thing “Voodoo Economics” which did as much for his election chances as the “Read My Lips” gaffe. The Reaganomics is a simple enough idea. Reduce taxes for the rich. The rich will invest in jobs for the poor. The idea is still a favorite in any Republican town meeting. Unfortunately, the job creation part didn’t quite work out. The rich bought Microsoft stock instead of building new factories. Thus no jobs materialized but the rich got a whole lot richer. Then, as covered to exhaustion here, along came dotcom and dothouse, followed by the current dotmeltdown. Mammon is still alive.
Greed is not a new phenomenon. The previous paragraph on old mythology proves that point. Here are a few other, more recent examples: the Panic of 1857 – Speculative bubble in United States railroads, the Panic of 1873 – Civil War speculative bubble, the 1919-21 Depression due to a Post WWI speculative bubble, the Great Depression 1929-1939 and the total collapse in inflated stock prices, the 1973-75 Oil Crisis – Speculative quadrupling of oil prices. And so on.
See a pattern? Greed makes you personally unhappy. Yet, most pursue greed like the heroin it is. “Greed is a virtue, serving me all I ever want”. “Keep the cake that you eat forever and ever”. “Whatever you touch turns into gold”. “The day of reckoning is never”. Greed and speculation may not be the only cause of recessions but is frequently a major part, making all of us addicts unhappy. The question remains – who are the deplorable speculators? We don’t really know yet, do we?
To be continued.
July 22, 2009
One day, out of the blue, huge black holes moved into the neighborhood. It had something to do with pay checks, mortgages and your home that you foolishly thought were yours. Suddenly the concern was whether or not the black hole would swallow or spit you out. Are you with one of the dying, dead or possibly reborn Detroit auto behemoths? You put your retirement money in Icelandic or East Europe funds. Some of you are customers or employees of dead banks. Were you foreclosed? Are you a realtor searching for non existing listings or a Buick dealer looking at an empty lot? Then you know the pain.
Billions have yet to experience such pain. After all, a 10% unemployment rate means 90% of us have jobs. So for most, all is well? Maybe, but the lucky will find there is no place to hide. Governments pump incomprehensible amounts of money into who knows what. You’ll pay for that, others will get rich. Whole countries remain on the brink of collapse. Are those high risk funds gone? Hell no, investing by the common man into spectacular risk Russian funds not only continues at an unprecedented level but grows at frenzying rates. Who can resist 60% gains in mere months? Guess what will happen.
Are you angry, furious or resentful about this mess? You should be although the “who, when, why, where and what” is sketchy at best. Huge amounts of money rush around the globe in a manner making drug cartels gasp in envy. Desperate governments feed the fever with major league pay outs, relief programs, bailouts and general flag waving. Will those fortunes end up with blood thirsty Russians, Canadians, Chinese and Italians stealing GM? Outsource IRS to India, save trillions. License DEA to the City of Tijuana. Can the Albanians really buy Bank of America? The LA Lakers may become Moscow Lakers. Obama can buy Iceland, Zimbabwe and Lithuania and merge them with already owned Michigan. Joe Biden mentioned the other day – “there will be some waste”. How much is that?
Billions of bucks head to some neighborhoods turned into a gleaming World Trade Center II or pit stops (think Disneyland) by new Autobahn from Houston to Wasilla, Alaska. Have your backyard house the Grand New HealthCare Agency Headquarter, named after veteran health care reformer Hillary Clinton (“USS Hillary R. Clinton”), co-chaired by Sanjay Gupta of CNN and Aldemar Rojas Mosquera of Colombia, pioneering huge leaps in modern medicine.
Most of you may not have noticed the riots, murders and domestic violence beyond our hazy horizons. The capitals and major cities of China, Russia, Bolivia, Greece, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, France, Italy and Ireland have already witnessed riots or major protests over skyrocketing unemployment. Iran, proving anger is still a factor, could have gone up in flames but perhaps for different reasons. In the US, there are no protests in spite of being in the deepest of holes among the big guys. Ask yourself why silence prevails. Are you angry? Why not? How come your gearbox no longer engages in the slightest degree of emotion?
Angry or not, finding out who is to blame may seems vital. Stomp out the bad and the ugly. Rip their freezing hearts out, beat their deviant brains in. Feet in a cement block, let’m ride to the bottom of the Hudson, the Thames, the Seine or Lake Michigan. Well, for one thing, no one seems sufficiently upset for such measures. Second, the moral of this tale is that the ugly, bad and guilty includes you. Yes, you. And third, perhaps the real culprit is not the common foolishness of all of us.
