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Some condemn immigrants; many benefit from them

28 Nov

dim-sum-garden2

As a twist to what is current, I’m writing positively about immigrants.

 

Whether we acknowledge it or not, newcomers have always played a role in improving American’s special brand of capitalism. A recent innovation I stumbled upon involved food, a truck and a series of parking lots around the Philadelphia suburbs.

 

The participating entrepreneurs are Chinese and the heart of the operation is

a Chinese app called We Chat. This single app, available in English and Chinese, is something like Facebook but has been built out so it is many apps in one. It is used by millions of Chinese people around the world to do things for which Americans use multiple apps. Now it is being used to find and organizing markets for products.

 

Business people from Philadelphia’s Chinatown section use it to sell food products to people in the suburbs who might not want to drive into Chinatown. There are a number of groups doing this.  I’m not sure how many, but I know one sells just mushrooms, one vegetables, and one food from Xian province.

 

The seller I did business with was selling frozen dim sum products. They buy from wholesalers and sell in bulk, mostly on the weekends.

 

As the weekend approaches, We Chat is used to tell buyers what products are available in the upcoming delivery. Most important, they are informed of the the times the food truck will arrive and depart from each parking lot on the delivery circuit.

 

The customer orders using a phone and is given an order number.

 

The closest stop to my house is about 20 minutes away, and the truck would be there Sunday from 10:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. It’s a small window because the truck has to move on to the next lot and new customers, like a bus on a schedule. I arrived around 10:15, and saw an unmarked truck at the far end of the lot, away from a large shopping center. That was it.

 

The back of the truck was open and loaded with boxes labeled with numbers. There was a man inside.

 

On the ground was a woman with a clipboard.

 

“I’m number 56,” I told her.

 

shanghai-house-xiao-long-bao

I had ordered two 5-pound bags of something called Shanghai Xioa Rong Boa. In English they are called soup dumplings. These dumpling have become a big hit in several newer restaurants in Chinatown.

 

Not long ago, Chinatown in Philadelphia was a tired, weary, unexciting place. The restaurants were dirty and the menus hadn’t changed in years. Most, I believe, were owned by long-established Cantonese. Now, after a whole different wave of Chinese immigration, there is a new breed of entrepreneurs in Chinatown. They have opened stylish eateries with fresh, fun, unusual offerings. Some are inexpensive and have attracted large numbers of urban hipsters.

 

As a result of this renaissance, soup dumplings are found all over Chinatown. They come in several varieties. To properly enjoy them, you have to master the technique of eating them.

 

The soup dumpling exterior skin is made from dough. Inside is the filling, usually meat and soup. If you eat them wrong, you risk scolding your tongue on the hot soup, or exploding the dumpling and having soup cascade onto the table and your clothes.

 

One way to eat them is to use a Chinse soup spoon. Put the dumpling on the spoon and take a small, gentle bite of the skin. Let some of the hot soup leak out onto the spoon, where it can cool. In addition to cooling, this releases the pressure and prevents an explosion. Sip the cooled soup then, after a moment, bite fully into the dumpling or put the whole thing in your mouth.

 

At Dim Sum Garden on Race Street you can get an order of eight pork soup dumplings for $6.25. These are fresh, not frozen. You can even watch them being made. At the truck, a bag of 100 frozen dumplings is $20.

 

“Only two bags?” the woman outside the truck asked.

 

“Yes, just two.”

 

The man inside put my order in a plastic bag. From the looks of things, all the other orders were in larger boxes.

 

“And, I heard you get a free drink,” I said.

 

The man in the truck put a can of Sacred Lotus Leaf Herbal Tea in my bag. As required, I paid in cash.

 

The tea was from Fujian province in China but the frozen dumplings came from a factory in the Maspeth section of Queens, right near Brooklyn. The commercial neighborhood was established in the 17th century by Dutch and English settlers. I guess immigrants continue to operate strongly there. In fact, Queens – the home of President-elect Donald Trump – may be the most diverse town in all of America, maybe the planet.

queens

“There are 1 million immigrants and a mix that is perhaps unprecedented in this borough’s history,” said Joseph Salvo,  a demographer with the city Planning Department.

