advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Monday, December 26, 2011

On Christmas 2.0, Or, Who Might Be The New Santa?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of Christmas, and I’ve been thinking that there is a lot about the current practice that we can admire.

Peace and good will, of course, and cookies and candy canes, and happy kids – and this is also the time we think the most about those less fortunate, as do Jews and Muslims, who also have holiday celebrations this time of the year that include a component of charity.

But if there is anything that I could change about the modern practice of Christmas, it would be the installation of Santa Claus as an icon of consumer spending, more or less to the exclusion of everything else.

As an intellectual exercise, I started thinking about what a different Santa might be like; today’s story lays out who a few candidates might be for “Santa 2.0” and why.

So go grab a cookie, and, perhaps, a refreshing beverage…and let’s have some post-Christmas fun.

Chipmunk Family Reunion…
…someone stole the nuts…
…squirrel jail…

--“Flo”, the Progressive Insurance Representative, in a recent commercial

To help everyone understand my choices, I’m partial to the kind of Santa who might be inclined to be a force for good in society, even when Christmas isn’t around; that concept’s central to these selections.

I also tried to pick folks who would make the gift-giving role Santa fills interesting and, above all, fun; with all that in mind let’s jump right in and see where this thing goes:

In a tough economy, you want to save where you can, with that in mind my first nomination for the new Santa is Michael Moore, if for no other reason than he fact that he already fits the suit.

He’s from Michigan, you know, so the cold weather up there at the North Pole is something he’s already used to – and you can imagine that the Elves will finally be getting the health care and retirement benefits that they’ve been negotiating for these past several years.

But beyond that, I could see Mike coming down the chimney and giving people jobs if he could apply the Santa power that way, and I figure he likes cookies and milk, too, so we wouldn’t have to change that part of the deal – and all that suggests he’d be really good for the economy.

Plus, if he had all of Santa’s powers, he’d always know where Roger is, and that’s pretty cool, too, eh?

Now our next choice is a bit unusual, but I think we’re on the right path nonetheless, and that’s Meghan McCain, daughter of the Senator from Arizona.

She seems to be a really nice person, which is a good place to start, she’s blonde, which, again, works with the red suit, and I get the impression that she’d be OK with dealing with kids all day.

As for her Santa power…she’s an outspoken critic of the Crazy Right, and it’s entirely possible that she’ll bring some degree of rationality and reason from way up North to the GOP, which would be a present we could all use.

Some of y’all might be a bit put off by the idea that she appears to be the kind of person who, if a 13-year-old boy asked, would get him a gun, but I got a Godson who was given his first rifle younger than that, and he turned out to be a nonviolent person, so, you know, maybe Santa would turn out to support the Second Amendment, but that doesn’t automatically have to be a bad thing.

For our next nomination, we’re going way off the track to select someone you’ve probably never heard of: Yetta Kurland.

Ye-who What, you say?

Yetta Kurland is an attorney in New York City, and for the past few years, if you are a member of the LBGT community, and you’re interested in civil rights litigation, Yetta Kurland’s has been a pretty good name to know.

But beyond that, Yetta’s been working as a member of the National Lawyer’s Guild as one of the on-site attorneys for Occupy Wall Street, right down there at New York City’s Zucotti Park – and that means our Santa nominee’s been working day and night, literally out on the barricades, fighting for the rights of every one of us.

Animal rights are also a big focus for Yetta, and that suggests a Santa who would be thinking about all the kids, even the ones covered in fur…and that also means a Santa who might be particularly interested in bringing good homes to abandoned animals, which is as worthy a cause as anyone could wish for.

The best part is that Kurland is already interested in the arts, as is the potential Ms. Claus (Kurland’s partner, Elizabeth Koke); that’s good news for the Elves going forward, and for anyone who would be getting presents designed and manufactured at the North Pole Workshops.

Finally, the nomination for Claus 2.0 that I consider the most serendipitous – and potentially the most interesting of all: Lady Gaga.

She’s already known, loved, and admired around the world, which is exactly what you want in a Santa, she’s bound to do something interesting to the costume every year, which seems like a “great leap forward”, and she’s already used to dealing with great volumes of fan interaction – and if Lady Gaga were the next Santa, you could expect social media to become a big, big, deal at the North Pole.

