Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Age of the Politician is Over - Bring on the Pundits

I've been thinking about this: What if the career of a politician was dead?

I was on this track. I don't come from money, or a "noble" family--though I have the ancestry-just not the pedigree. But I was following the poor man's route to power. I worked for my Congressman, I went to a school for politics. If I'd continued down that road, I'd have gotten a gig as political staffer on the Hill. From there, the law degree, and then the campaign trail.

Why do people become politicians? Well two obvious reasons. You have an opinion, and you have an all consuming need for adulation/respect/support. Some people might say power--but I think that's missing the point. Public power confers adulation/respect/support ("ARS"). It serves no other purpose as far as I can tell. I differentiate "Public Power," from "Private Power" because many of the most powerful actors almost never have perceived political clout. But they're not the people we love to hate. They're the people we read biographies about twenty years after the fact.

As always, I'm taking forever to get to the point. What do Sarah Palin, Elliot Spitzer, Tim Russert and Howard Dean all have in common? They were all career politicians who are now pundits. Sarah weirdly, but presciently gave up the governorship of Alaska, Spitzer resigned after a marital scandal, Lou Dobbs went Teabagger and had to quit CNN, and Howard Dean lost the 2004 primary. Sarah just finished her first novel, and is on her to way to paying her legal bills with solid gold napkins. Spitzer writes a column at Slate (which I love by the way). Dobbs, has a conservative radioshow called "Mr. Independent," and might run for president, and Howard Dean, though still a career politician now periodically hosts the Rachel Maddow Show (all respect to the former governor, he did a terrible job).

All of this to say, Sarah Palin seems to be right. "Going Rogue," is the way to actually effect American politics. Oh, to be sure, all of the above figures are highly polarized, unserious contenders for office, but that doesn't mean they don't effect policy. In much the way that Rush, and O'Reilly have dictated conservative politics for the last twenty years, popular pundits have much more "Public Power" than any save the president himself. Think about it. Harry Reid can't say what he thinks--he has too much to lose, too much to risk. Every public statement he makes has to be extremely careful. But Howard Dean can call it like he sees it. Being dubbed a wacko after his "The Dean Scream" (see the wikipedia entry) though ending his presidential aspirations gave him the license to speak freely. Afterall, now thateveryone knows he's no longer "serious," what does he have to lose?

Which is why I say that we still need more liberal pundits on the airwaves. MSNBC, where's my contract?

The Bill Goes to Vote and Salon Religious Girl

So, I'll be honest. Studying for finals, and working hard--I haven't been too deep into the healthcare bill as it stands. My lefty freinds at FDL (I use the term "friends" loosely, since they don't know who I am) hate the new bill and want the Dems to sink it. The Times came out for it--but let's face it--the Times came out for the Iraq War.

Me? I don't know. Is it dumb to write a post about being on the fence? Maybe. But really, this post is about the Senate--actually working.

The sausage making that creates bills has been well written about. So I won't go there--let me just say this:

Dems--herein lies the lesson. You broke that filibuster, you got that bill through, and you'll get it passed. Good or ill, this is what you can do when you stand up to obstructionism. Well done. I sincerely hope this will be the turning point for the Democrats. The bill is full of nasty compromises, but the sheer symbolism of its possible passage is a big deal. Next stop net neutrality, habeas corpus and the rule of law, environmental reform, and my personal fave, the passage of Dodd's Financial Reform Bill.

One other comment on a totally different topic. Ada Calhoun at Salon wrote a piece about being religious in New York City. Basically, it goes like this: She's a smart, well read, girl living in Brooklyn and she's embarrassed to admit to her friends that she's a Christian. Her friends are angry liberals, and she fully admits to their reasons for their religious choice as being valid and real to them. Interestingly, the firestorm of angry posters, points out what she's complaining about--a lot of very angry atheists claiming that "too bad, so sad" that she feels persecuted when the vast majority of the country--and the city for that matter are religious and are doing the persecuting.

I feel sorry for Ada, no one wants to feel ostracized. And I'd rather have Ada in my liberal leftatic corner, than hurling acid at babymommas at an abortion clinic, but I think an acknowledgement is necessary here. The angry posters have a point--New York ain't the bible belt. Ada might have to face up to some ostracisim, but her friends are her friends, and if they really care about her--they'll love her for who she is regardless of her religion. She's not going to get stoned, or turn into a pillar of salt. At most, she'll get made fun of, at most, some angry jackass at a party will yell at her. But that jackass is a jackass because he's a jackass, not because he's an atheist. And really, Mr. Jackass, probably just wants to have a rousing ideological debate--not to condemn her to a hell he doesn't believe in.

That said, it was a very nice, thoughtful piece on a piece of New York society. I enjoyed it. Well done lady.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Stupak Amendment

Bart Stupak (D-MI) has penned an Op-ed at the New York Times today attempting to clear up some of the issues raised by his amendment to the healthcare bill.

For those of you who do not know, the Stupak Ammendment basically forbids government spending from the healthcare bill to go paying for abortions. You should read what he has to say on the matter, but it's largely irrelevant to the two points I'm going to make.

I heard on NPR this morning, one democratic congresswoman (whose name I have forgotten) complaining bitterly about the amendment, citing that just because the bill doesn't forbid outside insurance policies from providing money for abortions, doesn't mean that private insurance companies can or will provide for them. Conservative claims to the contrary are obfuscations and lies. The whole point of the amendment is to reduce women's access to their freedom of choice. If private insurance companies were lining up for a windfall here--the amendment would have been DOA. It's disgusting to me that a Democrat from Michigan would be a sponsor for this amendment--but that's another story. claims that an abortion in New York can cost between $350 and $450, depending on the stage of the procedure. A hefty price tag.

My other complaint about the amendment is that I think it's racist and elitist. Of course, it will appeal to anyone whose opposed to abortions, no matter their race or income level, but that's the level that will be principally effected by the healthcare bill. It seems to me that if Republicans were really sincere about combatting "welfare queens" they wouldn't be providing a legit basis for more impoverished women to have more children. The amendment is racist because this will effect a disproportionate number of the lower class, many of whom are black or latino. The bill is obviously elitist because the rich, and the middle class, will be largely unaffected.

So maybe that's what Mr. Stupak is trying for--a sop to the Republican party. Here's a reason to vote for healthcare that won't really effect any of your constituents. If that's the case, it could be a brilliant move.

At anyrate--I still find that it outrageous that public policy is decided on such personal body issues. I mean, maybe I should start a Non-Circumcision PAC, so that we can finally end the war in Afghanistan. No wait. Looks like someone already has. Or wait another one. Seriously, don't these people have better things to do with their time?

Friday, December 4, 2009

It's Official: We're a nation of torturers

Glenn Gleenwald has a discouraging post on Salon I just saw, according to recent polling data, 54% of American's believe that torture is justifiable in some situations. That makes me feel so discouraged, so awful. It's hard to believe in anything I was taught about my country, about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and about what "American values" are anymore. My gf would laugh at me for that--she's not an American. But it's one thing to look at the facts--at the awful things that my government has perpetrated*, and another thing to look look at polling data and realize--America really is a democratic nation. It's just that we're a nation that's almost half fascist.

That is an exageration. Maybe. Certainly not all people who believe torture is valid would support facism--but a central tenet of facism is ultranationalism. The idea that your nation is above the laws of all humankind. The prohibition on torture is universally undisputed. Only totalitarian regimes--and the United States--feel that there is a valid use for torture. If A then B. Another tenet of fascism is the use of a racial scapegoat. Muslims or Mexicans take your pick. If A then B. That we're an autocratic regime. Certainly the Bush administration acted without legal authority on many, many issues. Was it strictly authoritarian? No. But two and a half of three core tenets, makes a pretty good case.

I think that most people don't really think much about these things. I think that most people see torture used in movies, and don't really consider the consequences. The TV show "24" is a great example of this--the good guy only tortures to save American Lives. And oh, how it eats him up inside. So things aren't as bad as they could be. But, then again, the sheer thoughtlessness of such a position is staggering, and remains very frightening to me.

I mean, there's a fifty-fifty chance that the next person you meet might support torture. And if someone accused you of being a Terrorist. Than that person, probably wouldn't mind if you were tortured. I guess that's fine if you live on a farm, and you only meet new people every so often. But I see new people every day. That's close to 300 distinct people per day who might well be willing to torture me. And you.

*Most people either don't know, or choose not to know the facts. So they're largely irrelevant to my point.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Volatility, Price Determinism and the Market Defense

So my accounting professor has just gotten to the unit on pension plan accounting. In a nut shell it works like this: Pension plans have two components. The first, depending on how the benefits are defined, the company pays into the pension at a certain rate. This rate is determined by, among other things, the actuarial data on each employee, and the mood and capability of the company to pay. The second component is accounting for those paid-in assets, which are usually placed into a trust, managed by another entity entirely.

