Trouble Ahead

Another fun week. Alas.

Harvey Weinstein: Fallout. It’s always worse than the initial explosion. Even the extremely likable Tom Hanks announced this is a sea change, or something to that effect. Why didn’t he speak up before? Lots of lawsuits on the way; Mr. Weinstein is fast becoming O.J. Simpson, guilty no matter what the courts may decide.

Trump Malapropisms:  Mr. Trump finally finds himself in a linguistic controversy. Considering Mr. Trump’s appalling use of the English language, this had been coming for a long time. Technically, Trump stumbled through a condolence call to the pregnant widow of a serviceman killed in combat.  He was being a good president for once, doing what a good president does at least according to his aides.  The only problem?  He quotes, out of context, the one line that he probably should have forgotten as soon as he heard it.   Widow retreats into tears but not before the whole thing is heard by a member of Congress who just happens to be in the car (Trump’s phone call was on loudspeaker).   Outrage. Cable ranting erupts. What does the White House (WH) do? Send in the cavalry, of course, in the form of General Kelly, currently WH Chief of Staff, to sort out the mess. The sacrifice is General Kelly’s private and profound mourning for his own son, killed in combat. Pursuant to the CNN anchor shouting into the camera this morning, most Americans  have no idea what losing a child in combat is like.  True but sad. True because we currently lose far fewer young people to combat than say, during the Vietnam War. Sad because those who constitute the point of the spear are a minority and our increasingly silly society ignores them until someone makes political hay out of their deaths.

Stock Market: Are you in the stock market? 401K? You might actually have made up losses you sustained at the end of the last decade, if you own stock in the right sectors, that is. Don’t worry, you’ll lose it again. The real winners are the fund managers. Welcome to working until death.  Speaking of which. . .

Employment: Close to full, according to the Internet.  If we have full employment, then why are so many people in their peak earning years driving for Uber? There’s lots of entry level  jobs: grocery cashier, deli assistant, retail, warehouse help. Pay runs from $9 to, if you’re lucky, to $15 an hour, but average pay is about $11 per hour. I’ll wait while you figure out what that is per year. . . can’t live on it? Thought so. “Good” jobs, that pay, say over $30K a year, are much harder to come by; employers have become exceedingly picky. In other words, there’s lots of competition for jobs.  That’s not full employment. At full employment there should be a labor shortage, immediate hires and climbing wages.

Economy:  New normal. Millennials (educated in the ‘90’s and 2000’s) have become the darlings of employers. They are cheap, relatively healthy, accustomed to technology and don’t mind being micromanaged. The oldest of these are now approaching 40, however, when reality catches up with age and expectation. Accordingly, their prospects are dimming; recently I’ve seen reports that the Harvey Weinstein crowd is turning its entertainment sights on Generation Z, the oldest of whom are now in high school. Employers will inevitably follow, especially as the Millennials start families and begin to age, thus becoming inconvenient, not to mention incurring more medical expenses.

Stuff that won’t go away:

Healthcare Reform: If this is reform, I have a bridge in New York City you might be interested in. Great location. Motivated seller. Price reduced! Call anytime, day or night.

North Korea: Trump is driving this one and currently he’s ignoring it.

Russia: Socialite runs in opposition to Putin. Opposition says it’s a sham. Navalny, the opposition leader, has been barred from running until the late 2020’s, when hopefully he’ll be dead. Putin is President for Life. The ghost of Tsar Nicholas I, up in St. Petersburg, has been seen nodding approval.

Tax Reform: Similar to the stock market. Good for fund managers, bad for the rest of us. More trickle down economics.   I guess it’s morning in America.  Again.  On second thought, make that mourning in America.

Brexit: Bad to worse. Brits voted for out; they’ve been second guessing ever since. Too late to go back, guys. Next question: how much will the Brits have to pay the troll under the bridge (aka the EU) to walk away?

Liberal Press in Conflict with Trump: Ratings, ratings, ratings; looks like ranting is irresistible to bored TV audiences, when they’re not watching Netflix. Good bonuses this holiday season. Merry Christmas!

Conservative Press: Still drinking Administration Kool Aid. The Base follows, so far. Liberal press so unfair! Fox and Friends gives encouragement.

The Base: I still can’t figure out who these people are. They did get their Obamacare subsidies back, however. Not sure whose Kool Aid they’re drinking, if any.