It was entirely coincidental, but I happened to catch Gaga by Gaultier the other night, and as it turns out Gaga is looking to recreate The Factory, the storied workshop and studios of Andy Warhol…which could not be more perfect for a Santa with artistic ambitions, since the North Pole Workshops are full of skilled technicians who have been cranking out a mixture of art and fun as long as there’s been a Santa Claus, for Goodness sake.

As for her Santa power: imagine if someone could visit all the bullied boys and girls, all in one night, just to let them know that things can “get better”…and leave coal and access to social services for the bullies…well, that’s a pretty good power, and if Santa could do all that while singing “I Was Born This Way” – then I think we may have a winner.

So how about that? Four alternative Santas, each with a set of unique qualifications, all of whom could make things fun even as they’re stirring things up a bit, and all of whom bring their own interesting personality characteristics to this thought exercise.

Toss it around in your head a bit, see what you think, and let’s have a bit more fun fleshing out the thinking here in an effort to see who might really be the best choice for Santa 2.0.

In other words, now that I’ve reported – you decide.

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Helping Republicans, Or, Next Time You Need A Bad Idea, Try These

I have spent a number of years complaining about the interactions between Democrats and Republicans, but after the recent events involving the Keystone XL and civil liberties cave-ins, I’ve decided it’s time to stop complaining and embrace the madness.

But I also feel like there’s an ugly edge to all this…that hasn’t really been fully exploited.

I mean, Republicans have tried to force through a lot of disgusting ideas this Congress as they’ve held various bills hostage, but it seems like, if they really tried, they could do so much more.

But I’m not here to complain, I’m here to help; that’s why today we’ll be trotting out a few ideas of our own that Republicans can attach to bills throughout 2012, with the assistance of certain errant Democrats.

It’ll be fun, it’ll be festive, but most of all…it’ll be an exercise in Civic Responsibility, and in these difficult times, that’s something we could sorely use.

1) Above all, the needs of the army need to be taken into consideration. For instance, it will scarcely be possible to avoid, here and there, leaving behind some trade Jews who are absolutely essential for the provisioning of the troops, for lack of other possibilities. But in each case the proper Aryanization of these enterprises is to be planned and the move of the Jews to be completed in due course, in cooperation with the competent local German administrative authorities.

--From a planning document written in 1939 by Reinhard Heydrich, as reported in the book Documents of the Holocaust, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot

So let’s start with the economy: the Census Bureau tells us that nearly half the population is now poor or near-poor, and something needs to be done. With that in mind, I’d propose the “Economic Freedom and Upward Mobility Act” (HR 4377), which would establish a series of military catapult sites along the US border where carefully selected poor folks would be given, literally, economic freedom and upward mobility, even as we instantly reduce the number of impoverished persons in the United States.

Civil rights are important, but not at any cost; that’s why the “Election Cost Control Act” (HR OU812) would allow States to empower local officials to preselect winners in various elections, saving the taxpayer the time and expense of having to count the votes for all those losing candidates.

Messaging matters, and there’s no reason Republicans have to be the bearers of all the bad news: Mississippi Congressman Hatesem Lotsabunch confirmed to me in a phone call yesterday that he will take my suggestion and introduce the “Voter Education Act”, which would require President Obama to wear a giant red, white, and blue dog whistle on a thick silver chain every time he appears in public between the date of passage and November of 2012. (For the record, I actually suggested a gold chain; he thought that was a bit “uppity”.)

We have a serious immigration problem, but I think we can take a page from the Newt Gingrich playbook and introduce the “Guest Worker Protection and Identification Act” (GWIPA).

Here’s the idea: Gingrich has proposed creating a class of persons (“worker residents”?) who are allowed to live and work in the USA, but are never going to be allowed to have US citizenship. The problem is that it will be impossible to quickly tell who is a legal worker resident and who isn’t. Under GWIPA, government-issued armbands would be provided for all legal worker residents to hold their photo ID; as long as they always wear the armband, they’ll be protected from having to show papers to law enforcement officials as they go about their daily business.

Governors as diverse as Rick Perry, Jan Brewer, and Robert Bentley have demanded that the Federal Government finally get serious about “securing the border”; the “Nuclear Assault Mine/Border Legislation Act” (NAM/BLA) is my “if you’re crazy enough to support Rick Santorum, why not this?” proposal to make that happen. The new law would order the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to work together to develop, manufacture, and deploy small “assault-sized” nuclear land mines along the Mexican border as a way to deter illegal immigration.

