Friday, September 19, 2008

Stupidest. Column. Yet.

Charles Krauthammer-

WASHINGTON -- For the last 150 years, most American war presidents -- most notably Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt -- have entered (or re-entered) office knowing war was looming. Not so George Bush. Not so the war on terror. The 9/11 attacks literally came out of the blue.


Friday Music Blogging

Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb

Godspeed, Richard.

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) It's been a long time coming, but the Bush SEC finally did something that makes sense.

2) Here's an investment tip, gratis: All bull markets in recent memory, since we came off the gold standard, have ended after a bout of what Alan Greenspan understated as "irrational exuberance." All bear markets end with a significant redistribution of wealth to the poor and middle classes, usually in the form of government grants and unemployment and welfare checks. So the advice is really simple: when you're making a lot of money in the market, and you can't understand precisely why, it's a good time to think about getting out. You have about one to two years, unless you've realized this at the back end of the trend, in which case you ought to freeze your money immediately.

And when people are hurting badly, and the government is forced to intervene directly, that means the markets will shortly show a turnaround. Shortly, again, being up to one year.

4) One more thing. In order to effectively utilize this advice, you have to do one more thing: pay attention. For the bull market advice, that usually means when the mainstream, not business, media pick up on a trend that directly affects the financial markets, like the dotcom bubble or the easy mortgage money, you start edging towards the exit. When the news reports that Congress is extending unemployment benefits, for example, you start pooling money together.

5) One codicil: not all bull markets and bear markets are bull or bear. Sometimes, they are merely violent corrections, like the crash of 1987 (two days later, stocks posted their single best day ever and recaptured many of the losses). When you're surprised by a market move, if you've been paying attention, that's likely a market correction. It happens. This is why you always try to play with house money, or at the very least disposable income.

6) Sorry for spending so much time this week on this, but I suspect we're heading into the teeth of a storm. It's important.

7) Joe Biden, populist? I happen to agree with him: if you've made a bundle off the bounty this nation has given you the opportunity to make, you owe it to the nation to pay it forward.

8) Thank GOD we won't have Gates-Seinfeld to kick around anymore!

9) Hm. It turns out I was right all along: conservatives are more scared than liberals!

10) This is your VP Candidate:

11) This is your VP Candidate reading hate mongering material:

12) This is the hate mongering she supports: American Opinion Magazine, published by the John Birch Society. Any questions?

13) They should have built this school. They could have cut the sex education budget down to a dollar a student and sent them next door!

14) The last baseball game ever at Yankee Stadium will be played this Sunday. You can watch it on ESPN. As a Mets fan, part of me is thinking good riddance to bad rubbish, but as a baseball fan, one has to tip one's hat to a stadium with the history that Yankee Stadium has. I've been to a couple of games (and required hospital stays twice to recover from the shame!) and while it's not unique in any way in and of itself, you can't help but feel the history flow through you.

15) Which reminds me: Shea Stadium closes next weekend, and I will attend. I'll post my thoughts about this rattletrap in the next couple of days.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

We Don't Need Another Hero

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you"- Paul Simon

I read a fascinating essay this morning written by Paul Simon . It had originally been published upon the death of Joe Dimaggio:
A few years after "Mrs. Robinson" rose to No. 1 on the pop charts, I found myself dining at an Italian restaurant where DiMaggio was seated with a party of friends. I'd heard a rumor that he was upset with the song and had considered a lawsuit, so it was with some trepidation that I walked over and introduced myself as its composer. I needn't have worried: he was perfectly cordial and invited me to sit down, whereupon we immediately fell into conversation about the only subject we had in common.

"What I don't understand," he said, "is why you ask where I've gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I'm a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven't gone anywhere."

I said that I didn't mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night.

Heroes are myths.

I don't mean that if heroes didn't exist, we'd have to invent them. No, I mean that we've invented them, and in so doing, have mythologized them as human beings. We've created larger than life, fictional characters out of flesh and blood people, people with foibles and flaws just like you and me.

In Dimaggio's day, it didn't matter that he was a focus-driven, cantakerous old coot who disliked most people and tried to live a solitary life in his silence. Indeed, part of his mythos is that he avoided the spotlight, this paragon of ability and dedication. His 56 game hitting streak is likely the purest of records in sport, falling so far outside the statistical norm for the sport, as Stephen Jay Gould observed.

In Dimaggio's day, all that mattered was the public image he had, his accomplishments on the field, and what few public appearances he made, carefully controlled by his handlers. In co-operation with the sporting press, of course. They understood that America needed heroes, that heroes sold papers back then.

We were a younger country back then. We're much older now. We don't need heroes.