Puerto Rico: Ignore, ignore, ignore. Musk and Branson have promised to put the island on sustainable energy but someone else is going to have to pay for it. That means it’ll never happen. They, like a lot of other pie in the sky inventors/financiers, don’t seem to realize that the problem isn’t technology, it’s money.

NFL/National Anthem Thing: Owners had meeting; decided not to touch the issue with the proverbial ten foot pole. Great leadership, guys.

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Funny Old World

It’s been a wonderful couple weeks in, well, whatever we’re in. Let’s see:

Healthcare: do or die. Looks like it’s do while the elderly and sick die. Just because the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is mortally wounded, doesn’t mean the need goes away. Americans still need health care not tied to employment or Medicare/Medicaid. Going back to the way it was before 2010 does not constitute reform.

Iran Treaty Compliance Certification: U.S non-certification plays to conservative Republicans who have never forgiven Iran for turning us out in the late 1970’s. This certification comes around every 90 days, so this does not get rid of the treaty altogether. IRL* nothing will happen. The President can then go to his base and report he’s standing tough on Iran. This will mollify the Israelis as well, although they won’t be so easy to snooker. Despite press flack and European pushback, the Trump administration handled the issue adroitly, given the ideological stance Republicans have on the treaty in the first place. Mr. Trump, in other words, is toeing the party line. Are the Iranians cheating?  I’m with the Republicans on this one:  Yes they are.

Immigration: A mess. Still. The President issues edicts, or are they just tweets? The overcrowded, understaffed, ill equipped, not to mention underfunded, immigration courts will be hard pressed to do anything beyond what they are doing now. Trump is simply ordering the department to rob Peter in order to pay Paul. As for the wall, that was a campaign promise and, hopefully, will carry about as much weight.

The Dream Act: Trump has shown amazing flexibility on this one. Uncharacteristically, he is willing to go through legislative channels. That way, Congress takes the rap when, upon some sort of legislative action, the inevitable wailing and teeth gnashing begins.

Puerto Rico: If a devastating hurricane had to hit any U.S. state or territory, this was probably the worst place for it. Puerto Rico, which was in dire financial distress before the storm, is now laid flat. This is not helped by the fact that Mr. Trump does not seem to care much about Puerto Ricans in the first place (they’re largely Hispanic, speak Spanish and vote Democratic), not to mention his ensuing twitter tiffs with the combative mayor of San Juan. Add that to the fact that Mr. Trump is not a particularly comforting person anyway, especially when faced with complicated and fundamentally unsolvable problems, and you have an impasse. I get the feeling he’d like to declare bankruptcy and walk away from this one.

State Department: Rex Tillerson speaks. Finally. When he does, however, he takes great pains to not apologize for dissing Mr. Trump. Go figure. Tillerson then retires to the purdah of his office on State’s grand 7th Floor to continue crunching numbers (work usually relegated to the accounting department). No Hilary Clinton showboating here which, come to think of it, may be the point.

General Kelly Speaks: He’s not leaving, he’s not being fired, so far as he knows (or knew) and he’s not terribly unhappy. That Toddler Trump stuff alleged by Senator Corker certainly hit a nerve. Things can’t be going well if the White House Chief of Staff has to reassure the press, in person, that we’re just fine, thank you.

California Wine Country Wildfires: A piece of advice: buy your wine now. The price is only going to go up. I notice a distinct lack of sympathy on the part of both the Trump Administration and the general public, both of whom seem to consider the population of northern California to be relatively privileged. Perhaps this is because fire is covered in most homeowners insurance policies, whereas floods are not.

Las Vegas Shootings: Hotel is backtracking on timelines, probably for liability reasons. The idea that perhaps some gun equipment should be regulated is not on the table, despite the NRA’s seeming olive branch. Once again, we have a shooting by someone who would not have been caught on a background check. Seems the shooter was mentally ill but he had money, kept to himself and wasn’t weird in public. All his guns were legal. Healing will be slow and hard. Lots of condemnation and sorrow but no solutions.

Tax Reform: The middle class and poor pay more, the rich less. Did you expect anything else?

Trump Threatening to Yank Broadcast Network’s License for “Fake News”: So Mr. Trump wants to amend the Constitution. Doesn’t he have enough on his plate already?