 

He said the population is almost equally divided among Asian and Hispanic groups from countries such as China, Guyana, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, India and Korea.

 

Either way, someone there in Maspeth was working a job that helped bring soup dumplings to my table, and people closer to my home have come up with a great and inventive alternative to food shopping in the city.

 

The whole thing seems pretty good, and my thanks go out to the immigrants – or sons and daughters of immigrants – whose hard work and clever approach made it happen. They were attracted to the U.S. because of our system. They learned it, and grew it, and allowed many to benefit from it.

 

Bon appetit! Or maybe I should say, hen hao chi!

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A minor indiscretion that went unnoticed

24 Jun

Hot tub blur

I live in a picture-postcard town with lots of shops on and off Main Street. The merchants come and go and recent openings include a waffle-and-ice cream emporium, two vap parlors and a store made up like a pharmacy that sells “medicinal” cold-pressed juice for $7 a bottle.

 

People around here keep up with the shops, but there’s one that everyone overlooks. Instead of being parallel to Main Street, it’s set at an angle. When you round the corner right before it, your line of sight is directed elsewhere.

 

No one ever looks in that window. I know because I sat in it with two blondes wearing bikinis.

 

That was years ago.

 

The story begins at the county courthouse in the center of town. I covered the government there as a reporter. The important offices were on the fifth floor and were guarded by two sentinels sitting at adjacent desks that formed a sort of barrier. The sentinels were young, blonde and attractive. They looked alike and both had the same first name.

 

For the sake of this story, let’s say it was Donna.

 

To secure information or to speak with the people running the county, reporters had to get past the two Donnas.

 

On a day when I needed something special, the two Donnas were in a good mood and complied. In exchange, they demanded something of me.

 

“Tomorrow, meet us on Main Street at noon. Bring cheese, crackers, pepperoni and your bathing suit. We’ll bring the wine.”

 

They would say no more. As I think about it now, I really didn’t need to know more.

 

The two Donnas showed up as promised and walked me to the store that sits at an angle. We made the little turn and they explained.

 

“Our friend is renting this now,” one of the Donnas said. “He asked if during lunch we could help with his new business. He wants us to sit in there,” and she pointed to a steaming, redwood hot tub in the window.

 

This was a government town and I was fairly well known by all the government officials. Most took lunch at the local restaurants and would be passing by. While there was great appeal to the idea of being immersed in hot water with two almost-identical women who had the same name, I worried about my reputation. This was a town where people talked. I didn’t want them to be talking about me, especially when my job was to talk about them.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” one Donna said.

 

“Oh, c’mon,” the other Donna said.

 

And so I went on.

 

They were relaxed but I was tense. I watched the window as people passed, waiting for that moment when some authority figure – maybe a judge — would pause, stop, turn, point and show utter disgust. After a glass of wine, the tension seemed to boil off.

 

We were having a good time and had forgotten the world. But after a while we grew concerned – perturbed – that not a single person had noticed us. How odd. In an effort to draw attention, we frolicked in a more pronounced way, and still nothing. We yelled and waved, but no one waved back.

 

Was it us?

 

No, it was the store.

 

Hot tubs were popular around this time, but the friend of the two Donnas went out of business in just a few months.

 

I learned a couple of important lessons from this. First, have fun while you can. Second, before you open a business, for god sakes do a little research.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

When the poor stop going to McDonald’s, we’re all in trouble

20 Jun

mcdonalds-meal

Businesses like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s haven’t been doing well.

 

People without a lot of money usually go to these places, but because they now have even less money, they’ve stopped going. When people who work at Wal-Mart and McDonald’s can no longer afford to shop and eat there, it’s a sure sign of a coming, broad-based financial decline.

 

It will affect us all, even the rich, who don’t amount to much if they can’t get the poor to give them money.

 

Reports show that the parade of U.S. customers into Wal-Mart fell 1.4 percent during the first quarter. That followed a decline of 1.8 percent in the prior year.