Perhaps this System doesn’t work anymore. Capitalism, democracy, United Nations, the World Bank, G8, borders, quotas, poverty and riches may well be mere relics of the past. If Communism could die, so can democracy. The sorry fate of Wall Street’s bankers, brought down by the fury of you and I, can signal the end of Capitalism. India and China are the next leaders until perhaps they wipe each other out. The US will not be part of that club. Germany or Britain won’t be invited to the center table. You and I may find life turned upside down with the view deteriorating quicker than the One Minute Waltz.
Digressing from the financial nightmare for a second, the collapse of the American Dream started with the Vietnam War. Then the energy crisis of 1975 and the birth of Opec brought it home to Americans that no longer were they in charge. The Watergate disaster and the shame of Nixon showed how far south the system had gone. Iran and its US embassy hostages brought Carter to his knees. Reagan presided over the Contra scandal. Clinton suffered MonicaGate. Maybe he enjoyed it.
America could suddenly be challenged successfully, safely and violently. Modern day vandals blew up American soldiers in Beirut, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. USS Cole got a hole to prove it. US embassies in Africa were pulverized. Then along came the climax of 9/11. President Bush, a relatively harmless fool till then, turned into a viscous destructor of whatever claim American still had for greatness. Bin Laden won not only the battle but the war because Bush lost.
Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden won because America was and is lost. America didn’t pay attention. Not to the screams of terrorists. Not to the loss of that moral idealism that once was present. America was in the grips of greed. Riches were suddenly a right without the effort. America was lost to the Land of Oz where reality didn’t matter. Bush contributed greatly to the decline but you went along with it. Greed ruled the day.
Forty years ago, almost to the day, America went to the moon. “A great step for mankind” to be sure but the other shoe never dropped. 1969 marked the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York. That’s the good news. 1969 saw Richard Nixon take office, leading to Watergate and national disgrace. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published explicit photographs of dead villagers from the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, a practice still in place. The secret bombings of Cambodia began. The United States held its first draft lottery since WWII in to supply soldiers to Vietnam, where the 1969 war cost 163,000 dead. 9,414 were Americans.
In 1969, the Beatles gave their last public performance. AIDS arrived in the United States. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Sirhan Sirhan admitted that he killed Robert F. Kennedy. 14 Chicago police officers shot to death Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in their sleep during a raid. Edward M. Kennedy’s Presidential hopes died with Mary Jo Kopechne as he drives off a bridge on his way home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island. Charles Manson and his cult murdered Sharon Tate and six others.
The late sixties and early seventies changed the world. The relative innocence of the fifties and the heroics of the forties faded away. The great social experiment of the sixties lost its teeth. The “I” generations of yuppies replaced the hippies and the protesters. Long hair was out, air blown was in. Universities spewed out MBA’s heading to Wall Street and lawyers moving in on Washington. Sit-ins, demonstrations and communes disappeared. The New Age and Prozac replaced Led Zeppelin and LSD. Dreams changed.
George and Dick
Most of us love to blame Bush for all things evil, but the Texas swaggerer wasn’t clever enough to create as massive a mess as we suffer today. The Bush regime thrived on a doctrine of Fear. Create Fear and you shall have Power. Plots here, WMD there, cut of the head off one or another enemy of something or another. Fear is a sickness, easily exploited. Bush and gang exploited fear to make possible outrageous and generally illegal policies. Fear of Muslims, such as Muslim limo drivers. Fear of non existing WMD. Fear of Central American nannies and Mexican gardeners. Fear of environmentalists, gays, actors, journalists and scientists.
Almost no one effectively challenged the crimes of a president or the corruption of his vice president. The deployment of hundreds of thousand soldiers into illegal wars met only scant opposition. Congress mumbled, the highest court fumbled and “the masses” stumbled. Human rights, international law and plain common decency gave way to greed, power frenzy and moral confusion. Bush did not create the financial meltdown. Neither did the elderly Bush, Reagan, Carter or Clinton. The crimes of George W. Bush are more about killing people than about impoverishing them.
The current news about George W. Bush, according to Google News, is not about Bush at all. The Rangers will name a suite after him. Laura Bush tells us about being out of the killing lime light – having to go to the hardware store – about borrowing chairs for dinner parties. Dubya picks up after Barney the Scot terrier on neighbor’s lawn. Score one for Barney. This is about the guy causing a million deaths according to authoritative sources. That is 1,000,000 deaths – six zeroes and a one.
