Friday, March 27, 2009

Can I Get An "Amen"?


It was a stupid idea in the first place, and now only serves to remind us of the jingoistic, ridiculous trope of "Freedom Fries" and "Freedom Toast," and would therefore only make people think it was the French Tower originally.
It's the World Trade Center. There's no need to rename it, and if anything, that name serves as a bigger slap in the face to Al Qaeda and Osama.
But leave it to Rupert Murdoch's paper to go all "angry dwarf" with this:
Freedom is so passe at Ground Zero.
After passing the Patriot Act on the strong urging of the Murdoch corporatocracy, "freedom" in America is just passe, period. But hey! Don't let the Constitution stand in the way of a good lede, I guess.
Freedom will wax in this nation once again, when all men and women are free, and when all people can sleep secure in the knowledge that they'll wake up tomorrow as free as they went to bed the night before.
That hasn't happened since the 90s. The 1790s.

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) Tomorrow we celebrate Earth Hour. Light a candle, curse the glare.
2) Leave it to FOX News to make a scare headline out of a game scenario.
3) Remember how some governors swore they would forego, ohhhhhhhhhhh, about 2% of the Obama stimulus package? Looks like that ain't gonna fly...and it may even shoot down a potential candidate or two.
4) My prayers are with Fargoans this weekend. But of course, global warming doesn't exist, so this might be God's wrath...funny how he seems to hate red states more than blue.
5) Microsoft must be getting advice from the GOP, because this line of attack has never worked in the past. Apple just makes great products that people want. Maybe M$ is panicking over this. Or this.
6) I know the Three Stooges were rather, um, unorthodox, but either this is the crowning homage or will be an unmitigated disaster.
7) One of the most prestigious schools in the world has a vampire infestation. Or not. This sucks.
8) France to invade Canada. No! Seriously!
9) Apparently, Richard Gere has decided to escalate his war for Tibet independence.
10) Her fifteen minutes of fame are over, true, but remember, she's allowed to borrow off her fourteen children.
 Happy Earth Hour, All!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Special Delivery

Did you know that there is not one Republican in any House of Representatives seat east of western New York State?
This is a grand testament to the failures of Republican policies in our region, as well as the marvelous job the leadership of the Democratic party has performed. It's sad to think that such former Republican bastions like Connecticut and New Hampshire and Vermont could switch.
But that was a different Republican party, one that was willing to sit down and negotiate and compromise and listen to the people it represented. A Republican party that, frankly, I miss.
Right now, there is one seat vacant in the northeast: the one that Kirsten Gillibrand gave up in order to serve out Hillary Clinton's term.
Competing for this seat are Scott Murphy, the Democrat, and Jim Tedisco, the Republican and current minority leader of the NY State Assembly. Tedisco had been enjoying a twelve point lead a few weeks ago, but Murphy has closed that gap to dead-even.
Which has Tedisco running some pretty nasty ads, naturally, including phonying up charges that Murphy failed to pay income tax on money he never even received. He is a Republican, after all. And like all Republicans, he suffers the slings and arrows of those who think he wasn't "Republican enough".
Tedisco has the advantage of running in a Republican district, but one that is more narrowly Republican than ever before because of his antecedent legislator. Gillibrand won in 2006 largely because her opponent, long term incumbent John Sweeney (R-Wifebeater) had a series of scandals (attending a fraternity party where he was photographed encouraging underage drinking, being investigated for domestic violence, and so on) leading to Tedisco being named one of the 20 most corrupt Congresscritters.
That's quite the accomplishment!
Gillibrand won also by being fairly DINO, in that she opposes gun control and gay marriage (altho she's softened that stance in recent months).
Murphy, meanwhile, has actively worked in his career as a banker and venture capitalist to create good-paying jobs.
In case it wasn't clear where my sympathies lie, I tend to be amenable to having someone in Congress who has actually, you know, been a boss and given a guy a break, particulary at a time when jobs are scarcer than hen's teeth.

The election is on Tuesday. If you can, give. If you can, vote for Murphy.

The Teeth Of The Hydra

I've spent many an hour trying to wrap my planet-sized brain around the enormity of the cultural problems affecting this country.
To be sure, I don't have many answers. Hillary Clinton might have some insight, though:

The United States is at least as responsible as Mexico for the violent drug wars that are roiling its southern neighbor because of an insatiable US market for narcotics, the failure to stop weapons smuggling southward and a three-decade "war" on drugs that "has not worked," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians," Mrs. Clinton said.

"How could anyone conclude any differently? . . . I feel very strongly we have co-responsibility," she said.

