Boston Globe Say It Aint So. . . .

The Globe, as with all dying newspapers in this country, has changed dramatically in the last decade. I have fond memories of my dad bringing home the Sunday Globe and taking a good portion of the week to read it. I even had the privilege of working for a former managing editor of the Globe and meeting among other journalist idols, Bob Ryan when I visited the paper as a teenager. But if you know me, you know I'm not about to get sentimental about an industry that was slow to innovate and has seen its values plummet accordingly. There has been a flurry of newspaper sales lately including the sale of the Globe for $70 million to John Henry and the sale of the Washington Post for $250 million to Jeff Bezos. The Globe sale for example represents a 6 cents on the $1 trade for the New York Times - amazing really. Time will tell whether these smart, rich buyers are really that smart. It does appear as though the market is at the bottom with nowhere to go but up. We'll see. I have only one more question:

Why the hell are Jordan and I getting our Globe bill from Pittsburgh. This is either a sign of the apocalypse or a brilliant streamlining globalization move by John Henry. I can't decide, but it definitely is alarming.

Why do I send money for my Globe subscription to Pittsburgh?



Dr. Buss Over and Out

I've got to admit to feeling a little more down than I thought I'd be after hearing about the passing of Jerry Buss. He was after all, an arch-enemy of the Celtics and Boston sports fans everywhere akin to The Boss and his New York Spankees. It's not just that the Celts and Buss's Lakers derived a good deal of their identity from their bitter rivalry, its that, like the Yankees, the Lakers are now being run by the spoiled, entitled progeny of a legend. And things just will never be the same. The Lakers, the rivalry, showtime. . . all gone.

Am I sad to see the end of the Buss era? You bet.

Its weird to say because for the most part we can't even acknowledge the existence of enemies nowadays. We might offend someone's fragile sensibilities. But in sports, you absolutely need an enemy. Someone to curse when you lose and gloat to when you win. It makes the highs higher and the lows unbearable. But at least they make your blood boil whenever the whistle blows - which is more than you can say about most things in life.


It's the JOBS, Stupid!

So we've often heard the refrain - "Its the Economy, Stupidthanks to Mr. Carville and the Clinton campaign in the early nineties. It was powerful stuff given the success of the campaign and the now revisionist history that colors Clinton's presidency in the rosy tinge of the last great era of prosperity in America. It was so powerful and catchy you could apply the slogan to almost anything. Need to prove the value of fat, out of shape pitchers in baseball? - refer to playoffs - "It's the PITCHING, Stupid". Need to communicate to your wife why breakfast no longer has that zing? - grab some pork belly - "It's the BACON, Stupid". Need help finding a chick who's DTF? - download the app - "It's TINDER, Stupid." So when the latest talking heads took to the stage for the presidential debates, the slogan seemed too obvious - "It's the JOBS, Stupid!"

What do Tinder and EA Madden's book have in common? Isn't it OBVIOUS.

So obvious someone wrote a book on it. And so obvious we now seem to take it as a point of fact. It goes something like this. . . "We just need to innovate and lower the corporate tax rate so we can create more jobs. My plan will get America back to work." As if innovation (which did, by the way, exist in our lexicon prior to the year 2000), lower taxes and good intentions while make a difference. 

But what if it isn't about the jobs. . . . moron? What if all this job talk is just a Red Herring for the economy/society as a whole? Here's why it isn't just about jobs, number of jobs etc. 

THE LABOR MARKET IS OVERSUPPLIED - (an education problem)
Nobody talks about how absurd it is to expect there to be an ever increasing number of white collar jobs out there. Since all the blue collar ones are happily passed down to illegals or recent immigrants, we all seem to want to be lawyers, doctors, financial analysts accountants, insert boring high paying profession here. Do we really need more salesmen, lawyers, architects? Hell I am an architect and I think there are too many of us. If we could prove our value as justifying an ever increasing need in this country I'd say great. But we can't sadly. 
While there might be modest gains in the number of jobs is these sought after professions, let's not forget factories institutions of higher education don't care. As long as generations of suckers will attend your graduate program, you need not worry whether your growing admissions metrics don't mirror a shrinking demand for the professionals you're educating. Upward mobility has finally bit us all in our khaki and pant suit-clad butts. 