"Well you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes!"
"These aren't my clothes!"
"Well, where are your clothes?"
"I've lost my clothes!"
"Well, why are you wearing these clothes?"
"Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!"

--Cary Grant, as David Huxley, from the 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby

Finally, let’s take a moment and consider one of the vital social issues of the day.

It is apparently still possible to lock down some GOP votes by going “hard negative” on the LBGT community, if what I’m hearing from the candidates is to be believed (I was particularly struck by Mitt Romney’s ability to twist on this issue: in the last GOP debate, in one single sentence, Romney said he felt there should be no discrimination against the LBGT community…but that there should be no same-sex marriages), and I have a proposal that allows the GOP to appear to be moving to a better place while ensuring that nothing ever changes at all:

The “Mitt Romney Legal Access Beyond Intimidation Act” (MRLABIA) would do two things: it would repeal the Federal Defense of Marriage Act – and, in the Mitt Romney tradition, it would also add a new provision into law that prevents same-sex couples from entering into contracts for the purposes of marriage, thus ensuring “a perfect flip-flop, every time”, as they might say on an infomercial somewhere.

So there you go: instead of relying on the usual “poison pills”, I’m challenging the GOP to try out a few of these ideas – and I’m also challenging much of the American media to try and tell the difference between some of these ideas and the present reality; just at the moment that won’t be easy, and, all humor aside, I think that might actually be the saddest part of this whole exercise.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On The Question Of Virginity, Or, “Starter? I Can’t Make Her Stop!”

I got a weird little story about my friend Blitz Krieger to bring to you today.

He’s had a crazy car problem, he has, and over the past few months he thought he had found a solution – in fact, he thought he had found the solution of his dreams – but in the end, he’s discovered that the things you dream about often don’t go according to plan.

The way it’s worked out for him so far, it’s been a lot of anticipation followed by a sudden wave of frustration, but I feel like he’s a lot better off having his particular problem with his car…because if he’d had cancer instead, he’d surely be dead by now.

The community is always embarrassed by the drag queens because straight society says, “A faggot always dresses in drag, or he’s effeminate.” But you got to be who you are. Passing for straight is like a light-skinned woman or man passing for white. I refuse to pass. I couldn’t have passed, not in this lifetime.

--Sylvia Rivera, describing the founding of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), quoted in the book Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America

So here’s what happened to Blitz: he waited forever to buy his first car because he wanted, more than anything else in life, to drive his “perfect” car: a 1982 American Motors Eagle SX/4.

It’s a wild car: it was designed as a small hatchback…with a V-8 engine…and “switchable” 4WD…which allowed it to travel easily in snow in a way that virtually no other passenger car at the time could manage.

So he waited all this time, and two years ago, in California, he literally found a little old lady from Pasadena who sold him his “Dream Car”, which, ironically, was the same brown color as Al Bundy’s Dodge.

It drove great for about six months, but it’s been suffering from a strange malady that presents as a horrible grinding noise when he tries to start the car. He has no idea what to do – and standing in the way of a solution is an obsession that I find a bit strange:

He is absolutely determined that he is not going to go to just any mechanic.

Instead, Blitz told me that since it’s the first time the Dream Car needs to be repaired, he intends to go to a mechanic who has never worked on any car before his – and he says he wants to do this because he feels the experience of having the work done this way will make it more “special” for the both of them.

It took him almost a year to find someone, but when he did, it was truly perfect: he met a woman named Jenna Talia who wanted more than anything to be a mechanic.

She’d been studying through one of those “learn at home” programs, and, amazingly, she had an attitude similar to my friend Blitz’s: she knew about how to fix a car from what she’d read in a book, but she refused to actually repair one until she got the chance to work on her Dream Car – and even more amazingly, her Dream Car…was a 1982 American Motors Eagle SX/4.

They actually met on the bus (Blitz, naturally, refused to drive any other car except the Dream Car), and after a few months of knowing each other, Blitz proposed that Jenna might work on his car in his garage, and she agreed.

Fun Fact I Just Made Up: In a recent poll, 32% of voters thought the Iowa Caucuses were a country located near the former Soviet Georgia.