Harvey Weinstein: This isn’t a Trump thing, although it’s not far from the Trump playbook. Mr. Weinstein’s indiscretions/assaults, and the quid pro quo behind them, are par for the course in Hollywood. Why do you think very few of the actresses who claimed to have been assaulted spoke up before now? I find it interesting that the same newscasters (from NPR to Fox) who waxed splendiferous about the late Hugh Hefner’s playboy life objectifying women now condemn Mr. Weinstein’s attempt to live according to the same philosophy, such as it is. The Democratic Party will have a hard time unloading Weinstein’s taint; he was one of its most reliable donors. Watch the rest of Hollywood run for cover.

National Football League Kneeling Debate: The fight goes on. Colin Kaepernick is starting to look like the sainted civil rights activists of old. To quote Captain Jack Sparrow: Funny old world, isn’t it?

Lovely. Like the good Captain, I need a drink. ‘Til next time.

*IRL – Internet speak for “In Real Life”

Football Follies

Football season is upon us. American football, that is.  The fantasy football folks are busy ranking their player choices and gnashing their teeth. ESPN and network sports analysts are in seventh heaven. Throw in a few surprises (the Washington Redskins trouncing the Oakland Raiders on Sunday evening, for instance), and you’ve got something talk about. It’s the weekend, time to get lost in a bit of sports drama.

That is, until the Orange One sticks his nose into the NFL National Anthem debate. I remember when no one paid attention to the national anthem unless, 1) the singer(s) forgot the words; 2) the singer was exceptionally bad (Rosanne Barr) or 3) the singer was exceptionally good (Whitney Houston). The camera passed over the players as they chomped at the proverbial bit, shifting their weight like racehorses in the starting gate. Clearly they were not thinking about the national anthem at all. They were thinking about the game.  Now, like everything else in this country, the national anthem has become political theater: will the team sit, stand, kneel, link arms, do the cancan, what?

Trump seems to feel that football players are basically a cossetted bunch, not that he has much room to talk on that score. They are, but they have to produce or they’re out. It’s brutal, and can be life threatening. Look at the outrageously talented former New England Patriot, Aaron Hernandez’s autopsy results; turns out his brain was riddled with crippling CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which may explain some of his behavior these last years. He was 27 years old when he committed suicide. The players command hefty salaries, or some of them do; however, nothing is guaranteed and many end up in poverty after their short careers end.

The NFL carefully nourishes its patriotic, community focused image and professional football players are strongly encouraged to engage in community service. This is carefully guided by the NFL, as is everything in professional football.  This gives the NFL good publicity; see how we send our players out into the community? Aren’t they remarkable? We care about our community and our fans! That is until the guy becomes inconvenient and/or stops producing. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the current personification of what happens if you step outside the NFL’s narrow path. Likewise, former quarterback Tim Tebow is the personification of a failed NFL athlete, although I’ll bet he could pound most of us into the ground, if he so chose. That’s how brutal it is.

The kneeling protests were starting to disappear. Most of the sportscasters and analysts no longer bothered to talk about the issue. That was last season; old news. Then the Orange One opens his fat mouth and it’s back. Only now everyone feels put upon, black, white, brown, whatever. The players, bashed by the President for no good reason, are banding together, supporting each other in ways they didn’t before.

Some have posited that perhaps Mr. Trump is attempting to distract the press, and by inference the American public, with this new nonsensical spew.  Perhaps he is nervous about some other problem or failure, say, the third implosion of healthcare legislation, a tax reform bill that allows the wealthy to pay no tax at all, or a shooting war with North Korea; perhaps the Mueller investigation has found a smoking gun. I’d like to think so but, frankly, I don’t think Mr. Trump’s that smart.   It’s yet another indication how badly our national leadership, Republican, Democrat and Independent, has failed us.  This sort of mental and spiritual vacuum at the top is insulting.  We wouldn’t put up with it in industry, we wouldn’t put up with it in our local governments, at town hall or on the school board.  Why are we putting up with it now?

And You, Sir, Are a Poopy Potato Head!

The above epithet comes courtesy of one of my sons, who kept just shy of cussing (a groundable offence) by uttering something akin to the above when he became angry. Sometimes I miss eloquence of childhood.