Or so you would think. Part of what I believe the divide is between red staters and blue staters (meaning conservatives and Democrats) centers on heroes. Red staters are determined to have heroes, no matter how flawed they may be. The trouble is, they don't seek out their own heroes. Their heroes are manufactured for them.

A hero is someone you seek out, not for their sake, but for the sake of what they've accomplished. My heroes growing up, and please forgive the heavy sports theme of this post, were Joe Namath, Tom Seaver, Muhammad Ali. They were JFK and RFK and MLK, Jr.

And yes, there was Jesus and Moses and Ghandhi, too.

Could the American hockey gold medal have meant half as much if we had won in 1976 at Innsbruck or 1984 at Sarajevo? We needed the mythology, the false construct of defeating our sworn enemy on our own soil. People conveniently forget that victory took place under the Carter administration, so mythified that victory has become. People believe Reagan was already in office!

Somewhere along the way, we lost the thread of heroes. Look around you now, all you see are sympathetic eyes, searching for someone, ANYONE, to point the way ahead, to lead by example.

It is not any wonder, in my view, that our heroes today are fictional characters. Having stripped away the veneer of polite society from our news coverage, allowing our politicians and public figures to become not just clay-footed but clay-legged, -armed, and -chested, we have a need to search out those who we can look to in admiration, without reservation.

Silly Americans.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the release of movies like Star Wars, or the Indiana Jones films, or Rocky or Rambo or The Terminator, or any countless action/adventure movies came at a time when the scales of our eyes were being stripped away by partisan politics determined not to speak for the good of the nation, but for the bad of the politician it faced.

We look for purity, and find it wanting. Even now, the right looks to Sarah Palin as a beacon of "old fashioned values," conveniently forgetting that old fashioned values would have had her sitting in her kitchen preparing dinner instead of running a city into a massive debt and a state for less than two years, or would have her daughter exiled from her home town while she dropped a litter.
And conveniently ignoring that she's about as corrupt a politician as they come.

Similarly, the Democrats looked to Barack Obama for the same reasons: fresh-faced, principled stands, filled with ideas and vinegar.

Conveniently ignoring the fact that his hometown of Chicago is responsible for an awful lot of the corrupt ways that have infested our polity, and that it's impossible for a politician to come out of that untainted.

Harry Truman might have pulled it off, coming out of Kansas City Pendergast machine, but I doubt it. I seriously doubt that this unassuming man, with little personal charisma and charm and certainly nowhere near either of those qualities as Barack Obama has, was suddenly knighted as untouchably pure.

It appears that Americans are so in need of heroes, real-life heroes, that we'll create them for ourselves.

John McCain? Hero. John Kerry? Hero, but later villified for his heroism.

Sarah Palin? Hero. Hillary Clinton? Hero, but later villified for her heroism.

We just haven't gotten around to villifying McCain/Palin, but we're working on it!

And as I posted below, Barack Obama, a man who genuinely worked his way up the ladder on his own merits, hero, but villified for his heroism. But McCain/Palin? Hero.

We just haven't gotten around to villifying McCain/Palin, but we're working on it!

And we will. Win, lose or draw, McCain's accomplishments will be viewed thru the eyes now of the people who hate him the most, as will Palin's, as will Obama's, as will, eventually, Biden, altho I don't hear many people championing Biden as a hero.

Despite the fact that, indeed, he's picked himself up from tragedy and accomplished much in his life. He might actually BE a hero.

ACTUAL Straight Talk

Amy Goodman discusses the Fed's (our) bailout deal with investment banker turned journalist, Nomi Prins and Michael Hudson, president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends here.

It ain't pretty.

For anyone who is interested in the Bear Agenda, as I am, see this interview with an Alaska University professor and marine conservation specialist who requested the assessment of state scientists who had examined the impact of global climate change on polar bears. He was told he might have to pay close to half-a-million dollars for the request to be processed. Rick Steiner finally obtained the documents through a federal records request and found that the state’s marine mammal scientists were actually at odds with Governor Sarah Palin’s position.
I have been saying the Imprecatory Prayer of the Northern Wolves daily as tonic.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Greed Is God

Much of this week, hell, much of this year, has been about the coming economic disaster, which appears is now arriving on Track 13.

It got me to thinking a little about the capitalist system and its built-in, inherent flaw. Hell, it's such an obvious flaw that it boggles the mind that a rational people would choose it for their economy. Even Adam Smith saw it coming and warned against it.

Laissez-faire capitalism can loosely be defined as each person acting in his own interest contributes to the benefit of society at large.

