Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning feature editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize natural poisons found in the skin of certain tropical frogs. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a second masters in journalism from UC-Berkeley. In 2009, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for public service, as one of five writers in MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. The father of two mostly charming kids and an only occasionally charming striped cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and putting out more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time and traditional music, guitar finger-picking, and more recently fiddle and mandolin. He has four chickens—Lucia, Podge, Cat, and Weed Whacker—but what he really covets is a hedgehog.

When Private Equity Attacks Affordable Housing

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 3:30 PM PDT

The New York Times ran an interesting piece Sunday on how private equity funds buy up undervalued firms, bleed off their assets, and then pass them on to other such funds in a vicious cycle. Using Simmons mattress company as a case study, reporter Julie Creswell describes how the process works, noting how Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston profited off of Simmons' misfortunes:

The investment firm, which bought Simmons in 2003, has pocketed around $77 million in profit, even as the company’s fortunes have declined. THL collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the company in the form of special dividends. It also paid itself millions more in fees, first for buying the company, then for helping run it. Last year, the firm even gave itself a small raise.

Wall Street investment banks also cashed in. They collected millions for helping to arrange the takeovers and for selling the bonds that made those deals possible. All told, the various private equity owners have made around $750 million in profits from Simmons over the years.

How so many people could make so much money on a company that has been driven into bankruptcy is a tale of these financial times and an example of a growing phenomenon in corporate America.

But private equity has created problems not just for weak corporations, but low-income America, too. In our July/August issue, Adam Matthews reports on the phenomenon known as "predatory equity," in which private equity funds buy up affordable-housing developments, take out huge interest-only loans against them—sometimes withdrawing tens of millions in cash, which is protected from future creditors by using shell entities—and then flip the projects or peform upgrades to the units (stainless steel appliances?) as part of a strategy to drive up rents. Now that the real-estate market has tanked, however, many of these housing developments teeter on the brink of foreclosure, and that's a bad scene for the people living there. Matthews reports:

Unlike flipping a house, leveraging affordable housing affects the lives of thousands. Deals by [real-estate tycoon Larry] Gluck and other big players have stripped the equity from many of New York's developments; roughly 70,000 affordable units are overleveraged, says Dina Levy, a tenant organizer with the city's Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. (Levy even knows of one development where residents, many of them city employees, are being driven out by real estate companies financed by their own pension funds.) Saddled with oversize mortgages, cash-strapped buildings scrimp on basic maintenance. In December, New York Sen. Charles Schumer urged the SEC to investigate, calling the situation "subprime crisis 2.0."
 

 

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Boing Boing Raises Its Middle Finger to Ralph Lauren

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 11:47 AM PDT

Our friends at the wonderful (and newly redesigned) Boing Boing are raising a collective middle finger to Ralph Lauren after the clothier took issue with their display of an ad that a staffer had singled out for criticism.

On September 29, Xeni Jardin re-posted the disputed ad, which she'd seen at a site called Photoshop Disasters, along with her own reaction: "Dude, her head's bigger than her pelvis." The implication, perhaps, was that the company's marketing people had tweaked the image to give the model, in the words of Jardin's colleague Cory Doctorow, "an impossibly skinny body."

Calling out such an ad for criticism or comment, Doctorow concludes in his followup post, is "classic fair use." But in their cease-and-desist letter, lawyers for Ralph Lauren claimed it was an "infringing image." The lawyers brought their complaint to Boing Boing's Internet service provider, which, rather than caving to Smartly Dressed Big Brother, passed it along so that BB staffers could discuss it. And they did. And the lawyers' complaint didn't pass their "giggle test."

"So, instead of responding to their legal threat by suppressing our criticism of their marketing images, we're gonna mock them," Doctorow promises. He then issues a scolding counter-threat: That any time the fashion house attempts such a weak legal maneuver, Boing Boing will again reproduce the original criticism, publish and mock the threat to ensure it is spread far and wide, and, my favorite: "Offer nourishing soup and sandwiches to your models."

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Health Reform Rocker: We're Number 37!

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 12:20 PM PDT

It should no longer be any surprise to anyone that our most exceptional nation spends more on health care per capita (by a huge margin) than other countries. And that the quality of US health care, in spite of—or rather, because of—all our sweet gadgetry, ranks embarassingly low. Didn't see this the first time out, but my dad forwarded me this YouTube video of Huffington Post contributor—and Jonathan Mann imitator?—Paul Hipp rocking out on this issue. Which is kinda funny, since my dad never listens to rock 'n' roll, and rarely forwards me stuff. But he is a health policy expert. So anyway, here's "We're Number 37" (woo-hoo!).

 

 

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Saying Goodbye to Clove Cigarettes

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 11:47 AM PDT

Walking home from high school one day during freshman year, I ran into my sometimes friend Michel Finzi with his sidekick, a smart-ass kid named George who played in the school band. Finzi, a good-looking French kid who was always regaling me with stories of the girls and surfing at Cape Cod, a world totally foreign to me, was smoking something enticingly pungent. "What's that?" I asked.

"A Krak," Finzi said. "Wanna try?" He handed over a burning Krakatoa brand clove cigarette.

I took a drag of the sweet, heavy smoke, and after about five seconds was floating pleasantly. "Cool," I said. So Finzi, who was headed the other way, generously gave me my own to smoke. By the time I got home, I'd finished about half of it and was feeling pretty damn sick. Had to lie down a while.

Thus began my occasional affair with clove cigarettes. But never again did I smoke one alone. A complex etiquette developed among my close friends. A clove had to be shared with others. Spoken of in codes. Symbols on the package took on special meanings. One could not smoke it past a certain point. One could never ask for a lit clove, reach out for it, or even eye it furtively in the hands of another. It could only be offered. But woe befall those who would Bogart it—hold it longer than the others deemed appropriate. For that sin, you risked ignominy.

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