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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

If you've got it, spend it

A new Marist poll – the results of which the Freeman published this morning – found that a majority of respondents are optimistic that 2009 will be better than the recession-wracked 2008 but also that chief among many people’s New Year’s resolutions is to spend less money.


Spending less money may be good for personal finances but it’s ruinous to the nation’s economy. Consumer spending – whether on cars, washing machines, groceries, dinner at a restaurant, a gas tank fill-up or a pack of gum – makes up two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, and when spending slows, as it has in recent months, the economy slows, too.

The overriding problem is that recessions are self-fulfilling prophecies – that is, if people even believe the economy is worsening (usually because they’ve been told as much by the media), they cut back on spending, which causes the economy to actually worsen, which causes people to spend even less, which causes the economy to worsen further, and so on.

And the sad part is the spending cutbacks aren’t being driven by people having less money; they’re being driven by people fearing they’ll have less money … by way of losing their jobs because of the recession they helped cause.

So how do we stop the economy’s downward spiral? By resolving to spend more money in 2009, not less. Because I’ve got news for you: This recession isn’t the result of bank failures, layoffs and problems at the Big Three U.S. automakers. Rather, the bank failures, layoffs and Big Three problems are the result of the recession – the recession that we, the people, created by cutting our spending because we feared a recession; and the recession that only we, the people, can end. All it requires is a willingness to open our wallets a bit wider.

I’m not suggesting that people who are worried about their financial well-being buy a $50,000 SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon or take a two-week vacation in Europe. But I am suggesting that we try to resume some our spending habits from better times – going to more movies, eating out a bit more often, treating ourselves to something that we want but don’t really need, enjoying a weekend trip, etc. Those little bits of extra indulgence will go a long way toward curing what ails this great nation of ours and toward making 2009 the better year for which we all are hoping.

So here’s hoping – and wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year!


Monday, December 29, 2008

Unsportsmanlike conduct

Let me see if I have this right:

The New York Jets go from a respectable 10-6 record in 2006 to an embarrassing 4-12 finish in 2007, and head coach Eric Mangini is allowed to keep his job.

Then, saddled by upper management with the aging and increasingly ineffective Brett Favre at quarterback, Mangini still finds a way to improve the Jets to 9-7 this year … and he loses his job?

Leading the Jets to a 9-7 record was nothing short of miraculous given how badly Favre played (22 interceptions, 10 fumbles, 30 sacks and a dismal 81.0 QB rating). Team owner Woody Johnson should have thrown Mangini a parade, bought him a yacht and given him a contract extension.

The only person who should have been shown the door – short of Johnson himself – was General Manager Mike Tannenbaum.

Mangini did nothing wrong and did not deserve to be punished.


Friday, December 26, 2008

'Twas the blog after Christmas ...

… and all through my head:

* Why, in reporting this holiday season’s dismal retail sales numbers, do national media outlets keep repeating the lie that a few bad winter storms were partly to blame for the downturn? The average American goes into the holiday season with a set shopping list and buys the items on that list before Christmas. The fact that an ice storm in the Northeast or a snowstorm in Chicago may delay some of those purchases by a day or two has no bearing on overall sales. Unless the entire United States is rendered motionless by a storm that starts at Thanksgiving and ends at Christmas, the weather will never, ever play a role in holiday retail sales volume.

* A guy dressed as Santa Claus kills eight people in Southern California on Christmas Day, and the New York Post doesn't use “Bad Santa” as its front-page headline? I feel cheated.

* A group of Revolutionary War re-enactors that crosses the Delaware River by boat each Christmas Day to commemorate George Washington’s historic crossing on Dec. 25, 1776, canceled this year’s event on Thursday because of strong winds and fast currents. (The re-enactors walked across a nearby bridge instead.) Seriously? Perhaps these wimps should do a little research on what the weather was like when Washington and his men made the actual trip 232 years ago en route to surprising the Hessian forces at Trenton. If General George had let inclement conditions – which included hail, sleet and strong winds, not to mention ice floes in the river – stop him, we probably all would be speaking with British accents today. Re-enactors? Hardly. More like revisionists.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'Twas the blog before Christmas ...

