Wednesday, January 14, 2015

161.5. Four Notes: Physicals, Charlie, Real Estate Bubble, World War I

     Surprise, surprise!  This mini-note, squeezed in on a Wednesday, comprises four notes about matters on my mind that, if added to the next post, would burden it unduly.  So I’ll disburden here and let the forthcoming post on movie theaters proceed with joyous abandon.

     Note on annual physicals:  “Skip Your Annual Physical” is the title of an op-ed article by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in the New York Times of January 9, 2015.  The author, an oncologist and a vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, asserts that most annual physicals are worthless, so that if we all skip them we can help reduce health care costs.  In 1994 I had no symptoms of anything, but my routine annual physical revealed that I was slightly anemic.  “If you were a menstruating woman I wouldn’t think twice about it,” said my physician, “but in a man it’s suspicious.”  She immediately ordered a colonoscopy – my first – and the procedure discovered a malignant tumor the size of a golf ball.  The surgery that followed removed the tumor, but metastasis – the spreading of the cancer beyond the colon – had just begun.  Chemotherapy was recommended to prevent recurrence, but I preferred a nutritional approach instead, with lots of cruciferous vegetables, garlic, and soy foods; the cancer never returned.  Many annual physicals may reveal nothing at all, but mine saved my life.  I tried to send a short letter to the editor to the Times, making this point, but the e-mail was immediately rejected unread.  My advice to all: have your annual physical and rejoice if it reveals nothing; omitting it could put your life at risk.

     I am not Charlie:  In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, 40 presidents and prime ministers and a million people marched in the streets of Paris on Sunday, January 11, in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.  (Conspicuous by their absence, incidentally, were our President, Vice President, and Secretary of State.  ???)  Many of those marching flaunted signs declaring  JE SUIS CHARLIE.  But are they?   And are we?

     Charlie Hebdo espouses a kind of satire that is savage, provocative, ruthless, and sophomoric.  As David Brooks has pointed out in the Times, had they tried to publish one of their issues on the campus of an American university, protests would have erupted with cries of “Hate speech!” resounding, and they’d have been shut down in an instant.  We Americans simply don’t tolerate this kind of deliberately offensive humor.  “In America,” one of my Columbia professors, a Frenchman, remarked long ago, “jokes about religion are unwelcome.”  True enough, and now one might add jokes about ethnic and sexual minorities as well.  We believe in tolerance, even if we don’t always practice it, and therefore frown on the kind of mockery that Charlie Hebdo specializes in.  Which is not to say that we approve of Islamist extremists; we march in spirit with the Paris protesters, whether we identify with Charlie or not. 

     Charlie Hebdo, as I understand it, is a throwback to the 1960s and its mood of feverish protest, and something of an anachronism today.  In fact, prior to the recent attack it was dwindling down and probably destined for a quiet extinction.  But the terrorist attack has vaulted it back into prominence and given it new life.  Before the attack its circulation per issue was about 60,000; just today they have brought out another issue, the first since the attack, with an anticipated circulation of 3 million; the first million copies  sold out at once.  The issue shows the prophet Mohammed carrying a sign JE SUIS CHARLIE.  But this raises an interesting question: should the state have to devote precious resources to the protection of a publication that is determinedly and willfully offensive, especially when those offended are present in France in large numbers?  Well yes, of course, but …  Hmm, I think I’ll let the French puzzle this one out.  But even if I sympathize with it in the wake of the attack, I am not Charlie Hebdo. 

     Another real estate bubble in New York?  I know little about real estate, don’t even glance at the Real Estate section of the Sunday Times.  But something on WNYC struck me the other day.  The station has been doing a series on the local real estate scene and its skyrocketing prices entitled “Who’s Buying New York?”  On this program, of which I heard only the very last part, a real estate agent being interviewed said that real estate in the city in 2014 had been “on steroids.”  And 2015, she confidently predicted, would be even hotter.  And 2016?  “Don’t ask.”

     Curious, I googled “real estate bubble, New York” on my computer and immediately came up with a bunch of reports.  For instance:

·      On November 6, 2014, the New York Daily News quoted Ofer Yardeni, CEO of a prominent real estate development firm, as saying that the New York residential property market is a bubble about to burst.  “I would very happily short 57th Street,” he said, referring to the high-end towers surging up along 57th Street’s “Billionaires’ Row.”  Super luxury apartments are multiplying, but no one knows if there are enough wealthy foreigners out there to buy them.
·      On August 5, 2014, hedge-fund manager Todd Schoenberger announced that the New York real estate market, fueled by foreign buyers, was hot, hot, hot – a bubble waiting to pop.
·      On April 15, 2014, real estate broker Robert Knakal said that he was frequently asked if the commercial real estate market had become a bubble.  Acknowledging arguments both pro and con, he concluded, “The jury is still out.  Only time will tell.  Until then, let the fun continue.”  (This, of course, was months ago, well before the preceding two observations.)

     And so on and so on.  Some knowledgeable observers say yes, some say no, and some say maybe.  And who is buying these properties, or putting up new ones?  It’s not easy to say, since often the listed owner is a shell company that conceals the names of the buyers.  But everyone agrees that the boom is fueled above all by foreign buyers, especially Chinese, who are now allowed to take money out of the country and are eager to invest abroad.  Many of these buyers don’t live here and don’t pay personal income taxes, and their eager buying, usually for cash, is driving prices constantly up.  Some of these absentee owners keep the property as a “pied-à-terre” where they can rest their weary bones during brief visits to the city, while others simply rent the property out.  There is a bill now pending in Albany that would impose an annual “pied-à-terre” tax on properties worth $5 million or more, but who knows if it will pass?

     Symbolic of the current boom is a skinny building at 432 Park Avenue that soars 1,396 feet, making it the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, topping both the Empire State Building and 1 World Trade Center minus their spires.  Visible from almost anywhere in the city, this new building has been described by local journalists as a “dried piece of spaghetti,” a “giant matchstick,” and a “cornstalk in the middle of a vegetable patch” – one worthy of a “toothpick award.”  All of which suggests a less than enthusiastic reception.  It’s offering luxury apartments, of course, with breathtaking views, but at least it was put up by American developers.

     So what am I, a layman, to make of all this?  Does it even affect me?  Now, no.  But a collapse in real estate prices has a way of sending ripples through the whole economy, often with dire results.  Maybe a popping of the bubble is imminent, maybe not.  But the very thought of it makes me nervous.

     Note on World War I:  Last year was the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, so much has been written about that conflict.  Recently the Times Sunday Travel section had an article by an American journalist who visited sections of northern France where you can still see the vestiges of the trench warfare that dragged on for years.  The Germans were far ahead of the Allies in their trenches and fortifications, which included a narrow-gauge railroad to distribute supplies, and underground recreation centers for the troops; whatever meticulous, sophisticated planning could provide, they had.  Small wonder, then, that they held fast against all Allied attacks until the summer and fall of 1918, when they were finally dislodged from their elaborate defenses and forced to retreat.  The journalist asked the older residents in several villages what finally forced the Germans out.  Always the villagers answered, “Les Américains.”

     Coming soon:  As previously announced, Movie Theaters Then and Now: Palace, Sleaze, and Art.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder