According to the New York Times (Of Interest, April 9,) Discovery TV mogul David Zaslav “earned a compensation package valued at $246.6 million last year.”
Nobody earns $246 million in a year. People earn money, sometimes a living, by digging ditches, waiting tables, selling things, building things, teaching others, sometimes even by writing stories.
People rake in multiple millions “in compensation” by being smart and skilled and trading up. Usually with a little luck.
Ketanji Brown Jackson earned a seat on the Supreme Court. It pays pretty well, an average of just over a quarter million. Mr. Zaslav, I presume, worked hard for the annual thousands that have led to his current millions.
But in deference to all who labor to earn a living wage, could we find a better verb for raking in mega-millions? Maybe I’ll ask The Times.
The weary, wobbling American mall is a piece of today’s weary American story that’s hard to ignore. This story is about just one – which is still wobbling a bit, but working to emerge from its lingering depression.
In the Before Days – before pandemic, before economic woes, before Amazon – were the malls. Like Chicago’s Water Tower Place, Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza, Seattle’s Pacific Place or the ultimate mega-consumer destination Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. And thousands of others from the large like these to the small ubiquitous strips.
Teenagers by the millions hung out in malls. Senior citizens speed-walked and exercised in malls. Shoppers even shopped in malls – enough of them to keep retailers happy, from the giant-store anchors to the boutique in-betweens to the aromatic food courts. But after getting clobbered by economic downturns and online shopping, the pandemic delivered what was a final blow to the Mall Era. A few survive, others are struggling or reinventing themselves and others make you want to weep for the desolation – and sometimes environmental disaster – their abandoned parking lots suggest. This is just one tiny glimpse backward and forward into one survivor: my city’s brave and even partly beautiful downtown Westfield San Francisco Centre.
Decades ago, in the 1970s-1980s glory days of malls, I was writing for commercial magazines that included Business Atlanta, National Real Estate Investor and – may it rest in peace – Shopping Center World. If I could resurrect those memories (most of them delightful, some better off dead) I’m satisfied that Westfield Centre would be in there somewhere. Although that would have been in its former life as the chic San Francisco Center, with its grand Emporium rivaling the upscale Union Square emporiums for tourist business.
Today, Westfield is reopened to masked visitors. Anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are keeping the lights on (a LOT of lights.) A respectable number of small retailers and service shops help keep Westfield from feeling totally deserted. But it is definitely deserted in spots, such as the eastern end on Market Street, where a handful of visitors rest below the carefully preserved dome of the old Emporium. On the Mission Street side of this end is sparkling Bloomie’s though more than one department seems better suited to rolling a bowling ball down the empty space than to browsing the expensive racks.
At the Nordstrom end things are decidedly livelier. Shoppers and browsers keep their masks on (or are reminded to do so by signs and salespersons at every turn) – but there are more small shops with lights on than boarded over storefronts.
A few other random sights remind the shopper/stroller that this is not your yesterday’s mall: Skateboard-carrying teenagers, en route to the empty upper decks of the parking garage across Mission Street, drop them to the marble for a quick joyride along the near-empty hallways. Food court places ask for your phone number so they can text you when your order is ready, even though you’re standing barely six feet distant. Speaking of (social) distances, they are pretty much ignored – until you’re in a line somewhere and X’s mark the spots. Escalator passengers often politely wait an appropriate few stairsteps, which seems a nice touch. Otherwise, the multi-colored masks serve as a perpetual reminder that we’re a long way away from the bustling crowds of shoppers past.
But some things remain sturdy reminders of bygone days. Claire’s, the iconic ear-piercing place, apparently emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago and is back in business on the lower level; this reporter stopped by for a re-piercing job, raising the median client age by about 70 years. And one uniformed guard, standing watch at the Market Street entry for the unmasked, the disturbers of the peace, the lost or the questioning, was asked how long he’d had this job. “Since way before, ma’m,” he said with a weary smile, “way before.”