INNOVATION - (a technology problem)
What? Innovation isn't the holy grail of job creation? Ironically we think that if our economy innovates, we create more jobs and open new doors we never knew existed. But for every nerdy software engineer who get 6 figures our of school from Google or Facebook, there is an accountant whose whole profession is being undercut by TurboTax. There are absolutely winners and losers when economies change course but I'm dubious that companies like Zynga bring about a net gain in jobs or anything else for that matter. 

If Zynga is an example of "innovating" to create "jobs", I want no part.

THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH TO GO AROUND - (a consumer finance and macroeconomics problem).
The first thing I learned when getting a real job out of college years ago was that I had become a consumerist target before even getting my first paycheck. Seriously, when you file a W2 does every blood sucking email marketer receive your address from the Fed? As soon as you start earning money, our economy is deftly plotting of ever more ways for you to part with it. Of course if you are dumb enough to open a credit card, you might just spend more than you have and find yourself in fine shape when you get laid off months later. 
I'm only pointing out this odd chicken and egg relationship we have in America between the economy, jobs and disposable income. So much of the system is predicated on advertising, emotional spending and an unending fountain of money that when one thing goes, they all go. Americans SHOULDN'T be spending now that the economy is limping back to life but they will, we will. We'll think that that creates jobs. I mean that extra $300 I got from the Bush tax cuts a few years ago really worked out. But let's get real about who our market is when we create new jobs. If they're jobs that help an online retailer sell someone their 38th pair of shoes then we have a problem. Sorry Zappos, I love your plans for Vegas from an urban design standpoint but just saying. . . 

So its not about the jobs its about recognizing that we can't have it all and that 3-5% growth is a thing of the past. We might need to fix these other things rather than crow about how the unemployment rate dropped .2% last month. And I didn't even touch on how China, India and any other country without bloated pension programs will continue to kick our ass over the next few decades.


Student Debt: The Ultimate Hustle

Let's start by admitting something we already know: student debt in America is out of control. And by "out of control" we really mean - It might already be too late. The latest news that student debt now exceeds credit card debt should underscore the seriousness of the issue. Without recognition, we're kidding ourselves. 

Think about it, the student loan debt business now exceeds the consumer credit business. The latter is built upon a simple money making axiom: Allow people to buy shit they don't need with money they don't have. A hustle of the highest order if I've ever heard one. Before you shout, "But consumers are dumb and lack self-control, they should know better!" STOP! Because I agree. Alas there is more than enough blame to go around in the great higher education debt debacle that has consumed the last few decades. One culprit and one scapegoat would make for a much tidier story.

  1. Students - Playing the role of the consumer here, students are surprisingly unaware of their role in their own indebted demise. Almost no students engage in the due diligence an investor would before forking over $$$. Students accept the notion that higher education will ALWAYS lead to greater wealth and therefore take the higher ed sales pitch hook, line and sinker. I'm not saying the claims and studies of greater wealth might not be well-founded. But for the 98 investments that are legit, there are 2 that go the way of Bernie Madoff and could have been avoided with healthy questioning and skepticism.
  2. Institutions - In the consumer credit analogy, they are the good that students covet. Lies, damn lies and statistics; US News and World Report Rankings and a host of other thinly veiled marketing tools make them impossible for the upwardly mobile to ignore. They respond to supply and demand and generally price their product according to market demand just like anyone else in a capitalist economy. We expect them to responsibly control costs, but we shouldn't. Oh yeah and the vast majority claim to be "not-for-profit". That last part confers a range of benefits that contribute to the hustle. 
  3. Lenders - The lender really is the enabler here. It's the credit card that makes the trip to Vegas or Cabo a reality even though you make $40K a year and spend $1500 a month on rent. Lenders and institutions work seamlessly together. The former makes the latter's product attainable to all (or most). So long as demand is strong, neither has any incentive to control lending or costs. Oh yeah, let's not forget education debt is almost NEVER erased in bankruptcy court. It's the herpes of debt products -  with you forever. 
  4. The Government - The right to an education is universally upheld in international law. In the US, the government's role in higher education is becoming more complicated by the second, not to mention that it holds the majority of recent student debt consolidation. Folks like Dan Prepas, a classmate of mine at Middlebury, know a lot more about this than I do, but suffice to say the Fed has the ability to change the behavior of the above three players through regulation and policy change. Let's not forget the Bennett Hypothesis looks more and more prescient today than ever before.

