June 2010

I know we are not supposed to talk about this stuff, seeing as how it is the “Summer of Recovery” and all that, but we have had 83 bank failures YTD and there is no sign of that pace slowing.  According to the Treasury Department, at this point last year we had 40 failures on the books.

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not sure how much more of this “recovery” I can take!


I tell you, it has almost been too hot to grill…we are experiencing a warmer than normal June in Nashville, but if the thunderstorms will cut me some slack over the weekend, I intend to add some delicious wood char to a fine selection of sleeved-up protein!

Perhaps one of the reasons I got into the real estate business lo some 20 plus years ago, was that while I was getting my graduate degree, one of my professors was an international expert in agribusiness.  One of the things he said has always stuck with me: “our greatness as a country depends on six inches of topsoil.”  He was referring, of course, to the world’s breadbasket, our Great Plains and farming regions throughout this rich land.  Protection of that resource is something we need to be keenly aware of and so I thought I would share some resources and thought leaders on this topic with you this week.

1. Wes Jackson – founder of the Land Institute, Wes has been a champion of more holistic ways of farming.  He is a brilliant thinker and proponent of local agriculture.  Click on his name above to read an interview with him.  He saw over thirty years ago how soil, water and agriculture are carefully intertwined and that we had better preserve the first two to maintain the third.

2. Michael Pollan – author of  Food Rules and The Omnivore’s Dilemna among other books, Pollan is a tremendous advocate for locally grown food.  He has studied the links between transit costs, food quality and health.  He can be provocative, but his books and articles are well worth the time!

3. Wendell Berry – where to begin?  Poet, novelist, essayist and farmer, Wendell Berry is the nearest thing to an American  conscience alive today.  One of the central themes of his work is the need to preserve the small scale farm.  He acknowledges the efficiency of corporate farming, but worries about the loss of diversity, culture and taste .  I’ve read a ton of his work, but would recommend “Bringing it to the Table,On Farming and Food,” and “The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.”   You can get the flavor of his work from this interview: “Toward a Healthy Community.”

4. EcoTrust – we had our annual Partner/Spouse Meeting in Portland, Oregon a few years ago.  One of the things that really impressed me was the city’s restaurants use of local produce – and advertising of it!  Apparently EcoTrust is the outfit behind that movement.  Go to their website an poke around…they even offer advice on how to form local food networks.

5. LocalHarvest – not long ago, a close friend of mine told me his wife was getting involved in a “CSA.”  Always the history buff, I thought that perhaps she was joining the Daughters of the Confederacy, but learned quickly that the new CSA means “community supported agriculture.”  I really believe that the future challenge for cities will be how they integrate their surrounding rural towns and environs.  The CSA model is a great way to start.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Joel Kotkin has a sobering story about what has happened to the working class in Great Britain and poses the question as to whether it is a portent of what is to come on this side of the pond.  Kotkin, finds that in the former industrial center of Europe, where the industry left some time ago, there is a very high rate of perpetual unemployment, alcoholism and lack of mobility.  Disturbing too, is that the emphasis on job creation in Tony Blair’s “cool Britannia” resulted in job creation at the very top – hedge fund managers and the like, and at the very bottom – the latter of which are being filled by immigrants (primarily Islamists from Pakistan).

This has brought back a consistent nagging thought I have had about the direction of our country.  As we have de-industrialized, there are swaths of urban landscape (see my write-up on “Feral Houses” ) left desolate with a population of union dependent blue-collar workers that have nowhere to go.  My father, a retired diplomat and economist, has said for years that we cannot have an economy based solely on fast food workers and computer programmers.  Being the typical prodigal son, I pooh-poohed that notion, but I am coming around to believing that he is absolutely right.

The current administration’s idea of creating legions of “green jobs,” isn’t working out so well either.  Obama’s Spanish model has turned out to be a complete bust and when you stack the facts against the myths for our country, it’s not too good a picture.  In the words of Tolstoy, “what then must we do?”

In the “if I were King for a day” department, I believe this is the direction we need to head:

1. Direct Federal spending to the creation of real jobs.  We have aching needs in infrastructure repair, replacement and expansion.  For every $1 Billion spent in infrastructure construction, it is estimated by the Urban Land Institute, that 25-28,000 jobs are created.

2. Direct Federal and State policy towards the retention of strategic manufacturing capacity on our shores.  We should protect the ability to make the planes, rockets, tanks, ships and other hardware necessary to protect ourselves and the sane world.

3. Re-assess our trading relationships.  I am a HUGE advocate of free trade in theory, but we have drifted far from that in our relationship with countries like China that manipulate currency exchange and restrict imports.  We are in a symbiotic relationship with them, so even though they own huge amounts of our debt, they need us as badly as we need them.

4. Re-evaluate our educational priorities.  Since World War II, we have stressed, encouraged and facilitated a massive effort to get everyone a college degree.  Did it ever occur to us that perhaps what is needed is a broad range of educations including a robust trade school program?

5. Stimulate, educate and encourage entrepreneurship!  American ingenuity has been our hallmark since our founding.  Let’s get the engine of small business cranked up again – note to Msrs. Obama et al: that “boot on the neck of BP” you spoke about, is actually on OUR necks, please be so kind as to remove it.

The goal of these measures is to create a wider bandwidth of job creation and avoid the very real threat of perpetual unemployment.  We can’t all work for Google and no one wants to work for Goldman Sachs anymore, but it’s time to tend to the needs of the great middle, the true engine of our economic republic, lest we end up like “fail Britannia.”