Accounting for all securities is a hairy business. I mentioned this a bit in my last post, when I asked you all if you knew the difference between Trading Securities (TS), Available for Sale securities (AFS) and Held-to-Maturity (HTM) securities. Net Income, one of the most important pieces of investment information is determined by all streams of income, but operating income is usually based on making money on what the company "does." However, very few companies keep too much cash on hand: it's a waste of money that could be out making more money. But cash (value of the dollar notwithstanding) is relatively stable. Trading in equities is a volatile business, particularly in the last three decades. Since all large companies invest their cash, the trick is to account for investment income when it's earning money, and shielding the income statement when it's losing money. I think my professor would argue that point, that is, investment volatility is a fair argument for companies looking to keep their net income stable--in good times and in bad. The way to do that is to report gains and losses in Other Comprehensive Income--which gets aggregated into Net Consolidated Income. In otherwords, not Net Income.

But this is where my political persuasion comes into play. Trading in equities is a risk. Why should companies get a pass because they made a poor investment, or worse, because they chose to make an investment at all? That's heresy in my business, securities litigation (though I'll explain why that is not true momentarily.) Which leads me to another issue. In economics we talk about how prices are determined--to wit--the more market players, the more accurate the price. The short-sellers, and all traders, argue that the constant trading of these stocks creates the fairest price.

My question is this: Is it really fair to include buyers of an item who buy, not because of perceived value, but who buy simply to reverse the sale in hours, days, or months? I think there is another component to value, that isn't obvious in the market mechanism--and that is longterm value. Again my whole philosophy comes down to timing. If half the market for a product represents people buying a product just to sell it hours later, does that really reflect the actual value of the product? It calls to mind the SEC banning the split-second trading made possible by speedy computers. Where trading on the difference between prices minute to minute, second to second can make a lot of money, consistently.

I guess the question is really the volume of these sorts of trades. If, like prior to The Depression, cartels were specifically driving up prices of certain stocks, something made blatantly illegal by the Exchange Acts of 1933 and 1934, then these prices are clearly inflated. But the SEC monitors that stuff pretty efficiently, so let's say that's not the case. So then that would mean that the value of the market prior to October of 2008 was the actual value of the market, and that prices are currently undervalued across the board. My own investment strategy banks on that assumption. But is it really true? If the entire market was inflated from 2005 to 2007, then the market really is at it's true value now.

But let's get back to accounting for a minute. The volatility of the market is greatly enhanced when people buy-to-sell in a narrow time frame. I think the inflation of the past few years has a lot to do with companies providing online trading facilities by which the ordinary investor can trade without the benefit of having an account manager at an investment bank. It only makes sense for large cap companies to have finance divisions (GMs finance division was the only group that made money in the last three years) if the overall value of the market continues to climb. Which was a ludicrous assumption, particularly when matched against BLS statistics of the last decade. So why should these companies get this sort of investment earnings protection?

When I buy into a company, I'm buying into it because I think that they are selling a product which will be bought. Not that they will take my capital and use it to finance their own investment strategy. Unless of course, I'm invested in a bank, or investment bank, in which case, really I'm betting on the market--not the company at all.

I'll close with why I think, given my feelings above, I think investors still need to be protected. It's not whether or not you lose money: it's a question of good faith. And that faith is based on truth and competence. If a company fails to demonstrate either, they should be liable to the investor for their malfeasances.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bear Stearns, Cioffi and Tannin Acquitted

This is absolutely intolerable.

Having been a primary witness to a jury allowing high-class fraudsters off scott free (JDS Uniphase), watching this happen with Bear Stearns gives me real doubt about our judical system, and what it means to be tried before a jury of your peers.

Voir Dire is the process by which juries are selected. It involves some intense questioning of the witness by both parties and the Judge. The answers automatically disqualify jurors in certain cases. If you owned Bear Stearns or JPMorgan stock for instance, you would have been immediately disqualified. It's a necessary process, but sometimes I think the term "peers," is taken too loosely.

Complex financial fraud is incomprehensible. I've been studying Accounting for nearly two years now, and I still don't understand much of it. Maybe I'm an idiot--but consider the following terms and tell me how much you know about each, derivative, mortgage-backed securities, loan loss reserves, credit default swaps, credit default obligations, Credit-default window. How much do you understand about securities? Do you understand the difference between trading securities, available-for-sale securities, and held-to-maturity securities? Do you know what options backdating is? Maybe the call price of an option?

High finance has moved far beyond the realm of what someone who isn't "in the biz" can realistically comprehend. That trial wasn't a jury of peers, but a jury of inanimate objects. All they can look at is the physical. (Times article with Jury consultant, Robert S. Duboff "“Both sides will probably pitch this at a very gut and emotional level, which is how most cases are decided anyway,” Does this man look guilty? Is he crosseyed, or does he look shifty? I mean, the defense ended their closing remarks with a remark addressed to Tannin, "Send this boy back to his family," for chrissakes!

Worse, every poor person in America has the essential belief that he too can be rich someday. So people are sympathetic to the rich. That is--until they can't eat. The Jury made their decision in 6 hours. The JDS jury made their decision in 1 day. There were mountains of documents, literally twenty or thirty boxes of bankers boxes to look at--6 hours? In JDS, Lawyers on both sides spent six years fighting about the case, and you're telling me a fair decision was made in 1 day?

Traditional jurors are not equipped to decide financial fraud. Despite the proliferation (read: inflation) of stock market sales, the only precedent for which occured prior to the Great Depression, still less than 10% of the country will ever buy a stock. Pension plans, Contribution plans be damned. Most of these holdings are managed by professionals and the principals never even see their money. Most of whom have never purchased a stock in their lives, let alone experienced a loss. And the law is strict on juror research. If a juror attempts to gain outside insight on a case--they are promptly thrown out, and either party can seek a mistrial. What hope does the average man have in understanding financial fraud based on two weeks of testimony?

I don't have time to be more coherent. Let me just say: I am incensed. Cioffi and Tannin, weren't the worst of what the financial industry had to offer, they were doing the same thing everybody else in high finance was doing. But someone needs to hang for this. Bernie Madoff was a patsy, a straw man. Ponzi schemes? Illegal, but insignificant precisely because they have always existed. However, when the spirit of an entire profession has been corrupted by greed and willful blindness, (rest assured, Tannin and Cioffi will have great new jobs before the year is over,) then the industry as a whole has to hang out a few examples.

The jury forewoman made the following statement, which closed the Times piece, ‘We’re not going to look at the fact that we’re in a recession, or that the markets are down. Because that wasn’t relevant to the case.’" That is surely what the defense thought. And given Judge Frederick Block's resistance to try the case, what he thought as well. But it is the point--It's the point exactly. The Bear Stearns Hedgefunds, when they closed, were the bellweather for the entire crash and recession. The industry started to turn things around then--but it was far too late.

I'd like to make one point to the Jury: If a black man shoots someone while making an attempted robbery of $50--he can go to prison for life. That's a nice black and white line because all a juror needs to know is whether or not the man shot the victim. But when two men lose 1.6 billion dollars, there's no brightline for right and wrong. The crime is that these men lost what most other people will never see the thousandth of a percentage because they were over-confident, misinformed, and negligent. Worse, when things started to go south, they lied about it to their investors, in desperate plan to get out before the market blew up. Their negligence destroyed Bear Stearns, and the investment industry as a whole.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bush Crimes Remembrance Day

As we near the end of the first year of Obama's administration, with the excitement of losing two governor ships of dubious importance, and the media's insistance that Obamania is dead, I thought we should look back and remember just how grateful we all are that Bush and his cronies are out of the Oval Office.

To do that, I'll turn to my friend Frank Rich, in The Greatest Story Ever Sold. So we all knew the media was/is completely complicit in managing Bush propaganda, but I don't remember hearing all of these stories in those awful years. The gist is that about 1.6 billion dollars was spent, by the administration, that means "government spendin'" to you wingnuts, on creating fake news to be devoured by major news networks. In otherwords, actual government agencies, creating fake news reports to extol Bush programs. Again, to the wingnuts, or perhaps, nutbaggers, that is "facism."

Rich highlights a couple of them, pg 166-172.

The Department of Health and Human Services, devoted $124 million to sell the public on how great Bush's Medicare reforms were. That's right, these reforms. These "freelance journalists" were actually shills. This is old news, but remember Bush Remembrance Day is a time for old news.

Another oldie but goodie is when Armstrong Williams was $240,000 to shill for "No Child Left Behind." He was issued citations for it by the FCC.

