Free My Trade

Bert “Stands With a Fist” Keith creates another solidarity classic in his tribute to working men and women everywhere. On the back of an upbeat groove, folkster Keith croons “Let me work, you know these hands can work.” While the world may be turning upside down on who gets employed and who doesn’t, his chant is not about nationalization or globalization. More essential than politics, more vital than industrialization or automation, it is about application of the human skill, putting to use practiced hands, hands that have been trained for years—through apprenticeship, through mentorship, now prepared for the short span of a human career. Not to be confused with the current political nationalist fervor, it is a more fundamental ode beyond Walesa or Lenin.

Produced by the brilliant Dragan “Less is More” Stojkovski, who brings out the simple clarity of the music with a paucity of instrumentation, augmented by hammer-like percussion during the breaks, reminiscent of the mechanics of construction.  With Bert Keith on vocals Alex Smith on guitars.


The Glasgow Voyager

I think it was Billy Connolly who famously said that Scotsmen only sing about Scotland when they’re far away from home. Well folk crooner Bert Keith has taken that a bit further and written a gusher of a Christmas song, all about life and the streets of Glasgow and, to the best of my knowledge, he has never been! Now Glaswegians might think, gonny no dae that, but I would urge them to give this a good listen first.

I have to say, when I hear him chant I do think about wintertime Glasgow, where rain-veneered streets reflect a leeching mix of soft amber and stark white streetlights, and there is a distant echo of a can being kicked inadvertently down some nearby street by a stranger hussling to catch the last bus home.

I believe Bert has played folk music in various pubs in Ireland, but I wouldn’t compare the stark streets of Belfast or the brimful byways of Dublin to the fortitude and grit of Glasgow. No, if I had to make a comparison to my Scottish hometown I would say it was more like Philadelphia, though with fewer Americans.


Whenever I think of George Square there are always leaden skies and Traffic Wardens.

Nevertheless, this provenance is no more a stretch than some short Australian playing William Wallace in a County Antrim field. On a side note, take a look at the foreboding size of William Wallace’s sword in his rock star namesake monument. Sorry, but no way Mel: Just not plausible.

Confidently reaching for the highs, his liberal legato and relentless retention of those last notes, Bert appears to have captured that authentic pub-enthused croonerism that your Caledonian dad and uncles would indulge in—usually after a few whiskies at any commemorative occasion; with an audience of at least one and devoid of musical accompaniment. Geez a song Big Yin.

The Glasgow Voyager by Two Worlds Apart. Lyrics and vocals by Bert Keith, music and guitars by Alex Smith, keys and percussion by Dragan Stojkovski.

Why is the number of U.S. start-ups falling?

By Fareed Zakaria Washington Post Opinion writer May 19


Silicon Valley has more than 23,000 start-ups, at least according to the networking site AngelList. It certainly feels that way when you’re in Palo Alto. But it turns out that this place is the exception to a worrying trend. It is by now well documented that start-up activity has been slowing down in the United States for about three decades, dropping sharply over the past 10 years. Even as American culture has turned entrepreneurs into rock stars, the U.S. economy is producing fewer and fewer of them.

Start-ups have been central to America’s economic health. A study published in December by the National Bureau of Economic Research points out that during the 1980s and 1990s, when entrepreneurial activity was high, new companies played an outsize role in boosting innovation, productivity and job creation.

There are many different ways to measure the growth and success of start-ups, but they all point to a similar conclusion. The Kauffman Foundation reports that the percentage of adults owning a business has been declining since the 1990s, when the foundation first began to track that number. At the Brookings Institution, Ian Hathaway and Robert Litan found that the start-up rate (the number of new companies as a percentage of all firms) has fallen by nearly half since 1978.