… and all through my head:

* One of the other Hudson Valley newspapers, in a Web posting on Saturday, proclaimed the following (emphasis added): “On the heels of a BRUTAL snowstorm that SLAMMED the area Friday, Sunday’s storm is expected to HIT the Hudson Valley around 3 a.m. and POUND us for 12 hours or so.” Never mind the fact that Sunday’s snowfall only amounted to about 3 inches; simply the expectation that it was going to be a calamity compelled people to cancel plans, skip holiday shopping and allow their lives to be disrupted. How foolish – and proof, yet again, that weather is better gauged by looking outside than by believing forecasts.

* In a blog posting on Dec. 15, Freeman Publisher Ira Fusfeld commented that traffic heading toward the town of Ulster shopping district seemed unusually light given that Christmas was only 10 days away. What a difference a week makes! This past Monday, the 22nd, I was in the Ulster shopping area twice, and the traffic at and near Hudson Valley Mall was brutal both times. During my first trip, I tried to exit the mall property at the north end, onto Frank Sottile Boulevard, but traffic heading toward that spot was so backed up on the mall’s perimeter road that I wound up making a U-turn out of the jam (as did several other frustrated drivers) and going back to one of the exits onto Route 9W. During my second trip, I wound up stuck in a backup of about 40 cars as I tried to get off Route 209 onto Route 9W (near Staples). And on both occasions – no exaggeration here – the parking lots on the Route 9W side of the mall were the busiest I’ve ever seen them in my 21 years of living in Ulster County. So what gives? Did the economy suddenly get better? Did people decide that splurging on holiday gifts was more important than saving money? No. The reality is that Monday’s crowds probably were the result of some people delaying their weekend shopping because of Friday’s and Sunday’s snowfalls and others being drawn in by rock-bottom sale prices offered by desperate merchants. But crowded stores – whatever the cause – are a good sign in a weak economy, and it was nice to see so many people out.

* So now that the Yankees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to sign pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and free-agent slugger Mark Teixeira, I can’t wait to see what it is that will, for the ninth straight year, cause the most self-righteous team in all of sports to fall short of a championship.

* Speaking of New York teams that think simply being from New York entitles them to a championship, I’d like to say just four words about the Brett Favre-led Jets: I told you so.

* After seven years, CNN finally has seen the light and has given up that annoying news crawler at the bottom of the screen. The network still runs some printed words down there, but only ones that are relevant to the story being broadcast. And slowly, though not as definitively, MSNBC and FoxNews appear to be following suit. As you may recall, these crawlers were born on Sept. 11, 2001, when CNN, MSNBC and Fox realized – seemingly at the same moment – that they could convey more information than usual by having their anchors talk about one subject while the crawler covered others. It was a stroke of genius on a day when people were hungrier for information than at any other time in the television era, but the crawler ran its course long ago, and its demise should have come much sooner than this.

* The Associated Press, in writing this week about “The Top 10 Entertainment Stories of 2008,” ranked the death of NBC newsman Tim Russert as No. 9. Huh? How does Russert’s untimely death qualify as entertainment industry news? Look, I’ll be the first to admit that too many TV broadcasts that claim to be news shows have crossed the line to the entertainment side of the business, but Russert’s “Meet the Press” did no such thing, and calling his death an “entertainment” story is an insult to one of the best journalists who ever filled our screens.

* Speaking of TV, what’s up with Time Warner Cable and Albany-based ABC affiliate WTEN (Channel 10)? About a week ago, Channel 10's programming was replaced in local Time Warner households with a black screen and a single line of type at the bottom explaining that, because of some analog-to-digital switch, WTEN no longer would be offered to customers who pay for only “basic cable.” Anyone wanting to receive WTEN, the message stated, would have to buy Time Warner’s digital (read: more expensive) service. The company even took out adds in the Freeman explaining the removal of WTEN. But then, a couple of days later, WTEN was back on the air in local “basic cable” households. Go figure.