If leaders of North Korea and the United States are going to throw playground insults at each other, then the Koreans win for eloquence. Mr. Kim has managed to revive the heretofore obscure word “dotard” (colloquial translation:  old person who has lost it).  Only someone who does not speak colloquial English would use such a word because he/she would not realize that anyone under the age of 40 wouldn’t understand its meaning.  Well read, those North Koreans.

Thing is, there are a lot of Americans who agree with Mr. Kim, at least when it comes to the dotard part.  Trump’s old enough to be a dotard and he’s proven it in his sloppy appearance, his treatment of Melania in public, his political tin ear and of course, his tweets.  Dotard indeed.

Of course, Mr. Trump started this round of shouting at the other side of the playground; a la Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Kim Right Over!* (Sorry, childhood took over there for a sec.)  His grand insult was much simpler, in keeping with the abysmal humanities education most Americans have.  He called Mr. Kim “Rocket Man” which then morphed into “Little Rocket Man.”  This is highly reminiscent of “Little Marco” back in the election.

Mr. Trump’s playground insults are unsavory, to put it mildly;  their vulgar simplicity makes them profoundly disgusting.  The more you think about them, the more you want to wash your hands.  They have a lingering stain of the sort that caused the sleepwalking Lady MacBeth to cry, “Out, damned spot!”

Mr. Kim et al., however, are using sophisticated language, albeit strangely.  I figure the strange part may be because they are direct translations and reflect Korean thought processes (with all the taboos and uglinesses contained therein) as opposed to American thinking.  Linguistically, they are quite interesting and have probably given the Korean speaking analysts at the CIA a lot to chew over.

The problem is that this is no Red Rover game. This can be construed as a new Cuban Missile Crisis, the bete noire of Kennedy Administration over 50 years ago.  There again, you had two world leaders calling each other names; in that case it was Kennedy who was using sophisticated language while the Russians were using ugly vulgarisms.   The difference? The United States and the Soviet Union were superpowers, facing each other over a heretofore unimportant Caribbean island.   Both powers had the ability to destroy all life on the planet and came very close to doing just that.

Mr. Kim does not have that capability, although Mr. Trump does.  Also, Mr. Kim is not holding hostage a strategic island close to the contiguous United States.   So, Mr. Kim is basically a small player in a very big game.  Mr. Trump can concoct all the insults he wants but the best way to neutralize the North Koreans is go silent and cut off their supply lines.  That entails the rather harder strategy of leaning on China, the great power of the Far East. I don’t see Mr. Trump calling anyone in China “Rocket Man.”

Right now the North Koreans are considered an amusing annoyance. This is dangerous thinking:  they are the proverbial mad dog on a taut chain that goes straight back to China.  China can play a game in which the North Koreans are always causing  trouble.  Because China holds the leash, the West will leave China alone as long as it promises to control  belligerent North Korea.

Mr. Trump, along with Mr. Bannon of yore, spent a lot of campaign time and money promising that the Trump Administration would rattle China’s chain; so far, it has done no such thing.  China continues its military buildup, it interferes with our alliances in the Pacific, it undersells American manufacturing, it eggs on North Korea even as it nods and smiles at US suggestions that perhaps Chinese powers that be have a come to Jesus moment with Mr. Kim.  So far, no such moment has occurred.

Forget the juvenile name calling.  North Korea’s small fry.  One misplaced missile and it’ll be obliterated.  China’s the problem.  Time to get on the diplomatic and trade horse and start working the ropes.   Insult diplomacy won’t work here, Mr. Trump.

 

*Red Rover is game featuring two lines of children, holding hands with arms outstretched, the two lines at least 30 feet apart or enough to get up a good running speed.  One set of children yells at the other, “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Susie Right Over!”  Susie obliges by running as fast as she can at the line on the other side. If she breaks through the linked arms, score one for Susie’s side.  If not, then Susie’s side does not score (the scoring was always rather ad hoc).  The lines then trade off and the proverbial Susie’s side becomes the target.  This game was discontinued for reasons having to do with lots of broken arms and the occasional twisted ankle.  It would never survive in today’s litigatory school environment.

Vladimir Putin, Campaign Manager

Ah, Russia. You know, that riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The latest representative of this is, of course, Vladimir Putin.