The discount retailer blamed the bad winter weather but also cited cuts in food stamps, higher payroll taxes and the increased cost of health care.

 

You know things are bad when Wal-Mart relies on the food stamp program to move product.

 

Walm-MartRecent U.S. sales at McDonald’s also have declined, by 1 percent. To lure back low-end customers, the burger behemoth increased its value menu, but that hurt profits even more.

 

What’s happening is the downward pressure on income is leading to downward pressure on sales.

 

Henry Ford used to pay his people well so they could buy cars. If Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have any sense, they and the other minimum-wage shops will copy this strategy. Not doing so will have consequences. It could turn the U.S. into another Japan – the bad one, not the good one.

 

Japan was once the globe’s supreme economic power. It made and sold great products while setting new standards for manufacturing. Flush with cash, Japanese investors bought up billions in prime New York real estate, and nearly everything else. During this period, in the mid-80s, I visited Hawaii, which seemed more like Japan. Japanese tourism and culture were so strong that hippie beach bums peddling sailing lessons had to learn Japanese.

 

Then came the bust, the swoon and massive disinflation. It began around 1990. People in the U.S. don’t understand disinflation. It’s when prices fall and fall and fall and still no one buys anything. The economy becomes comatose. Seems impossible, until you look at Japan, where disinflation has been a cruel fact of life for a couple decades.

 

 

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, one contributor to Japan’s disinflation is falling wages. The recent habit of businesses there, as in the United States, is to avoid hiring full-time workers and instead contract with temporary workers who earn less and have no job security. These temps now make up about 40 percent of the Japanese work force. They are paid about 38 percent less than full-time workers.

 

The financial and social divide between the two kinds of workers has grown and is causing multiple calamities. For example, no one wants to marry a temp. This depresses birthrates and is making Japan a nation of elderly people. Banks won’t give temps mortgages, which doesn’t encourage building. These and other negative trends cascade and the country stagnates.

 

In the current era, U.S. corporations have reaped huge profits from selling to the developing world. But those markets, at least to some degree, are cooling and maturing. The bread-and-butter American markets may have to be revived in order to maintain profits. That could require a higher minimum wage and more opportunity for the middle class. The government and the business community finally are waking up to this.

 

The Great Cure for so much – including crime and falling education standards — is to put money back in the hands of traditional spenders. For a time, greed will blind us to this reality. Then the cash register stops ringing and we see.

 

Wal-Mart and McDonald’s — and all the other places where you can work full-time and not earn a living — now see. Each is probably afraid to take the first big step. Sooner or later someone has to, otherwise that first big step will be involuntary and it will send us over a cliff.

 

Think about the return of the 25-cent McDonald’s hamburger. Think about taking the family out for one on a very special night, maybe once every couple of months. That disinflation, and it will make 15 percent inflation seem like good times.

 

Now, we wait.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Goldman Sachs: Altruism for a profit

27 May

goldman-sachs,jpg

Investment powerhouse Goldman Sachs has made money with schemes that were ingenious, inventive, complex, arcane, morally vacant and, some might say, criminal. Now it hopes to make money by exploiting the dysfunctions of government.

 

Goldman has long mastered the art of generating cash without actually producing a product. Its techniques include:

 

  • Using influence to rig a trading system in its favor.
  • Finding a market where it can buy low and then finding a second market where it can sell high.
  • Identifying gross inefficiencies that are costing someone or something money and offering to fix them.

 

Goldman’s new plan is along the lines of the third. The firm is financing crime reduction measures in Massachusetts in exchange for a percent of what is saved by not having to incarcerate thugs.

 

Ingenious, inventive, complex.

 

New profit center for investors

New profit center for investors

This type of investment carries an extra dividend: It makes Goldman Sachs – a villain in the eyes of the Occupy movement – look like a Good Guy. Indeed, the investment vehicle designed to reduce crime is called a social impact bond, or in Wall Street parlance, an SIB.

 

Some view these investments as a marriage between capitalism and charity, but capitalism is the strong, dominant partner.

 

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on Goldman and the SIBs in early May. Writer Esme E. Deprez cites a prediction by the Rockefeller Foundation that the market for SIBs is growing and by 2015 will reach $500 million.

