Saturday, February 28, 2009

Looking Ahead to Warmer Days

All this week has seen beautiful weather in Lyon, but today was really the icing on the cake. The temperature probably topped out in the low 60's (that's about 16-17 for you metric system types) and there was nary a cloud in the sky. It seemed all of Lyon was promenading along the Rhone this afternoon when I went out to buy some provisions and study French vocabulary in the sun. But late tonight, the clouds are on the horizon. The coming week looks absolutely dreadful, making me wonder whether today was really worth it. It's going to be another two months before we get weather like this on an extended basis. Yuck.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the colder and wetter weather in the week ahead will probably make for better ski conditions. I find it somewhat hard to believe that I've been living within 3 hours of some of the best skiing on the planet for the last two months and haven't taken advantage of it yet, but March will definitely see that change. Meanwhile, even if it gets considerably colder here this week, at least we're not about to be walloped by a foot of snow like the NYC area. There was a time when a foot of snow would have been my favorite day of the year, but living in a city, towards the end of winter, with beautiful countryside nearby just waiting to be explored in the glory of spring, I'm not exactly green with envy for the latest Nor'easter.
Speaking of warmer days ahead, plans are far from set in stone, but it's possible that I may find myself (with Nolwenn) back in Ridgewood/the shore/the NYC area for a good 3 months or so this summer. Possibilities as to what I would do range from an internship with the UN to working for AFS-USA (if it still exists...) to genealogy work to working on my latest secret plan, but we'll see how things shake out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

So, How Bad Is It?

I have three friends, all of them either geniuses or merely brilliant, who are active in the finance sector. One is at Harvard Business School, one is studying for a PhD in economics at Cambridge, and one is the personal economic advisor to a mind-bogglingly wealthy Middle Eastern royal.
My talents, however, lie elsewhere. So given my mathematical shortcomings, and thus inability to comprehend matters financial and economic beyond a layman's knowledge base, I have preferred to rely on my friends' opinions rather than my own intuitions in this field. And yet, given the cacaphony of voices each offering an opinion on the current and ongoing financial crisis, I thought, what the hey, might as well add my own voice to the chorus.
First of all, I have a hard time comprehending how so many people in the finance sector (though largely not my friends, mind you) could have been so wrong for so long. The credibility of conservative economists, The Wall Street Journal, the entire I-banking sector, and many others has obviously been shot to pieces, though of course, that hasn't stopped anyone who falls under this heading from insisting that we must still listen to them. Obviously, this all smacks of 20 20 hindsight to some extent, but really, the handwriting was on the wall for a long time.
Secondly, though, it seems that a separate industry has grown up saying how horrific this crisis truly is- including some who have even called it potentially worse than the Great Depression. But this too, is ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that this crisis will hardly be as bad as many in the past precisely because income standards have risen so high in the interim. Even if the American economy contracts 2 per cent for the next few years, this would simply stand to bring us back as a nation as a whole to where we were a few years ago.
Yes, some people have lost their shirts (though I have no sympathy for anyone who invested more than 10 percent of their savings with Bernie Madoff- ever hear of don't put all your eggs in one basket?) And certainly I feel sorry somewhat for those who have lost their jobs, homes, and pay for their children's educations. But still- seen any bread lines recently? Is unemployment around 7 per cent or 20 per cent? Do you still have air conditioning, the internet, a cell phone, and a whole lot more stuff than people even a few decades ago did?
It's not all bad. But- here's where I see both a problem and an opportunity. Besides bankers behaving badly, where we are today is a natural result of many millions of people in the USA being scared out of their wits of a more active state role in the economy, including many people who voted against their economic self interest back in the bad old days, when tough talking conservatives promised better oversight of cultural and national security matters (though they failed largely here too). In exchange, Wall Street set national economic policy- and look where that got us.
In Europe by contrast, (outside of Britain and Iceland, both of which like the US overly deregulated) the mood is hardly one of panic. Sure, Europe's GDP is set to fall this year too and unemployment is set to rise. But if people can't afford a car anymore, public transport is there. If people lose their jobs, they still have health care and generous unemployment benefits. Education (though badly in need of an overhaul) is a tiny fraction of what it costs in the USA, even for Oxford, Cambridge, and the Grand Ecoles of France.
Since many economists think that a hefty fiscal stimulus is needed to bust out of this dead end (though I have my doubts about whether the proposals on offer so far are ambitious enough), President Obama now needs to put in place new government programs that will not only help spend our way as a nation out of the current recession, but by providing jobs in the education, environmental, national security, and health care sectors, strengthen the USA as a whole. If he is able to pull that off, and he has the political capital and skills to be able to do so, if he dares, then he will have ensured that, having surmounted the current crisis, we are in a better position to meet the next one, whencever it may come.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rambling through the British Isles

For the past three weeks the Rhone Rambler has been traversing England, Ireland, and Scotland in search of ancestors and a good place to do a second master's degree in terrorism studies come September. As to the first goal of the trip, the trip was very successful, particularly in discovering that I can now trace my direct ancestors all the way back to ca. 1470! That's my 15th great grandfather John Wavell. But don't worry, he's quite possibly your ancestor too. After all, we each have 131,072 15th great grandparents, and he (and the whole Wavell line) was quite prolific. Meanwhile, my mom tracked down the death certificate of a 3th great uncle in New York, which said that his mother (my 4th great grandmother) came from Bohemia, which is now the Czech Republic. So that brings the list of confirmed countries that my ancestors have lived in (i.e. with present borders) to nine: USA, Canada, Ireland, England, Scotland, Croatia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Or eight if you count England and Scotland as the UK.
But try telling the Scots around me (am currently in Edinburgh) that their country counts as one with England! Tho I may be but 1/32 Scottish and about 1/4 English, my heart's in the highlands as the great Scots bard Robbie Burns would say. Actually, having been to the highlands for the first time this past weekend with Nolwenn, who had braved the freakish weather the UK had last week (the biggest snowstorms in 45 hit the UK the past two weeks), I think a bit of my heart will always be there. Even though the highlands are no higher than the Green Mountains of Vermont, they are steep, craggy, filled with glacial lakes, desolate moors, and hauntingly beautiful.
Regarding master's programs, however, I will probably end up in London, as it offers better networking opportunities in the counterterrorism and security sectors, as well as closer proximity to Nolwenn in France. In fact, if Nolwenn ends up doing an internship for the second part of the year in Paris, Rhone Ramblings will probably morph into Seine Sendings for three months before becoming Thames Tellings in September. Hey, as long as I live in a city with a river that begins with a letter that alliterates with a synonym for communication I'll be in good shape. Back to the continent tomorrow...