And let's not forget my personal favorite, Jeff Gannon. Or should I say James D. Guckert. Who was issued a press pass by the White House, and sidelined as a gay prostitute. Scotty McClellan would regularly, during tense moments (the only tense moments in a Bush press grilling were when he stumbled over his failure to grasp the English language). To quote Rich, "A close reading of the transcripts of televised White House press briefings over the preceding two years revealed that at uncannily crucial moments, "Jeff" was called on by McClellan to field softballs and stanch stuff questioning on such topics as Abu Ghraib and Rove's possible involvement in the outing of the CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson." (pg. 172).

Ah the memories, it makes just about everything that has occurred in the newsosphere over the last year pale in comparison.

Monday, November 2, 2009

NYTimes, Alan Grayson - Problem Child

The Times did an unfortunate hit piece on Rep. Alan Grayson. Salon did one last week, after the Rep called a female lobbiest a K-Street whore. The Times piece ended with a nice comment by Barney Frank, but the New York Times wrote the book on good journalism (I know, I know) and so they also know that very people make it to the end of an article anyway.

In the very fourth paragraph, they call Grayson a "wingnut." "Mr. Grayson could be the latest incarnation of what in the American political idiom is known as a wing nut."

I know each side thinks they're right, I know that's the very definition of partisanship. But really? Rush Limbaugh is a wingnut, not because he is a loud voice on the right, but because he is actually really scary. This is a man who despite his October 12th mea culpa, is roundly regarded as openly racist. Now, I mean, the far right is a believer of the aristocratic elite, but is racism, really a defendable political ideology? Shouldn't racism be condemned as a matter of course?

The Times cites Grayson "Then, appearing on MSNBC, he said of former Vice President Dick Cheney: “I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking.”

Again, this is loud rhetoric, but Dick Cheney actually believes in the value of torture. Ask him. There is no hiding, no obfuscation, no exageration: Cheney believes in torture. That may not make him a vampire, though his involvement in Haliburton and government contracting might make him one, but why should Grayson be condemned for a comment that aptly sums up what any rational person ought to know. Dick Cheney is a dangerous man, and for all intents and purposes has some really filthy, disgusting ideas.

The Times also cites Grayson: "“If you get sick, America, the Republicans’ health care plan is this: Die quickly.” This was the remark that Barney Frank, bless his heart, thought was spot on. And it's the type of rhetoric that America needs to hear more of. It's the type of rhetoric that would shame the Republicans who oppose healthcare reform to do one of two things: 1) Explain why they don't believe that (forcing them to spout factually incorrect data-contrived to make their point, thereby digging themselves deeper or 2) Force the more moderate Republicans to get on board.
Anyway, in true Times fashion, I'll save my apology for the last paragraph. The article isn't that bad. It does say some nice things about Grayson, and being a Problem Child isn't always a bad thing. Fortunately, the American Left does have an outlet now--as opposed to 9 years ago, when the internet was really just a toddler.

I'll close with a Grayson quote I got from Think Progress:

“Rush Limbaugh is a has-been hypocrite loser, who craves attention. His
right-wing lunacy sounds like Mikhail Gorbachev, extolling the virtues of
communism. Limbaugh actually was more lucid when he was a drug addict. If
America ever did 1% of what he wanted us to do, then we’d all need pain

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cute quote--Intermediate Accounting--Spiceland 5th Ed.

From my Accounting Textbook "The financial community continually devises increasingly exotic ways to flavor financial instruments in the attempt to satisfy the diverse and evolving tastes of both debtors and creditors." Chapter 15, Bonds


Yes, clearly the evolving tastes of debtors and creditors are difficult to satisfy. Thank God for those busy investment bankers and their crazy hijinx--else us debtors would never be sated.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thomas Friedman's - Op-Ed Today

Two blogs in one day! I know crazy! I must have nothing to do!


So Tom Friedman is an interesting columnist at the Times. He's liberally minded, but has an independent streak, and for several years during the Bush era, was pretty uncritical at a time when that sort of thing could have really made a difference.

But he has a piece today which pretty much sums up my opinion on Afghanistan. And Iraq. This will piss off the gf--she's a you break it you, you buy it kind of gal. The buzz on Afghanistan this month from a ton of people ostensibly in the "know" is that the real reason Afghanistan isn't getting any better is that the American presence isn't large enough and that the only a solid, longterm commitment from the US can achieve any lasting stability. NPR and Charlie Rose have been beating that drum to death.

First point: America is a democracy, far far away from Afghanistan. Even if we sent them half a million troops tomorrow--there could never be a firm committment. It would come up every two years at the very least. Foreign policing actions are black holes with a very low rate of success, and are almost unilaterally rife with corruption. So if the venture cannot succeed without a firm committment, and such a commitment is genuinely, logically, impossible--then it stands to reason that we should leave.

Second point: To those that say leaving Afghanistan and Iraq in such a terrible way would inflict a terrible human cost--you're right. But is it so much better now? Sure there may not be any massacres, but the bombs keep blowing up, and the taliban doesn't quit--and I'm not sure that a firm commitment would change that, so what's to gain but more death, and waste.

I spend a lot of time on these pages talking about caring for other people, and so I want you to understand that I do not think I am being hypocritical. But religous fundamentalism is beyond my ken. The handmaidens of fundamentalism, poverty, ignorance and cynicism, are too strong in these places.

The United States needs to regroup at the very least. This half ass continued engagement will be the end of us.

Oy! Idiots!! --New Home Sales in Surprise Drop

I'm going to try and make this brief. CNN reports that there's a surprise drop in new home sales.

I don't see why this is so surprising. Some good data in the article, but it's overall misleading. I'm not blaming the reporter this time--not really.

So new home sales dropped 3.6%. They've been rising for the past five months. But here's the kicker. Nothing has changed. The article even acknowledges that the drop off is likely due to the expiry of the New Home Buyer Tax Credit. A tax credit is a nifty way to stimulate the economy, without making overt signals the free-market flag wavers.

But think of the big picture. Employment continues to worsen--the dawn may be soon, but it's still pretty damn dark. The last estimate I read, in yesterday's Times Op-Ed, suggests the rate will exceed 10% by next year. Where do they think all of that home-buying power is coming from?

Allow me to apply a little amature pyschology, without the fancy words. Late in 2008 the market craters, the banks are closing, and you've started keeping a fat wad of cash under your pillow. January, new president, new times ahead, you start coming out of your fetal position, and start looking around. You know what people say about investing, buy low sell high. You were smart, you were saving your money, you probably would have bought a house in 2007 if you'd had the money saved. Now it's 2009, you have the money, prices are down, and Obama springs a fancy tax credit on you. Great. You buy.

But demand isn't just a current measure-it's a stream. And most of the demand of the last 5 months were from people who were ready to buy in 2008 and just put it off until things settled. So where is the new demand going to come from? Middle class wages continue to stagnate, and more jobs are still being lost than created. What's the big difference? Credit has totally evaporated, and the fake credit of a housing credit (which was a very good idea at the time) is really a go along to get along measure.

Obama had a really good opportunity to change things. But I think his team really wants things to just go back to the way they were--minus the Bush nastiness, of course. Look who his financial team is--all heads of the old order.

But things weren't cool. The kids were not all right. I don't know what the answer is, but I think I have a pretty good idea. The infrastructure of this country is rotten. Bridges over a hundred years old, crumbling highways, terrible rail and freight systems. Subways in metropolitan areas, like New York, falling apart, and totally inadequate to deal with demand.

People talk about Zeitgeist too much, but I have to say it. The Zeitgeist of this country has been in the shitter for 9 years now. The powers that be, the politicians, the media, the CEOs, they don't give us enough credit. We know that the rich are taking their money and leaving the party, we've been watching it for close to a decade. We don't blame them, but then they're puzzled when they don't see economic growth? I've yet to work through a period of economic growth. The Bush Boom was a boom only for the top 1%. That hasn't changed. And it's depressing as hell.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wall Street Journal-When Bad Luck is a Crime

I never read the op-ed page of the WSJ. It's a reasonably good paper, definitely one of the papers of record, but even my nine-year old niece knows it's editorial page is wildly conservative. The insult of the day was penned by Holman Jenkins.

So the Bear Stearns Hedgfund criminal trial against Ralph Cioffi, and Mathew Tannin has been going on since the beginning of the week, and of course, the WSJ has to weigh in, their title: "When Bad Luck is a Crime."

In it Jenkins exonerates Ken Lay, Ken Lewis, Cioffi and Tannin with the pitiable lamentation, of "bad luck." This happens in every financial crime and is a crucial arrow in a defense lawyers quiver. It goes: "Plaintiff's say that there was wrong-doing here, that the defendants wanted to defraud their company and their investors. This is just plain silly. There was a system wide crash--an act of God--all the evidence the plaintiffs have provided actually proves that the defendants did everything in their power to prevent the demise of their company. And really--Defendant A got a 3 million dollar bonus in 2007, was it in his best interest to screw the company?"