Putin is a riddle and so is his Russia. No longer is it Imperial Russia with its Byzantine religion, its faraway Tsar, its master and slave empire. Likewise, it is no longer the Soviet Union of the Mayakovsky proletariat, with its disdain for history and its geopolitical proxy empire. These days, it’s capitalist, free – to a point. All sophisticated verbiage aside (a specialty of Russians), there are no civil rights in Russia, only the brutality of caprice, political favor and luck. Or, as the Russians would have it, fate.

Even the 100th anniversary of the February Revolution, the bread riot that set off the catastrophic Russian Revolution, has been barely acknowledged by the Putin regime. Putin denigrates the Soviets, his old family. He does not, however, raise up the Tsars. Putin, rather, is the new Russian man, neither Soviet nor Tsarist. He charts a new course, a sort of business suit imperialism. He is a cunning combination of the last two centuries of Russian politics and culture. The West, however, has largely ignored Putin, regarding him as a joke, a show off who wrestles tigers and rides horses bare chested; a sort of goofy Cossack.

Did the Trump election campaign collude with the Russians and by inference, Mr. Putin? Good question; that one’s up to Mr. Mueller.  I am beginning to think that the Russians, smart and sly, chose a different path.   They exercised their free speech rights and put up pro-Trump ads and other hints/prompts in the wild west that is American social media. In other words, they became social media warriors, besting the Americans at their own game.  This leads to a rather astonishing possibility:  that Facebook et al., also may have colluded with the Russians. Because social media has a sight more power than the American Presidency, this is an even more disturbing scenario than the original (which is disturbing enough). Turns out, Putin’s vacation photos are a big put on; he’s a serious guy, we should treat him as such.

The latest news in all this is Hillary Clinton’s new book (“What Happened”) and tour. She’s been all over the media because, well, she’s Hillary and the media likes her more than it does Trump, at least for now. Paradoxically, during the election campaign, the same media paid more attention to Donald Trump, despite all that post-election rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Interviewing the unpredictable Mr. Trump was much more interesting than the wonky Ms. Clinton. The media people figured Hillary could and would win. Trump sold advertising; Hillary, who didn’t, was therefore the serious candidate. The media figured it would eventually catch Mr. Trump at something stupid and that would be it. This would make ratings points while getting rid of an obnoxious blowhard when his entertainment value inevitably faded.  Ms. Clinton was pushed to the “serious” back burner. After all, no one in their right mind would vote for Trump.

Mr. Trump, however, proved mistake proof. The media also underestimated the antipathy Ms. Clinton aroused in the American public and it did not grasp that Obama’s last-term progressive left turn had become too radical for large parts of the American electorate. The media, instead of doing its job, ran for ratings and advertising dollars, going for money instead of truth. Even when tapes emerged of Trump engaging in smutty, locker room talk with a now disgraced TV personality, there was no overwhelming wave of voter disapproval. I think it was about that time that the media began to realize it had helped create a monster.

Thus, the Russians didn’t have a big job ahead of them. Having hacked the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) email system, they let information dribble out here and there, disgracing DNC operatives. Yes, they had meetings with the slippery General Flynn, they talked to Jered K., then Senator Sessions and whoever else (all of whom should have known better), but these were sideshows. The real fight was in the media and the Russians knew it.

I have to admire Mr. Putin’s tactics. He helped run Mr. Trump’s campaign, despite the slick Manafort and the combative Lewandowski. There was already solid Trump representation on broadcast and cable media including frequent appearances and telephone interviews with high entertainment and accessibility quotients, all thanks to the money-hungry media. The Russians helped provide an entertaining and prescient online presence for the Trump campaign, particularly on Facebook, as well as just the right sort of dirty tricks at the right time. Ms. Clinton blames Mr. Comey to a certain extent for her loss. She may be right, however, I think that the Russians out maneuvered everyone on this one. They pushed the dirty info at just the right time, knowing the FBI could not ignore it. The Trump campaign benefited even as it could truthfully maintain it had nothing to do with such dirty tricks.

So, you could say the Russians got everyone: Trump, who was (and is) stupid enough to think they were/are on his side, Hillary and the DNC because of their lax security and overwhelming sense of entitlement, and finally the technology giants who, despite all protestations that they were the saviors of liberal free speech, accepted all advertising comers at face value. Mr. Putin outsmarted them all. That said, I think Mr. Putin, should he ever retire from his head honcho gig in the Russian Federation, would make a remarkable campaign manager. Think about it.