* Nice to see local gas prices finally falling in the line with the national average. For much of the past few months, as prices at the pump plunged, local stations were charging about 20 cents more per gallon than the national average. But now that average is about $1.65, and I’ve seen gas in Kingston as cheap as $1.68. It’s about time!

* And lastly, happy holidays – Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or whatever else you might celebrate – to all!


Friday, December 19, 2008

You're doing a heckuva job, Georgie

President Bush, still unable to recognize the impact of a natural disaster immediately after it happens, waited until Thursday - a full six days after the Hudson Valley ice storm - to issue a federal disaster declaration for the region.

The White House said in a statement faxed to local newspapers that the declaration authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “identify, mobilize and provide, at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency."

All well and good, except that the equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency - primarily power outages endured by tens of thousands of people - were mobilized and provided by local utility companies starting a week ago, and the last of the problems were fixed on Wednesday, the day before Bush issued the disaster declaration.

Put another way:
Dear George: Thanks for the offer, but we managed just fine on our own. Love, Katrina.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Midweek musings

• Having to spend most of this morning in my car, I listened to a considerable amount of state budget analysis on New York City radio stations. Much of the talk focused on Gov. David Paterson's proposal to cut state aid to public schools by more than 3 percent, and every single commentator said such a dramatic cut will force school districts to raise property taxes. I have a better suggestion for the school districts: REDUCE SPENDING!!

• Speaking of Paterson, I noticed the daily poll question in this morning's Freeman (which I didn't write, because I'm off on Mondays) asked whether the recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch that made fun of the governor's blindness was in poor taste. Of course it was in poor taste; that's what made it so darn funny. And forgive me if I have trouble taking seriously Paterson's outrage over the sketch considering that no one pokes more fun at Paterson's blindness than Paterson himself.

• Lastly, I think all the reporters who covered and commented on the now-infamous shoe-throwing incident Sunday in Baghdad missed one important element: How does a guy throwing an object as large as a shoe miss a target that's only 10 feet away — and not once, but twice? No chance now that the Yankees are gonna sign this guy. Seriously, though, the most disturbing element of the incident was that it took Secret Service agents a full seven seconds to surround President Bush after the footwear flew. If the offender's aim had been better, and the objects he threw had been, say, sharp knives, Mr. Bush might very well have suffered a critical or fatal injury.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Storm stories

Some thoughts and observations about the ice storm that wreaked havoc in the Mid-Hudson Valley late Thursday and early Friday:

* I’m accustomed to power outages at my house in Kingston being fairly short-lived affairs – usually no more than a couple of hours – so I became increasingly frustrated as the Schiffres Family Blackout that began at 8:30 p.m. Thursday lingered past midnight, then through the wee hours of Friday, then past sunrise and midday before finally being resolved around 2:30 p.m. Friday. The 18 hours we spent without electricity – and heat – was quite a long stretch by our standards (possibly the longest ever), but then I started hearing that some of the 60,000 local customers who lost power in the storm would remain in the dark – and the cold – throughout the weekend, and perhaps into Monday or beyond. Suddenly my 18 hours of personal misery didn’t seem so miserable.

* Central Hudson Gas & Electric spokesman John Maserjian, in speaking with reporters on Friday, made the point that virtually no area of the region was untouched by power problems. A quick scan around the Freeman newsroom proved his point: Eight people among the dozen or so who were working with me on Friday lost electricity at their homes at some point on Thursday, and two of them were told by the utility that their lights may not come back on until Sunday.

* Along the same lines, I ran into a contractor friend of mine about 9:30 a.m. Friday in a diner in the town of Ulster – where Rhona, Marc and I had gone for breakfast because we couldn’t cook at home and didn’t want to open the refrigerator – and it struck me as odd that he was there at a time when he usually is working. The reason? The three houses where he currently is doing renovation work all lacked electricity.