The very lovely, 12-story building in which I have lived for four+ years – along with 90 other condo-owning geezers, sometimes more delicately referred to as “retirees” or “seniors” but let’s face it – is about to embark upon an exterior repair job that will run upwards of $3 million. Repair. Not build, or upgrade, or renovate. Repair. This building is slightly over 25 years of age. (Its owners average generally at least three times that; are WE getting $3+ million repair jobs? We wish.)
Our building exterior is a material known as EIFS, which stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System. According to its Wikipedia page, EIFS is “a general class of non-load bearing building cladding systems that provides exterior walls with an insulated, water-resistant, finished surface in an integrated composite material system,” in case you care. I am on the Homeowners Association board of directors. For a writer whose undergraduate degree was in Art and who was born essentially without a left brain, I know more about EIFS than I ever wanted to know; I can absolutely promise you that.
EIFS is still quite commonly in use. But I think they have figured out something that early EIFS people overlooked: using paper in an exterior building material is a very bad idea. Guess what happens when the sealant shrinks and water gets in and there’s paper involved. Our EIFS people hadn’t figured that out yet.
Oh, well. What’s $3 or $4 million to fix a 25-year-old building? I do have to mention that the 4-story house we sold in order to move into this lovely building was itself built in 1905. Throughout a century or so of earthquakes and California rainy seasons (about half of which time it belonged to my husband and/or the two of us) our exterior repair ran to a few thousand dollars in repainting every six or eight years. It is hard not to mention that I grew up in Virginia, where 18th century buildings (still doing fine) dot the landscape.
No offense to the building industry, but what’s wrong with building buildings to last more than 25 years without 4’ by 8’ panels falling off (yes, two of them did, in a bad storm earlier this year) in the middle of the night?
This essay started out to be all about planned obsolescence. EIFS buildings perhaps are not deliberately designed to become obsolete in a decade or two; ours just happened to fall into that category. And the above just came to mind as I was starting to write. But about planned obsolescence. It has its own Wikipedia page. According to that page, it “tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly” (which also has its own Wikipedia page.) It was inspired not by the building nightmare but by my recent experience with my beloved Epson printer/copier machine.
My beloved Epson WF 3520, age four years, took to printing in weird colors. After extensive cleaning of the print heads and performing other bewildering actions in the Systems menu, I persuaded it to resume printing photos (for instance) in absolutely true colors. But now it’s inserting disconcerting lines across peoples’ faces and stuff. Not good. I made a trip to the local Office Max where it was purchased four years ago to ask what else I might do to make the lines go away. The following conversation ensued:
Me: “Is there another Systems thing I can try?”
Office Max clerk (age 20-something): “Did you clean the print heads?”
Me (proudly): “Yes.”
OM: “And the nozzle?”
Me (hesitantly): “I think so.”
OM: “How long have you had it?”
Me: “About four years. I bought it here.”
OM: “Oh! That’s a pretty good run.”
Me (an aside that was totally lost on OM): “Clearly you weren’t born in 1933.”
But come on now, folks. Four years is a “pretty good run” for a $400+ machine used by a little old lady who doesn’t print out much beyond an occasional letter or a short story every now and then? God help us.
In the olden days, which are getting more olden by the day, there were places called Repair Shops. There was often one titled Mr. Fix-It. Alas, one does not repair anything much in this brave new day – one simply tosses it away and buys the latest new model. In San Francisco we do have a spot beloved by many, Phil’s Electric. (This is an unpaid plug.) If you have something electric that Phil’s can’t fix, you’ve probably worn it out over too many decades.
Things electronic, however, are another matter. You don’t wear out an iPhone 4, you discard it for the 5 and then the 6 and then the 7 and now maybe the 7S. Can you wear out a FitBit? Or an Apple Watch? Or any item gently referred to as a “device?” Nahh. You can, without undue effort, lose them to theft, ineptitude or malfunction. In the latter case – see above re my lovely Epson – the good news is that function can actually be restored in some cases.
Having just done an internet search I find there are more than a few electronic repair places in San Francisco, so perhaps all is not lost. There’s even one near Phil’s Electric.