Why is this happening? No one is quite sure. Some are quick to blame big government. There is something to this critique, but the story is complicated. If high taxes discourage would-be entrepreneurs, then how to explain the burst of start-ups in the 1970s and early 1980s, when tax rates were sky-high? The United States in that period had a host of highly regulated industries, economic stagflation, social and political turmoil, and geopolitical anxieties. And yet it produced Silicon Valley. Even today, California ranks toward the top of the country in terms of taxes and regulation, yet it is also home to some of the most vibrant entrepreneurial activity in the world, in sectors as diverse as high tech, entertainment and energy.

But ever-multiplying regulation does hamper business activity. The Economist magazine argues that the U.S. economy has grown less competitive in the past 20 years. After a wave of deregulation in the 1980s, red tape has proliferated, licensing requirements have expanded and legal costs have risen dramatically. Large, entrenched firms — armed with lawyers and lobbyists — are able to navigate this regulatory landscape better than new ones. “The game may indeed be rigged,” it concludes. Brookings’ research shows that established firms, age 16 years or more, have gained large shares of the market and workers. The authors note that “it has become increasingly advantageous to be an incumbent, particularly an entrenched one, and less advantageous to be a new entrant.”

But a less-noted factor that might be crucial is generational. Baby boomers have proved to be great entrepreneurs, launching companies when they were young and keeping at it as they aged. Succeeding generations have been much less likely to found their own firms. Leigh Buchanan, citing Kauffman data, has explained that the percentage of start-ups launched by people in their 20s and 30s fell from 35 percent in 1996 to 18 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, the share founded by people in their 50s and 60s has actually increased over the past decade.

Young people today dress like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, consume technology voraciously and talk about disruptive innovation. But they want to work at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Google. They are earnest, intelligent, accomplished — and risk-averse.

Is this caution born out of years of stagnant incomes, the financial crisis and a sluggish economy? Maybe, but I think there is something broader at work. Baby boomers were shaped by the 1960s and its counterculture. They were told to “tune in” to their passions and “drop out” of the old establishment. They were rebellious about everything — politics, parental authority, old-fashioned morality and big institutions. Their willingness to strike out on their own was not a pose to get venture capital funding. It was an expression of their passion.

Out of that bohemian world came the informal start-up culture that has now gone mainstream. Steve Jobs once explained that using LSD was “one of the two or three most important things” he ever did. When describing his intellectual influences, he pointed to the beatnik bible, “The Whole Earth Catalog.” Its founder, Stewart Brand, argued in an essay that we owe to the hippies the leaderless, individualistic and decentralizing revolution of personal computers and the Internet.

Of course, the counterculture’s assault on the establishment and traditional values caused enormous political and social upheavals. There was an erosion of law and order, trust in government, family structure and deference to authority. So, the question is, can we get disruption, but of a kind that is not, well, too disruptive?


Dear Fareed,

Very interesting article. From my experience dealing with venture capital and as a small business aficionado I see the following factors as key to fostering a healthy start up environment in the United States:

(1) America has a healthy small business culture that we should continue to embrace. There is and has been an enterprising entrepreneurial culture in the United States in recent times. The United States, from its highest levels of government, its many geographically diverse branches, state governments and commercial enterprises embraces small businesses.  It was and is still entirely possible for fledgling start-ups to engage in meaningful contracts with federal, state and commercial enterprises. In this regard, the United States is markedly different from many other countries in Europe and Asia, which do not promote small businesses anywhere close to this scale.

(2) Deadlocked Government is a distraction. Over the past decade or so, political bickering has risen to a level where budgets are continually awash with uncertainty and programs live under the constant threat of cutbacks and sequestration. This environment diverts the attention of government from doing its intended job and increasingly and unfairly impacts those smaller more discretionary programs that would often foster innovation by small businesses.

(3) Conventional financing options are markedly more difficult to attain. Twenty years ago I could take my fledgling business to a main street bank and walk out with a loan and a line of credit facility. That had to be substantiated, managed and deserved, of course, but it was eminently viable. Today that has become far more difficult with banks raising the qualification bar substantially to mitigate risk and, as a result, many new start-ups will not qualify for this source of liquidity. Other conventional financing routes are friends and family, angel, and venture capital. Each of these is also under pressure with the current economic environment. For example, challenged by their anemic-return-weary investors to maintain and make target earnings on investment, venture capitalists have also raised the qualification bar for target businesses. To qualify for venture capital these days, small businesses must show an increasingly higher level of performance and success—essentially it has become more of a “buyer’s market” for the investor.