* A suggestion to the person who chooses the music that plays while callers are on hold at Central Hudson's customer service number: “Let It Snow” is not what we want to hear while waiting to report a power outage caused by weather outside that’s frightful.

* Lastly, kudos to the Kingston school district for making two good calls in two days. Notorious for canceling school on days when the weather isn’t all that bad, the district stayed open on Thursday when the weather was a nuisance but not yet treacherous, and opted to close on Friday, a fairly nice day, cognizant of the fact that walkers and bus drivers could encounter downed trees and power lines around any corner. It was a day that called for a “better safe than sorry” approach, and Superintendent Jerry Gretzinger and his staff got it right.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

... and Denny makes four

Back in April, I blogged about the fact that I'm loosely connected to three people who have been, or are, regulars on "Saturday Night Live": Jimmy Fallon, because he grew up in nearby Saugerties; current cast member Kristin Wiig, who went to the same high school as me (albeit 10 years later); and Eddie Murphy, who, as a teenager participating in New York City's Fresh Air Fund program, stayed at the home of a high school classmate of mine.

Now we can add Denny Dillon to the list.


I know, she's not exactly a household name. Dillon was an SNL cast member for just one year - the utterly forgettable 1980-81 season that also featured Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Ann Risley and Charles Rocket (the only cast member ever fired for swearing on the air) - but her face has always stuck with me (that's her at left), and yesterday, Dec. 9, I had the chance to deal with her personally in a way that has nothing to do with her acting and comedy careers.

Shortly after I got to work, Managing Editor Tony Adamis mentioned to me that a photo of a pickup truck on fire on U.S. Route 209 in Stone Ridge had been e-mailed to us for possible use in the paper. I opened the e-mail and noticed it had been sent to us by a person named Denny Dillon, who wrote that she owned a Stone Ridge studio called The Drawing Room, across the street from where the truck burned.

I asked Life Editor Ivan Lajara if this was the same Denny Dillon who briefly appeared on "Saturday Night Live," and he said it was.

I had a question about the photo, so I looked up Dillon in the Ulster County phone book (sure enough, she's listed) and gave her a call.

We had a brief and pleasant conversation - no, I didn't bring up her SNL stint or any of her other acting roles, including that of a doomed passenger in the 2006 film "United 93" - and the photo (not a bad shot for an amateur) ultimately appeared on page C6 of this morning's Freeman.

So add Denny Dillon - who's living a quiet, non-celebrity life in Stone Ridge, N.Y. - to my list of SNL connections, and if anyone runs into Eddie Murphy, tell him to be patient ... he'll be a big star one of these days.


Competition: My wallet's best friend

Looking for the cheapest gas in town?

If you live in or near Kingston, check out the gas war being waged between the Stewart's Shop at Albany and Foxhall avenues and the new QuickChek a few blocks up Albany Avenue at the corner of Harding Avenue.

QuickChek - which is staging a veritable assault on the region with new or about-to-open locations in Kingston, Lake Katrine, the town of Ulster and Saugerties - was down to an astonishingly low $1.83 last night, forcing the neighboring Stewart's to compete at $1.84. That allowed me to put 12 gallons of gas in my car (at Stewart's, because I happened on that store first) for about $22. A mere five months ago, when gas was selling for about $4.20 a gallon, that same 12-gallon buy cost me just over $50.

There are financial experts who will argue that a rapid decline in prices is bad for the economy. But I've got news for them: The economy was bad before this rapid decline in gas prices, and, that being the case, we consumers will take any relief we can get.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Retail reality

Appearing below is this morning's story from The Associated Press about retail sales in November.

Sales were down 2.7 percent for the month - certainly nothing to cheer about, but hardly a catastrophe when you consider that the negativism of economic reporting in recent weeks made it seem like the drop would be 10, 20 or 50 percent.