So we’re going out last Saturday night, and I get a call from Blitz asking if I could come by and pick ‘em both up there at his house, and I’m OK with that, because with two drinks in a night being a big evening for me I’m more or less a permanent designated driver.

I was wondering how it was going with the car, and what I saw was stunning: the upper half of the engine was sitting in the living room, entirely disassembled. There were rockers and rods and all kinds of stuff there, neatly arranged for easy reassembly, and it looked like they had really put a lot of effort into the thing, but it was clear that they just couldn’t get it quite figured out…which isn’t surprising, considering it was the first time for both of them.

And you could see, in just that first second, that the two of them were some kind of frustrated. But it gets worse: Blitz told me that this was her third “diagnosis”, and that, now that she was actually face-to-face with a real car, she seemed to be entirely confused about exactly what to do.

Apparently things had gone so bad that Jenna wouldn’t even leave his house at night to go home until she could get things figured out…and, from what he’s telling me, he’s ready to throw her out, buy a different car, and get that car fixed by a mechanic who’s been there and done that – a lot.

To put it another way, he’s ready to dump his virgin mechanic…for a slut.

Now here’s the really crazy part of the story: I’ve had a bit of experience with cars breaking down over time, and I knew what was wrong from the beginning, as many of you probably did, too: the starter was bad – and that’s located on the very bottom of the engine, not the top, which means everything they’d been doing was pretty much pointless.

But I couldn’t tell them that in the beginning…because, again, it would’ve just spoiled the experience…and I sure wasn’t gonna say “I told you so” now…so even though I could have offered them both useful advice about how ignorance ain’t bliss, they surely didn’t want to hear it.

So look, folks, we could have a lot more fun following out this comic premise, but there’s a bigger point: I don’t want a virgin mechanic, and surely not a virgin doctor – and they don’t even allow virgin pilots to carry passengers.

What is it about sex (and politics, for that matter) that makes people think they’ll be able to simply “get it” with no experience at all? What is it that makes them think that celebrating their own ignorance is the best way to show they’re ready to take on something that, frankly, requires a bit of trial…and error…before you really get it right?

I don’t know the answer, but the next time someone tells you how their ignorance makes them a lot smarter about something, do me a favor and think about Blitz and Jenna and the Dream Car – and the living room full of engine parts – and if that person’s running for office, run the other way. Quickly.

I’d appreciate it; so will you – and if I know Blitz, he will, too.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On The Emergence Of China, Or, Zhou Knew This Was Coming

After doing a bit of mountain hiking a few days back, I had a chance to get involved in a great afternoon conversation with the Alliance for American Manufacturing’s Mike Wessel, who also serves as a Commissioner with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission; the conversation was about how we’re doing when it comes to our relationship with China.

As it turns out, the two events went well together, because what I’m hearing from these guys is that we have a great big ol’ mountain to climb if we hope to get back to a level playing field in our interactions with this most important country.

There’s news to report across a variety of issues; that’s why today we’ll be talking about trade, human rights, cybersecurity, poverty and development, and the methods by which you can apply “soft power” to achieve hard results.

The entirely unanticipated result: all of this will reveal the naïveté of Ron Paul when it comes to foreign policy; we’ll discuss that at the end.

The King of China's daughter
So beautiful to see
With a face like yellow water
Left her nutmeg tree

--From the song “The King of China’s Daughter”, by Natalie Merchant

So let’s start with the background stuff: the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission exists today because of the legislative wars surrounding China being granted Most Favored Nation status back in the day.

At the time, there were concerns about the way China does business on the international stage, and the Commission provides a follow-on monitoring program to examine questions regarding the Chinese human rights record, issues related to economics, cybersecurity issues, the intentions of the Chinese military, and lots more.

The Commission issues annual reports to Congress, and this year’s report has just been released.

Now normally I would present a point of view, followed by a counterpoint; today, we’ll do the opposite: there are folks I listen to out there, including Thomas P. M. Barnett, who would tell you that you are not going to be able to keep spending $900 billion a year on the defense budget if you can’t find an opponent worth $900 billion a year, and China looks like that kind of opponent, in a number of ways that Al Qaeda never could…even if, in Barnett’s opinion, China is a great big paper tiger.

Al Qaeda will never build aircraft carriers, or intercontinental ballistic missiles; they’ll never put to sea in submarines or build a stealth fighter, and they darn sure aren’t going to be mounting military operations in space or engaging in cyberwarfare.