Hurricane Party in Houston; I’ll Bring the Plywood, You Bring the Whiskey

If you’ve ever lived in any coastal area in the eastern/southern United States, Houston’s flooding problems are not all that unusual. The real problem is that Houston, now the fourth largest city in the United States, has outgrown its bayou topography. Like a lot of fast developing cities, developers acquired lands from farmers only too willing to make a fortune all in one day and retire to a life of leisure. Thus, pastures, scrub land and swamp disappeared; developers drained the water, put in sewage systems, paved over grass and marsh, erecting their pretty plywood and sheet rock structures on land that protected the city from the Gulf of Mexico’s periodic fury.

Miles and miles of comparatively cheap houses made a lot of people a lot of money; the farmer, developers, builders, real estate agents, banks, down to the blinds/furniture/appliance retailers. It was a gold mine. You’ll notice that none of these people are on the hook for these now flooded homes.

The last person in the suburban housing food chain is the buyer; this is where the buck stops. These are the people with the fewest resources; they have the most to lose. They make a bargain with the bank on bended knee:  a pretty nice place to live, relatively safe, pretty, perhaps with a water view, all supposedly safe from perils like flooding.

Houston, like a lot of southern and western cities, doesn’t have strong zoning laws and doesn’t care what you do with the land. The city figures you’ll find a way to make a profit with it, even if that means you just sell it down the suburban food chain. This laissiez faire attitude has turned these now unlivable suburbs into a dangle of albatrosses.

Another example of the dangers of this lackadaisical urban development attitude is exemplified by series of beautiful neighborhoods, estate homes, built on the Chancellorsville battlefield just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia. These lands, privately held and not under the control of the National Park Service (which runs Chancellorsville Battlefield Park), were sold of course to developers. These in turn indulged in their right to make money and built beautiful homes that the average person working in, say, Washington D.C. (about an hour away in good traffic), could afford. Put it this way, what costs a million dollars in Northern Virginia will cost about $300K in Fredericksburg; instead of a dinky townhouse, you can be the proud owner of a five bedroom McMansion on five acres of wooded land.

Great idea. Everyone makes money and the consumer gets a great deal, that is until said consumer realizes he/she is going to have to leave the house at 4:00 AM to get to work by 9:00. Virginia, which is a lot like Texas, doesn’t care how you get to work and the Commonwealth is not going build a public transportation system (too much tax) to take the edge off the continually widened I-95 parking lot.

There is no flood hazard, unless you’ve been stupid enough to build down by the Rappahanock River; there is, however, no city water, meaning all water comes from wells. If you have dry year, you might find that you have no water.  The electrical grid, which is still primarily rural, can be a bit spotty.  (As some curmudgeon might say, you get what you pay for.)  Also, many of the residents find that they have persistent  ghosts, whose surprise at haunting a fancy house instead of the familiar deserted wood almost matches the residents’ surprise when encountering them. These are predominately soldiers (both Union and Confederate) and have a tendency to reside in bedrooms and odd corners. I’m not kidding.

The point? What we do matters, where we build, how we live, what kind of houses we live in, what kind of commute we have and where the bodies are buried. We are not impervious to our environment and hurricanes like Harvey are a periodic reminder of that. Houston, like many other threatened cities, must take its development in hand.

Many of its southern suburbs, now built on waterlogged bayous, should be bought out, the people moved somewhere else. I doubt very much that this will happen. Instead, the city will find itself entangled in a fury of self-interest, developers who see only dollar signs, down to consumers who barely qualified for a monthly mortgage payment on a now ruined house. Perhaps they should have made more note of that lovely creek area edging the backyard. The Feds, of course, will get out of this mess as soon as possible; they’ll throw a bit of money at it, which looks good at first but proves entirely inadequate to such a monumental task.  Talk to the remaining residents of New Orleans; they’ll tell you what’s going to happen.

Could be worse, however. You can always build, or not, with an eye to the next big hurricane, but there’s no reliable way to get rid of ghosts.

