March 27, 2014


Undecided: Navigating Life and Learning after High School. By Genevieve Morgan. Zest Books. $14.99.

Other People’s Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real Estate Deal Ever Made. By Charles V. Bagli. Plume. $17.

     A guidebook for Generation Z (those born in 1995 or later) about determining who and what you are, where and when you want to move beyond the high-school experience, and which direction you want to go in as you move inexorably into adulthood, Undecided reflects in its one-word title the feelings of high-schoolers from time immemorial – and, today, the feelings of many college students and young adults as well. Genevieve Morgan, interestingly, is an adult who remains undecided, her life and career composed of everything from nonfiction book writing (well, duh) to fiction writing to book packaging to corporate work to volunteering to magazine editing and more. You might think that this would give her a unique perspective on what it means to stay undecided well into adulthood, and that this viewpoint would be the basis of Undecided, but in fact the book is a rather dry and straightforward exploration of post-high-school options that in no way suggests that readers emulate the author’s own life and experiences. That does not make this a bad book, but it does make it a rather unexciting, middle-of-the-road one, a sober examination of traditional alternatives rather than a free-spirited look at unusual life possibilities.

     So, for example, Morgan discusses various ways in which readers can explore their predilections according to preferences, such as social orientation (individualistic, competitive or more interested in evenness of outcome) and categorizations along the lines of those of the Myers-Briggs test (which is never mentioned by name): “introverted tribal,” “extroverted tribal,” “introverted maestro,” “extroverted maestro.” Morgan says that “the thing to look for is what you prefer more or most of the time,” and this is an ongoing theme of her book: find what matters most to you, what your strongest desire or orientation is, and then use that to help you decide what to do next. Morgan comes up with categories designed to describe her readers (the creative, the helper, the thinker, the planner, and so forth), provides ways to decide which category you fit into, then warns not to pigeonhole yourself – a somewhat contradictory thing to say right after showing how to pigeonhole yourself. But her basic point makes sense: no one is entirely this way or that way, this or that sort of person, so what it is best to do when looking ahead is to decide who you are now, what matters to you now, and try to make decisions that play to your current interests and abilities. Those decisions themselves fall into such broad categories as higher education (although not necessarily the traditional four-year college), military or civil service, work, and travel. She talks about gap years, starting your own business, going to trade schools, and all sorts of other options – all very briefly but all in sensible, easy-to-follow ways. With lists to check, questions to answer, boxes of information ranging from the reality of sexual discrimination in the military to specific Web sites for language-immersion information, Undecided is packed with possibility, as indeed is post-high-school life itself. Although unlikely to help teens who are genuinely floundering as they face graduation, the book may help direct those with some idea of what they want to do and where they want to go, but without a definitive answer for the question of what comes next.

     The challenges of life are many and occur at all levels of income and complexity, as anyone wanting to explore that issue can discover through the object lesson of Charles Bagli’s Other People’s Money, originally published last year and now available in paperback. This is a big, sprawling book that seems more like a case study and less like a work with immediacy now than it did when first released – evidence of changes in the U.S. and world economy and of just how short short-term memory can be when economic and other events change so dramatically and so quickly as they have in recent times. The book is nevertheless a very impressive piece of research, in which New York Times reporter Charles V. Bagli uncovers and unravels the story of the failed deal for the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village middle-income housing project in New York City. Bagli, who covers business and its interrelationship with politics, has a left-wing viewpoint on capitalism that informs the book throughout and will likely resonate even more strongly in New York City itself under its current mayor, Bill de Blasio, than it did when the book was originally published under the city’s previous one, Michael Bloomberg. Whether the work will be equally resonant in other quarters is another matter – it will certainly lend credence to those who believe the Times is unabashedly left-wing in its orientation. Beyond the political gyrations, though, is a fascinating story in which Bagli reports the deal by humanizing the residents of the 11,232 apartments in the high-rises and by systematically dehumanizing, if not exactly demonizing, the financiers and dealmakers of Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty, who paid $5.4 billion for the property and defaulted three years later. The buildings themselves are ugly – one critic compared them to “the architecture of the police state” – but the stories of the people who lived in them are not, and Bagli tells them to excellent effect.

     Rigid rent control and, later, somewhat-less-rigid rent stabilization, protected residents against the vicissitudes of the economy.  But MetLife, the longtime owner of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, was not so protected, having to ask city officials for any rent increase and falling short of the modest 6% profit it was supposed to be allowed to make. This laid the groundwork for the eventual deal with Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty, but the rent restrictions meant that the buyers ran into serious trouble when the financial crisis in housing started to take hold in 2007. The owners also had to contend with a lawsuit that said they “had illegally charged market-rate rents for more than three thousand apartments after ‘wrongfully pocketing nearly $25 million in New York City tax benefits.’” The notion of a lawsuit attacking building owners for charging market-rate rents – no one said above market rate – may seem ludicrous, but not in New York City and not to Bagli. And this is only one element of the immensely complicated story that Bagli tells in Other People’s Money. Bagli has clearly studied and analyzed this deal inside-out, right-side-up and upside-down.  His reporting is excellent, his writing clear, his exploration of the greed (which could also be called, less onerously, the determination to make profits) of the principals thorough. His reporting on the owners’ mortgage default in January 2009 is well done, although his outrage over the fact that Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty lost less than did many of their investors is hard to understand: this is how major deals are put together in American capitalism. Today, “the complexes remain intact,” Bagli points out, and a MetLife executive is quoted as saying that most tenants “still have rent stabilization protecting them.” So could there possibly be a flaw in a political system that guarantees people well-below-market rates for properties whose maintenance, upkeep and improvement must be paid for at market rates, with owners responsible even when macroeconomic factors result in a vacancy rate far higher than any in a complex’s history? That is not an issue that Bagli raises or, apparently, cares to raise. The ones he does raise are fascinating, though, and the detail with which he reports them is highly impressive. But the book leaves behind a feeling, even after 400 pages, that there is more to say about Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village and the housing-driven financial crisis that caused the deal for it to fail; and more to say about how this deal could have been done differently, if it could have been; and whether the whole concept of “rent stabilization” is an anachronism or a necessary counterbalance to the market forces of which this particular deal ran afoul because of circumstances partly within and partly beyond the dealmakers’ control. It is, however, doubtful that more will be said on any of these subjects now that the principals and Bagli have moved on and the economy itself has lurched forward, taking real-estate investment with it. That is, more will not be said until the next major downturn, the next major deal gone wrong, and the next major wringing of hands over what could and perhaps should have been done differently.

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