Let's look at the language in this story, shall we?
"Retailers limped through a miserable November"
"deepening fears" that holiday shopping could be "the most dismal in decades"
"deep malaise"
"shoppers worried about layoffs and shrinking retirement funds"
"an awful beginning to the holiday season"
"even more miserable"

And that's just from the first five paragraphs of a 17-paragraph story.

As I've noted in each of my last three postings, there's no arguing that the U.S. economy is weak. But the tone of this latest story, and numerous others during the current downturn, seem to have the intent of making things seem worse than they actually are. And the only thing that will accomplish is scaring people into slamming their wallets shut altogether and fulfilling the reporters' apparent dreams of an economic catastrophe.

Retailers see sales drop in dreary November

NEW YORK (AP) – Retailers limped through a miserable November that even a surge of shopping after Thanksgiving couldn't save, making it the weakest month since at least 1969 and deepening fears that the critical holiday period could be the most dismal in decades.

As merchants announced their November sales figures Thursday, the deep malaise cut across all sectors as shoppers worried about layoffs and shrinking retirement funds focus on necessities. Among the few beneficiaries was Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose posted sales that beat Wall Street estimates and predicted that sales for established stores for December should be at the high end of estimates.

However, Costco Wholesale Corp., usually a strong performer, reported a bigger-than expected sales decline. And most mall-based chains and department stores such as teen stalwart Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Kohl's Corp. and Macy's Inc. fared much worse, reporting percentage declines of over 10 percent.

"It's an awful beginning to the holiday season," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers. "This is going to be a difficult holiday season for most retailers. There are going to be more bankruptcies." He predicted that the retrenchment in spending will linger for at least another six months.

According to the Goldman Sachs-International Council of Shopping Centers sales index of 37 stores, sales dropped 2.7 percent for November, making it the worst month since at least 1969 when the index began. November's results were even more miserable than the 1 percent drop that Niemira anticipated. Excluding Wal-Mart, the index dropped a dramatic 7.7 percent.

The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year, which are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.

Based on November's performance, Niemira is slashing his holiday sales forecast for the combined November and December periods to be down as much as 1 percent. The only holiday period that was almost as weak was 2002, which posted a meager 0.5 percent same-store sales gain.

Sales data from the Thanksgiving weekend showed a buying binge on Black Friday — so named because it historically was the day that a surge of shoppers pushed stores into profitability — but shoppers retreated the rest of the weekend.

And even at the stores on Friday, they focused on bargains and on small-ticket purchases as they slash their holiday budgets, meaning only modest sales gains for the weekend. Now concerns are growing that shoppers won't return to malls until the final days before Christmas, making the typical lull between Thanksgiving weekend and the final days before Dec. 25 even more pronounced as shoppers wait for the best deals.

Many stores blamed their weak November figures in part to a quirk in the calendar — a late Thanksgiving means that the month's reporting period does not include a whole week of post-holiday shopping compared with a year ago. Niemira estimated that factor depressed November figures — and will benefit December — by 1.5 percentage points to 2.0 percentage points.

But clearly, the deteriorating economy is wreaking havoc on consumers, who since mid-September have basically snapped their wallets shut. A big concern is layoffs, which are only expected to increase in months ahead.

A report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed that new claims for jobless benefits fell unexpectedly last week, but the number of people continuing to claim benefits reached a 26-year high.

Worries about the economy have helped Wal-Mart, which reported a 3.4 percent gain in same-store sales, surpassing the 2.1 percent increase that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected. The results excluded sales from fuel. Including fuel, sales increased 3 percent.

Wal-Mart added that business is starting to benefit from falling gas prices, noting that shopping trips increased and "customers had more discretionary income to spend." It expects that same-store sales growth for December will be at the high end of its range of 1 to 3 percent.