I've seen this argument in dozens of securities cases now. It's hackneyed and played out. The problem is that a global economy is so intricately involved that, when the avarice reaches a certain point, one falls, and then the rest of the dominoes get knocked over. Cioffi and Tannin are perfect examples of this. Their hedgefund was at the very top of the stack of dominoes which became the Great Recession. It was one of the earliest signs of the obliteration of the investment bank.

This is one of my favorite sentences, "The Bear Stearns execs, Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi, ran two subprime funds that depended heavily on leverage (i.e., borrowing) to make the rate of return expected by their high-rolling investors. " What a lark! Suddenly "leverage" is just the same as "borrowing," nevermind that the hedge funds here were levraged 30-35 to 1. This is good too: "to make the rate of return expected" those investors really held a gun to Cioffi's head. These sorts of excuses are really shameful coming from the Wall Street Journal.

It makes you realize, that the Paper of Record for the US Economy, really doesn't understand much about law, economics, or plan old business. The investment banking/real estate bubble was extremely reckless. And had not Bernanke, Paulsen and Geithner saved the banking system, we could have had a real problem. And we still do have a huge problem. With all these racial slurs spewing from the polluted mouths of Glen Beck and others, the continued job losses, and the fourth time this year that unemployment benefits have been extended, we could see riots like we saw in the 1960s and 70s all over again.

But I digress.

Jenkin lobs another at the prosecutors by calling their best evidence "The prosecution's pièce de résistance is a Tannin missive that wondered aloud whether they should liquidate the funds or, alternatively, double down on the subprime market. That is, Mr. Tannin was unsure whether he was looking at the mother of all meltdowns or the mother of all buying opportunities." Well, if he was properly hedged to begin with--he wouldn't have been so exposed in the first place.

So what? You can't stand the heat, you say? Well--consider this: Cioffi's hedgefund had the backing of a major investment bank, a bank that had been around for 80 years. Bear in fact, bailed them out, when the size of their losses became unavoidable. Bear Stearns didn't have to do this--they could have left the fund out in the wind. They chose not to. Why? Because their reputation as a successful firm that makes sound investments was on the line. A firm with a reputation for hard dealings doesn't bail out a fund for a half a billion dollars because it was unlucky. Which is why Jenkins begins rhapsodizing about luck and throws in a new paper presented at the Academy of Management, that says: "hard to tell who is competent and who is lucky." Please. The documents support the fact that the fund was hedged poorly, and that it's investment strategy was poor and based almost entirely on the false premise that the housing market would continue to rise, even as every other economic standard for the country continued to drop.

Most disappointing about the WSJ piece is that the writing is pretty crappy. I admit. I don't spend too much time editing my own work on this blog--but I don't get paid for this. They do. Look at these sentences: "How much more fun, when dealing with circumstances like these, to play the after-the-fact-know-it-all, naming heroes and villains with the confidence afforded by the rear-view mirror. Bad enough is when journalists give unreflective vent to this urge, but unhealthy for society is when prosecutors do it." huh?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Salon's Andrew Leonard-How The World Works

I like Salon, and though I've only read a few How the World Work's columns, I'm sort of ambivalent about Andrew Leonard. His post today made front page rotation. It's called, "The Break Up The Banks Delusion" Mr. Leonard, if by some chance you google your name, and this blog comes up, my apologies. I'd have commented on your blog. But I can't bear to get yet another password to sign in.

My issue here is the title is extremely misleading. I don't know if it was Leonard's idea or his editor's, but the title implies that Mr. Leonard is opposed to "breaking up the banks" and feels that those who believe in such are delusional. This is NOT what the post is about. In fact, the post is largely a cynical rant about how little progress has been made on the regulatory front. The "delusion" isn't that the people who believe in strict regulatory policy are delusional because of their ideals, they're delusional if they think Congress will pass it.

I'm just as cynical and I agree. But I hate it when bloggers do this. That title is incredibly misleading. And it's disappointing when any group does this (and Salon's titles are often misleading) but particularly frustrating for me when liberal groups do it.

The raison d'etre for headlines is that most people only read the large type. It's a teaser to make you read the small type--but if it doesn't work, your only impression of the article (blog) is gleaned from the headline. In this case, if you're scanning the headlines for something good to read, and you don't pick Leonard's columnm, all you're getting is that Salon think's it's bullshit to break up the banks. And that type of impression is irresponsible if it isn't the truth.

In the preceeding paragraph I touched upon another issue. Nothing to do with Mr. Leonard. The distance between articles and blogs is closing rapidly. Large reporting outlets would do well to delineate the difference with striking visual difference. And the word's "opinion" should always be nearby. Too many people take their news from columnists without ever realizing that it. I do it myself. Maybe I'm lazy, but I work hard, and I don't have too much time. Making that difference apparent would be really really easy. Salon, Slate, MSNBC, CNN, please do so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ross Douthat Op-Ed at the Times

So, Mr. Douthat writes some interesting columns at the Times. As most in the paper's employ, his columns are fairly thoughtful--even for a conservative! This time though I'm mighty peeved.

Douthat suggests that we consider the plans of Martin Feldstein. I haven't read his plan, but Douthat's summary of it is atrocious.

The basic problem with healthcare now, beside the lack of insurance for 30-40 million Americans, and the terribly inadequate care for millions more, is that the costs are rising well beyond what anyone can reasonably be expected to pay. Douthat sums that up well. Where I think he errs, is that he advocates for universal catestrophic coverage. As anyone who has ever had catastrophic plans can attest to--this is an utterly implausible idea.

His words:

"Such a system would provide universal catastrophic health insurance, in other words, while creating a free market for non-catastrophic care. In the process, it would marry a central conservative insight that we'll never control spending so long as Americans are insulated from the true price of their medical care” to the admirable liberal premise that nobody should go bankrupt paying for life-saving treatment.

The details would vary depending on your political predilections. Under the more free-market approach, championed by Harvard's Martin Feldstein, the government would provide vouchers for the purchase of private catastrophic plans. Under a more liberal version, like the one sketched out by Berkeley's Brad DeLong, the government itself would act as the insurer. And liberals and conservatives would no doubt disagree about where to set the income threshold, and what additional interventions to support."

First of all, insurers always argue what merrits a catastrophy, and there's no reason to suggest the government would act differently. So that's debunked. Also, as several commentators point out--the main issues with rising healthcare cost is that current costs are based on a catastrophic coverage already. There isn't enough preventative care, which is cheap and effective, so that people are forced to wait until problems become catastrophic. My gf is a case in point. She was having terrible abdominable pains. For months she sat on them, and just lay beside me on the bed at night, moaning in pain. And she couldn't go to see a doctor, because that was two-three hundred dollars per visit that she didn't have. Finally she was admitted to the hospital, and the bill ended up going into several thousand dollars. Which her catastrophy insurance paid for--and the catastrophic treatment was largely ineffective anyway.

This phrase was particularly offensive to me, "it would marry a central conservative insight that we'll never control spending so long as Americans are insulated from the true price of their medical care." Fuck you Douthat. We are well aware. Every stinkin' one of us. Even the insured. But two or three hundred dollars to have a doctor prescribe advil until things get worse? Bullshit.

I had an ankle sprain earlier this year. My healthcare provider paid for three months of therapy. And they hate that. But if I hadn't had that therapy--I couldn't have gone back to work for months, and may well have had that injury permanently. But no catastrophic plan would ever have paid for that. And left to my own devices, I never could have either.

There is a moral imperative here. The welfare of the people is the government's only going concern. And it's in their best interest. The more we work, the more we earn, the more we pay. Is that free market enough for ya?

And vouchers? Seriously? The voucher system is lousy, ineffectual, and adds entirely too much beauracracy.

Costs are rising. Largely because the government is prevented by law from bargaining with providers, and drug companies. This needs to change. The government is the single largest purchaser of drugs and healthcare--if they're not in the market, then the market prices are inflated and controlled by an oligarchic industry.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Novelist Mark Helprin on Econtalk

So, yet again, a comment on a months old Econtalk. This time with guest Mark Helprin. The subject is copyright and as usual both the guest and Russ Roberts have some very interesting things to say. To sum up quickly, Helprin wrote a book on copyright in America. Basically, Helprin wanted to extend copyright protection by at least another decade, maybe two. Apparently, this is a hotly disputed subject. His introduction is sort of funny, because he acknowleges that he chose to write about copyright in part because he didn't think anyone would find it controvercial. Instead, he uncovered a hotbed of neoliberalism that wanted to socialize creativity. To be fair, I certainly don't receive any hatemail, so I can't comment on Mr. Helprin's reaction to some very heated responses he received.