And yet, if you’re a defense contractor, a General, or an Admiral, that’s where all the money is; naturally, if the money goes away, some of those Generals and Admirals are not going to have the chance to “graduate” from the military and become defense contractor representatives themselves.

Put it all together, and some would tell you that the biggest battle facing the Military/Industrial Complex today…is making sure we’re always nervously looking under our beds at night, just to be safe.

You should also know that our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, convinced his brand-spanking-new country to put in place a series of protective tariffs. The intent was to foster manufacturing in the then-agrarian United States; this was intended to create a climate favorable for non-farm businesses and to allow a far more disparate group of immigrants to come to the new Nation than what would have occurred if the only major business activities around the country were farming-related.

So with all that in mind, let’s talk China.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (the USCC) wants you to know that China is very much on a knifedge: the country is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (the PLA).

The USCC would tell you that the primary goal of the CCP and PLA leadership is to “protect their phony-baloney jobs” and the corruption that goes with ‘em (thanks for the line, Mel Brooks), and that they have to do a few things to keep those jobs safe: they have to find a way to make 900 million near-peasants into a middle class, quickly, because the peasants have seen how the other 300 million live, to secure markets and resources China has to begin to project power around the world, by military or other means, and they have to make extra sure that nobody in China, except the CCP, gets the opportunity to take over the political conversation – in other words, ensure that the “Arab Spring” doesn’t become the “Jasmine Spring”.

There’s more: in a country without something like Social Security, China’s population will age faster than any in history, and many of the 900 million seem to want to move from the country to the city in numbers so large that they literally can’t build cities fast enough.

So how does the Chinese Government deal with all this?

What China has been doing is seeking internal “quietude” by growing the economy through manufacturing, and they have decided to choose certain industries as the linchpin of “valuing up” that growth, so that China’s low-tech manufacturing becomes more high-tech. (Think computers and telecommunications, space, alternative fuel vehicles, aviation, green energy technologies, that sort of thing.)

China has decided that virtually the only way a foreign company can do business in any of the “chosen” areas is to mandate technology transfers that allow Chinese companies to obtain the methods and tools needed to compete with the foreign supplier down the road. (This is officially against WTO rules; China disputes that assertion. The USCC says they now make these demands in subtle ways that are less “enforceable”.) Chinese buyers are told to give preference to “state-innovated” technologies.

China also uses their currency as a way of “preferencing” the local economy. The Renminbi (RMB) is, according to most observers, deliberately undervalued in order to make Chinese goods cheap overseas and imported goods expensive at home. Mike Wessel would tell you it’s about 40% undervalued, and that that “trade tax” (my term, not his) costs the US budget about $500 billion a year, with a similar impact on State budgets. Despite much USA pressure and some recent upward valuation (roughly 6% last year), it looks like China is not going to move much on the RMB anytime soon.

Wessel anticipates China will spend about $1.5 trillion on anti-poverty subsidies to quell unrest over the next 5 years; that would become a lot more difficult if a revaluation were to occur.

During the 1990s China began to move to a free-market model that emphasized the growth of privately-owned businesses; Wessel says today China is going back to promoting the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to the detriment of a free market.

This has been bad for our own industrial strategy, such as it is, which assumed we would be selling China lots of high-tech goods, even as they sold us cheap goods. That has not worked out; in fact, China is now the largest market for cars and cell phones, among other products…and those products are not being manufactured in the USA.

It’s reported that the theft of intellectual property is the normal way business is done in China; as an example Wessel notes that something like 80% of the software on Chinese corporate computers is stolen.

We are told that the PLA is looking to create an “area of influence” that extends from the South China Sea to space; to this end the first Chinese aircraft carrier is being readied for service, a stealth fighter is in development, antiship missile systems are being upgraded, and a “counterspace” capability has been demonstrated. (The idea is that Chinese satellites explode near other satellites, thus disabling them. The USA and Russia seem to have similar capabilities.)

Chinese military doctrine, Wessel tells us, advocates shutting down the “network-centric” model of US military operations; it is believed that a significant campaign of computer-based intrusions and attacks on the USA have already taken place, including two events that took place at Department of Defense-operated satellite-control facilities that seem to have been external attacks.

Wessel anticipates that a war with China would begin with China attempting to disable various USA computer networks and infrastructure; the resulting confusion would be used to China’s advantage.

