01/04/14 10:00am
01/04/2014 10:00 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Tourists on NYC’s Wall Street in 2011.

Depending on who you talk to, the economy seems to be on the mend and 2014 will be a good year for Americans’ finances.

But that qualifier of who you’re talking to says it all. So in an effort to gather all the information we can, here at Gimme Shelter, on which way the economic wind will be blowing this year, we’ve been paging Babson & Roubini, but haven’t had any luck.

AMBROSE CLANCY

Even though these two might sound like sole partners in an up-island law firm monitoring police scanners for four-car pileups on the LIE, they are actually economic forecasters. Roger Babson and Nouriel Roubini predicted the two greatest financial catastrophes of the last 100 years.

Playing Chicken Little with the correct information, Mr. Babson saw the October 1929 Wall Street crash coming. And Mr. Roubini told everyone in 2006 who would listen — no one in power did — that the U.S. economy was heading for flameout.

Today some people prophesize doom, some say happy days are here again, and others rely on the unassailable truth that even a broken clock is accurate twice a day.

We’ll dispense with reading the entrails of housing starts, the labor market, factory orders, interest rates and currency supplies to look at seven other bellwethers telling us where the economy is heading.

1. Mens’ underpants. Former Federal Reserve Chairman and Ayn Rand acolyte Arthur Greenspan once said declining mens’ underwear sales means “a prescient, forward impression that here comes trouble.”
You’ve already crafted your own punch line to Mr. Greenspan’s unfortunate quote, so we’ll move on.

2. Sonny “Junior” Giorgio. In Chicago, during an interrogation of the alleged Cosa Nostra don — arrested for conspiracy and hijacking — Mr. Giorgio told investigators the price for federal judges had remained steady over the past quarter.

3. High heels. At the depths of the economic crisis in 2009, the median height of high heels was seven inches, according to Portfolio.com. That median figure has been steadily dropping since then. Meaning women can’t afford the bimonthly visit to the podiatrist?

Not so fast. Others took the heel indicator to mean the economy was strapping on its dancing shoes. Researchers at IBM broke down data from social media sites to find that flat shoes and kitten heels are hot, meaning, said IBM analyst Trevor Davis, that the proliferation of do-what-you-will-to-me shoes means buyers are looking for “fantasy and escape” from bad times. Lower shoes, brighter times ahead.

Which begs the question: Who comes up with names like “kitten heels?”

4. Hemlines. George Taylor, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, has noted that during the Roaring 20s women’s hemlines went north dramatically and plunged during the 1930s Great Depression. Taylor deduced women wanted to flaunt pricey silk stockings while Roaring and hide their bare legs when Depressed.

But a fashion clue these days is short skirts and bare legs. No word yet from Professor Taylor.
However, women’s fashion tastes must be analyzed because, referring to our first indicator, most men wouldn’t even have underwear if their wives didn’t buy it for them.

5. Seagulls. If you’ve noticed flocks of seagulls hanging out in Long Island parking lots with the occasional flap over for a dumpster dive, this means the economy is on the upswing. Forbes magazine recently noted the size of restaurant garbage piles means people are eating out more, since restaurants throw away more in preparation in fat times than in lean. Of course, seagulls in parking lots might just mean storms are brewing out at sea. But you can impress your dimmer dinner companions by either predicting the weather or the economy.

6. Alligators. In Cut Off, Louisiana, the 60,000 residents at Savoie’s Alligator Farm are breathing a bit easier as they bask in the mud or slither in the creek for a dip. Seems there’s less demand for their hides.

The gator farmers are suffering because Gucci, Vuitton and Versace haven’t made the trek for skins to Cut Off lately. Meaning the wealthy are settling for stingray, ostrich, python, eel and lizard for their shoes and handbags.

We’re not sure if that means anything, but it’s always fun to point out there’s a municipality in Louisiana called Cut Off.

7. The one-eyed car. An old friend, Martin Melkonian, professor of economics at Hofstra, sees merit in counting the number of cars sporting only one headlight at night. When those numbers increase, more people are going broke and putting off installation of a new light.

“At least in the neighborhoods I’m driving, I’m seeing more one-light cars,” Mr. Melkonian told us.

