Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Center Does Not Hold

When I was an analyst (media) at a white shoe firm, now subsumed into a failing Swiss Bank, Tom Monahan was the best institutional salesman on the Street in his day – the early 80s to 90s.  Portfolio managers liked his blue collar work ethic, his energy and his optimism. And he listened. Perhaps, his best attribute. 

We met in Grand Central at the information booth with the four-sided clock on top.  I hadn't seen him in several months and almost didn’t recognize him. At first, he didn’t recognize me either. We are older. We laugh about that. Then, we go for drinks at the oyster bar located several flights below in a cavern at track level. 

We talk first about our eyesight (getting worse), his health getting better, about our families and then we got into what we always get into which is the future of the US and the markets.

"The S&P is at all-time highs, unemployment is nearing zero, house prices are soaring, but it all feels bad doesn't it?" He asked me.

Tom is a Republican and a conservative and will probably vote for Trump. As a Democrat and as a person, I am unhappy about the possibility that DJT may become President.  But I respect Tom choice.

As a Democrat and as a person, I should add, I am equally concerned that Hillary Clinton will be President.

Tom's politics are deeply held, no doubt, but his politics in no way define him. In that I believe, he is like most Americans. They largely think for themselves and do not wish to be defined by their politics either. (Or, another way to say it: would like to be seen as citizens not as members of a block to be cynically moved around a political chess board by political sharpies. But I digress.) 

What Tom wants from government is the best outcome for his family and his country. That’s the bottom line. So do I. So do many on both sides of the political divide. But for all and for Tom (if I may speak for him)– optimism and hope--seem like total luxuries in this current environment.

I said to him,“it feels like one of those moments when history goes wrong for a while; when events are likely to turn for the worst not for the better, when Life becomes more difficult rather than easier. 

“You just have to live through it”, he said. 

“Yeah, I guess.” I agreed. 

I don't believe that this turn in history has happened because of the actions of evil men or women (though there are some really bad people out there) No, I think because large forces have come to bear and to create very difficult challenges globally. . 

Here are a few that consensus seems to have identified.  
  1. The collision of new people with strong cultural identities moving into places with entrenched incumbent populations with equally strong identities; 
  2. The failure of even the strongest economies around the globe to fairly meet the aspirations of their own citizens--whether native born or naturalized.
  3. The growth of a brutal cancer inside one of the worlds great religions leading some adherents to inchoate and mindless acts of destruction in the name of God. . 
  4. The growing notion for most people that they will not be treated fairly in the workplace, in education or before the law 
  5. The nagging ache in the gut that the usual path to prosperity—hard work and disciplined forbearance of consumption, i.e. savings—will not pay off in a satisfactory standard of material comfort,  health, or security in old-age.
  6. That the powerful have an ever tighter grip on power.  That the government serves to re-inforce that power and operates at the pleasure of the powerful. (See Times series about private equity) 
  7. That government cannot protect the governed from murderous or dangerous forces on the outside— like diseases,  rogue criminal dictatorships and murderous terrorist organizations. 
  8. That democracy itself seems to be descending into a kind of inebriated state where illusion becomes reality, innuendo becomes accepted wisdom, truth and goodness are discarded while the hateful, the untrue and ignorance are twice valued. 

Tom said, “ This is still the greatest country.” We parted. We had spent a little longer than we usually do. Tom was always respectful of time—another reason why PM’s liked him. 

Don't get me wrong. This is still a great country. I totally agree with Tom about that. And, it isn't the 30s, but it will be a challenging time for most people – especially for those people who have little time left. Neither am I not whining for baby boomers – they are the richest generation in history according to Bloomberg. But for people, even privileged people like Tom and I – Republican or Democrat— the only workable theory is that the center has given way and a cold and eye on events, people and indeed the future will serve us and our families best.

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