Saturday, January 19, 2008

Jazz and Economics: Marsalis, Greenspan and Bernanke

I've just come from a jazz concert given by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Although it was primarily an event designed to get kids interested in America's most original art form, Marsalis and his group of crack musicians blew the roof off of Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Their Ellington, Davis, Gershwin and Monk was flawless. It restored my hope in America's true culture: improvisation.

From Jamestown to our current troubles with the stock, housing and credit markets, there was no script. Sure, we were always panning for gold somewhere, but the real precious substances were what we created along the way. We made it up as we went along. For the most part, except for the Civil War, the genocide against Native Americans and and few really stupid little overseas conflicts, it's been a worthy project. It's been jazz all the way.

What Marsalis was teaching wasn't exclusively about music nor was it about doing your own thing with an instrument. His main points were understanding the foundation of rhythm, building on it and making it into something new. Four beats to a bar, moving around the accents -- syncopation. Then one plays with the melody. Is it too fast or two slow? Is the drum too loud or the bass too soft? Are the solos too long? What happens if you throw in some really complicated Thelonius Monk-type harmonies? Equilibrium is the key. Too much of one thing can spoil the final product.

Marsalis and his crack musicians nailed everything. Maybe the kids didn't appreciate what they were hearing, but the adults did.

In our economy, the basic rhythm is liquidity. If I want to buy a house -- and I'm a good credit risk with steady income -- I should be able to get a mortgage. If somebody needs to sell something -- a car, a security, a mortgage -- they should be able to find a buyer. That's what keeps everything going in the harmonic world of money. Yet lately things haven't been meshing. There are more sellers than buyers in the home market. Buyers can't get the money they need to relieve the inventory of 4.5 million homes. The great energy of the world's largest economy is dammed up. If the pressure isn't relieved, there will be a panic where everyone is selling and almost no one is buying.

In jazz, the tension builds and is relieved through chords and solos and held together by the steady beat of a decent drummer and bassist. The American economic rhythm section is the Federal Reserve, adjusting interest rates and money supply to keep the tempo of the economy at a sustainable pace. Too much money means inflation; not enough, a recession.

Where are we now? The drummer has slowed down. He needs to pick it up a bit. The whole band needs to listen to one another and start playing together. They all need to agree on a common tempo and stay with it.

Alan Greenspan, as many know, was an aspiring swing musician before the pull of economics changed his life direction. While I certainly don't think he was the best Federal Reserve chairman in history -- his inattention to a rushing rhythm section triggered two bubbles -- he understood how to measure the tempo of the economy.

Now it's time for Ben Bernanke to start talking with Greenspan and the other musicians who understand economics and markets. He's the band leader now. It also wouldn't hurt if he went and saw Wynton Marsalis. He might learn a thing or two about playing in tune and following a beat.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I-pods, MP3s and the world of the natural sound

Christmas is long over, but there are still repercussions.

Was it worth buying that I-pod, MP3 player or We video game? Many in my family bought these "entertainment appliances" for their children, but we didn't.

My daughter Sarah had specifically asked for an I-pod and we flatly told her no. Yet we are not puritans, fundamentalists, luddites or holy rollers of any kind. We're the opposite end of that theo-political spectrum.

We not anti-media, although we have no broadcast, cable, satellite or TIVO in our home. Our TV is a 19-inch color set that I bought from Monky Wards 22 years ago. I have a pretty decent dolby-surround stereo system that's about a dozen years old, but I still have the bookshelf speakers I bought in college. I keep saying that I will update the system with a big-screen flat-panel LCD and some smaller speakers, altough when it comes to spending money on travel vs. more electronics, travel seems to win out. Our next trip is an eco-tour to Costa Rica next week.

We have satellite radio and are very pleased with its variety and lack of commercials on most stations. You can listen to one channel all day and never hear anything repeated. There is so much music out there -- and most of it is not on the format-oriented radio. I can listen to folk, classical, jazz, world and soul for hours. We're more media savvy than anyone, actually. We have home delivery of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and local papers. On the web, I scan the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, The Washington Post, Newsweek and have feeds on major news subjects. We listen to NPR in the car when we are not listening to music of our choice.