For the large part, this system works pretty well: it's simple, easy to implement, and eventually, all people can benefit from truly free markets.

The one flaw in the ointment, the thing that ultimately Smith warned us on, is, well, greed. I mean, it's right there in the first part of that equation: A person's self-interest.

Implicit in that statement, of course, is the question "Which self-interest?" After all, one can be greedy to the point that it no longer is in one's self-interest. Think about Ebenezer Scrooge.

The assumption Smith made in his time was that man would remain ultimately a polite creature, fair and impartial, and more to the point, powerless over his fellow man (except for nobility, royalty and slavers).

In other words, business would remain small and personal. Indeed, his specific warning was against business combinations that would tend to unduly influence a market.

In fact, despite Republican tendencies to the otherwise, he insisted on government regulation in markets to assure that companies would remain beholden to the market, to the customer, and to society.

What we have witnessed over the past eight years is one of the least regulated markets in world history. Even the Romans, no socialist society, had the decent sense to keep the overseers at least nominally independent of the overseen!

The systematic deregulation, either de jure or de facto by ignoring regulatory oversight or simply paying lip service to it (SEC chairman: "Say, you boys over there at Bear Stearns aren't doing anything I should know about, are you?" *winkwink*), of the Bush administration was teasing the tiger with a thick steak on the wrong side of a short fence. It was asking for trouble. It was practically BEGGING for it.

Combined with the recent hard-line business attitude that economic royalists have taken since at least the Reagan administration (another Republican), which has seen huge companies overthrown because any shlub with a sufficient credit line thought he could squeeze more shareholder value out of the company than current ownership, and you have a deadly combination.

Management at corporations have had to genuflect to the shareholders, but those shareholders have tended more and more to focus on the short-term quarterly profit than the more nebulous, less objective, "value of the company".

The "self-interest", if you will. As companies have gotten bigger and bigger and more out of touch with their customers and the community, we've seen less and less accountability, less and less care, on the part of the corporation.

Which I think may have been Adams' point: business combinations, whether in the form of conglomerates, mergers, or even simply a gathering of minds at the watering hole on a Friday night to split up a market, mean less attention is paid to the business at hand: providing society with the benefits it deserves from putting up with the plunder of capitalists.

Smith, in other words, believed that so long as people could remain human, capitalism would always be in balance with the rest of society.

And yet, we've all seen that this was not the case, and in my estimation, could never have been the case: Greed is a powerful intoxicant.

That may be why it is one of the seven deadly sins. Which now brings us to the message at hand for today.

I've often wondered how capitalism can exist in a society that considers itself Christian.

Indeed, for the first two thousand years, give or take a couple of centuries, Christianity banned capitalism, on the grounds that earning money on money or charging more for a good than what it cost, was a form of usury, which is barred in the Old Testament.

In 1635, a Massachussetts man was convicted of "greed"...yes, it was a crime!...because he earned 6% on his sales, which was 2% more than the law allowed.

A law! About greed! Unthinkable today!

Christ himself warned against the accumulation of wealth. You might recall the "camel thru the eye of the needle" parable.

We see that Christianity is antithetical, even hostile, towards capitalism and vice versa. Why?

Because Christianity is about your fellow man, and capitalism is about, well, taking that fellow to the cleaners. Capitalism is soulless, godless and worships nothing so much as efficiency, the more ruthless, the better.

That's not me saying that. That's the damn system, which rewards short term efficiencies, even if it means breaking the law or the covenants of society, in order to squeeze one more dollar out of a transaction.

Greed pervades the system. Greed is inherent in the homeowner who borrows more money that he can realistically afford to pay back, because he's certain the value of his home will increase exponentially, and that value is his nest egg for retirement.

Greed is inherent in the banker who finances that mortgage, who knows that when the house of cards falls down people are going to get hurt, but he can justify the month's loan activity to his regional office with increases, not decreases, only.

Greed is inherent in the broker who bundles that mortgage along with countless others in a resaleable bite-size package to a series of investors looking to make money off other people's pains. The idea was to diversify the risk, to take the mortgages off the banks' books and to hand the risk over to other people who needed to balance their portfolios, but you know what happened: everyone jumped into the game and soon not enough good mortgages were floating around, so people just effectively packaged "junk mortgage bonds" and passed them off as AAA credits.

Greed, in other words: squeeze them for every buck you can get.

Greed is inherent in the municipalities, states and even the Federal Government, who all benefit from higher home values and balance their budgets on the backs of the greedy in the form of property taxes and the income taxes upon sale or disposal of the property, as the greedy homeowner climbs the social ladder to his McMansion built on his veery own McCloud in the McSky.