In summary, I believe that key reasons contributing to a decline in the number of start ups is the tight economic environment, coupled with a deadlocked, distracted government, and the risk averse attitude of financial institutions. Other than that, we still cling to our pro-small business culture.





The Warden

The Warden

The Warden. 2016. Oil on Canvas. 66cm x 79cm.

This cold late autumn evening, patience and punctiliousness will pay off for the city’s silent sentinel. Waiting and watching with a raptor-like gaze is routine for this unsociable animal. Territorial and versatile in its habitat, the sentinel’s mantle of fine plumage allows it to swoop undetected to harvest unsuspecting prey. However, while British Barn Owls are active mostly at night—especially at dusk and before dawn, the British Burghal Warden is fully operational during rush hour.

Ordained with absolute authority he can be respected, feared and merciless. A pedantic praetorian of the streets, he is often armed with an unassuming black biro and small standard-issue notepad. Usually found near double yellows or reds, the warden has excellent vision and an uncanny sense of precise meter expiration. Assertive and often ruthless, the warden is frequently part of a large moneymaking machine surreptitiously called something like the Glasgow City Council. Unlike the British Barn Owl, the traffic warden is not endangered.

The Warden, 2016, oil on canvas rendering depicts a parking enforcement officer on location in the vehicular epicenter of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow’s George Square. Resplendent in his distinguishing regalia, he contemplates his next move in front of the magnificent, imposing city chambers.



Fine China and Steak Knives

In David Mamet’s new play, China Doll, Al Pacino owned the stage. His acting was dynamic as he took his audience with him on an emotive grand tour, from whimpering sincere remorse to booming rancorous anger, from doting older-gent gallantry to cutthroat business tycoon-ery. From serene to severe, Pacino can project all levels of fervency, but while he effectively plays placid his calling is intensity.


He nailed the mostly likeable role of the past-his-prime but kindhearted Danny Collins in the 2015 Dan Fogelman aging rock star movie. He was suave and persuasive as Ricky Roma, the top hotshot salesman in the 1992 movie adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Twenty years later in the Broadway run of Glengarry, Pacino effectively played the part of the washed up salesman Shelley Levine previously played by Jack Lemmon. Some critics hammered him in that role but what do they know, I thought he was great.


However, for me, he truly shines in the crazier, more manic roles, such as the hapless Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon or the calculating Michael Corleone in The Godfather. And certainly he had many manic moments in Mamet’s rambling, what-the-hell-was-he-thinking play, China Doll. How an experienced playwright can go from the creative, captivating brilliance of Glengarry to the infertile desert of China Doll I do not know. But Pacino made it fascinating and entertaining: He held it together.

Maybe the differences between superb and second-rate are actually incredibly small, as in genome sequencing, where only one percent is the disparity between King George and Curious George. Perhaps Glengarry was just a chromosome away from failure as China Doll is from perfection. But clearly Glengarry gets the Cadillac and China gets the steak knives.


So I’ve had a bit of an Al Pacino fest this past month. After seeing him from the first row in China Doll on Broadway I re-watched a few of his movies. Although, most unfortunately, my daughter made me watch that lowbrow Adam Sandler flick Jack and Jill where Pacino fabulously makes a fool of himself as Dunkaccino. Then in Sicily I had to go to where it all started: the real-life rustic town of Corleone. It’s a bit of a trek over dodgy roads but when you get there it’s worth it—there’s an old Godfather poster hanging outside a bar next to the town square and inside you can order a drink called the Pacino. But I prefer something with caffeine, because coffee is for closers. For food, I like revenge, a dish that tastes best when served cold.