Ghosting on the Bestseller List

If you’ve ever gone into a book store and wondered how the place manages to stay in business, you’re not alone. It used to be bookstores stocked a bit of everything, including relatively obscure tomes on economics, history, mathematics, physics and well, whatever. These books are now relegated to Amazon and are, in many cases, inordinately expensive. Now, if you go into the bookstore (increasingly Barnes & Noble, one of the few national brick and mortar booksellers left in the U.S.) you will find piles of bestsellers, usually formulaic stories that are not challenging and are, unfortunately, written to an outline (or worse, dictated). To heighten the intellectual cachet, you will also find token literary and cultural stuff, generally the sort of thing that’s well reviewed by national news outlets or is picked up by Oprah Winfrey. These get lots of attention and seem to do well on that publishing yardstick, the New York Times bestseller list, spending months in the top ten.

 
In case you were distracted by all the other stuff in the news, the latest publishing scandal is about a book called Handbook for Mortals by someone named Lani Sarem and published by a new imprint called GeekNation. The story is that Ms. Sarem wrote a screenplay and was advised (by whom, I wonder?) to turn it into a series of novels which could then be made into a series of Young Adult (YA) films. Dutifully, Ms. Sarem turned out the first volume.

 
The next part of the scheme was to get Handbook for Mortals listed on the New York Times (NYT) YA Bestseller List because, I assume, such a ranking would be helpful in getting financing for a film and/or films. Therein follow various descriptions of a complicated scheme to buy the book in bulk from various NYT reporting bookstores (even if the publisher had yet to deliver the actual books) in numbers just under the bulk buy tripwire. This is sort like a money launderer transferring various amounts just under $10K in order to keep the bank from reporting the activity to the IRS.

 
The book went nowhere on Amazon, however, which might be a good indicator of its popularity. In other words, it generated no “buzz.” It is yet another YA story in a very crowded field. These books, which are almost always part of a series, have a high fantastical element and usually feature some sort of dystopia. Think the Hunger Games or, the granddaddy of them all, Harry Potter. Thus, making screenplays from these generally formulaic books is a cinch, because the story elements are easy to squeeze into a motion picture which is sure to make money on the teenage market, the most profitable movie demographic. This market is even more lucrative than it used to be, with the advent of streaming services making original films, i.e. Amazon and Netflix.

 
The NYT, using its rather opaque compiling technique(s), dutifully declared Handbook for Mortals a YA bestseller. This made YA insiders suspicious. No one had ever heard of the book, which was unobtainable, i.e. it was out of stock. Its ranking on Amazon was in the 2000s, meaning it was practically unknown. No one in YA publisher/writer circles was talking about the book and no one had ever read it. This tells you how clubby the publishing world really is, by the way.

This led to questions and finally to the NYT removing Handbook for Mortals from the list. Why, you ask, is the cachet of a NYT bestseller so important in publishing? Aren’t there books that are only popular among a small group of like-minded readers, a population too small to affect a national compilation list? There used to be when I was a kid. That was part of the fun; you were part of a secret club.  The answer: of course there are.

 
I have been suspicious of the NYT Bestseller Lists for years, frankly. Some of the books deserve to be there, yes. These are genuine bestsellers, the books people who read are reading. You’ll get various formulaic books that make the list for a week or so, some that are written by perennially popular authors and then some that have a long run. The first is exemplified by what I have come to call franchise fiction (Star Wars, Star Trek) which “fill in the blanks” in the story told in another medium, usually motion pictures. The next are the contemporary stalwarts of popular storytelling: John Grisham, Stephen King, Debbie Macomber. The last is exemplified by say, The Nightingale or All the Light We Cannot See, or even classics like 1984, which come and go on the NYT Bestseller list all the time.

 
Note: The fact that the franchise books make the bestseller list, even if only for a week, gives a huge boost to their respective authors, albeit a temporary one. Upon hitting that magical NYT ranking, these writers can then claim that they are a “New York Times Bestselling Author” on their writing resume and on the covers of any other books they may publish. You see lots of book covers featuring that phrase at the dollar store.

 
The point of all this? The New York Times bestseller lists are remarkably easy to goose, despite all the secrecy. To have a bestseller listed there, however, does not guarantee success or even that the author will ever appear again. These Handbook for Mortals hucksters showed remarkable ingenuity in that they got away with it for so long, essentially fooling an old, and up to now, hack proof system. I suggest that the real story is in how GeekNation and Ms. Sarem managed to get away with the scheme in the first place. Now that would be interesting; well worth a book.