Beyond that, Wessel worries that we’re buying so much of our telecommunications and computing infrastructure from China that we may be vulnerable to being spied upon by our own laptops; he cited two examples of this problem: a computer sale to the State Department that involved Lenovo laptops and classified data, and a sale of network equipment by Huawei to Sprint that might have allowed classified computer traffic to be compromised.

Chinese spying, Wessel would tell you, is widespread and not limited to government: trade secrets are up for grabs in a big way, and even the US Patent and Trademark Office had to upgrade its security after it discovered patent applications were being snatched out of the system and appearing as Chinese products, with Chinese patents, before the applications could even be acted upon in the USA.

Wessel also wants you to understand that China uses “soft power” to advance its interests: there are lots of “hosted” opportunities to study in China, former military officers of various nations, including the USA, are recruited as “representatives”, and there are lots of “get to know us” opportunities that have been created around the world; all of this is intended to “sell” China in ways we do not.

And with all that said, let’s talk about Ron Paul.

Paul’s attitude toward China seems to be that we should allow free, unimpeded trade, and that the currency manipulations about which many complain would not exist if we went back to a gold standard. Paul stated in 2001 that:

Concern about our negative trade balance with the Chinese is irrelevant. Balance of payments are always in balance. For every dollar we spend in China those dollars must come back to America. Maybe not buying American goods, as some would like, but they do come back and they serve to finance our current account deficit.

Free trade, it should be argued, is beneficial even when done unilaterally, providing a benefit to our consumers.

If I’ve been paying attention during the recent Republican debates, this is still what Paul believes about China, and here are a couple of thoughts about how he’s got it entirely wrong:

Paul may not like it, but Hamilton succeeded when he used tariffs to jump-start a manufacturing economy in this country, and not having free trade is working pretty well for China as well. Unfortunately, it’s working very badly for us.

On the one hand, Wal-Mart and all the others who import less-expensive products from China have done a great job of masking the fact that incomes have been either stagnant or declining for about 99% of us, but Wessel would say that’s been at the cost of sending millions upon millions of jobs to a country that is working hard on every level to ensure we can never again compete as a manufacturing nation – and while we thought we would make up that difference with our high-tech advantages, theft and spying and a devalued currency and “partnerships with benefits” and protectionist “state-innovation” rules have made sure we don’t.

A gold standard won’t fix this, and simply advocating that we allow China unfettered access to USA markets while they rob us blind seems a bit like suggesting everyone leave their houses unlocked so that the market can more efficiently decide which ones are the best for burglars.

So we’ve covered a lot of ground today, and let’s wrap this thing up with a summary of where Commissioner Wessel says we’ve been:

We have a competitor in China who will do more or less anything to keep its current political leadership in power, even as that leadership is forever worried that 900 million of its citizens will discover that you can overthrow a government.

The PLA is busy as well, with the South China Sea and everything above being the “area of influence”; computer warfare seems to be the next phase.

“Soft power” is also being applied; we have former military officers and Chinese language students and lots of other folks either hearing or telling China’s story all over the world and we don’t do a good job of answering back.

All the while, the CCP is working hard to create a higher-tech Chinese economy, by hook or by crook, and that’s putting the future of our own economy at risk, not to mention the operations of our government.

We, as a people, seem to be unaware of all of this, and that plays out in the form of ignorance in our politicians, with Ron Paul being a recent prominent example.

So now it’s up to you to figure out what all this means: is this really a substantial threat that we have to defend against (and there’s lots of evidence to suggest it is), or is this an effort to find a way to keep spending that $900 billion every year?

My take: Wessel’s not a defense lobbyist, even as he is trying to promote manufacturing in the USA, and there is a lot of evidence to support his thinking; with all that in mind I’m more inclined to believe he’s sending a warning we better pay attention to than he is seeing Commies under the bed.

Nonetheless, there are lots of folks who would like to keep stackin’ that big cheddar, at your expense, and even as we think very hard about China, we better also keep in mind that Northup Grumman could be just as dangerous.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On Punishing The Job Creators, Or, “The Poor Have It So Good Today”

You know what the problem is with America?
The poor don’t get just how great they have it.

I’ve hear this a lot lately; the basic thrust of the discussion is that all those cars, TVs, DVD players, refrigerators, and stoves that have found their way into the homes of the economic underclass are proof there’s really no such thing as “poor” in America.