On the whole, I don't really have an opinion on the subject. I personally benefit from a release of copyright's because I listen to audiobooks. I read A Tale of Two Cities that way. Now Dickens, clearly is long dead, and his copyright expiration is not at issue here: Helprin fully believes that the public has a right to intellectual material. However, he makes an able case. If you're an industrialist or a business owner, you leave your assets to your offspring when you die. That's all you have. A copyright is an asset, so why isn't it protected the same way?

At anyrate, I don't take issue with that. But as usual in Econtalk, the palaver shifts toward cultural issues, and borh Helprin (who wrote speeches for Bob Dole, and Roberts are RightingRightatics.) Here are a couple issues:

1. One Worldism. Both Russ and Mark, (excuse me for addressing them so informally but I really feel as if I know them,) are complaining about people that want a world with "one government." Maybe I'm sheltered, but never in my Ravingest Leftaticist moments have I ever dreamed of such a condition. What does that even mean? Which is of course, what Helprin and Roberts point out, it would be madness, and tantamount to tyranny. But my issue is that by creating this sort of glossed-over tar-and-feathering of a group to which I belong. I'm an idealist, and I do think that social government programs are important, and that more government money ought to be devoted to them than less. But here they are, these two guys are rambling on like a bunch of old men playing dominoes on the stoop and muttering about "these kids today." This one government business is a gross mischaracterization of the American left. I mean, it's not even an intellectual argument, but as someone who reads a lot of liberal literature, on --gasp--the internets--I've never seen anything like it! Not even on Daily Kos!

2. Helprin spends a lot of time talking about how creativity is a solitary adventure. Whole parts of his speech here could have come straight out of the fountain head: "What you feel in the presence of a thing you admire is just one word – ‘Yes.’ The affirmation, the acceptance, the sign of admittance. And that ‘yes’ is more than an answer to one thing, it’s a kind of ‘Amen’ to life, to the earth that holds this thing, to the thought that created it, to yourself for being able to see it. But the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is the essence of all ownership. It’s your ownership of your own ego. Your soul, if you wish. Your soul has a single basic function – the act of valuing. ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ ‘I wish’ or ‘I do not wish.’ You can’t say ‘Yes’ without saying ‘I.’ There’s no affirmation without the one who affirms. In this sense, everything to which you grant your love is yours." (Ayn Rand-The Fountainhead). I liked the Fountainhead--again, gasp--and I'm still a liberal. I liked it because it gave me the courage to speak my mind. As a teenager, trying to fit in and be liked, I would purposely let other people express their opinion before I expressed mine, then mold whatever I said to fit. Shameful, I know. And the Fountainhead was critical to my becoming the man I am today, anonymously writing my thoughts on a blog that no one reads. (that was a cynical joke)

I'm a big believer that creativity is an individual pursuit--but not always. And that's where I think Helprin is all wet. He thinks that all the greatest works came from one mind. Personally I think that's naive. Russ and Mark mention Shakespeare quite a bit in this discussion, but of course, Shakespeare was the most hackneyed and plagiarized writer of the English language. Not that I don't give mad props to Shakespeare, but the fact of the matter we know very little about him actually, and what we do know actually points to the opposite--his plays were workshopped by his theatre company--the very definition of collective writing. One of the best plays I've ever seen was my friend's performance here in NYC of Kafka's "Trial of K." The group adapted it to the stage, and did a brilliant job of it. But by now, I'm running shy of the point--Helprin would probably agree to all of that. My point is actually much subtler. Think of the most solipsistic work you can think of--let's say Catcher in the Rye. Sallinger protects his intellectual property like a mama bear protecting it's cubs. Is Catcher in the Rye really the work of one man? Helprin makes the point that when he started at the New Yorker, the editors wouldn't change a comma without the permission of the author. But then again, talk about creative barriers--just submitting your work to a magazine presumes that you're willing to change your vision if the portal of dissemination requires it. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous. And the second you've changed your vision to meet the demands of the portal--the sanctity of indivualism has been compromised. The only truly individual writers are the ones who can publish without permission. Take this blog. No one tells me what I can't write! (Oh please oh god, please someone tell me something!) Fact is--Helprin's been a somebody for a long time--somebody's have a lot more freedom to publish than nobody's. Helprin acknowleges this, but still manages this conceit about individuality.

3. Back on this common good theme that Helprin sets up as being naive. He says that the proponents of rolling back copyright law because writing is actually a collective really just aren't as creative as him. They're jealous, because they can't create the way he can, and so they have to hack apart other's work to make something of themselves. Of course, I'm paraphrasing, and Helprin says it in a very diffident gentlemanly manner. But that's what it comes down to. I don't think I even need to comment on that.

It's 1:38 am. I'm still at work, and I'm exhausted. I'm not editing this till tomorrow. Enjoy it in it's spastic, incorrect juicyness.

Friday, October 2, 2009

General Motors on Econtalk

So I'm months behind on my Econtalk podcasts. Also, sometimes it's hard to stomach the things my friend Russ says. For example, he invited a Wired writer to comment on his time working at Wal-Mart. The writer went to Wal-Mart to debunk a claim made by another reporter about working at Wal-Mart. Full disclosure: I have read neither the article on which the podcast was based, nor the article which sparked the responsive article. Also, Wal-Mart isn't one of my issues. I think it's part of a larger problem of a petroleum based economy, whereby large supply chains can distribute goods at cheaper cost, but at an ultimate cost to the environment and community.

Anyway, my example is getting longwinded. I take issue with the podcast because it doesn't address the central problem of low wage workers. It's extremely difficult to get by at 30,000 a year. Nothing in the podcast even addressed this point, though the article on which it was based seemed to have been based on that supposition. Moreover, this guy at Wired, he worked at Wal-Mart for one week, than quit to write the article. One week?! One week?! That is the basis for this lengthy defense of Wal-Mart? I'm no enemy to the company, but clearly, this was not an indepth study. And it did not in anyway address the needs and lifestyles of low-wage workers! This is my problem with Econtalk. Very interesting stuff, but often incredibly myopic. (I know, I used the word in my last post , but it's just so goood!)

Anyway, this week was GM.

So we've all heard about how lousy GM's business model was, and how the corporate ideology was ancient and top-down. But they don't ever really talk about GM's legal troubles. So what follows was an email I sent to the gf, reproduced here with some edits.

So they're talking about franchising, and this was important because of what happened to GM over the summer. You recall how there were too many dealerships open to maintain profitability--and you could point them out! Two or three to a town sometimes, even across the street from one another. So there are very interesting franchising laws. Most franchise laws are state, or local law, and so they're made to protect the franchisee. So GM can't close a dealership that bears it's name (or any of it's brandnames) because they don't own the store, and it's illegal in 27 states to do so. So you might say, well, why can't they just cut the product line? Well, written into the franchise contract is a caveat that states, "the line must produce x amount each year."

On top of that, the franchisor also has to pay to advertise for that product. 10 or 20 years ago GM tried to close some of those duplicative dealerships, but they couldn't because of the contract provisions and statelaw. Russ Roberts then asked about the term on the franchise, and the answer, unbelievably, was that in most contracts, the franchisee is the only one who can void the contract unless the franchisor can show cause. Now the next question, I'm not sure I believe. Why does the franchisee have such stringent protections?

Because of the house of representatives. (I know you know this, but the house of reps is the people's house. And so it's mostly local money.) He then went on to make another point slightly off topic--the auto industry only has a few market participants. He even went so far as to call it a cartel (which I would agree with, but which is unusual to hear from a Chicago school economist--in my experience) and stated that cartel's are sluggish and don't respond to market pressure quickly--because they can make profits at much lower rates of demand than can participants in a perfectly free market.

Another facet of the business is this: If the dealers haven't been making any money for the last few years, or lets say that their flow of sales has dwindled to a bare trickle, they can attempt to make up the difference through extremely competitive sharklike tactics with their neighbors and their clients. Then the manufacturer goes into a feedback loop where they keep hearing about how lousy the sales service is--but by then it's too late, because they've already gotten a name for themselves through the shoddy dealings of the dealerships.

And of course, all this is the government's fault. That's what Russ would like to infer. Meaning the protections on the industry at large--and I think he's right to some extent. But that's where the myth of the free market comes to play. No industry is unregulated. The people have protections, and so do the companies. Does this create market inefficiencies? Damn straight--and that requires reform.

To some extent I think laws are cyclical. After a period of intense regulation, I think it's perfectly acceptable to repeal some of those laws. This allows a period of profit clearing, as well as a chance for market innovation. However, when the reigns get pulled out of the government's hands, the horse must be stopped before it runs the carriage off a cliff.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Health Insurance

My last three weeks have been absolutely frantic, so I've missed most of the healthcare "debate." Even so I'll throw in my two cents. The idiotacracy which broadly and self-congratulatorily slaps itself on the back about how much "choice" we Americans have in our healthcare is entirely deceived.

