Smoking Ban if You’re Under 21: the Case Against New York City’s Ban

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Save lives.  Raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.  Discourage young people from smoking.  Who could be opposed to that?

But there are strong arguments against the  new law approved by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Banning 18 – 20 year olds from legally buying cigarettes really is arguably a double standard.

It’s easy to see this as another example of treating this age group as adults-on-training-wheels. They can drive a car,  vote, and go to war, but buying cigarettes or booze is verboten.

What New York is saying to its young citizens is that while it’s OK for under 21’s to protect us,  or be responsible enough to get behind the wheel, they must also be protected against themselves.

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This city is already plastered with warnings about the evils of tobacco.  Stores are prohibited from prominently displaying packs of cigarettes at the front of the counter.

Not long ago, it became illegal to smoke in city parks.  And yet many kids still smoke.

sign at the entrance to Washington Square Park - partial list

Sign at the entrance to Washington Square Park – partial list of no-no’s

The City Council voted for the new restriction by a decisive margin, 35-10. New York Mayor said  “this is an issue of whether we are going to kill people.”  Well, actually smokers tend to kill themselves, but never mind.

Bloomberg correctly pointed out that people who raise the economic argument “really ought to look in the mirror and be ashamed.”  But about the freedom argument, Mr. Mayor? And won’t this ban increase law-breaking with young people buying cigarettes illegally?

While the health argument may be a no-brainer for many well-intentioned politicians it’s almost certainly more controversial among the public at large. “It’s a dumb law,” says one post on debate.org.  “If you can fight for your country why can’t you enjoy tobacco?”

“I am in high school,” wrote another contributor.   “As a student you can see that people that want to smoke will find ways to buy or get the tobacco from.”

The arguments in favor of raising the legal smoking are well rehearsed.  New York City officials say 80% of smokers here started before they were 21.  Tobacco kills far more people than alcohal or drugs.

“Teens are likely to get cigarettes from other teens, so by raising the sales age we fully expect that we’re gonna see a decline in smoking in teenagers, which is what we want most,” says New York City’s somewhat ominously titled Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Tom Farley.

“Tobacco is a drug, and it’s a drug that kills more people that heroine, cocaine, crack, crystal meth combined,” argues Farley with considerable conviction.

As a parent I know his arguments carry weight.  And I admit that I once opposed New York’s ban on smoking in bars as a restriction that went too far.  Later I changed my mind.

But this new ban is open to complaints about a  nanny state.  Shouldn’t college-aged young adults be free to make their own mistakes?  What do you think?  If I am wrong again, Change My Mind!

all photos by Richard Davies

all photos by Richard Davies

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Listen Up! It Could Change The World

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These people are listening very closely to what’s going on around them.

They have brought all of themselves to this moment.  So did I.

Listening carefully to the musical  audio sculpture by Janet Cardiff , “The Forty Part Motet“,  now being presented at The Cloisters in New York,  got me thinking about how we listen.

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What extraordinary things could be accomplished by Congress and the White House if folks simply listened to each other, and went beyond the echo chamber of their own narrow structures of belief?

What if the interviewers on Sunday morning TV, or heaven forbid, highly opinionated talk show hosts, really listened to what they were being told, and challenged their guests and callers in a way that proved that they were learning something from the experience?Wouldn’t our media landscape sound a whole lot better?

There’s a really good piece on this for journalists called The Power of Listening.  “To be a good interviewer you must learn to listen — both to others and to yourself,” writes The Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan.

“A lot of times we beat ourselves,” says Pat Stith,  a former investigative reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer. “We don’t listen. We don’t ask simple, direct, follow-up questions. We just talk, and we talk, and we talk.”

How right he is. How often have you heard a radio or TV interviewer move onto the next question on the list without asking a good follow-up question?

Yet when the microphone is put into the hands of amateurs the results can be miraculous. Storycorps proved that.

“In 50,000 interviews, nearly every time, people have cried in the interview,” said David Isay, the founder of the oral history project StoryCorps, which celebrated its 10th birthday last week.

“Listening Is An Act of Love” is the title of a wonderful collection of everyday stories  from one-on-one interviews that were recorded inStoryCorps kiosks set-up around the country over the past decade. 50,000 interviews have been collected so far.

Now these people were really listening to one another.

My first encounter with StoryCorps was when a good friend and neighbor, Louisa Stephens, asked me to go down to the booth at Grand Central Station.  It was one of about a hundred 50 minute Storycorps interviews Stephens has done at Storycorps with friends and family members.