Even today Cheney says: “I don’t believe we engaged in torture. If I had it to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing. I’d be just as tough and aggressive as I could to make certain that those individuals . . . who were prepared to kill thousands of Americans to achieve a political objective got what they had coming to them.” Good night, Cheney. Find another undisclosed location, please.
The stories about Dick Cheney mainly concern the possible prosecution of his (and his boss’s) war crimes over the last eight years. After all, sanctioning torture, ethnic cleansing and the like is quite illegal under US and International law. This most stubborn, selfish and scheming bastard in modern politics is trying for a foothold in the Republican power fraction of Palin, Limbaugh and, she wishes, Coulter. Bush allowed, but Cheney masterminded, the deaths of a million people – six zeroes and a one.
To date, the elderly Cheney’s comeback dreams haven’t come true but then; neither have those of Limbaugh and Palin. Out pops Liz Cheney, making the oddest remarks in public interviews. She seemed to claim, for instance, that Obama being born in Kenya should be stripped of the Presidency. Official records show Obama being born in Hawaii, then and presently not part of Kenya.
No question GOP in a crisis. With self destructive leaders such as those above, who needs democrats, feeble as they are. GOP has a long way to go. Having embraced marketing approach “selling a product”, the size, color and shape of that product is a well kept secret. No doubt making round pegs square overwhelms even the stoutest of designers, flying around the circus without a safety net. Moreover, the brightest of the GOP figured out, to their amazement, that Hispanics, black and young voters do not go GOP’s way at all. Now, all of those segments are growing at rates far exceeding the segment driving Cadillac with white walled tires. Unless the GOP can design the product speaking rap in Detroit, Spanish if Southern California and Greenspeak in Berkeley, they may never again reside over state dinners.
Many ask why the powerful elite allowed this mess to develop with so many common sense signs dancing in front of every one’s eyes. That’s a key question. How is the high up rot cut out? Smokey Bear, where are you?
What about the icon of financial genius, Alan Greenspan, and his 1987-2006 tenure of the Fed? The 2008 meltdown is a consequence of many of his policies. The dot-com disaster of 2000 taught him nothing as he allowed the housing bubble to develop. Greenspan believed a national decline in house prices would, could not happen. He kept interest rates low, fueling the subprime mortgages. Thereby criminally shortsighted, self-destructive and super ebullient gamblers in their mahogany corner offices could go for the home run to ruin the rest of us. These players were not all Wall Street insiders. Just about any bank or financial institution had fingers in the pie.
The nitroglycerin style derivatives markets took off during Greenspan’s watch. Derivatives grew by 1,000 percent in the past decade and now represents a contract value of 4 (four) times the combined wealth of this planet. Any sane person should scream and run like hell for that old A-bomb shelter. Suppose you have a $400,000 house and a $100,000 retirement fund. Use it as the down payment towards $2,000,000 worth of lottery tickets, due in a week. Perhaps you’ll win. Most likely, you’ll be $1,500,000 in the red. Even your cat will hate you.
Such was the gamble of AIG, suddenly requiring $85 billion of your money. Shortly before, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac disasters robbed you of $238 billion or so. Société Générale, Amaranth Advisors, BAWAG, CITIC Pacific, Groupe Caisse d’Epargne, WestLB, Sadia, MF Global, Morgan Stanley and Carnegie Investment Bank all found out high risk trading can end up as billion dollar eggs on one’s face.
Greenspan retired in 2006 and others took over. The new Fed chairman Ben S. Bernanke found the ship to be sinking and frantically started bailing. He and a few associates tried to plug the creaking hull as one torpedo after another drove in, while being “overwhelmed, exhausted, beseeched, besieged, constantly second-guessed”. The pivotal event of Lehman Brothers crashing on September 14, 2008 finally exposed the dirty laundry to a confused, alarmed and panicking world. Lending froze, and the world economy sank like a rock with fortunes vanishing like yesterday’s meringues.
Bush was an uninvolved spectator to the potentially biggest loss of American prosperity in history. Concerned only with avoiding blame, he obsessed about teaching Wall Street a lesson for troubling him. His White House staff was looking for new jobs, gleefully pushing what they could into Obama’s lap.
Greenspan, Bernanke, Bush, million buck Bonus Bankers or Stone Age Detroit Big Shots may all be confused about which century they live in and whose wallet they so carelessly throw around. They collectively contributed to you and me down financial and moral black holes. But you are the one walking up to the rim of that hole.