1) Universal healthcare has nothing to do with you if you already have health insurance. None of the proposals have done away with private healthcare.

2) Who gives a flying fuck about your choices, if you have healthcare, you should take a back seat to the 50+ million people who don't. Get over yourself. People are dying, worse, people are suffering completely needlessly over the selfishness of a tyrannical majority.

3) This is what kills me. Very few Americans with healthcare have a choice. Your employer has a choice. If you have a spouse, or you are old enough to be on medicare, you have a choice. Otherwise you are fucked. I think my health plan stinks. To be sure, it's a hell a lot better than not having one. But I can't go anywhere else for care. If my health insurance carrier won't provide for my treatment, I don't get it. How's that for choices.

Moreover, every doctor I've had has told me that the healthcare companies that have provided me with health insurance (two companies over the past few years) have screwed them [the doctors] over at every turn.

But saying that the American "system" is diverse and competitive, and provides people with choices is the worst kind of lie. Like Hitler's "the big lie." It's so grossly untrue, ludicrous even, that you don't even know whether to laugh at it or debunk it. That's right, I brought out Hitler. Swatting houseflies with a cannon? Hardly, the beast that is the opposition to healthcare has reared its ugly head for fifty years in this country. It's disgusting. Mostly, it's embarrassing at how selfish, base, and uneducated the majority of universal healthcare's opponents are.

4) Lastly, I heard a Republican Congressman on Bill Maher's show the other night. He was saying, and I paraphrase, "if a college student, or a teenager doesn't want to have to have health insurance, I think they have the right to make that choice." I heard this and had to turn off the podcast. I was revolted. I went without health insurance for 4 years because I had to. Sure I was a 20 something in New York. And I was very lucky. And the one time I did get really sick, the city's free clinics (socialism!!!) provided respite. But it wasn't a choice. It was pay 600 dollars a month (the same as my rent at the time--and there was no way I could have afforded it) or take a chance with my life, and with my credit. Again, I was incredibly lucky. What is it about Republicans and Blue Dog Dems that means they have utterly lost the capacity to feel empathy for their fellow man?

The other great joke about healthcare in the US is that, my private healthplan is perfectly capable of forcing me to accept or not accept treatment. My employer, and most mid-size to large companies are like this, refuse to employ workers who do not accept healthcare. Why? Liability, plain and simple. So instead of being forced by the oppressive hand of government. You're forced by the oppressive hand of the market. (Part-time and low wage workers are clearly a different story. But they too are forced by the oppressive market)

Quite simply, it's as that great Phil Agre article says. Conservatism is nothing less than a reformulation of monarchial aristocracy. Some people are better than others, some people deserve better than others, and we deserve to maintain control over them. You'd think that would be completely repugnant to most people, considering that the elite is less than 10% of the world. It isn't, clearly. Agre does a better job of explaining it, but I'll say this: It is a testament to the perpetual myopia of humankind that even if they might not be the cats meow, they are perfectly willing to admit that they're a hell of a lot better than someone else.

Vonnegut put it well

Americans, like humans everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy-The Dream

“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Ted Kennedy

I wasn't around for his reckless years. Or for the tragedy and his great shame at Chappequidich. I remember him only as the most inspiring living Democrat I've ever known. And with the exception of Russ Feingold, he seemed the only true liberal in a field of democratic capitulation and appeasment. I know that Kennedy was a smooth operator, I don't judge him harshly for that--it comes with the territory. But his idealism and his often fiery invective have always inspired me, and I will not forget, or ignore, or ever put down the dream of liberalism. He will be missed.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Libertarianism, and the Rise of Right Extremists

So, two New York Times Op-Eds, Paul Krugman and Judith Warner discuss the rise of rightwing extremism. They each cite the murder of the abortion doctor, and the murder of the guard at the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum. Both have many nasty comments posted by readers suggesting that the articles themselves evince signs of extremism and are hypocritical. Based on the Glen Beck argument that good ol' Americans are getting branded as extremists and having their rights infringed upon. And this relates to yesterday's post: Being an asshole is not, nor should it be, a freedom guaranteed by law.

Those who argue for the freedom to bear arms cannot be separated rationally from those who want guns for no other reason than to hurt people. Regardless of whether or not they espouse the right to hunt, and seek protections for rifles, whether they want to protect their family, and seek protections for handguns, or whether as my libertarian college buddy thinks, think the people need their weapons to rise against facism--there is in all of these justifications an essential desire to commit injury or outright murder.

I can understand that, because after living in Harlem for several years, and had been the victim of violence and the threat of imminent violence, I too had briefly considered the purchase of a handgun. For a liberal, this was a major heresy on my part. And I am intensely grateful to my one-and-only for having the moral strength of character to call me on my moral lapse.

Fiction of all kinds uses violence as a dramatic tool. I am a fan of fantasy fiction, and fantasy without swords, is a complete waste of time. Likewise, horror or war movies without gore. But there is a separation between those who imagine and enjoy imagined acts of violence, and those who argue for it, or commit it. As a pacificist, I am totally opposed to the idea of committing violence on another human being. Even for the worst human beings, incarceration, I believe, is the only morally sound practice. And for those who argue the rationale of self-defense, I say this: Defending yourself is hardwired, and so excusable, in certain cases, by law. I grant that. However, parading that idea as a justification for gun control , or as a justification for keeping the power to take life in a tightly compacted metal object that could fit in a pocket or handbag is absolutely inexcusable. And if you killed a man in defense of yourself or your family. Even though you will have done what you had to do, you have still committed an immoral act, and you should beg forgiveness for it. Yes, even in cases of self-defense. And as Socrates explained in the Gorgias:

Polus: A man who is put to death wrongfully, is pitiable and miserable, I suppose.
Socrates: Less so than the man who kills him, Polus, or the man who is put to death because he deserves it.
Polus: How so, Socrates?
Socrates: Because the greatest of all misfortunes is to do wrong.
Polus: But, surely it is worse to suffer wrong?
Socrates: Certainly not.

So, while I can enjoy righteous vengeance as the hero brings his sword down upon the neck of the villain who slew his whole family, I do not believe that capital punishment is a morally acceptable equivalent. And that is not a contradiction, because what I enjoy in fantasy is a reward whose consequences are only reflected upon myself. And in point of fact--the best fantasy novels being written right now are often morally ambiguous, and make a point of showing that Evil isn't Evil, nor Good simply Good. Take Steven Erikson from Reaper's Gale:

“So the hero wins free. Then what?”
“The hero does nothing of the sort. Instead, the hero catches a chill down in those dank tunnels. Makes it out alive, however, and retreats to a nearby city, where the plague he carries spreads and kills everyone. And for thousand of years thereafter, that hero’s name is a curse to both people living above ground and those below.”

Those who argue, like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and now my libertarian friend, that violence is justifiable are shocking to me. Do I think that my friend would "take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?" I don't know. I think there is a disconnect there. I think that on some level, when you make that argument, you have forsaken the humanity of those whom you wish to conquer. They are no longer empathetic people, and become simple obstacles. And at that point, the dividing line between thought and action becomes one of fear of retribution, not moral repulsion at the idea of the violent act. Not acting for fear of retribution is not moral, in fact, in some circumstances it would be considered immoral. Take Electra, railing against her sister for not attacking the status quo in Sophocles "The Electra."

I envy you for your prudence; for your cowardice, I hate you!

She hates her sister for not acting against the injustice done to them. That is a central argument of the revolutionary isn't it? None action is complicit? If you're not with me, you're against me? Sure, and I get that argument for many reasons. But again, these simplified versions of events, indicate more about the mind of the the thinker than about the situation itself. Amongst almost all of the libertarians I've met, and those that I've read, and I include my own flesh and blood in this assessment, is a substancial vein of paranoia. There is a certain willingness to believe that the government is going to control you. When in fact, the government's biggest problem is that it doesn't really give a shit about you in the first place. Now the CIA does monitor extremists groups--and that I believe is a good thing. But the reports during the Bush years of infiltrations of peaceful groups of anti-war activists was just ridiculous. There was no threat of violence there, there was no categorical infringements of rights going on. It was a reactionary us against them, as Rick Perlstein would call it, Orthogonian movement.

All of this comes back to my central point. I think that there are people who want to commit violence against other people. I think that any rationalization for an act of violence, is an obfuscation of that desire. So logically, anyone who posits, suggests, hopes, jokes, writes, or encourages this type of extremism should be regarded warily, as marginally dangerous people. And above all, this behavior should be condemned and discouraged by every moral authority.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Holy (Batshit Crazy) Western Empire

So, the latest news pandemic is on the guy who shot the guard at the D.C. Holocaust Museum. His website is closed now with the investigation going, but it was called Holy Western Empire. We don't need to go into my feelings on this. My topic of discussion here is actually free speech. The link is to a video debate on the matter as it relates to recent events. Like most Americans I was born believing that freedom of speech was sacrosanct. However, like most liberals, I was indoctrinated in the idea that hate mongering is a dangerous and disgusting pastime. Now, we all remember Voltaire's famous phrase, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," and it's celebrated as being one of the pillars of democracy, but I have a bone to pick with free speech.