During a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club the former president of Mexico (2000-2006) shared his thoughts on border walls, immigration, the global economy and Donald Trump. None of these would be pleasing to Mr. Trump – nor would they come as any surprise, since the two men regularly tweet insults at each other.
In advance of a conversation with Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy, Fox strode onstage and entertained his audience – which seemed not to include many Trump supporters – with a 30-minute, statistics-filled, no-notes commentary on the world in general and U.S./Mexico relations in particular.
As to that latter, “After years of democracy, friendship and cooperation, your leader says ‘Wait a minute! We have to build a wall!’” This, Fox maintains, is a very bad idea. “You are perhaps shooting yourself with a gun in the foot. Attacking ourselves in a trade war? Crazy.” Fox suggests that successful relationships between neighbor countries are built on “love, compassion, diplomacy and democratic dialogue.” The trade war now seeming likely will benefit neither, he believes.
And as to the wall? “It’s going to take 35 billion U.S. dollars to build the wall. With that $35 billion you can create 10 million jobs. China built a wall, at great sacrifice. Paid for it with their own money. To protect against the Mongols and the Manchu. What happened? China was invaded by the Mongols and the Manchu. Berlin? They built a wall to keep freedom out.” Fox is not enthusiastic about walls.
Immigration? “We don’t want any more invasions by gringos.” Fox suggests that the problem of illegal immigration into the U.S. might better be addressed by spending that $35 billion on “going to the heart of the problem, in Central America,” where desperate situations in more than a few countries are forcing desperate people to attempt to enter the U.S. through Mexico.
This writer lays no claim to expertise on Mexican politics or political history. (Two Mexican friends, when asked, allowed as how they felt Mr. Fox got very rich during his presidency but didn’t do a lot for their poor communities.) But former president Fox, movie-star handsome, charmingly funny and a man who thinks the world would be better off if women were in charge? What’s not to love?
Fox, in his Commonwealth Club appearance, referred more than once to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that the world belongs to humanity. “That means all 8 billion of us,” he says. (A tiny exaggeration, though checking the world population clock is both fascinating and scary.) Among Fox’s strongest current opinions is that his non-friend Donald Trump spends too much time talking about withdrawing his country from the world, protecting its citizens, building walls, making America great. Fox suggested to his San Francisco audience that he had a response to this:
“I have decided to name myself – humbly – head of a shadow government representing the world,” Vicente Fox quips, “to say to your president — — — ‘What about us??’”
My friend Oli, age three, is a philanthropist. Maybe not on the scale of Bill and Melinda Gates, but what were they doing when they were three? Probably not donating 100% of their disposable income to their favorite charities.
Which is what Oli did recently, making him my current favorite philanthropist.
This adventure started when Oli’s bank, something that gives him great pleasure, reached its saturation point. Oli’s bank is an apolitical elephant bank. Oli had been stuffing it with coins received in Easter eggs (the Easter bunny has taken a capitalist turn since I last knew him) or acquired when there was small change from the dairy store, etc. So he enlisted his grandparents to accompany him to the bank, where the bank was relieved of its coinage. The elephant lived to start a new collection career, and Oli took possession of $32.60.
Next, Oli conferenced with his parents about the highest and best use of his $32.60. Right off, he chose his two favorite charities as beneficiaries: the local library that is one of his all-time favorite places in the world, and Mount Nittany Medical Center, which he refers to as “My Hospital.” Oli came into the world at Mt. Nittany, and a few months ago his baby sister Helena did the same. The first experience was significant to others, but the latter was the high point of Oli’s year.
Oli has already had a thank-you letter from the director of his hospital, advising him that he is officially their Youngest Donor. His $16.30, the director said, will be used to buy needed equipment to help the nurses and doctors who deliver babies there.
A grown-up fan of Oli’s, who knows a little about nonprofits and fundraising, subsequently matched his gifts. Thus the elephant bank’s impact has doubled, and the library and hospital have now netted $32.60 each, for a total economic impact of $65.20.
Admittedly, $65.20 won’t change the world today. And Oli may well find something more entertaining to do with his overstuffed elephant bank by the time he turns four. But this seems to me what philanthropy is about: choosing to forgo some small pleasure (half of $32.60 could, after all, have bought a nifty toy and an ice cream cone) and instead show support for some worthy cause that is near and dear to your heart.