Then who else might we blame? What gruesome faults are we trying to pin on some one? To many a common man or woman, the ghost story is about a job that disappeared. Others lost their house. Owners of selected stock and fund assets are wiped out. Owners of SAAB cars may or may not be screwed but trading in your ’77 Saab 99 for a brand new Koenigsegg super car won’t be easy.
Disgraced CEO’s, CFO’s, Presidents, Secretaries, Ministers and other dignitaries might be in jail or living in the Manhattan Subway tunnels or beach front Malibu by now. No question, scores of rats are leaving the ship, voluntarily or not. Heads are chopped off, tumors removed and bad breath cured.
Who else? Rounding up the usual suspect doesn’t do the job either: Can we blame Terrorists, Columbian drug lords, Philip Morris, the Russian Mafia, Japanese “research” whalers or even Ann Coulter? Sorry, they are not exclusively to blame. Saudi royalty, Oprah, abortionists, Dr. No, North Korean Great Leaders, Noble Sons and Glorious Fathers are likewise unable to claim all the glory.
The International Communist Conspiracy is more concerned with Ensure and Attend than with toppling democracy. The Armenian International Conspiracy only exists in the brain of a madman, thus probably not guilty. Google, Bing or even Wikipedia do not provide the unsavory answers. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the New World Order, CIA, the Military-Industrial Complex may have a lot to answer to, but perhaps not in this particular case. The Area 51/Grey Aliens conspiracy and OJ are certainly suspects if just someone could pin down why. Bigfoot and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion nowadays seem to be lost, thus are off the list.
The real enemy includes you and me. We bought houses, then refinanced as prices went through the roof. We merrily bought Hummers with the windfall. We were temporarily rich, buying stocks such as InfoSpace, The Learning Company, Lycos, Flooz.com, Boxman AB, Netscape, Pets.com, theGlobe.com and, yes, Microsoft. All were hot shots around 1999, but are not so hot today. Fortunately for many, those losses were covered by house prices continued to boom. It was great fun while it lasted.
Tale of the Sand
Here are some clues. First, we all knew the policies of Bush were dead wrong. Oh yes, you did, but you didn’t really care. Second, didn’t your mother tell you about borrowing a lot more than you can afford against your home, for Christ sake? Third, to paraphrase Obama, the remarkable balloon of wealth was a mirage similar to that of houses built on sand. Eventually, sand will shift, toppling the house, no matter how many lines in the sand someone hangs their hat on. Migration to houses built on solid rock will be painful, long and full of sacrifice. Eat your broccoli. Pay for the bailouts. Smile bravely.
That tale of the shifting sands is a great metaphor except it in no way addresses the issue. That is, “why did this black hole exist in the first place and is it by chance repaired, filled in and plugged tight”? Never mind plugging holes, the Obama metaphor justifies massive government intervention in the opinion of Democrats. According to Republicans, let the Great Father in the sky work his magic for those of the right credentials, i.e. registered Republicans and hell with the others and let’s not rob the rich of their hard earned windfalls. If the Great Father drags his heels, there is always Sarah Palin to do the honors.
Enter trillion dollar programs to “reach high ground, “to rebuild on solid rock”, to “revive America”, to revive “Reelection Chances” and to “Paint Lisbon, ND, Pink”. We all know this is just a mad gambling streak. No matter how many trillions are thrown out the windows like a New York confetti parade, it’s not going to save the day. Those trillions are a continuation of what was, and is, wrong in the first place. Why expect change if all you do is to repeat the past? If your kid ate too much candy, do you give him/her more candy? If you are on life support, will twice as much life support cure you or kill you? As Obama advisors put it, “we are not soothsayers”.
In fact, we are approaching six months of bailouts with no evidence of any positive effect. Obama begs for patience, claiming fall will be glorious. Which fall is that? Obama’s spin machine is the mightiest ever in the annals of American politics. Not even that machine can cover up tens of trillions in deficits is bad news to any sane person except a few Voodoo economists. Just ask mother.
The Conservative in you will say “Nothing wrong here, that’s the way the buck rolls”. Your Socialist ego says “Shoot the bastards and let’s split the cake”. You Commies will relocate everyone except the chosen few to Prudhoe Bay to learn farming, thereby eliminating greed and providing food for starving auto workers and poverty ridden airline crews having only peanuts to eat. Democrats will remain confused, requiring endless debates and another trillion to make ends meet while waiting for The Answer. Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Rod Blagojevich, David Duke, Ann Coulter and Ralph Reed all have ideas about what should be our future pads. Fortunately, few agree.