Ok, first of all, the freedom to speak the way you want is just one of many freedoms, many rights. And there are rights that trump the freedom of speech. Such as the freedom to live free from fear. The right to live free from harm. This is the problem with hate speech: conflicting rights. If I'm a neo-nazi, I'm going to defend my right to free speech. And logically, I'd be right. But if I'm the guy who happens to be near that guy, and his invective is aimed at me, or someone I know, then suddenly, my freedom has been violated. So go somewhere else, the argument goes. Sure. That happens. But that infringes on yet another of my freedoms. The freedom to be/live where I want. I remember, a few years ago, a Jewish family was living down south, and after many members of their community made anti-semitic statements, they felt compelled to leave the community. That's not right.

In someways this blog could be considered hate speech. After all, I've been complaining for years about Republicans and other conservatives. But then again, my own invective, though tainted by "passion and party spirit" (another Voltairism) does not threaten anyone's rights. After all, no one reads this blog anyway. And though I think Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are assholes, I've never threatened them. And even though I think they are both dickweeds. I've never said anything like "Neoconservatives should be dragged out into the street and shot." or "we should put all the neocons on an island together with one nuclear warhead and let them blow themselves up." In fact, I used to condemn people who spoke that way on DailyKos, back when I was a regular poster. That sort of stuff is really awful. And as much as I personally dislike these men--I've never met them. I can't really even comment on them personally. I saw O'Reilly on Jon Stewart once. He was great, smart as a whip and very funny. One of the reasons I dislike Rush, and this is shallow, is I think he looks like a pig. And that's an insult to pigs more than it is to Rush. But again, I want the guy off the radio, not dead.

So here's the rub: Free speech is not sacrosanct. Like everything else there are shades of grey in all measures. When free speech infringes on more integral freedoms, then it is fair game to be called into question, regulated, and in very specific circumstances, banned.

On another matter, I wrote this two years ago.

Things you can be called that are food:

1) I am a ham.
2) Attorney's who aren't lavish with their praise are cold fish.
3) During the Christmas holidays most of us will be on the lamb.
4) Never call your coworkers cows.
5) Or chickens.
6) No one is ever called a swordfish. Unless they are in B-Movies.
7) After hours of making binders, we all become vegetables.
8) But not carrots. No one will ever call you a carrot. And if they did, what would it mean? That you're long and orange. I guess some people can be called carrots afterall: models who have been in the sun too long.
9) Maybe yams. Popeye once said, I yam what yam.
10) Call me crazy, but has anyone else ever been called a lettuce head? Just checking.
11) You sometimes call your boss, the Big Cheese. You might be from Ohio, in which case you are a Cheese Head. You should never call someone a stinky cheese unless you are out of swinging range. I think I'll stop there.
12) I have often been called a turkey.
13) But not a pheasant.
14) If the guy in the teller line ahead of you is really skinny, you might whisper to your comrade, "Ahoy mate, look at yonder beanpole."
15) You might call your significant other, your honey.
17) Or your sweet pea
18) Or the apple of your eye.
19) Or if she's Scandinavian, your Danish.
20) Or your love muffin. I think I'll stop there.
21) When she brings you coffee in the morning, you might say, "You're a peach."
22) Do not call her a pumpkin. But you may someday address your children as pumpkins. But not if they have weight issues.
23) You and your buddies might talk about canteloups at the bar, but that would be rude.
24) Same goes for watermelons. Hello sensitivity training!
25) If you go to the circus you might see people who resemble pretzels. You may call them that. Pretzels are salty, and everyone loves old salts.
26) If you know a spice girl, you might call her Ginger.
27) If you're in China you may eat a four legged friend, if you eat it here, they'll call you a dog.
28) Or if you're a girl, a bi%&*.
29) And here's an iffy one, if you've sent out an irritating email such as this one, to your entire work group, someone might call you (and they would be right) a cad. Err. Cod.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Quick Bits at Econtalk, Plus a little Sotomayor action

So this post will relate to a couple of different podcasts at Econtalk.

1) The second installment of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments discussion was pretty interesting. Smith made a point of suggesting that happy and successful individuals make a point of modulating what they expect from others. Specifically, expecting too much from others can limit and even hamper your relationship with others. I find that to be very true. One of the reasons I'm such a charming person is that I expect nothing from anyone!

2) As a compliment to that, there was another thought that I felt intriguing. Namely and I'm paraphrasing, "love yourself only so much as you love your neighbor." This is sort of a follow-up point to the earlier one. The point being that self-love comes in many forms. And a need/desire for attention can be such a form of self-love. And if you wouldn't take such attention/needs/desires from your neighbor, you damn well better not being demanding it yourself.

3) Ok this Econtalk post was from a news article interview that Russ Roberts did and posted with the reporter's permission. So I've discussed this before: Roberts, and his ilk, believe that "markets don't lie in the long run." Meaning that prices, as they inflate, or deflate, over time reflect true value. My comment to that is two fold. Fold the first. Who decides the barometer for time? We're human beings, with a typical lifespan of sixty-seventy odd years. So historical value is relative. And the New York Stock Exchange will only be 200 years old in 2015, so even that amount of time isn't that long. But then again. We measure generational time in decades right? And immediately after a decade has passed, it's over the hill. So my decade, the decade where I came of age, was the nineties. I'm an old man now!

I'm getting far afield. Here's the point: True value is a false certainty. Value only has meaning relative to a specific time period. So saying that the market reflects true value overtime really isn't saying much. So why do I have a problem with the statement? Because it was used to justify the fact that the government should do nothing in regards to the current economic crisis. Which leads to fold the second.

4) Time matters! Again, this assertion by economists that the market will balance itself out is fairly heartless. As a RavingLeftatic I must protest! How many lives and livelihoods will be ruined! Now, maybe I'm being alarmist. And that's a fair criticism, but news organizations are already beginning to report that people are beginning to stop looking for work. What about those who were fired from middle class jobs who have to take service jobs to make ends meet? You don't recover from that. Not easily. The stigma of taking a paycut lasts a long time and is very difficult to beat. What about war? Not us per se, but as unemployment in Europe, Russia and China begin to rise, violence will rise too. Lives are affected by economic downturns. And that is why it is not sufficient to simply say, hands off, let the magic market do its work. The government can't do that. No one, not even nobel laureate economists know for sure how the market works. It could take two decades to recover. You. Just. Can't. Wait.

5) Ok. What else. Something came up in the same podcast, but it's my own thought. I talked in my last post about how Don Beaudreaux mentioned "The giant" as an actor in economics, namely the governor. Well, I'd like to advance that notion a bit. The giant is not actually a giant, but a giant squid. Tentacles everywhere, oftentimes acting completely independent from one another. Moreover, state governments are lesser squids, with their own separate tentacles acting everywhere. So Boudreaux's analysis is a bit lopsided. It's so much a giant knocking a fragile mechanism around a football field. It's a giant squid interlaced with every gear and rod in the machine itself! See how economics is like fantasy?

6) Sotomayor. The Reverse Racist. First of all. What an idiotic term. Seriously. Second, she's not, and the evidence provided for this unbelievable allegation is completely specious. It's a total lameass Republican talking point, and Newt has lost his touch if this was the best he could come up with. Oh good, I really need to appeal to the white supremist base of my party. Sheesh. What's worse about it is that anytime that narcisist opens his mouth, it gets recorded. Hopefully this little idiocy will flame out long before the battle begins.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quick Bits, British Parliamentary Scandal, Econtalk

1. So, this whole British MP scandal is somewhat odd to me. Believe it or not, I don't really have an issue with entitlement spending. And I find it hypocritical that anyone can. We all take our entitlements, whether they're as little as using the office supplies at home, or having dinner on the firm, businesses across the world take these expenses as part of the cost of doing business. To expect government to do less is naive. It all comes down to this notion that the government's money is actually the taxpayer's money. It's just not true. Social Security is a bit different. The money you pay Social Security is ACTUALLY yours, and so you get a statement, each year that you work, for how much you have, and for how much it will pay out in time. But general taxes, they go directly to the state. No longer yours. You elect representatives to govern for you, and they use that money to do so, but it's at their discretion--not yours. Here's the thing, I could understand the anger if the things that these MPs were doing were really egregious, like paying for prostitutes and private jets, large in excess of say 8,000 dollars. But so far, most of the expenses fell perfectly within the rules. The one I heard about today was that an MP used his allowance to buy a fancy TV. So what? The BBC is really milking the people's anger on this subject. I've heard a lot of angry interviews on the subject. MPs for the most part have come out rather quizzical, since very few of them were breaking the law. I think the Brits need to give this horse a rest. You're angry at the politicians for allowing the economy to breakdown, and sure, they did. But as the song goes, when the money keeps pouring in you don't ask how. You only ask how when the money stops.