The gun and drug culture, believe it or not, are very tightly tied together, and I don't just mean the dealers who carry Glocks.
I mean that there is a subculture in America that attempts to subvert the system and pervert our citizenry by promoting both guns and drugs in tandem.
No, not video game authors and publishers, although I have no doubt they are complicit.
I mean the people who buy and use both of these items.
Now, I've made no bones about where I stand on guns. I think there is a limited need for legal guns for protection and provisions in some sectors of the country, but that on the whole, we should do whatever we can to limit and/or ban them. Period.
On drugs, I have a slightly different outlook. There are some drugs that are inherently so destructive that access to them ought to be as difficult as humanly possible, and in point of fact, I'd include tobacco on that list along with crystal meth, heroin, and possibly cocaine.
And then there are some drugs that are dangerous, but when used in moderation or under supervision should be decriminalized. LSD, mescaline, and cocaine (if it's not outright outlawed). And I do mean "under supervision."
Finally there are, or rather is, the drug that should be legalized, full stop: pot. And you can keep alcohol legal, as well. And I suppose I'd be grossly outvoted on my call for the closely guarded regulation of tobacco, so it likely would remain here, even if suicide by smoking is a leading cause of death in this country.
Hillary Clinton's acknowledgement of the sales of assault weapons across the Mexican border as a result of spats amongst rival gangs for the right to smuggle illegal drugs back into the United States highlights a rather disturbing fact: it is in the (legal) gun sellers' best interests to see (illegal) drugs flourish.
They have a vested financial interest in it. And that stinks. Drugs create gun users, both criminals and legal (since the crime rate goes up as drugs become more and more pricey).
By creating a criminal subculture-- 700,000 Americans are arrested each year for pot possession and sales alone, and that represents slightly less than half of all drug arrests in this country-- you create a need to take justice into one's own hands, rather than look to the legal authorities.
Legalize pot, for example, and 700,000 more Americans are walking the streets without a criminal tarnish every year. That could mean a few thousand or tens of thousands of illegal guns off the street. And illegal guns start somewhere along the lines as legal gun sales.
Not only that, but as crime rates decrease because of legal or decriminalized substances, legal gun ownership would wane slightly, since people will feel safer on the streets and in their own homes.
If the NRA has a problem with stemming supply, then why not turn the tables and lower demand? After all, it's not like 700,000 pot-laced zombies are going to start breaking and entering homes in search of Cheetos. The NRA would be hard-pressed to take offense at that point, even if that would expose the underbelly of the truism I've laid out here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Here's A Quarter...

I have the utmost respect for the civic duty that you are now performing at A.I.G. You are as blameless for these credit default swap losses as I am. You answered your country's call and you are taking a tremendous beating for it.

But you also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn't defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut.

[...] I'm not sure how you will greet my resignation, but at least Attorney General Blumenthal should be relieved that I'll leave under my own power and will not need to be "shoved out the door."

Point one: Liddy has agreed to take one dollar as compensation, despite the fact that most of this happened off his watch. Thuis writer has, as well.
Point two: The writer, Jake DeSantis, is an executive vice president of the Financial Products division of AIG, as "head of business development for commodities", the division that has very nearly, and still may yet, sunk the entire global economy. So I think the question must be asked...
OK, you had a different responsibility, I get that. But you know something?
I am an officer at a firm. My niche is very narrow, and I'm well paid for it. But as a point of order, we officers make it our business to understand what's going on in the rest of the company. Why?
You never know when you'll be put in charge of something else. That's the way American corporations work.
You ask why your CEO "betrayed" you. WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU???? when your co-workers were scamming money and making bets on bets on bets?
If you want to understand what happened at the Financial Products division of AIG, let me put forth this analogy. It's simplistic and flawed, but it's not completely wrong.
I sell you a homeowner's insurance policy. That's a bet that I make that your house won't burn down. If it does, I owe you the agreed amount. If it doesn't, well, I've scored pure profit from you (your premiums, which are pooled and invested in order to cover any losses suffered by policyholders) but you've had the peace of mind of knowing you won't take a loss.
The way I make money is not directly from your premiums, but by spreading my risk around by selling more and more policies and trying to diversify who buys them, so that if a big fire hits a neighborhood, it will only affect a percentage of the money I'm holding onto.
That's the traditional insurance business. A similar scenario works in the traditional mortgage market. 
Now let's move onto the Financial Products division.
I take that policy, and in order to score some quick cash, I let people bet that the policy will earn money. Then, in order to make even MORE money, I sell insurance to the gamblers that will cover their losses.
Oops. You'll notice what just happened: I've taken what risk I had spread out and consolidated it. Worse, I'm on the hook at both ends in the event the house burns down: I pay the policyholder and now have to pay all the gamblers who bet on the policy!
So, Jake, I ask the question again: WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU???
If a simpleton like me, who only has an accounting degree, can understand that you're betting against yourself, why couldn't a high-powered executive vice president figure out from washroom conversations that your entire division was one big-ass house of cards? You're the head of development of business commodities! How could you not be curious about the products your own people are developing????
And there, right there, that's the problem. These aren't commodities. We're not talking about pork bellies or corn or oil.
We're talking about people's homes. Their lives. Their jobs.
So shut up, walk away, and be glad you got out with your skin and dignity.

