Thursday, June 23, 2011

Two Cheers

In the field of investor relations (mine for a number of years), the key to success can be summed up in two words: manage expectations. Of course, everybody in the game – securities analysts, company executives, financial journalists – knows this, so a calibration goes on, and then a counter-calibration, and so on. Among today’s high-tech companies, it seems to me that Apple is the master. Everyone knows by now that Apple sets expectations low, so they inflate their estimates, yet Apple manages to beat most of the optimistic estimates. That takes real talent.

President Obama has caught on to the trick. So before last night’s speech on the Afghanistan troop draw-down, he allowed (some might say encouraged) the pundits to set expectations low – 5000 troops now, another 5000 next year, a rate his military chiefs were promoting.

Surprise! President Obama exceeded expectations by announcing a draw-down of 10,000 this year, 25,000 next. He thus cheered the rising tide of war-weary voters by appearing to side with them, even though by the end of 2012 there will be 68,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, compared with 32,000 when he took office, after a campaign in which he trounced the ghost of George Bush by promising disengagement from foreign adventures.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress are demanding that President Obama honor the War Powers Act by asking Congress to authorize our actions in or over Libya. No, said President Obama and his lawyers; the War Powers Act doesn’t apply because the United States isn’t involved in hostilities (try telling that to the bombing victims in Tripoli), and the President as Commander-in-Chief has the power to act without Congressional permission. Does that sound faintly like “I’m the Decider”?

The reactions today were mostly favorable (save for the usual hawks), proving once again that managing expectations is the key to success, whether in investor relations or in politics. The most impressive commentary came from Robert Gates, in a PBS interview. Gates supported the President’s call, but he did it so thoughtfully, so intelligently, that I found myself again in awe of this man who has served as Defense Secretary under both Presidents Bush and Obama, in one of the trickiest situations in our military’s history. His soft-spoken manner, his knowledge of his subjects, his deft handling of the most challenging questions made me wonder why somebody hasn’t mentioned his name as a possible presidential candidate. We could do a lot worse – and probably will.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The War That Never Ends

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Jill and I used to ask ourselves why anyone would want the job, given the mess the country was in. Turns out we were right; the job is not one you would wish on your worst enemy. The economy is in shambles, and our relations overseas deteriorate with every passing day (or with every drone attack).

What’s a right-minded President to do? If he were strong enough, he might say, “enough, already,” and pull our military out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen (yes, we’re in Yemen). His liberal base would cheer, but the hawks would howl. General Petraeus, whose approval ratings are sky-high, would appear on the Sunday talk shows to lament our lack of will. So it will not happen. Barack Obama is not strong enough, or confident enough, to do what he knows is right.

Here’s the math: We are spending $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. That’s about $230,000 a minute. It’s money we don’t have, money we have to borrow. But to do that, we have to raise the debt limit, already $14 trillion. How big a number is 14 trillion? There are about 31.5 million seconds in a year, so 14 trillion seconds ago puts you back at the dawn of time (31,746 BC).

Yet those who favor a “robust” foreign policy will not quit. Senators Chambliss and McCain, among others, are pushing back against any attempt to disengage. (Can you imagine what our foreign policy would be like under a President McCain?) And their point of view resonates with many, for fighting is popular among a certain segment of the population, just as brawling is the attraction for many who attend professional hockey games.

More than half a century after World War II and the Korean War, we still have thousands of troops in Germany, Japan, and Korea. Our military footprint is on every continent, and it is expanding. And it is expanding under a President who campaigned and was elected as the anti-Bush. Meanwhile, China, on track to become the world’s largest economy, keeps its troops at home. What’s wrong with this picture?

But there is hope. Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina has broken with his party in cosponsoring an amendment to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan – an amendment that drew the support of 26 Republicans, including three freshmen elected with Tea Party Support. Then there is Ron Paul, the presidential
wannabe who sensibly favors trimming our overseas military commitments.

After 10 years in Afghanistan, it is time to cut our losses and withdraw. Failure to do so is lunacy.

In the musical Miss Saigon, the Engineer (Jonathan Pryce in the original) sings about the seeds of the Vietnam War:

“Then it all changed with Dien Bien Phu. The Frogs went home. Who came? Guess Who?”

If there is ever a Miss Kabul, the lyrics might go like this:

“Then it all changed with Helmond Province. The Russians went home. Who came? Guess who?”

Monday, June 06, 2011

Where Have All the Ballads Gone?

The other day, while driving, I kept punching the SEEK button on my radio, looking for a station that played pop ballads. No luck. Just yelling, against a heavy-metal beat, plus talk, plus one classical music station.
Where have all the ballads gone? Where is Jerry Vale, now that we need him?

Musical tastes have changed dramatically, and not for the better, say I. The long, flowing melody lines, the cleverly drawn lyrics are out of style. They say that such things move in cycles, that ballads will come back into favor. Until that day, I will rely on my CD collection and on the iPod jack in my Hyundai to keep me entertained.

What kind of music am I talking about? Here is a representative list of some of the great ballads of yore.

All the Things You Are (Kern, Hammerstein)

A treasure, for its harmony and its lyrics. Every quality singer seems to have “covered” it.

If I Loved You (Rodgers, Hammerstein)

Should be heard as part of the famous bench scene from Carousel.

I Got Lost in His Arms (Berlin)

Berlin’s magic: Keep it simple. Almost every word in this gem is one-syllable long.

Moonlight Becomes You (Van Heusen, Burke)

A beautiful, underrated ballad, by two old pros. The “although” near the end is sheer artistry.

Dear Friend (Bock, Harnick)

From She Loves Me, this one is justly celebrated as lyric-writing of the finest order. Get this:

Couples go past me
I see how they look
So discretely sympathethic when they see
The rose and the book.
I make believe nothing is wrong
How long can I pretend?
Please make it right
Don’t break my heart
Don’t let it end
Dear friend.

And I Was Beautiful (Herman)

Not in quantity, certainly, but in style composer/lyricist Jerry Herman most approaches Berlin. This one, from Dear World, was well sung by Angela Lansbury. (“….and then he walked away, and took my smile with him.”)

This Heart of Mine (Warren, Freed)

Harry Warren it is said, is the most successful composer no one has ever heard of. He wrote a zillion singable tunes that were often undercut by pedestrian lyrics by Al Dubin and Mack Gordon. (Check the weak last line of “The More I See You.”) But this one, given an over-the-top treatment in the film The Ziegfeld Follies, is one of Warren’s best.

There are so many others, hundreds of them, now pushed off the airwaves by rock and rap. If you’re over 50, you probably have your own list of favorites. I know we’re not part of the demographic advertisers are looking for, but we do spend money. And fellows, we’re not listening to your radio stations these days.