Having someone sit down and listen carefully to you for that amount of time is deeply flattering. The experience can be transformative, with powerful results. (Business and political leaders, take note).

Which brings me back to Janet Cardiff at The Cloisters.  If you can, go there and wander among the 40 speakers that are arranged in an oval in a reconstructed 12th century Spanish chapel.  Each mounted speaker has the voice of an individual choir member who is performing a 16th century composition by the English composer, Thomas Tallis.

Along with many others who have been there I found the experience to be moving.  It was another simple reminder of the power of listening.

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What Walmart & Amazon Could Teach Congress

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Mike Licht NotionsCapital.com

Quick question. What’s the biggest difference between our business and political leaders?

One group is intensely focused on getting things done, while the other keeps repeating the same old rhetoric. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who’s who!

I was struck by these starkly different mindsets when I came across two articles in the same paper.  One was about the political paralysis in DC over health care, while the other was on the steps Walmart is taking to fight back against Amazon.

First to business.  Both these companies are corporate big dogs,  dominant on their own turf.  Walmart is the leading brick-and-mortar retailer.  Amazon is king of the internet jungle.

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A growing problem for Walmart is that not only are shoppers increasingly turning away from physical stores and spending more instead on e-commerce,  Amazon is also encroaching on traditional store turf, going local with new distribution centers across the country to speed-up delivery of online purchases.

Walmart is “frantically playing catchup” by learning the technology business.

Far from its sprawling company campus in Bentonville, Arkansas, the giant retailer has set-up @WalmartLabs in Silicon Valley.  It’s spending big money on new online headquarters to attract A-list programmers and engineers so that Walmart can successfully compete with Amazon by building a better website.

Contrast this bid for reinvention, improvement and a change in culture with the stale debate among our political leaders over Obamacare.

In what was obviously a futile attempt right from the start, House Republicans voted 40 times to repeal the law.  40 separate times!

At the White House the focus until very recently was much more on the politics of health care than on the nuts and bolts of delivering a first-class website for the new federal marketplace opened October 1st.  President Obama and his aides are paying dearly for that now.

In an illuminating op-ed for the New York Times, economics professor Tyler Cowen suggested that what both sides in the Obamacare debate should be talking about is the delivery of a better system that saves money and delivers coverage to many more people.

“One of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the law is imperfect at best,” writes Cowen.  Improvements are in reach if they could swallow some pride.  “Both sides have a lot to gain, and at some point, they should realize it.”

You don’t have to agree with Cowen’s argument for moving millions of low income families  from Medicaid to Obamacare to applaud the spirit of his ideas.  At least he is seriously examining how the government delivers services to the people at a cost that taxpayers can afford.

Whether you like them or loathe them, believe that they are can-do capitalists or heartless overpaid plutocrats, that spirit of problem solving is at least something that America’s captains of industry understand.  It’s a lesson more politicians should learn.

 

 

 

 

 

Hey! I’ve Got A Great Stock Market Investment Tip For You

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If there is one really important thing that I’ve learned in more than 25 years of Wall Street and business reporting it’s what I don’t know.

I haven’t got a clue where the stock market is going next.  And despite all the outrageous claims made by investment professionals neither has anyone else.

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Now I’ve got heavyweight support for this argument from no less than the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics.  Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller and Robert Hansen “laid the foundation for the current understanding of asset prices,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in its announcement.

And what did these 3 economists conclude?  Um,  that  it’s nearly impossible to figure out where markets are heading in the short run, and that therefore stock picking is a fool’s game.

Their research studied the psychology of bubbles and how many of us behave in times of financial stress.  In her fine piece of reporting this week explaining the Nobel award, Heidi Moore of The Guardian wrote that these 3 guys are “men who care what happens in the real world.”

“Economics has a reputation as wonky, nerdy discipline that loves theories that are pure and distant from humanity,”  said Moore. “This year’s Nobel prize in economics is finally, a victory for the study of human nature.”

And human nature can be pretty whacky.  Financial forecasting is at best a dismal science.

But that hasn’t stopped “experts” from trying.  Some make confident  sweeping predictions about what will happen to your money in the next few months, while other far-fetched forecasts go for broke,  playing on the well embedded human propensity for fear and dread.

Ignore them all.

While it is true that over the long term the stock market has consistently out-performed bonds and money market investments, the overwhelming majority of highly paid mutual fund managers do not  beat the market most of the time.  Their failure predict the end of the tech stocks bubble in 2000 and the 2008 financial crash were proof of that.