2. On a related subject, the WSJ had a reporter on their morning news radio discussing how Social Security is paid out. He made the point that Social Security money isn't sitting in escrow anywhere, it's an accounting liability that gets paid out of other budgets. I can say this with smug authority now that I'm an accounting student. No shit. Not that the reporter was wrong, or that he was in any real way to blame for this revelation. The point is that isn't news. All liabilities are columns on papers. Payouts always come out of cash, and from converting assets into cash. My issue is that Social Security is a political issue, and as such, it often gets reported in such a way as to invite criticism rather than encourage reform.


Ok, econtalk, I'm way behind in my Econtalk listenings. This comment is on the Don Boudreaux interview. Again, the popular economics arguments against control of the market really drive me mad. Most economists will admit, that no administration, Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, ever leaves the market alone. What they won't admit is that an entirely free market is, like socialism in its purest form, a complete pipedream. Boudreaux came up with an interesting concept: when calling for the masses to be allowed utmost freedom to move their money in self-corrective patterns, he said the additive of the giant of government hamfistedly acting in the delicate workings of the market mechanism is never good. This idea of the government as a giant is interesting to me. Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts don't want the giant to act in the marketplace. But they won't admit that the giant is ALWAYS acting, ALWAYS moving. And policy, even in non-obvious economic spheres always interacts with the economy both on the macro and micro levels--so what is he talking about? One more gripe: The idea of a self-corrective market is appealing, but it doesn't take into account actual need or hardship. Don and Russ and all of his friends want the businesses that can't survive to fail. Let the market reward the lucky survivors, and let the market reward the new up and comers. The giant can't let that happen. Unlike the giant of the oceans, the whale or the shark, the giant of government must protect as many of its people as often as it can, as quickly as it can. It never sleeps, it knows no respite, it can only go on protecting and providing. And as it moves, certainly a little wanton destruction, and a lot of waste. Unintended consequences and all that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

So I just finished reading the memoir of Frank Schaeffer, the son of the famous evangelical Francis Schaeffer. A couple of things. I came to the book with the conception that it was a repudiation of the religious right. Though this is true in some part, overall less than fifty pages of the book were devoted to the subject. Rather it is simply a memoir of the man's life. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. Not by Schaeffer, or his story, or his writing, although he did, or his editors, misspell non-profit at one point. I was disappointed by the fact that I was really hoping for a juicy, American evangelists are batshit crazy, tell all. Schaeffer's experience with American Evangelicalism supports that notion, but again, it only consists of 50-60 pages of the book.
Schaeffer's ministry was called L'Abri and was located in Switzerland. It was austere, and for most of Frank Schaeffer's young adult life relatively poor. They didn't begin to really grow and make money until the 60s when royalties and backlash from the Free Love generation began lapping at their teat. Up until that point, it sounds like a perfectly cromulent place (ha!) Nestled in the alps, they went skiing during the winter, went to Portofino in Italy over the summer. Frank Schaeffer, from the time he was twelve to the day he got married, if I recall, about 20, spent the entire 8 years, not unlike most men, trying to get laid. Most of the girls he slept with were women of L'Abri, but he doesn't really focus on this salacious idea, save to admit that he had a much harder time trying to make it in the Swiss nightclub scene. Schaeffer was spent most of his time painting nudes, listening to rock music, and getting into trouble. Including nearly killing one of the parishioners at L'Abri in a sledding accident. The guy had a very normal life, with the exception that A) his parents spent more time working on the ministry than they did on the kids B) he had almost no formal education, being dyslexic, and having absentee parents, he was kicked out of schools, until he finally ran away and went home. That said, his father was a cultural historian, not by profession, but certainly by professed love, and made his way on a Christian film about the art of the Renaissance.
I won't bother really to describe the abuse. It was mentioned frankly, but not dwelled upon, and since none of it was sexual abuse, I think at the time, it would have been considered fairly standard fare.
Let's skip to the 50 pages of pure red meat. Franky Schaeffer, with his contemporaries, Pat Robertson, and a few others almost created the Religious right. I make this point now, because it dovetails with the two books I've recently started, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, and Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Nixonland starts with the "end of the Right" with the death knell of Barry Goldwater's campaign. Frank Rich starts with the rise to power of the Bush administration. Crazy for God, takes it from the angle of a fledgling movement that grew over the course of a few decades--principally on the 60s-90s. That's another disappointment, though Schaeffer discusses Bush periodically, and his parents involvement with the Bushes, the topic is never really given serious consideration. Moreover, since Schaeffer left the movement in the 90s, he really didn't have much to add to what most people consider the height of the religious right. That said, it's a memoir. It does what it purports to do, talk about the man's life.
The ministry at L'Abri began to grow in leaps in bounds after his parents started publishing in the States. The disenfranchisement of the 60s seems to have driven people to excess, in one direction or the other. Schaeffer suggests that it was the freelove itself that drove the people to the ministry. That people saw the excess of the left and grew disgusted by it. I think the reason was a fair bit more complex than that, though I certainly couldn't contest the contrary nature of the spiritual enlistment. With all this new inflow of an extremely diverse body, many of whom were artists, layabouts, and other transitory people, and not simply religious soul seekers, Schaeffer got one of them pregnant. His wife, Genie was one such, who was just a backpacker passing through who happened to fall in love with the bad boy preacher's son. I should say this very clearly, the religion preached by L'Abri at the time of the 60s was very liberal in nature. Though it still sought Jesus Christ as Savior, it appreciated art of all flavor, did not discriminate against homosexuals, and generally kept itself to the goal of convincing seekers that God could exist meaningfully in even a modern life. On the whole, it doesn't sound like a bad place, and I would have loved to sit and have a chat on philosophy with Francis Schaeffer.
When Schaeffer got Genie pregnant he was at a really young age, as was she. I'm guessing because I don't have the book in front of me, but I think he was 20, and she was probably about the same age, maybe a year or two older. Almost immediately after his daughter was born he was won over by the miracle of his own daughter, and immediately began to heat up on the subject of abortion. His father had avoided the issue. At the time, the 60s, evangelical Christians saw abortion as a Catholic issue. And evangelicals, being fairly exclusive, didn't care to discuss it. Francis' son was the person who enlisted him on the project of making the pro-life movement a political thing. Frank Schaeffer, with the help of another religious fundraiser/figurehead, Bobby Zeoli, produced two movies with the beneficent Frank Schaeffer discussing, among other things, abortion. Than they sold it to the Americans. It took a while to gain steam.
One point that Schaeffer makes that I find interesting, but erroneous, is that the ACLU and other liberal, pro-choice organizations made Schaeffer's job a lot easier. According to Schaeffer, pro-choice forces had made abortion an almost romantic, or "in" option, a sort of "abortion-chic." This meant that that they could generate a lot of outrage, and the outrage in turn generated outrage from the left that provided the evangelists an "us against them" vector. Though I am certainly not old enough to really contest this (this movement was built in the 70s and 80s) and my worldly experience in the 80s was fairly limited, I cannot ever believe that abortion was taken lightly by a majority, or even a plurality of American women. Abortion is an awful thing, and it scars all involved, (though 90% the woman whose body it is) in many ways.
Regardless, that was the kickstart of the religious right in this country. Before they were voting for born again Christian presidents, before they were weighing in on foreign policy, or prayers in the public schools, or creationism,or the ID movement (Both Francis and Frank Schaeffer's were proponents of theories of evolution-despite a lack of formal education) there was abortion. And this is what I'll end this post on.
Liberals who are kicking the downed Republican party in the ribs, are being ridiculously shortsighted. This is a party that fights best when the chips are down. And they win by appealing to the base, not the center. Because their vision is moving the center closer to the base. And for the past decade they succeeded at that admirably. So beware abortion, liberals. Obama is looking at choosing a new Supreme Court Justice, and this could well prove the pivot point in the fortunes of the Republicans. That Justice must support Roe v. Wade. But if he/she does, that gives the Republethugs automatic poll points. After all, when it comes to the semantics of Pro-Life v. Pro-Choice, how can we EVER win? If I had to choose between veggie burgers and hamburgers, I'd be bummed if I had to eat a veggie burger, but I could live with it. Living without life? Rhetorically, a liberals best/only answer to that is the rhetorical flair of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty, or give me death."
Finally, I have very eagerly started both New Left books, I have long been a fan of both Rich and Pearlstein, and I already have a bunch to comment on.