Do none of these people, for there must be a whole lot of crossover here, listen in church when the minister or priest talks about the evils of greed?

I've always believed that America, being somewhat psychotic in this regard, should make a choice: God or mammon.

If you're going to choose God, then turn communist. Communism and Christianity are perfectly suited to each other: to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability dovetails nicely with love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek.

If you're going to choose mammon, money, then drop the fucking pretense of being godly. It insults my God and it's silly on its face. I mean, seriously, is there a stupider sight than to see John McCain shocked, SHOCKED, to find there's no one minding the store?

(Showing Memeorandum da love)

Hump Day Comedy Blogging

Sarah Palin responds to her critics

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Polar Bears For The Truth

You get the feeling polar bears don't really like Sarah Palin's position on ANWR

I Got An Uncle Lives In Taxes

It's not often that a 'fact check" gets it wrong, but here's an example of a partisan fact check:
McCain has proposed to end one of the largest tax breaks in the entire economy. Some 60 million Americans buy health insurance thru employers tax-free, and McCain would indeed begin to tax the value of the benefit.

However McCain also proposes to give the money back as a tax credit, $2,500 for individuals, $5,000 for families.

"Let's give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice," McCain said.

Because a tax credit is money in your pocket?

Is it?

What is a tax refund? A tax refund is what's left over after your tax liability has been figured out. It is, in essence, an interest free loan to Uncle Sam.

(Side note: In an Actor212 NotPresidency, I would insist the rules be changed that you receive interest at the Applicable Federal Rate on any refund you obtain. But I digress...)

A tax credit merely lowers that tax liability: in effect, it is a dollar for dollar reduction in your taxes, which you've already paid into the pot.

Now, would your taxes go down? Yes, that's a given, particularly since the tax on the health insurance premium plus the insurance premium itself would be less than the $14,000 maximum premium you'd be credited for.'re still paying for the premium, and you're still paying for the tax.

After all, the average annual premium for an individual in the US is about $4,500. But, the average annual premium for a family of four is, ready for this? $12,500 give or take!

So the benefit to a family of four of a tax credit of $5,000, assuming they pay the top tax rate of 35% ($5,000/0.35) would cover a $14,000 premium.

In other words, you're saving maybe $1500 a year or $525 in taxes!

And look what would happen once this new tax was insituted: insurance companies would now be forced to report to the government the premiums paid by employee (as a check to the payroll reports individual employers now provide to the IRS, such as your W2 form).

Who pays for that administrative cost? You do.

This is another example of the mindless, piecemeal, irrational economic approach of what was supposedly the more financially savvy of the two major parties: you know, they made the money to BE Republicans, so they must know how to pass that knowledge on to us, right?

Eight years of a Bush Presidency, which included six years of a Republican Congress, has proved the fallacy of that notion. Next to no job creation (as opposed to Clinton, who created more jobs than anyone else in history, unless you count the global war machine galvanized against Adolph Hitler), an S&P 500 & Dow Jones 35 that has actually lost ground, mortgage foreclosures at all-time record levels, an unemployment rate higher than any seen in a Democratic administration since the 1940s (save for Clinton's first year in office), personal income declines, and now the tanking of the banking and insurance sectors.

Is this any way to run the greatest nation ever to appear on the face of the planet?????

Monday, September 15, 2008

Idiocies Of The Right

* If you grow up in Hawaii, raised by your grandparents, you're "exotic, different."
* Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers, a quintessential American story.

* If your name is Barack you're a radical, unpatriotic Muslim.
* Name your kids Willow, Trig and Track, you're a maverick.

* Graduate from Harvard law School and you are unstable.
* Attend 5 different small colleges before graduating, you're well grounded.

* If you spend 3 years as a brilliant community organizer, become the first black President of the Harvard Law Review, create a voter registration drive that registers 150,000 new voters, spend 12 years as a Constitutional Law professor, spend 8 years as a State Senator representing a district with over 750,000 people, become chairman of the state Senate's Health and Human Services committee, spend 4 years in the United States Senate representing a state of 13 million people while sponsoring 131 bills and serving on the Foreign Affairs, Environment and Public Works and Veteran's Affairs committees, you don't have any real leadership experience.
* If your total resume is: local weather girl, 4 years on the city council and 6 years as the mayor of a town with less than 7,000 people, 20 months as the governor of a state with only 650,000 people, then you're qualified to become the country's second highest ranking executive.

* If you have been married to the same woman for 19 years while raising 2 beautiful daughters, all within Protestant churches, you're not a real Christian.
* If you cheated on your first wife with a rich heiress, and left your disfigured wife and married the heiress the next month, you're a Christian.