Throwing a red hot trillion bucks at creepy bankers and Detroit mammoths, building bridges (over what?) and new roads (to where?), closing an American concentration camp or two, stopping some torture, possibly embracing a few friendly Muslims, executing tax cuts and providing health care for every one – sounds good but is it real, enough or even wise?
This is the first in a essay series on current events, attempting to understand why so many wrongs over the last decade has met with so little concern, protest and anger. The world of today with its instant, massive and global coverage of important as well as unimportant issues makes it very hard to distinguish between hype, hymn and heroics.
And that’s the way it is
July 17, 2009
Eatless in Seattle – Hell Yes – more often than not applies to dining in Seattle. Dreadful to be sure considering Seattle is a place of more culinary opportunities than those endured by many other spots such as Fargo, North Dakota or Death Valley. To the West, the Pacific rolls uninterrupted to Japan with whales moving North, then South in relative peace. To the East, you’ll find some of the most fertile farming grounds anywhere. Up North, BC and Alaska provide the freshest seafood in the World. South of Seattle, markets from Astoria, Oregon to California’s Napa Valley to Chile’s regions X to XII supply everything a chef can dream about, only an airplane ride away.
Midtown Seattle,you find many of these products at Pike Place Market. You might get bombed by flying Sockeye salmon straight from Bristol Bay or an 85 pound King salmon out of Kenai River. Veal sweetbread, Cajun sausage, giant octopus and obscene looking geoduck clams are yours at quite a reasonable cost.
You name it, Seattle has it. Lacking are Chinese penis restaurants proudly serving goat’s penis, bull’s penis tip, deer-penis juice or donkey vulva with a sauce choice of lemon and soy, chili and soy, and a sesame-seed paste. These special treats require a trip to Beijing. Less risky, chocolate versions of the above are available from the local erotic bakery right here in Seattle.
Other absentee culinary experiences include meter-sized Danish smoked in-skin eel, Canadian baby seals, NYC subway rats, bats, camels and Southeast Asia poodle stews, all hard to find in Seattle’s neighborhood groceries or local farmer’s markets. Local organic, wholesome, green places such as Whole Foods prefer to sell seeds and nuts rather than net caught tuna and North Atlantic cod. The latter two are, of course, on all endangered lists for one or another reason.
Seattle may be, or was, more famous for music than for extraordinary culinary experiences. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Corbain, Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Fats Navarro, Kenny G or Marc Seales famously beat out local chefs such as Ba Culbert of Tilikum Place Cafe, Tom Douglas, Robin Leventhal or Ashley Merriman. Truly famous chefs such as the “F” word Gordon Ramsay or Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck, the Soup Nazi and Paul Bocuse seem to have no interest whatsoever in Seattle.
No Michelin stars hang by the doors of Seattle diners. Top 50 restaurant lists never mention Seattle. Still, Seattle has the ever popular Dick’s Drive-In burgers where the Deluxe version sets you back a little over two bucks or as little as a buck+ for the Regular kind. Happily, Seattle still has some of that laid back atmosphere.
To many, Seattle dining means heading to ancient places such as the Spice (sic) Needle Revolving Restaurant, aka “Eye of the Needle”, straight out of the World Fair of 1962. The menu changes at the speed of molasses flowing down a ten story wall. I visited the Space Needle “Revolutionary dining atop Seattle” in 1976 with no urge to return. The Canlis (“cooking with abandon or not at all”), a nearby dress-up joint, celebrates 55 years of fine dining. For 15 years, Canlis was only a few blocks away from my home. I never went there since dress codes don’t thrill me. $72 Australian lobster or the American tenderloin at about the same price don’t really fit my wallet. I never figured out if or when they were in a state of abandon sufficient to peel the onions and cross the carrots. You better call ahead to find out the state of abandonment before you decide to try them.
The all night 13 Coins is the veteran where the menu is straight out of 1970. French Dip, Eggs Benedict, Chicken Liver Saute and Steak & Pan-Fried Oysters can be had for a modest investment at 5 am if it so pleases you. Try the Banana Cream Pie for dessert.
The Metropolitan Grill is another fast route to coronary troubles that will delight your surgeon far more than you. One frightening offer is a 38 oz Prime Porterhouse for $69. Add the Béarnaise sauce at a reasonable four bucks. A side order of Twice Stuffed Potatoes might calm that tummy so depraved of saturated fat. Try the Surf and Turf at $82 or the Châteaubriand for Two weighting in at 115 bucks. Ain’t America great? Your leftovers would feed a Sudanese family for a week or two, you bastard.