If they were truly poor, the argument goes, well…think recycled corn.

And if the poor want things to get better, let ‘em pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – and if they can’t, then let ‘em rot, because that’s the best thing for the economy.

But I don’t buy all that, and by the time we’re done today, I hope to have given you a whole new perspective on how jobs get created in this country.

There isn't a rich man in your vast city who doesn't perjure himself every year before the tax board. They are all caked with perjury, many layers thick. Iron-clad, so to speak. If there is one that isn't, I desire to acquire him for my museum, and will pay Dinosaur rates.

--From the letter "A Humane Word From Satan", by Sam Clemens

We must have completely misjudged how many Americans live here about 15 years ago, because everywhere I go I see vacant buildings.

Empty retail space, empty office buildings, empty factories, and all of it apparently just thrown up for no reason whatsoever.

But then I recently saw some historical pictures from the 1990s, and it turns out a lot of those buildings used to have businesses operating within their now-abandoned walls – businesses which have since gone away.

And that’s when I began to get confused.

You see I’ve always known, just as you have, that it’s all about capital; that’s why it’s only the very wealthiest people who can create jobs in this country.

And I’ve always known that they can only do that when they are 100% certain that nothing was going to hurt their current economic condition, and that any sacrifice on our part, no matter how large, was crucially important to keep this very special source of economic vitality full and happy and creating jobs for America’s future.

And when I look at the statistics, I know we’ve been doing our part: the wealthy have been getting wealthier, faster, over the past 30 years than at any time in memory…and yet, for some reason, all those businesses were closing down.

So many, in fact, that I began to question whether America actually understands how jobs get created. It even began to cross my mind that maybe we’ve been coddling the wrong people.

I mean, what if the actual job creators…are the people who no longer work in those empty buildings?

It makes sense, if you think about it.

The common argument is that those with capital make investments, which creates jobs.

But why would anyone invest capital unless there was perceived demand for a product, or a need to do research to meet perceived future demands?

That seems to suggest demand drives investment; a good way to “prove” the point would be to consider what happens to capital without demand: building factories and ships and warehouses does no good if there are no buyers at the store.

Of course, I’m not the first to think workers drive demand: Henry Ford famously paid his workers double the prevailing wage; part of the idea was to create demand for all those Model Ts he was cranking out in his new factories.

So now that we know who the job creators really are, and we established years ago that we have to do every single possible thing on the face of the Earth to keep the job creators happy, happy, happy…how do we get started?

Well, here’s an idea: the Fed willingly gave more than $1.5 trillion to banks for bailouts, mostly by simply “creating” money; now I’m proposing we do the same for homeowners.

If you have a loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac, let’s allow you to apply for a one-time $200,000 markdown on your mortgage – and let’s allow the first “tranche” of any markdown to apply to any back-due loan payments.

The amount of “haircut” (fancy technical term) you might impose on each loan could vary, but $1.5 trillion would allow 7.5 million writedowns at $200,000 each; if you limited the haircut to 50% of the loan value many would be less than $200,000. (It’s estimated that 11 million homes in the USA from are underwater; $2.5 trillion or less would cover all underwater loans.)

Since Fannie and Freddy back $10 trillion or so in mortgages, and you probably won’t be able to write down every loan, how would you decide who gets writedowns?

One way would be to create a “triage score” that incorporates things like the odds an applicant/borrower can pay off a restructured loan and the amount of foreclosed or underwater homes in any given community; the 7.5 million highest (or lowest) scores get the writedowns.

(One caveat: many who are having trouble today with home loans are also laid off; unless we can find ways to keep those folks in homes until they can find work, we’ll still have a substantial foreclosure problem.)

Writing down mortgages does several things: it quickly applies a “moral hazard cost” to those who deliberately lent to unqualified borrowers, it turns millions of “underwater” loans into homes with equity, it turns millions of “nonperforming” loans into “performing” loans, keeping millions out of foreclosure, it gives communities a chance to either stabilize or recover from “mass foreclosure-itis”, and it finally breaks the deadlock between banks and regulators over who will blink first on loan “haircuts” versus bank recapitalizations.

Wait? What was that last one?

Banks are scared to death that if they write down all these loans they will have to find new capital to make up the losses – and they probably won’t be able to raise that new capital by charging a $5 fee to have a debit card.