Often I’m asked by friends and colleagues what’s the next hot stock?

Sorry, I haven’t got a clue.

And if you really want to know the sorry truth, the worst performing part of my 401k savings plan is the stock portfolio that I picked myself.  Despite a considerable investment of time and emotion returns have been pathetic.

The index funds that I put money in and forgot about are doing just fine.

Shutdown Dysfunction – It’s Far From Over!

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President Obama discusses healthcare with Congressional leaders in calmer times

So maybe you’re relieved that the US Government stepped back from the brink and did not default on its debt.  A return to more civilized debate perhaps?

Um…  no. Sadly, this mess is far from over.  The harsh partisan divide, with both sides talking past each other, drags on.

While some like to portray the Tea Party as representing the views of a mere two or three dozen members of the House of Representatives, the truth is quite different.

After 16 days of government shutdown, a battered economy, and massive disapproval in opinion poll ratings, 144 House Republicans – two-thirds of their members – voted against the Senate compromise.

They’re proud of what they’ve done, believing  that their stand against funding the government and risking an unprecedented US debt default was worth it.

“You know it isn’t about winning. It’s about were we on the right path,” says Congresswoman Michelle Bachman.

A defiant Representative Ted Poe of Texas argues: “We should be talking about cutting spending before we start raising America’s debt ceiling and that’s just the way it is.”

No compromise there.

Some members of Congress are clearly exhausted, and a ceasefire has been declared for now, but the this deal is only a short-term band-aid.  The resolution passed by Congress only funds the government until January 15th. And without a new bill the debt default threat will return in early February.

The damage to the economy is already becoming clear. Retailers worry that the recent drop in consumer confidence will drag down holiday spending. Car sales fell last week compared to earlier in the month.

America’s standing in the world has been damaged. China and other US critics will use this standoff to their advantage.

So how to fix this?  We have to change our national conversation.

After years of frosty relations, the face-to-face meetings by Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell in the past few days were a start.  But they are only two men.

It’s about all of us, not just “them”.

Just as Americans celebrate diversity of religion,race and ethnicity,  it’s time to welcome different points of view into our own political discourse.  Those who denigrate others and hold on to a rigid ideology should occupy a much smaller space in the public square.

 

Basil Fawlty Lives!

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Blue Rooster on a plinth, Trafalgar Square, London

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OK this is it.  Final thoughts on my trip to England.

The blue rooster on the old grey rectangular plinth once reserved for a statue of a long-dead member of Britain’s ruling class near Nelson’s Column, is an example of how many here would like to think of themselves.  Fun, a little bit excentric, but very much in touch with their roots and proud traditions.

Cocky perhaps!

Irony, wit and a love for language are delightful ingredients of English conversation. In newspaper columns and on the BBC there is often a pleasing irreverence that is missing from our more earnest commentariat.

street performer in front of The National Gallery, London

Street performer in front of The National Gallery, London

From West End theater and the enormous London Eye, to street performers dressed in gold relaxing on invisible chairs in front of gasping crowds, there is much to amuse tourists.

All very fine as far as it goes.

But scratch beneath the jolly surface and you will often find service not with a smile, but through gritted teeth. The impossibly rude hotel manager Basil Fawlty still lurks somewhere in the English soul.

While this may sound strange coming from a guy lives in New York, many English people do have a problem with sincere good manners.

When New Yorkers say “thank you”, we usually mean it.  Not here. There’s often a shocking insincerity on display, especially from the comfortable classes.

One of many examples I witnessed in the past few days was in the foyer of a modern London office building.

“Oh, you are so extremely kind,” said a posh chap with an apparent straight face to the uniformed security guard, as he was allowed through metal turnstiles despite failing to present his corporate ID.

Did the man with tailored suit and silk tie mean what he said? Not a chance.

The owners of the country bed-and-breakfast where I stayed last weekend threw a late-night party for a bunch of loud friends right below my bedroom.  There was no hint of apology the next morning.

Cell-phone conversations on commuter trains are often long and loud here. And while that often happens on Metro-North, the English pride themselves in being proper and polite in a way that few Americans would claim to be.

Did any of these minor wrinkles spoil my trip? No way.

I still love it here. But a little more warmth and spontaneous kindness would not go amiss.

What’s your view of the English? I’d love to hear it.

 

 

London: I Changed My Mind

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London and Cranes, a photo by against the tide on Flickr.