 

That’s a lot of social impact, enough to give government the idea that it no longer is responsible for maintaining order and structure in society. Or has it already decided that?

 

According to the Businessweek article, Goldman is investing $9 million and betting that crime will go down – or more accurately that young men will spend fewer days in jail.

 

The bonds help fund a program called the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative. In that program, a non-profit agency called Roca works with young adult males on probation. The agency provides outreach, therapy and training. After two years, participants are supposed to leave, take a steady job and lead a crime-free life.

 

If a graduate stays out of jail for a year, Massachusetts saves $12,400. If the state is able to reduce crime enough to close a 300-person prison, it saves $47,500 per inmate.

 

This is how the SIBs and Goldman get paid off.

 

In this particular case, Goldman has partnered with other investors who financed an additional $12 million in bonds, making the total $21 million.

 

The bonds earn 5 percent no matter what, but pay nothing else until the men in the program manage to spend 22 percent fewer days in jail. There’s a sliding scale for payment, with a maximum of $27 million being paid to bond holders if jail time is reduced by 70 percent.

 

It’s a risk, like a junk bond, but $27 million for a $21 million investment is pretty good money (28 percent profit) and worthy of the risk.

 

Roca had been working with 375 men. With the SIB money, it can handle 550.

 

A skeptic might look at all this and ask:

 

  • Why doesn’t Massachusetts put up the $21 million itself and forego the $6 million payout to investors?

 

  • Why doesn’t society as a whole recognize that employed people from stable families commit fewer crimes?

 

  • Why does the nation exclude million of people from an otherwise viable system of commerce, education and opportunity and allow the existence of acres and acres of urban decay that breed crime and insanity?

 

There are clear answers to these questions. I won’t go into them because our preference is to ignore them, deny them and maintain a monstrous blind spot in spite of religious teachings, well-intended laws and glorious, inclusive rhetoric.

 

But as a culture, we have reached an all-time low when we allow things to get so bad

that Goldman Sachs can make money off our failures. The promise of money, more so than altruism or mere brotherhood, does seem to get things done. Perhaps we can turn the VA hospitals over to Goldman. With all those returning vets, there’s got to be a profit in there somewhere.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Call centers: Where foreign accents now sound less foreign

16 Mar

call-center

When something goes wrong with the cable, or the credit card or a household product, the horrid thought of spending long periods of time on the phone with a call center associate becomes real.

In the early phase of these calls, there is a strong, perky, recorded voice – an American voice – telling you what digits to push. For myself, I usually have questions unanticipated by the automated system, meaning I need to speak with an agent.

That point is reached only after shrewd and patient navigation. The digital world fades away and you are routed to a far off place where call centers are cheap to operate. The agents, God bless them, so much want to help.

“Good day! And how may I give you the extraordinary service you deserve to assist with your problem?” an agent said to me recently.

“Well,” I answered. “To begin with, I don’t need extraordinary service. All I need is good service.”

It’s meant as a joke, but it comes off as nasty. Still, the voice on the other end stays positive. But lately, it’s been a strange voice. It does not sound entirely human.

Hence, I’ve concluded that voice synthesizers are being used to strip away heavy foreign accents. But they do a poor job of it.

First, you can still tell the person is foreign. If the synthesizer’s purpose is to let Americans think they are talking to Americans (and not that jobs have been moved overseas), it fails at that.

Second, it makes communications less clear. An extra layer of audio noise is added, making it more difficult to conduct business.

When somebody is already in a foul mood from being on hold, that’s not good.

What strikes me most, however, is the transparent hypocrisy of this effort – if indeed my theory is correct. All these companies are too cheap to pay Americans to answer their phones, yet they are willing to spend extra money on technology to cover this up.

If anyone has knowledge of call centers using technology to strip away foreign accents, please comment here. I sense I’m right, but it’s only a guess.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Buy Detroit – now!

25 Aug

Detroit1

From ancient Athens to modern-day Antwerp, over the ages one word has come to define our cities: Commerce.