Rival Target Corp., which has been stumbling as its merchandises focuses more on nonessentials like trendy clothes and housewares, posted a 10.4 percent decline. That's worse than the 8.9 percent decline estimated by Wall Street estimates.

Costco reported a 5 percent decline in same-store sales, larger than the 2.4 percent drop analysts expected. Excluding the effect of lower gas prices and currency fluctuations, the wholesale club operator would have posted a 3 percent sales gain.

Among department store operators, Macy's Inc. reported a 13.3 percent drop in same-store sales for November, steeper than the 12.1 percent decline expected. Macy's also reiterated that same-store sales in the fourth quarter would fall from 1 percent to 6 percent. Kohl's posted a 17.5 percent decline in same-store sales, worse than the 16.6 drop projected.

Teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, which has resisted deep discounting, saw a 28 percent same-store sales drop, worse than the 25.6 percent analysts expected. Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. reported a 10 percent drop, not as steep as the 14.3 percent anticipated.


Retail Rebound III

This past Saturday, The Associated Press reported that Black Friday sales volume at stores across the United States was about 3 percent better this year than last.

Then, on Monday, the AP reported that retail sales for the entire post-Thanksgiving weekend, Friday through Sunday, were more than 7 percent better in 2008 than 2007.

And word came on Wednesday, again via the AP, that online sales this past Monday – the busiest Internet shopping day of the year – were a mind-blowing 15 percent better than on the same Monday a year ago.

Someone explain to me, then, why a separate AP story about the economy on Wednesday began with these words: “The country’s economic picture has darkened further as Americans hunkered down heading into the holiday, forcing retailers to ring up fewer sales ….”

Am I missing something here?
Black Friday sales were up.
Holiday weekend sales were up.
Internet transactions on Monday were up.
And retail activity accounts for two-thirds of the gross domestic product, the nation’s main gauge of economic activity, meaning the current holiday shopping season may actually be the beginning of a turnaround.

How, then, has the U.S. economic picture “darkened further”? What’s this baloney about retailers being forced “to ring up fewer sales”? And who are these people who are “hunkered down heading into the holiday”? Certainly not the millions of shoppers who filled the nation’s stores after Thanksgiving and went on buying sprees while sitting at their computers on Monday.

There’s no doubt this country is having economic problems, but irresponsible news reporters need not make the situation appear worse than it is. It’s almost as if such writers are wishing economic doom on the United States and its people. Well, I hate to break to all the pessimistic penmen, but the people appear to be speaking – and their message is that things aren’t as bad as some would have us believe.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Retail Rebound II

Since my last posting, which was strictly about Black Friday, I've learned that retail sales for the entire post-Thanksgiving weekend, Friday through Sunday, were a whopping 7.1 percent higher than on the same weekend last year and that retail analysts expect overall sales this holiday season to be 2.2 percent higher than in 2007.

That would be the smallest gain in six years, the pessimists point out, but I think they're missing the big picture: It's still a GAIN ... at a time when the U.S. economy clearly is contracting.

If you ask me, that's pretty remarkable.


Retail rebound?

This year's Black Friday shopping was either a stunning success or a dismal failure, depending on which analysts you believe.

It was a success because shoppers spent an estimated $10.6 billion in the nation’s stores on the day after Thanksgiving – a healthy $300 million more than on the same day in 2007, when the economy was stable and the Dow Jones industrial average was about 5,000 points higher than it is now.

But it was a disaster, the doomsayers insist, because even though people spent more money, the stores will make far less profit than they did a year ago due to prices being slashed in an effort to attract shoppers.

It’s the classic glass-half-full/glass-half-empty scenario, and I choose to be among the optimists.

Why? Because at a time when the economy is failing, the stock market is in the crapper, retirement savings are vanishing and millions of people are at risk of losing their jobs and their homes, Americans still spent more money on this year’s Black Friday than they did in better times.

That’s a testament to the resiliency of this great nation, and it gives me reason to believe that things are not (and will not be) as bad as the pessimists insist.