London is a city of cranes, and it has really changed my mind about how I think about this great old city.

You see cranes and new buildings all over the place, from a huge new development that’s going up near Victoria Station to many smaller new building sites around the formerly depressed neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Old Street.

After years of falling behind the US there is a sense of vitality that was sorely missing in the 1970’s and early 80’s when I lived here.

One new train system, the London Overground is up and running, and another huge project, connecting east and west London is well on the way.

After years of struggle following the 2008 financial crisis, the British economic growth was recently upgraded by the IMF.

Has the mood of the country changed to match the growing evidence of prosperity and pride in public works? Not exactly. And as anyone from other parts of the country will remind you, the boom is more of a London thing than nationwide.

But there is a sense of possibility.  And the co-alition government established by Conservatives and Liberals in  2010 has held together surprisingly well.  It’s a model for political co-operation, unlike the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.

What’s ironic is that today’s US political scene reminds me of the rigid ideological orthodoxy of the Labor and Conservative Parties in the 70’s: the very time when Britain was being derided as the sick man of Europe.

Britain Sets a Royal Mail Example

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Today is the deadline for British investors to apply to buy shares in the Royal Mail, the world’s oldest postal service.

What a contrast to the sorry state of the US Postal Service, which is losing billions of dollars a year, and has been repeatedly bailed out by taxpayers.

The IPO here in Britain has been a hit.  The London Daily Telegraph’s front page headline declares that there has been a “Scramble to buy Royal Mail shares.”.

Following the lead of several other European governments in recent years, Britain is taking the postal service private, saying the system needs to modernize.

“It needs to be able to invest in its future,” says business minister Michael Fallon.  “Like any big business it needs to access the capital markets” so it can raise the money it needs.

Unlike the USPS  Britain’s Royal Mail makes a profit.  Recent innovations have included selling off large buildings and combining local post offices with other businesses in the same stores.

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One clever and delightful example is here in the picturesque Somerset village of Mells. Volunteers run a shop and Post Office  that “combines the best of a traditional village store supplying everyday basics, a range of locally sourced fresh produce and specialities, gifts, stationery and an comprehensive range of postal and banking services.”

This lovely site serves as a gathering place for the community.  Something like it should be tried back home.

Post Office/ cafe/ newsstand and coffee shop near Kings Cross Station, London.

Post Office/ cafe/ newsstand and coffee shop near Kings Cross Station, London.

It’s past time for the US Congress to allow the Postal Service to be run as a business so that it can survive and prosper well into the 21st century.

Pope Francis: Truly Radical

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There ‘s nothing quite like travel to change my mind.

One of the joys of being over here in England is to read the British press (there are at least 9 daily national newspapers) and listen to the BBC.  The art of conversation is highly prized and a crucial part of a rich and very old tradition of rhetoric and dialog.

What’s striking is how many parallels there are between what Americans are talking tabout and what’s front and center in this green and pleasant land.

One example is the buzz about the new Pope. Although most Brits gave up on organized religion years ago there is great chatter about the new guy at the Vatican. Suddenly The Church is relevant again.

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(photograph by Catholic Church England and Wales)

Catholics are going through a remarkable time of change, brought on by a man who was elevated to the papacy by one of the most conservative electorates of modern times: the College of Cardinals.

Without actually breaking yet with any  outdated Church doctrines, Pope Francis has utterly altered the conversation.  His latest splendid salvo came this week in the Italian town of Assisi, where his namesake, Saint Francis, lived in the 12th Century.

“The Roman Catholic church, from the lowliest priest to the pontiff himself, must strip itself of all vanity, arrogance and pride and humbly serve the poorest members of society,”  The Guardian reports.  What a switch from the pomp and certainty of the recent past.

“There is a danger that threatens everyone in the church, all of us. The danger of worldliness. It leads us to vanity, arrogance and pride,” the Pope said in the place where Saint Francis stripped naked, turned his back on his wealth and possessions, and vowed to serve the poor.

“He has also said that Catholic convents and monasteries that are empty should be opened up to house migrants and refugees,” said The Guardian.

This new Pope with his emphasis on personal humility and financial transparency at the Vatican appears to be setting the Church on the course of meaningful reform.

He is a radical in the best sense of the word.

Many years ago my own father, during one of our many arguments over politics and morality reminded me of what that word really means. The dictionary definition, often forgotten in today’s feverish debates, is “going to the root or origin: fundamental.” Thanks Dad.