Hurricane Cafe, 5 Spot and 5 Corner Cafe have been around forever. All three are relatively merciful on your wallet but remain just as deadly. Extra charges might apply if you drop dead while on the premises to pay the cost of stuffing you into an XL size doggie bag. 5 Spot provides eternal weekend breakfast queues possibly easing the exposure of last night’s lovers to each other (“what’s your name again?”). 5 Corner Cafe, where no one cares to know your name, serves a killer grease burger at 3 am or 3 pm, your choice. Absolutely no personal checks, you dumb shit. As to the Hurricane Cafe, a recent review states that “the food is always half-assed, but who gives a fuck? It’s 4:00 a.m. and you want to eat”. Indeed so.
Ivar’s Restaurants feature perhaps the best known chef, folk musician, maverick, major drunk and general legend – Ivar Haglund, by now dead for 24 years but still kicking and still beloved by all. You find Ivar’s name on various Seattle waterfront eateries. That alder smoked “Indian Style” coho salmon was enjoyed by your grand daddy, daddy and will likely be around for whoever survives Global Warming, Korean missiles or the GM bailout. A $25 bargain.
The Paul Allen monstrous Seattle Center creation serves little food as far as I know. In my book, this pile of colored sheet metal is known as Paul’s UpsidedownTesticles. The Experience Music Project is about as popular to most of us as, well, the mere thought of Paul’s UpsidedownTesticles. See the nearby pictures. Decide for yourself. Moreover, featuring Bing Crosby in almost the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Queensrÿche and The Pudz is odd even by the standards of a Seattle suffering acute depression derived from a heritage of long, howling winter storms at Lofoten, Norway. Paul’s pal Bill Gates is arousing twin mini towers for his and Melinda’s foundation across the street that seem to fit the testicle idea quite well. Look for yourself.
Skipping EMP, try out the slightly psychodelic Seattle Center ‘s Center House. Eat there if you dare from an abundance of odd little stands in the house’s shadowy corners. The culinary experience is quite overshadowed by the free for all action on the Center Stage and Dance Floor. That’s right. No charge for trying out Participatory Folk Dancing, Square Dancing, true Ballroom Dancing or plain old rollerskating. You might enjoy the Tuxedo Junction Band (“Stardust, Begin the Beguine, You Gotta Be a Football Hero, That Old Black Magic and Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye”), the Microsoft Orchestra (“String players at any level are always welcome”), Peace on Earth, Womanipura with Mind Craze, Lelavision “Physical Music” or the Magic Mystery Show. And you though there was no Culture in Seattle.
Other Seattle notables include eateries that are cute, popular and heavier on marketing than on salt and pepper. You go there to be seen by envious neighbors, thumping your nose at furious exes and (unwittingly) at IRS agents. Dahlia’s, Etta’s, Wild Ginger, Sorrento’s and The Herbfarm are a few examples of such wonders. You won’t be disappointed unless your neighbor in raging madness drives over your dog after watching you and company break out the third bottle of 1966 Dom Pérignon ($1,200 or so). The ex calls you back to court with sudden proof of that secret Bermuda account of yours. An enraged IRS suddenly sticks its nose into that business meeting at Seattle’s premier strip club Lusty Lady, “where everyone can see your heels”. You watch it. Your credit, marriage or worse might suffer.
I happen to live downtown Seattle, quite close to the Space Needle. Apart from that “Revolutionary dining atop Seattle”, there are some 10-15 restaurants of various kinds within a block or so. One is the 5 Corner Cafe mentioned above where you might find me very late when the drunks have collapsed, vanished and quieted down. Seattle outlawed serving booze after 2 am which is a good thing indeed.
There are Greek, Italian places, Mexican and American fast food, a wine and cheese place, a French organic bakery called Boulangerie Nantaise run by a delightful lady from Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc, France. I might be there having a light breakfast with an espresso or two. The Shallot Bistro is the best of several Asian outfits. The local sports bar is doing whatever sports bars do now that the Sonics are gone. Sadly, no Norwegian, Zulu or Romanian affairs are present so far. In all fairness, some of these places may not tickle yours or mine tongue but it’s nice to have them around.
A few blocks away, the Belltown nightlife district beckons the innocent suburbanites to occasional shootings, frequent drug trafficking, bloody noses, hot spots, loud music, drunk kids and one of the best of jazz clubs – Tula’s. Tula’s isn’t famous for their menu but feature mostly local talent of great ability at very reasonably prices, compared to the better known Jazz Alley which isn’t known for great food either. At Tula’s, tell Michael I sent you as you settle down a foot or so from the stands of the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, some 16-18 strong of considerable db’s, Greta Matassa, Jay Thomas, Susan Pascal, Hadley Caliman, Kelley Johnson, Beth Winters and many more. Believe these guys are good.