Feel free to send a check for $32.60 to your favorite cause, with or without a note that it is an Oli matching gift. Who knows? The elephant bank movement could make the world better
One celebration of his legacy involved a collaboration between members of a fairly mainline Presbyterian church in an affluent area of San Francisco and members of a soul-spirited Pentecostal church in the city’s Bayview community, where crime and poverty run rampant. The partnership – and friendship – between the two unlikely groups has been growing ever since its beginning in response to the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.
For openers, the African American Pentecostal pastor preached (only minimally more reserved and shorter than is his custom) to the mostly white Presbyterians. His message was primarily about the Biblical admonition to welcome the alien and show hospitality to strangers. He also had a few words about justice rolling down like a river, and about Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion that love will overcome racism, materialism and militarism.
After the service some fifty or so Presbyterians boarded motorized cable cars and sang their way across town to the Pentecostal church. There the white pastor preached to the now-multicolor congregation about the Biblical suggestion that nothing much is required of believers other than to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Creator. He also had a few words about some of the ads he had noticed on the trip over. Dr. King, he suggested, probably didn’t live, work and die primarily so there would be three-day mattress sales, or a 25% MLK Weekend discount on leather jackets.
During the second service, which another minister termed Presbycostal, there was a generous amount of rousing hallelujah music led by the hosts and several gospel pieces from the visitors, whose choir director and trumpet-playing musician in residence made the trip.
After the second service the hosts surprised their guests with lunch in the adjacent social hall: homemade salads, chips and dips and plates of fried chicken. A dozen or so small children, varying shades of white, brown and black, snagged their fried chicken early and set to entertaining themselves by jumping up and down a stairway below a banner that read “The Audacity to Believe.”
One of the visitors remarked to one of the hostesses, as everyone dispersed, “I think we had a lot more fun than anybody at the weekend sales.”
Journalist/satirist P.J. O’Rourke breezed through San Francisco on a recent book tour for his weighty new book (640-page Thrown Under the Omnibus) and left no presidential candidate un-skewered.
O’Rourke opened with a list of candidates – “Clinton, Bush, Fiorina, Sanders, Rubio, Cruz, Christie, O’Malley, and Trump. That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s the worst law firm in the world.” And from that summary he plunged into a commentary on the candidates themselves:
Hillary Clinton “retains her iron grip on second place. Whoever’s in first place is so far out we don’t know who it is yet. Hillary carries more baggage than the Boeing she used as Secretary of State to visit every country that later blew up in her face. On the upside, she’s familiar with the White House. She knows where the extra toilet paper is stored and where the spare key to the nuke-missile launch briefcase is hidden.”
Bernie Sanders? “Bernie is a socialist. He says so himself. Let me give you the dictionary definition of ‘socialist.’ A socialist is somebody who will take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of meth addicts in the backwoods of Vermont. Bernie says he wants to make America more like Europe. Great idea. Europe has had a swell track record for 100 years now. Make America more like Europe? Where can we even go to get all the Nazis and Commies and 90 million dead people that it would take to make America more like Europe?
Carly Fiorina – “If she runs America like she ran Hewlett-Packard, it’d be great as long as you shorted the stock. H-P stock fell 65% between July, 1999 and February, 2005. I can forgive Carly, but my Keogh Plan never will.
“Jeb Bush has everything. He’s young (for a Republican), a Phi Beta Kappa, a successful businessman, and a two-term governor of Florida – where balloting incompetence and corruption are vital to the GOP. Jeb Bush has just one problem, the name problem. But don’t worry, Jeb is all set to legally change his name to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everybody likes him… and he only served one term, so he’s constitutionally eligible to run again.”
Ben Carson is “doing okay unless you’re one of the fact-checkers. He’s a genius brain surgeon. I’m saying please quit running for president and get back to work because we need you. Maybe he could fix George W and Jeb Bush’s conjoined heads.”
