Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Little Tin Box

Here's how to make a quick million. Of course, you have to be a U.S. Senator, but if you qualify, the rest is easy. Here's what you do:

On May 21, a senate subcommittee on which you serve is scheduled to grill Apple CEO Tim Cook about his Company's avoidance of income taxes. You, as a member of the subcommittee, have the opportunity to accuse Apple of shirking its moral duty to pay taxes on income derived overseas through the use of "loopholes." You will thus be able to act the patriot by beating up on "big business." Even before the hearing begins, it's clear that Apple stock is going to take a drubbing. The New York Times, in its front-page lead, headlines "BILLIONS IN TAXES AVOIDED BY APPLE, U.S. INQUIRY FINDS." Apple stock will take a drubbing. How can you translate that knowledge into profit?

Well, you could short the stock, but there's a better way to leverage a small amount of money into a huge profit. You buy puts - options to sell the stock at a higher price. It's important to cover your tracks here, so you have some relative buy them. Then, when the stock falls and the value of the puts rises, you close out your position and assume the role of a hero for having the nerve to attack a giant corporation.

In the first hour of trading on May 21, Apple stock falls 7-3/4 points. The puts soar, and you sell them at a handsome profit. As a United States senator, your conscience may not allow you to profit from the hearings. But can you say the same of all the members of your staff, your speechwriters, your researchers?

To my knowledge there has been no instance where a political leader or other government employee has been found guilty of using insider information. The Justice Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the SEC, and many other agencies employ thousands of people with privileged access to market-moving information - information on mergers or the approval or nonapproval of a drug, etc. But "insider information" cases all seem to be leveled at hedge-fund managers or other Wall Street types.

Maybe I'm being too hard of the pols. Maybe most of them are wealthy because they collected bottles and saved the deposits in a little tin box, as a song in an old musical suggested. But I wonder.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Carousel for the Ages

Late in April, PBS broadcast a concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.  I have seen several productions of Carousel and, like many, I regard it as Rodgers’s finest score and Hammerstein’s most soaring poetry. But I have never heard a Carousel so musically rich or so well sung as this one. For those who treasure music rather than stagecraft it will stand as the definitive Carousel for a long time.

First, the leads.  Nathan Gunn was Billy Bigelow, the rough-edged carousel barker. Gunn has one of the strongest, truest voices in the world of opera, and he is equally at home in musical theater. (He also sings in the definitive CD of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Allegro.)  His Soliloquy is on a par with John Raitt’s, which is saying a lot, and his duet with Julie, If I Loved You, is riveting.

Julie is played by Kelli O’Hara, who is perfection as Julie Jordan. Whenever I think of Carousel in the future, I will conjure up a mental picture of Kelli O’Hara.  The make-up crew and wigmaker deserve a special award, so absolutely right does she look – and act, with beautifully expressive eyes revealing a deep love for the caddish Billy. Musically, she is terrific. In fact, I have never heard Kelli O’Hara sing as well as she does here.

Since in this play the music is the thing, it must be stated here and now that Carousel deserves nothing less than the New York Philharmonic. To play that overture with a pit orchestra should be a mortal sin.  This orchestra, with Rob Fisher conducting, is heaven to listen to.

The supporting cast is fine. Opera’s Stephanie Blythe as cousin Netty sings June is Busting Out All Over with gusto and is thrilling in everybody's favorite anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone.  Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge are played by Jason Danieley and Jessie Mueller, and, while the comedic touches one associates with these characters are missing, both are in fine voice.  Kate Burton makes the most of her small but key role as carousel owner Mrs. Mullen, and special mention must be made of Shuler Hensley, who plays the role of Jigger, Billy’s partner in crime. It’s not easy to play a bad guy and a comic character simultaneously, but Shuler pulls it off – and sings well, too.  And John Cullum must be just the kind of star-keeper Oscar Hammerstein had in mind when he wrote the final scenes.

As you probably know, the plot of Carousel is derived from Molnar’s Liliom.  Rodgers and Hammerstein made major plot alterations, principally to move the story to New England and to brighten the ending, but Molnar deserves credit; without his approval, we would be deprived of what Time called the greatest musical of the twentieth century.

The staging is arranged so that the ensemble comes and goes through the same space that the orchestra inhabits, a device that somehow forces you to remain aware of the wonderful Don Walker arrangements and the artistry of the Philharmonic. 

All told, this is the finest production in the Live at Lincoln Center series I have ever seen, and we are indebted to those who made it possible..

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Next Cold War

The so-called “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union was a triumph, maybe of diplomacy, maybe of luck, but whatever it was, it was historic. Never before had two mighty powers armed to the teeth without eventually going to war. When my wife and I were first married and looking for our first house, we saw more than a few with bomb shelters.  Nike batteries were underground in the Boston suburbs, ready to fire. (At the time, the comic novel Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys spoofed a missile battery in suburban Connecticut, with the climax of the send-up describing an accidental firing on the Fourth of July while the crowds of locals went “oooh” at the explosions overhead.)  The Cuban missile crisis sent thousands scurrying to hardware stores to stock up on whatever they thought they’d need when the nukes hit.  There was real tension in the air in those days, but the nuclear weapons stayed safely in the caves in the USA and the USSR until, unbelievably, there was no more USSR, and the Cold War was over.

Today, there is no military power that threatens another Cold War. China? No. There will be tensions from time to time, but the USA and China are too interdependent We need each other. Globalization is here, whether we like it or not. (Did you know that 61 percent of Apple’s revenues come from outside the U.S.?)

The emerging threat to our safety comes, not from countries, but from small groups of ideologues who learn how to make bombs on websites.  The Boston Marathon disaster was really too easy to pull off.  Two brothers taking out their grievances by setting off two homemade bombs on a bright sunny day at Copley Square.  No TSA guards to inspect their shoes, no “no-fly” lists to navigate around. In an open society like ours, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We can find out who did it after the fact; cameras are everywhere. But we can’t stop it.

The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re going to become a less open society.  And when critics complain, the answer will be two words: “Homeland Security.”  It’s unfortunate, but the genie is out of the bottle. There are lots of people with grievances they feel passionate about. Some are on the right politically, some are on the left, some are angry over joblessness or high taxes or immigration reform or moral decay or whatever. But here's the thing: Too many people are too angry. I get forwarded emails and robocalls, maybe half a dozen a day, every day, and most are really angry. It's time for someone in authority to shout

                                                             COOL IT!!!