Closer to Lake Union, there is the Swedish Club. The famous Swedish pancake breakfast is presently on hold but will apparently return in September, lingonberries and all. With luck you may share the breakfast with a hearty dose of folk dancing. I visited the place in 1975 and haven’t returned. But that is just me. I never warmed up to polkas, lutefisk or cod roe cakes. In any event, the Northwest heritage of Swedish loggers and Norwegian fishermen is deader than all-you-can-eat salad bars, karaoke and turtlenecks.
Ballard isn’t what it used to be. The last Scandinavian restaurant is now Indian. The Armani suits infested the place, Rolexes, BMW’s, Hummers and Blackberries are everywhere as are personal trainers, nannies and investment crooks. The last Scandinavian food store closed its doors recently, perhaps to be replaced by yet one more organic juice outfit.
Fremont is a lost Seattle soul. Once hip and funky, condos, giant Getty’s and Adobe office complexes dragged that neighborhood down to become your average Redmond or Silicon Valley trash can. On the culinary side, a not bad Greek stalwart named Costas Opa is still operating with very reasonable prices. Service used to be a drag but might be better now. A decade ago, I ran a business down there. Costas fed me more often than not together with the legendary Red Door Alehouse, now displaced to an undisclosed location by Suzie Burke, Land Baroness or Goddess of Fremont, aka the female Godfather of Fremont. She owns just about everything in the area, including the Red Door Alehouse. She wanted another million condos where that poor tavern happened to do business. We all know who’s the boss down there. Condos up, tavern gone.
Tilikum Place Cafe
Now, let’s get to the point of this little message to all of you around the globe. Eatless in Seattle? Not so. Late in 2008, a new place opened up in my neighborhood after what seemed to me and my neighbors to be years in the making. My hair guy Kevin shared some pre-opening rumors, being next door at the Sublime Place. Taped up windows added to the mystery. So and so mentioned some sort of bistro was coming to town. Then it opened – Tilikum Place Cafe.
On the second or third day of the opening back in the very last part of October, I tried them out. Duck Confit, it was. Terrific. The the mussels appetizer followed, oddly off the menu nowadays. Outstanding. I’ve been back once or twice a week ever since. You’ll find me at the bar counter, the guy trying to look like Hemingway with zero luck. I’ve spent more time there, lately, than with this blog, perhaps to the relief of many. My budget may be bruised more ways than one, but so be it. Don’t get me wrong, the Tilikum Place Cafe is a bargain compared to, say, Canlis.
I’ve been through their tiny Spanish sardines, Alaskan char from way north, sturgeon, salt cod and mussels. I had rabbit, duck, pork, beef and all kinds of salads and veggies. Desserts such as homemade ice cream and truly made-to-order strawberry shortcake caught my sweet tooth. World class coffee that is as superior to the Starbuck’s junk as Google stock to the Lithuanian Lita. Dutch babies, smoked paprika butter, special this and that. Spirits galore. The menu is short and to the point. The dishes are unique partly because Ba and staff makes just about everything fresh to order from scratch, creating distinct taste clusters played off against each other. Or something like that. The pate isn’t bought from some sweatshop slaughter house in Bronx or Shanghai. It’s coming to you fresh from the Tilikum Place Cafe kitchen at 407 Cedar Street, Seattle.
My dad’s gold standard for food was boiled pig parts with boiled potatoes. Anything different was treason punished by his plate thrown across the dining room. If that’s your game, then perhaps Tilikum Cafe isn’t for you. The Tilikum Place Cafe culinary experiences are neither ordinary nor short lived. You really can’t put a label on the place. Some things come close to being vegetarian but meat isn’t lacking. Other dishes are hearty, most are on the light side. Some of the prevailing opinions pin a European label on the place but that works only if you don’t know what European cooking is. For instance, not even Ba seems to go for the braised cow’s lung in tomato sauce that the Italians love. Few Parisian chefs offer buffalo burgers but Ba does. Suffice to say that the style of the Tilikum Place Cafe is the style of the Tilikum Place Cafe. Enough said.
By now, the place has been reviewed and dissected by newspapers, bloggers, the “neighborhood business guides”, know-it-alls and word of mouth to universal acclaim. You look it up. Real critics already picked apart every menu option so I won’t. Blessedly, the business seems to boom now after some gloomy, rainy days this winter and Spring. That’s good because I would very much regret if they went away. Know that Japanese saying? “Do the right thing long enough and you will succeed”. Add a qualifier such as “if you have what it takes” and the Tilikum Place Cafe qualifies royally.
