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Pretty Pretty Good

July 25, 2009


"I happen to hate New Years celebrations. Everybody's desperate to have fun trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what, a step closer to the grave? That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filtch or provide, every temporary measure of grace — whatever works!"
Boris Yelnikoff (played by Larry David) in Whatever Works, Woody Allen, 2009


For those of us in Michigan expecting that all three Detroit car companies are doomed to extinction, Ford Motor Company came through for us, like a slumping Tiger hitter erupting after four one-run games. Ford actually made a profit in the second quarter, even if it was due to an accounting credit for debt reduction. Hey, it was still a profit and not a measly one either: $2.3-billion dollars is not chicken feed. As Larry David would have said in one of his “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes on HBO: “That Ford profit was pretty good. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

            Not too hot, not too cold, not great but not bad either. If Ford couldn’t make profit just by selling cars, at least they did it by cutting costs and reducing debt. As Woody Allen would say in his latest movie, “whatever works.”

            We hear very little about the banks that continue to fail, including seven last week, making the 2009 count 64 so far. If Larry David were an economic reporter, he would be screaming for all of us to wake up. But he’s not and the newspapers and news channels aren’t really in the business of reporting. They are more excited that the stock market has risen from the depths of March, much of it because companies have relentlessly reduced employee counts and other costs, as their sales continued to suffer compared to last year. And the second quarter numbers for many companies were better than the measly expectations that they had set for their analysts. Wall Street still plays the game of “beat the expectations” and make the numbers seem not quite as terrible as expected. If you can make people think pretty good instead of awful, you’re a temporary winner.  

            Winning a little seems to work a lot these days; not that there’s anything wrong with that. Think of Larry, a bald, misanthropic, sarcastic wiseguy who was not very successful as a standup comic, making a TV “show about nothing” for nine years with his successful comedian/friend Jerry Seinfeld, becoming a multi-millionaire and then starting a “sitcom” on HBO based on one page written sketches surrounded by adlibs from Larry and his friends. Nine years later, he is ready to bring the 7th season to HBO, including the original Seinfeld cast, Meg Ryan, and many of the regulars from last season. Not only that but the 61 year was invited to star for the first time in a movie, written and directed by Woody Allen. Not bad for a grumpy 61-year-old man who doesn’t act. In fact, I would say that it’s prêt-ty, prêt-ty, prêt-ty good.

            Compared to what we all went through last year, we can be a little bit thankful. The crooked mayor of Detroit was replaced by former Piston, Dave Bing, a businessman with calm integrity who is actually trying to fix the fiscal problems that have plagued Detroit for years. And to make things a little better for Detroit and Michigan, California has been getting much of the bad press. And as Gail Collins wrote (“Things Can Always Be Worse,” July 24, New York Times), “No matter what dreadful embarrassment your state is facing, you can always console yourself by remembering that you do not live in New Jersey. On Thursday, a vast corruption sweep there netted three mayors, two state assemblymen, five rabbis and a guy who had allegedly been running an organ-trafficking business that has left swathes of the population of Moldova walking around with only one kidney.” If anyone can make us forget Kwame and his band of lawless cohorts, it’s the real-life successors to Tony Soprano.

            See, it’s not so bad after all. GM and Chrysler are off the hot seat for awhile, out of bankruptcy, and Ford is looking more and more like they are here to stay for the next decade and beyond. This won’t make up for the 15.1% unemployment rate in Michigan, which doesn’t include the ones who gave up and part-timers who want to be full-timers. Nor does it stop the coming state budget battles and the coming tax increases for companies and individuals. But for now, the stock market is slightly better with companies like Apple still selling millions of iPhones with billions of applications while others are actually reporting improved sales and profits. And many analysts and economists really do believe the economy may have finally bottomed. Pretty, pretty good.

            Even if the economy is still weak for a long time, our happiness is still locked up in our attitudes. We can grump and moan as if we were Larry David about stimulus packages, cap and trade, health care legislation, new taxes, and ballooning deficits. Or we can simply be thankful for whoever is working and whatever is working.

            Unfortunately, Larry didn’t help Woody make Whatever Works work. Woody Allen’s latest movie, Whatever Works, has been a critical and box office disappointment so far, earning $4,136,295 in 35 days and garnishing relatively mediocre and some lousy reviews. But that didn’t stop Judy, four friends, and I from laughing at many of its lines. I thought the movie had some moments of good old-fashioned Woody-Larry laughter and even though it was pretty forgettable, it was also kind of enjoyable. Like the stock market and the companies thought to be in deep trouble, the movie was really not that bad.

In the movie, Boris Yelnikoff, in his familiar Larry David whine, says, "People make life so much worse than it has to be and believe me, it's a nightmare without their help." He could have been speaking for the movie or the economy or the government, all nightmares to some degree or another. But I’d rather have the attitude of Larry in his TV show, raging against the absurdities of daily existence but once in a while, sitting back and admitting, even amidst all the meshugenas with their mishigoss, it’s all good; it’s all still pretty, pretty, pretty good.

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