Traditionally, cities are the places where money flows. No longer, at least not in America.

Detroit has become the largest and most noteworthy of U.S. cities from which capital flees.

Oh Detroit, once so great and prosperous. How sad is your decline.

They say it’s foolish to call for a cop or an ambulance in bankrupt Motown. You’ll wait forever.

They say so much of the urban landscape in Detroit has been abandoned that people have taken to plowing it under and using it for agriculture.

Detroit2But Detroit was once an economic magnate that helped foster one of the largest migrations in American history. Between 1910 and 1970, over 6 million African Americans left the South. They settled in many places and Detroit – with its thriving auto industry – was high on the list.

Its closeness to the Canadian wilderness and the Great Lakes spurred economic development there from the very start. It boomed with the 18th century fur trade. Much later, when Henry Ford set up shop in 1903, Detroit truly came into its own, growing in the 1950s to 1.8 million people and becoming the fourth largest city in America.

Today, it has about 700,000 people and is the 13th largest city. From 2000 to 2010 its population fell by 25 percent. In addition to the incredible reverse migration and the massive loss of jobs, about 47 percent of all tax parcels are delinquent, which is why the city has really ceased to be a city.

Instead, it has become a disabled hulk that is $19 billion in debt.

This is all so bleak, especially since other cities face the same fate.

Detroit3In such times, I try to remember that life runs in cycles; that the dead do rise. I try to remember that the present is only the present and the future always brings change. I try to remember that those who bought Chrysler at $1 got rich.

If I were a person with money to invest in the long term, I would buy – steal, perhaps – Detroit real estate.

As you laugh, remember that the best financial advice ever given is the most difficult to follow: Buy low, sell high.

Prices in Detroit will never be lower.

It takes guts to buy low because most investors think only of the present. Without vision, there is no glory and little profit.

So to all those visionary investors – Warren Buffett, are you out there? – help bring back Detroit. Buy Detroit.

Buy Detroit now.

Do it before the Chinese. They’ll be over for sure, for they are the most patient of all investors.

Actually, the Hipster homesteaders probably will be first.

Look what they did for Brooklyn! They’ll test the waters, start slow; attract more of their ilk; bring the city back block by block; start a few small businesses. They won’t be looking for a return; just a lifestyle that they can create. It’s the new lifestyle that will bring in the investors.

We’ll all read about it in the New York Times or watch it develop on YouTube; they’ll be a Detroit sitcom; some of us, or our children, will eventually move there, paying rents that are no longer cheap but enjoying the comfort that even a city like Detroit can once again mean commerce.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A hideous Google pleads, “Don’t look at me!”

15 Jun

Google car

The world is filled with great ironies. Here is one of them.

Google, a company unrivaled at invading privacy, does not want to be watched while it works.

Here is the background.

This great innovator of search, which knows so much about what we do on the Internet, knows every word we write in our Gmails, provides the world with pictures of our homes and streets and shares everything it knows about us with the government and any marketer willing to pay, soon will visit the campus setting where I work.

In its desire to record everything there is to record, Google crews will photograph the thoroughfares within the campus and also enter buildings to map interior hallways.

The first they do with backpack-mounted multi-directional cameras; the second with GPS enabled smart phones.

Prior to the visit, an email was sent by my employer to all employees alerting them to the presence of Google crews and asking us to honor a request not to disturb them. That’s reasonable, but it went on to ask us not to photograph them, which is less reasonable, nor even to watch them, which is absurd.

Don’t watch, we were instructed.

Google may have a host of non-ironic reasons for this request, but they were not shared and I can’t think of even one.

It brought to mind those horror movies where monsters plead, “Look away! I’m hideous!”

With each passing day I realize that the Internet, with all its wonder and potential, with its ability to better lives, improve society and educate the masses, has degenerated into the world’s greatest con game. It provides us with the things we desire in exchange for our souls and the inner workings of our brains. Google does this so that it and many, many others can make money.

After receiving the email, I was at first tempted to protest the directive and watch.

But now I’ve decided to take the opposite approach. When this hideous thing enters campus, I’m going to – as requested — look away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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