Rand Paul? “Rand thinks the government should go by the rule ‘Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.’ I call it the Hillary and Bill Clinton principle: ‘Hillary, mind your own business; and Bill, keep your hands to yourself.’ But Rand Paul isn’t a Republican, he’s a Libertarian. His libertarianism appeals to those who consider themselves ‘fiscal conservatives and social liberals.’ This means they want to get high and have sex while saving money; and who doesn’t? But what candidate’s going to admit that in public?
Marco Rubio’s “got kids; I love kids. But he’s got to stop it with the abortion stuff. Really, Republicans, don’t make it illegal, make it retroactive. A kid gets to be 25 – zap.”
Personally, O’Rourke says he supports Donald Trump, because of something the great political satirist H.L. Mencken once said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Trump’s “chief goal is to be on TV,” O’Rourke says. “As president he can be on TV 24/7. Plus, he can yell ‘You’re fired!’ all he wants. Trump will grow the American economy the way he grew his own, with bad debt, bad debt and more bad debt. Trump has ‘restructured’ $3.5 billion in business debt and $900 million in personal debt; ‘restructured’ means he didn’t pay it. We Americans know a leader when we see one. Trump’s foreign policy will be to build hundreds of Trump casinos, Trump hotels and Trump resorts in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Raqqa, Kandahar and the Gaza Strip. Then all of them will go bankrupt the way Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel and Trump Entertainment Resorts did. Hell, it might just work.”
O’Rourke delivered these – and other – political opinions at a Commonwealth Club of California event moderated by Melissa Caen. Caen, a lawyer best known as an astute but light-hearted columnist and TV commentator, said by way of introduction that she couldn’t believe her luck in being asked to interview O’Rourke. In her writing, she said, she had for years “shamelessly stolen” from his satiric observations. Writers today will find it easier to do that, with the release of Thrown Under the Omnibus, a nearly three-pound anthology of O’Rourke’s “funniest, most outrageous, most controversial and most loved pieces.” Copies were selling briskly after the Commonwealth Club talk.
Suppose you’re having sex with your husband, and he happens to die, umm, sometime during the encounter. Suppose you’ve been married less than nine months – and Social Security benefits are denied thanks to some obscure nine-month rule. Well, somewhere within all the 2,728 rules is an exception applicable when death happens due to extreme exertion. The particular lady in question eventually collected benefits.
These are the sorts of stories Paul Solman weaves into discussions of his recent book (with Laurence Kotlikoff and Philip Moeller,) Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security. He wants you to catch the part about there being 2,728 rules – in case you don’t really want to read the 3,000+ pages of the document yourself. The mind can boggle at the sheer numbers. In fact, though, the rules are there to help us all, even newlyweds whose newlies do not long survive the wed. The complexity of our financial lives may be bewildering, but Solman observes, “America’s great strength is in its complexity.”
Solman simply wants you to Get What’s Yours.
The long-time business and economic correspondent for PBS NewsHour spoke recently about his book at the Commonwealth Club of California, an event moderated by KGO TV Consumer Reporter Michael Finney. His basic message to those of us less left-brained (although Solman’s left brain clearly enjoys its coexistence with an entertainingly creative right brain) is summed up in three points:
1 – Be patient.
2 – Be aware of, and know how to maximize, over a dozen different benefits. (What you can afford, how many dependents you must consider….)
3 – Stagger your benefits.
You’re planning to retire on Social Security? Not, says Solman. “Social Security is not a retirement policy. It is an insurance policy.” But it can indeed make your retirement easier, and could be a major piece of your long-term financial plan. Solman said in an aside that he thinks most financial planners are suspect and people should be careful in choosing. “What financial planner ever advised buying TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities,)” he asks.
Three audience members already drawing Social Security each estimated his or her current payments would be at least double, if they had known earlier what they have learned from Get What’s Yours. So is the book cheating? “No,” Solman says emphatically, “you follow the rules. It’s not cheating, it’s what the law says you can do.”
One thing anyone considering eventually taking Social Security benefits can do could be to check out a copy of Get What’s Yours. Unless you’d rather study those 2,728 rules and try to figure them out for yourself.