Nevertheless, our decision has resonated with other families. At least two or three that we know of have turned off their TVs -- at least during the week,

We want to listen to the kind of music that enlightens and is not part of some commercially driven agenda. It's not that we're afraid to sample. We scan YouTube all the time for new artists. When my 7-year-old daughter Julia was in the library, she asked for Hannah Montana CDs, although she had to wait to get them. When she got them, all of her other music took precedence, and none of it was guided by us. After seeing Aretha Franklin sing on YouTube, she was smitten with her emotion and artistry. She also loves Sam & Dave, Alison Kraus and Union Station, Solas (and any Irish music) and the soundtrack from the musical "Wicked," which we saw in the theatre two years ago. Maybe not to my surprise, she lost interest in the contrived, overproduced sound of Disney's Hannah Montana and stuck with the queen of soul. We never said a word in judgement about the Disney sound. She made this decision on her own.

We have also endeavored to ensure that we all see great live music and theatre. We have seen some great Shakespeare productions in five or six different venues. Julia was able to sit through full-length productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at age five. Sarah has seen more theatre in her 11 years than I did when I was 25. We go to small shows of folk singers at the library, early-music ensembles at our community barn and countless recitals. Both girls play guitar and piano and Kathleen insists that they practice and play until they're 18. Then it's their choice if they want to continue. They will have something they can create on their own the rest of their lives. It's the discipline of hearing, playing and letting the music conquer the material meaness of American life.

So why not buy them those ultra-compact music devices? Couldn't they choose from millions of tunes? Wouldn't the universe of music open up to them?

Maybe it would. Or more likely, they would be able to tune out the natural world of sound, or as James Joyce puts it, something that is the "ineluctable modality of the audible." The world needs to be listened to in order to be heard.

Say I wanted to jog around our lake. What would I miss if I kept the earplugs in?

The sheering sound of wind breaking against the ice.
Geese taking to wing and sweeping over a wetland
Sirens of distress in the distance
the D7 chord of the trains
the pounding of my feet on the gravel
the windmill as it threshes the wind to make electrons
dogs barking
delivery trucks
the howling of coyotes

How much of this is noise and how much is discernible life activity? It's this diversity of sound that keeps us plugged into the world, something that's lost through the exclusive domination of your brain by a compact electronic device. I have nothing against them, but I don't want to sacrifice my total experience of the world for one song. There's a symphony out there every single moment. We only have to listen.

We stress the live experience, not the recorded.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The New Age of Light

It's official. The new age of light has begun. They are voting in Iowa now to determine who might be the illuminator in chief. How they lead us through a perilous time in which energy will again be an even more pernicious root cause of international conflicts will have an impact upon our global survival.

Why a new age of light? Well, for one thing, the price of oil hit $100 a barrel on futures exchanges, as I predicted. The age of cheap hydrocarbon energy is unofficially over. We need to turn to renewable sources to save what we can of our energy-driven culture.

Here's another sobering fact: Prof. Jared Diamond reported yesterday in the New York Times that developing countries use 32 times more resources than emerging economies like China and India. Should they want to achieve our level of consumption and waste, it will clearly destroy the planet. So we have to change. And I'm not even talking about global warming.

Congress started us on the path by mandating a phase-out of the energy-wasting incandescent light bulb. Sorry Mr. Edison, it had to go. It throws off way too much of its energy in the form of heat and uses up too many electrons for the light it produces. In four years, it will pretty much go the way of eight-track tape players and betamax video recorders. The future isn't necessarily in compact fluorescent bulbs, however. They contain mercury, and few places will recycle them for that reason. The future lies in LEDs and nanotechnology.

Let's start with LEDs. They last some 50,000 hours, compared with 1,000 for Edison-style bulbs and 6,000 for CFLs. Better yet, they contain non-toxic materials. Further advances in nanotechnology will allow us to integrate solar-cell technology directly into building surfaces and windows.

Why not not create a south-facing wall unit with an imbedded device to generate electrons and thermal energy? One of the many engineering problems we face is to use electricity sparingly and put the sun to work more efficiently.

If we were able to put up an antenna in outer space and capture the billions of volts of electricity just coming from the solar wind -- and be able to transmit it efficiently to an earth station -- that would be a major accomplishment. I'm not smoking something funny on this idea: Nicola Tesla, the father of alternating current, had this idea more than 100 years ago in several forms.

We need to think outside of the proverbial light bulb that cartoon characters had when they had an idea. How can we generate power without burning fossil fuels? How can we take the heat that is soaked up by our earth, waters, homes, buildings, appliances and physical plants and re-use it or store it for future use? It all takes some imagination and application. The solutions will be bigger than an entire moon program. If we do this right, we won't need to explore other planets to live on. We'll be able to live on the one we already have.