Professor Melkonian said he’d ask his wife about more “quirky” indicators and get back to us. “She’s good at that kind of thing,” he said.

It didn’t seem appropriate to ask if Mrs. Melkonian bought the professor’s underwear.

Maybe John Kenneth Galbraith had it right when he said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Happy New Year.

Mr. Clancy is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter. He can be reached at a.clancy@sireporter.com

05/18/13 10:00am
05/18/2013 10:00 AM

With the state Legislature upping the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour, and fast food workers agitating for a union, it brought to mind my own experience scuffling at low-paying jobs — and the three union cards I carried. I’ve seen unions from three distinct angles: the weird, the great and the awful.

But first, some thoughts on why some people think unionizing a KFC worker is strange or funny. These jobs are widely disparaged in American culture; someone “flipping burgers” is a figure of fun. (It’s the same as the widely used “trailer trash” description of people. Can there finally be a moratorium on that? Do people using that term ever think of the kid growing up in a trailer park, hearing herself and her family referred to as trash by someone on TV?)

And unions? They’re considered an anachronism at best, “job killers” at worst — that is, except to those union members who have a job and make living wages. The left and the right both complain about how the middle class has been squeezed and shrunk over the last several decades, and both political wings have their reasons for this.

One argument for the stagnation of real wages — productivity grew 80 percent over the last decade while hourly wages grew only 10 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute — is that with the death of unionized labor, real money in the pocket has shrunk.

The union movement took off during the Great Depression, beginning in 1929, when the economy collapsed. Organization and collective bargaining thrived for several generations, contributing to one of history’s triumphs: the rapid and extensive expansion of the American middle class. In the 1950s, 50 percent of American workers held union cards. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 11.3 percent of workers are unionized.

So, my three unions: As a high school kid I landed a full-time night job at a municipal golf course. My duties: Starting at 5 p.m., running an ancient, one-gear truck, following the final foursome around the 18 holes setting up sprinklers; moving the hoses after a couple of hours; driving around later and shutting them off and coiling them in the back of the truck.

I then went into watchman mode, although what I was watching for was never clearly spelled out. I did my duty by sprawling on a derelict couch in a shack in the woods off the 15th hole, listening to the radio and reading. By 1 o’clock I was done, racing to catch the last bus home.

I was paid peanuts, but it kept me out of the pool hall. The job improved immediately one midnight when a guy in a suit walked in. This was startling, since for a year I’d seen no one after that final foursome every evening. Was he who I should have been watching for? Before I could say anything, he introduced himself and called me “brother.” I was now a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs and Warehousemen of America. I was told a few dollars in dues would be taken out of my paycheck next week, handed a pamphlet and a card and got a handshake. Before I could ask a single question, my new union brother vanished.

The few dollars were removed from my check but more were added. I got an immediate 20 percent raise and wouldn’t laugh at Jimmy Hoffa jokes for years.

Did I deserve the raise? Asking the question defines you.

A few years later, at loose ends, I went to a state labor department office in Manhattan one morning. By that afternoon I was running an elevator at a five-story school on Central Park West. Soon I was a member of Local 32B of the New York Building Services Union.

The pay was all right, but the benefits, medical and dental, were better. Summers, when school was out, the doormen and elevator operators became maintenance men, and I painted classrooms and hallways, did pointing on the roof facade and was a plumber’s assistant. Walter Brown, our shop steward, kept telling me to pay attention, plumbers made way more than elevator jockeys. Did I listen to Walter? If I had, my address today would be Easy Street, Fat City.

My final union was the New York City taxi drivers union, where I paid dues for four years. The union and the industry as a whole have changed radically since those days. Back then the union was led by goons who were in bed with the big fleet owners. The general union meetings were chair-throwing parties — literally. If you went down to the hall on Park Avenue South to get some clarification on dues or rules, some union brothers named Sonny and Junior would be happy to clarify you right out into the parking lot.

But whenever I hear of people trying to organize, I remember the cabbies I shared long afternoons with at the fleet garages shaping up for work, and the Teamsters I came to know and especially Walter Brown, who truly believed in a union of bread and roses.

Ambrose Clancy is the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter. He can be reached at a.clancy@sireporter.com.