The hustle is simple: Take a universally revered concept like saving fluffy kittens, buying a wedding dress or allowing access to higher education in this case; commodify and monetize it in a modern capitalist economy and wait for the profit (read carnage). This is where group think on a massive scale can be dangerous. It goes something like this. 
  • You need a college degree to be competitive and to earn enough money to live better than your parents did. (Parents help sustain this more than anyone)
  • America will continue to create jobs for new graduates in this service-based, innovation economy in which we live. 
  • You need the best (read most expensive) degree possible in order to compete. Taking out a loan is a small price to pay for this increased competitiveness. 
  • Education costs a lot because institutions are in a constant pissing contest to one up themselves instead of responding to market realities that might dictate more prudence. This is America - go big or go home!
  • Once you finish, get working and pay up. Don't worry, your degree will get you a job no matter what condition the economy is in.
  • Even if you fail and want to reset via bankruptcy, tough luck, you can't.

Well what's left to say? People are pissed. Lawyers are suing themselves. Lenders are getting burned. Institutions are becoming the bottled water of the beverage industry (clip below). And the government is sitting on a powder-keg hurtling towards the sun. 

Let's face it we've failed as a society when we treat our students like credit card companies treat their slaves, ahh I mean customers. Students, shame on you too for not recognizing your fundamental power as a consumer - choice. Just because 99% of the country has been force feeding you a story about your future ever since you learned to listen, doesn't mean you have to conform and accept the reality of the graph below. My solution: Let's either treat higher education like the market based product it's operating as or treat it like the higher human right we claim it to be. This odd afterbirth of high moral ideals mixed with cut-throat capitalist realities is a heavily conflicted entity. And it should be no surprise we're seeing that now.

Comedy Central Stand-Up
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Build the Diagram!

Over the years, I've come to notice a number of "high design" architecture firms that employ an intuitively appealing process for presenting their work. When I dug further, it was clear what the reasons were: 
While there are other reasons that Rem's professional progeny have succeeded, these two reasons deserve some attention. That Koolhaas nurtures these young fawns so they can eventually go out and fend for themselves reminds me a lot of the Belichick or Parcels coaching trees. From one trunk sprout innumerable branches. It's actually mind boggling and another sign of genius. Their work might speak for itself but the success stories coming from their hallowed halls speak even louder. What strikes me is hiring and creating a culture that seems to spawn an eventual ambition for independence. The turnover must be a constant HR dilemma. 

Cheers to Metropolis for creating this. . . diagram!?

But let's not forget the primacy the architectural diagram plays in the whole PLOT. For Rem and his progeny the diagram is the tour-de-force arrow in the architect's quiver. A simple visual expression of a spatial idea. And often times for these firms, they BUILD THE DIAGRAM. This approach is intuitively appealing, something I noticed as a designer but obviously has been noticed by clients as well. Here's why:
  • For one, the diagram is very intuitive and visually digestible. It tends to isolate one factor and illustrate it with a cartoon-like simplicity. Not something Edward Tufte would suggest, but nonetheless useful for connecting with a broad audience.
  • The often chronological sequence of diagrams makes the architecture seem as though it has come to be. On its surface it makes the designer's process readily transparent and not preordained. 
  • Almost invariably the diagramming involves program -  that is to say the client's perceived spatial needs. This program often gets re-aggregated and appears to be the driver of form. So in that sense, whatever the formal outcome, it seems to have its genesis in the client's needs, not the architect's whim. Huge slight-of-hand there. 
  • With many of the firms, like BIG, JDS, MVRDV, REX and MASS Studies, the diagramming includes the idea of external forces influencing form, which is why the buildings are almost never clean modernist boxes. But implicit in that is the idea that the external environment, be it wind, views or even NIMBY neighbors have participated in the making of the building.
  • Finally, an important aim of the exercise is the ridicule of the conventional. It's a not so subversive technique where the diagrams start with a boring formal solution to program and then reveals a transformation that renders the boring box as obsolete. 
The take away here is an individual and a method of production that have been hugely influential. Of course there are issues with taking a diagram and making it a building, literally (REX/OMA did it in Seattle). But almost every single offspring of Rem are larger than life personalities that make for great salesmen and have the audacity to actually do something different. I've run across a few myself and look forward to hearing the grand poonah himself speak at the GSD on Monday