Over the months, like any regular, I got acquainted with owner/chef Ba Culbert, her business partner Paul Dormann and the staff that one reviewer described as “flying around the tables like humming birds”. After all, there are only some ten people on staff so the flying might be called for. I’ve witnessed the back breaking effort required to make the place a success. I’ve seen the artistry of creating world class dishes. The kitchen is open. Seeing Ba and the others in action makes you realize that this kind of cooking is art.
Here is my second point. I don’t really go back to the Tilikum Place Cafe because the food is great or I happen to like the people working there. I go there because the place makes me feel good. It’s one of those personal things. Most of us have retreats, memories or places, occasions or people that we cherish. Our comfort zone. The security blanket. A picture of mother, the cat or Michael Jackson. Some adore a bottle of Armagnac a day, others live to climb Mount Everest or raise ants. A few smoke BC Bud, smuggled in by someone’s grandmother in a 1930s handbag. Some obsess over Italian shoes, recently married Robert Redford or UFO’s. A hair blown breed needs that Hummer, a next-generation spouse and a lakefront property to feel properly comforted. In my case, I head for the ambiance of a neighbor eatery.
Here’s to people, their fallacies, blemishes, talents and occasional heroism. Sarah Palin, the astonishing narcissism of a not quite sane quitter. Ann Coulter, the modern day Goebbels. George W. Bush, criminal and failure. Michael Jackson, the medical wonder who finally lost the magic. Muhammad Ali, the wonder who has yet to lose the magic. Boris Yeltsin, the winner, dead drunk or not, currently simply dead. The senators, congressmen, governors, mayors and dog catchers caught with their pants down or pocket books open. The CIA torture specialists. Pratibha Patil, Asif Ali Zardari, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu, almost all with thumbs on the big bang button. Corrupt bankers. The drug cartels, OPEC and Iranian strongmen. Mother Theresa and Gandhi heroics. The sad hysterics of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Neighbors riding 200 db motorcycles at 4 am. Horatio Hornblower, Homer Simpson and Forest Gump. Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Terrorists, the Religious Right and the Arrogant Left.
So many get their moment of fame but with little to show for the effort. Here is part of the reason: none of these cats above made art, or at least not art of lasting value. Thus they disappear as time passes – there are exceptions but not many. On the other hand, the few that do produce lasting art will themselves last. That’s why I write about artists. Fellow photographers include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, the Westons, Robert Mapplethorpe or Jeff Wall. Here you’ll meet Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag and Georgia O’Keeffe . Geniuses, from Picasso, Gustaf Mahler, Miles Davis and Mozart to da Vinci, frequent these pages. As a contrast, monsters such as Mao, Hitler and Stalin lurk behind the scenes, together with scores of other political rascals.
Art is good because it survives no matter what. Stuff such as democracy, human rights, the Beatles, Antarctic krill, polar bears and ozone layers come and go. So do birthdays. El Niño follows La Niña, making water flow this or the other way across a vast Pacific Ocean. The Big Bang and Black Holes are irreversible but when did you last worry about that? Now check out the Bach Concertos ignored by dead, forgotten despots. What about the cave paintings in France and elsewhere that are still alive after 35,000 years? The liturgical songs by Hildegard of Bingen are with us after 850 years. Mozart was belittled by some emperor or another (“Too many notes, my dear Mozart”) but who is laughing now?
Consider the string quartets coming out of Auschwitz some 55 years ago after their creators joined untold others inhaling Zyklon-B gas. You get my point. People come and go. Art remains. One day the bomb may drop or global temperatures might hit a hundred or more degrees, shutting down that last CO2 spewing smoke stack. The concertos, rock paintings, Bruno Walter recordings, Thriller albums and Star Wars DVDs will still be there, somewhere under the debris of human bones.
This blog and Tilikum Place Cafe aren’t likely to have a major say in the end of the World or the start of a new Paradise. Perhaps we’ll leave some trace somewhere. For now it’s a matter of strawberry shortcake and a tracer of Armagnac served with the World’s best coffee. So say hello to Ba and the Tilikum Place Cafe is where “everybody knows your name”, or at least my name. It’s a neat place. Go there. Tell Ba I sent you. Here’s how: Tilikum Place Cafe. Facebook is a lively source for Ba and the Cafe. Enjoy. Do fly in from Zagreb, Paris, Hanoi or Bellevue if necessary. It’s worth it. Try the Spanish sardines.
All the best,