* If you teach responsible, age appropriate sex education, including the proper use of birth control and how to avoid sexual predators, you are eroding the fiber of society.
* If , while governor, you staunchly advocate abstinence only, with no other option in sex education in your state's school system while your unwed teen daughter ends up pregnant , you're very responsible.

* If your wife is a Harvard graduate lawyer who gave up a position in a prestigious law firm to work for the betterment of her inner city community, then gave that up to raise a family, your family's values don't represent America's.
* If you're husband is nicknamed "First Dude", with at least one DWI conviction and no college education, who didn't register to vote until age 25 and once was a member of a group that advocated the secession of Alaska from the USA, your family is extremely admirable.

* If you eat arugula, the single most consumed leafy vegetable in the nation, you're elitist.
* If you own your own tanning bed in your mansion, you're an average American.

How The Mighty Fall

Well, you've heard this story today, but careful readers of this blog have known this was coming for a very long time:

It's the end of an era for Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm that brought Wall Street to Main Street.

Merrill, which has lost more than $45 billion on its mortgage investments, agreed to sell itself to Bank of America for $50.3 billion in stock, according to people briefed on the negotiations.

It is a remarkable fall from grace for the 94-year-old Merrill, whose corporate logo — a bull — has long symbolized the fundamental optimism of Wall Street. After a frantic weekend of talks between Wall Street executives and federal officials over the fate of the teetering Lehman Brothers, fear spread on Sunday that Merrill, staggered by losses, might also falter. The merger would combine Bank of America's banking and lending strength with Merrill Lynch's wealth management expertise.

Lehman, it should be noted, has since announced its intentions to file bankruptcy as early as today and has let 25,000 employees go.
How the mighty have fallen. From the heyday of the 80s and 90s, when brokerages and investment banks could do no wrong, and Americans across the nation profited from the opening of the capital markets to the small sucker, I mean, investor, to this recent chapter (apparently, number eleven) which has seen three huge names in the brokerage field-- Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch-- tumble into oblivion.
Who's left? Prudential Bache? Salamon Smith Barney?
Well, SSB is owned by Citigroup, which in turn owns Citibank. We can likely say buh-bye to Salomon in the near future, as Citibank's losses mount in the mortgage and credit markets.
Prudential Bache has managed to stay out of trouble, but more because the parent company, Prudential Insurance, has managed to squeeze clients for 12% more in commissions, and 6% more in fees, through the first half of 2008 than in 2007. Operations have shown a 17% reduction in revenues.
So they've made money the old fashioned way: gouging their customers!
Already, indications are for a market collapse unlike any other we have seen in our history, and there's not a lot of "there" there to begin to prop things up. Remember, it was the Treasury Department that negotiated the Bear Stearns sale to JP Morgan Chase Bank earlier this year, and no doubt helped sweeten Bank of America's deal with Merrill, as well as last week's almost-mandated bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But you get the sense that Lehman was left twisting in the wind because the cubbard's gone bare (if there was ever a time for tortured metaphors, this is it!). Institutional investors, the guys who really play the market, have already gotten out, quietly. Futures for the NYSE were down a whopping 260 points (meaning that the second the market opens, it would drop by that much), and that was hours before Bank Of America, who had been rumoured in talks with Lehman, bailed out and bought Merrill instead, hours before the 25,000 layoffs at Lehman were announced, hours before the public declaration of bankruptcy.
This bodes ill for insurance giant AIG, who apparently could not gouge their clients. AIG has asked the Fed for a $40 billion bailout.
There's a book to be written about last night, to be sure.
I should of course point out that if the government had been as generous with the mortgagors and debtors who are in perilous financial straits due to no fault of their own-- medical bills, divorce, job loss-- likely this current consumer debt crisis would not be half as bad as it has been, or will get, for that matter. I don't think we've seen the worst, but the worst is nearly upon us. After all, $75 billion dollars, roughly the Fed kick in on the Bear, Merrill and Fannie/Freddie deals, would go a long way, and would be spread out across many troubled markets and into paying down debt at many troubled banks and financial institutions.
But I digress...
We are no longer looking at ripples from a few stones sliding down the riverbank and into the creek, we're looking at a flash flood of raging torrents wiping clean the banks of the river.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I'm With the Polar Bears

Some evidence of the Reality Based Community.
Big Rally in the Upper One for some of us in the Lower 48 to take heart.
The Mudflats blog is some good home cookin', and took alot of pics at this rally, complete with a couple of local (drug-addled-gasbag-wannabe?) moran of Rube Community (pics 63 and 64). Good times!