UPDATE FOR THE GALATICALLY STOOPID It seems there's some discussion that DeSantis was "one of the good guys", brought in to fix the problem.

That's simply not the case, by his own admission. DeSantis has been employed by AIG for eleven years and worked his way up to his current position as EVP in the Financial Products division. Furthermore, former AIG chairman and CEO Hank Greenberg, in 2005, warned on his way out the door (thanks to Eliot Spitzer, who really was ahead of the curve on this) with regards to the mortgage debacle and AIG's exposure issues.

At which point, Cassano, DeSantis' boss, DOUBLED THE EXPOSURE!

Furthermore, the truly quasarly idiotic have downplayed the losses at the FP, comparing them somehow favorably to the losses at the insurance unit.

Utter rubbish. Although the life insurance division earned $6.9 billion, the financial services division lost $40.4 billion, according to the annual report I have looked at.

The other two business units, asset management and general insurance COMBINED lost $1.1 billion dollars.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Under The Volcano

Think Bobby Jindal is hoping people forget this....
The governor, a rising Republican star, questioned why "something called 'volcano monitoring' " was included in the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill Obama signed earlier this month.
"Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington," Jindal said.
Alaska's Mount Redoubt volcano has erupted six times since late Sunday, spewing ash 9 miles into the air. This photo, taken from a Webcam, shows the volcano on Monday. Based on Mount Redoubt's patterns, scientists said the eruptions could continue for weeks or months.
If this was a horse race, Jindal would have thrown a shoe out of the gate. The 2012 primaries will be all about him apologizing to Sarah Palin.

The Cult Of Personality

Too often, we talk of the "cult of personality" in negative terms: the pampered athlete who has feet of clay, or the politician or cultural authority who manipluates his or her audience to become slavishly addicted to his or her tastes (usually promoting a particular brand or style).


SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The University of Notre Dame is sticking with its invitation to President Obama to speak at its May 17 commencement despite criticism from some Roman Catholics that his views on abortion and stem cell research run counter to Catholic teachings.

"I don't foresee a circumstance in which we would rescind the invitation," Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown told The Associated Press in an e-mail message Monday.

The Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group for greater orthodoxy on Catholic college and university campuses, calls Obama's commencement appearance "an outrage and a scandal." It has set up a Web site seeking donations and signatures for a petition to protest the invitation to the Obama.

The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, issued a statement Monday saying the invitation did not mean the university supports all of Obama's positions.

"The invitation to President Obama to be our Commencement speaker should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research," Jenkins said.

American Catholics have a dilemma, to be sure. On the one hand, the basis for their entire church is a cult of personality based on the concept that the Pope, the church leader, is a descendant of Saint Peter, blessed by both Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. This trinity, encorpsed in the Pope, makes rules and issues edicts (they call them bulls) that the church membership is required to follow, or risk damnation.
On the other hand, there's Barack Obama, who offers his own vision of peace and spiritual renewal. The trouble is, these messages, even tho based on similar faiths and beliefs, conflict in the details.
And here is where Obama's personality and persuasion comes into play. His ability to understand and even give a nod to the opposing forces while laying out a persuasive argument for his point of view is at once disarming and plays the cards he has been dealt his way. Opponents like Rush Limbaugh have no choice but to play on his ballfield, with his bat and ball and even his gloves. He can reconcile abortion and pregnancy prevention and stem cell research with a belief in the tenets of Christ's teachings and that will attract Christians to his message. He doesn't have to get into a spitball war with Rome. Or anyone else, for that matter.
It's driving his opponents crazy. Obama has at once lifted himself above the fray while encouraging the fray using surrogates. The more conservatives focus on Obama's miscues and teleprompters, the more the American people will understand that the GOP offers no rational alternative at this time, that they are spinning their wheels waiting for an opportunity to seize the upper hand on an issue of substance.
For now, they will be forced to conjure substance out of issues that are mostly style, and it is a style that they neither comprehend nor can combat. Indeed, Obama has been cherry-picking where and what he pitches to the American people carefully, and has carefully managed to give the image of an indefatigable leader who can both multitask and focus down on issues and circumstances. He takes a very broad view of situations, rather than be reflexive and reactive.
Like a certain Texan ex-president I can mention.
Listen, when the only real miscue a man makes in a week of intense media scrutiny is an ill-conceived one-off about the Special Olympics and bowling and the victims of that joke can laugh along with him, you have the makings of an unbeatable administration.
(side note: Personally, I would have said "like a Girl Scout," which would have been funnier)
This won't last. Programs Obama has proposed will fail. Even he admits it. In an economy as disatrous as this one, one that affects not just America but the world as a whole, it would take a miracle for every program to fall into place perfectly.
Maybe the Pope can help here.