That could mean a few things: it could mean big banks are going to have to more sneakily raise lots of other fees and sell things to raise capital, or, perhaps, the Feds ease back a bit on capital requirements.

Or…it may mean that the banks end up having to get smaller. Consider this scenario: a forced haircut of significant size, followed by regulators who stand firm on capital requirements, followed by a less-than-stellar round of stock offerings or asset sales; next thing you know, “too big to fail” becomes “we have to spin off some part of the retail business for reasons related to the rules governing capital requirements”.

This could happen without the passage of new regulations or legislation beyond the initial bailout authorization – and even that might be within the power of Federal regulators already, since Fannie and Freddy, as the owners of many of these loans, have the power to forgive some or all of that debt, and capital requirements are not set by legislation.

And where does all that leave you?

Well, you’d have 7.5 million families that could more easily afford to make house payments than before, and those folks will probably take that money and spend it on things they haven’t been buying for several years: home improvements, cars, appliances, and the travel and entertainment markets could all see substantial bumps in sales.

Many, if not most of those families, would immediately go from being “underwater” to having equity, which always helps turn reluctant consumers into willing consumers.

Cities could begin to recover as well, as the number of foreclosures bottoms out; once banks are forced to write those properties down from “2006 value” to today’s market value they’ll be looking to sell ‘em at bargain prices; that’ll help soak up today’s housing supply “overhang”. All of this is good for beleaguered new home builders, who are today in a holding pattern.

And here’s the best part: if you get a handle on foreclosures, and put some cash back in some pockets, and start selling stuff…well, that looks like a bit of a jobs program, even if Congress might not be willing to sign up for one just at the moment.

So how about that?

If we make an effort to give to the actual job creators the same level of incentives that we gave to the “demand responders” since November of ‘08, we could actually find ourselves creating actual jobs with our money – and doing it by the millions, just when we need ‘em.

Considering how fast we were able to find ways to create TARP, QE1, QE2, an alternative auto industry bailout, and anything else a banker could ask for, including, I’m sure, partridges in pear trees…well, we should be able to knock this out over a weekend, assuming we can either make a really convincing argument – or do like the banks do, and lay out a million a day for lobbyists until it gets convincing enough to get things done.

Of course, if we have to we could also start Occupying the Offices of reluctant Members of Congress to help make the point; as long as the end result is some serious pampering of the real job creators, I’m all good.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Common Ambitions, Or, Occupy Wall Street Likes Capitalism – Sort Of

Well I’m finally back here at work after another recent series of personal adventures; in the middle of all the fun I’ve been finding time to get down to my local “Occupy” event, and for those of you who have not been keeping up I thought we’d take a moment today to compare a bit of Fox-driven perception to the reality I’ve been seeing.

What I’ve been told to expect, at least in certain quarters of the public space, are dirty filthy hippies with no jobs or ambitions hoping to destroy America while having deviant public couplings fueled by the free distribution of dangerous psychotropic drugs.

Sadly, I’ve found that there’s not really much truth in that description, even as tiny bits of it do ring true; but with a manifesto in hand and a few conversations under my belt we’ll see what we can do to create a picture that will surprise a lot of the 99% who already support Occupy Wall Street, even if they don’t know it yet.

Individuals or individual states may call themselves what they please: but the world, and especially the world of enemies, is not to be held in awe by the whistling of a name. Sovereignty must have power to protect all the parts that compose and constitute it: and as UNITED STATES we are equal to the importance of the title, but otherwise we are not.

-- From The Crisis, by Thomas Paine (emphasis is original)

So before we go any farther, let’s set a few conditions to this analysis: I have only been down to Occupy Seattle in person for a total of about six hours over three visits, and even though I try to follow things nationwide on the twitter and the various Livestreams, there’s obviously a lot being missed that’s not going to be reflected here.

Beyond that, we need to recognize that there is a lot of “frogs jumping out of the wheelbarrow” within the Occupy movement; by that I mean people with a lot of different grievances have come together, and even as many agree on one issue or another, many do not – which probably sounds familiar to many of the folks who populate the Tea Party movement as well.

And I’ll tell you something else, just to get the conversational ball rolling: despite what Glenn Beck might imagine in his wildest fantasies, there are a lot of folks in the Occupy movement who are indeed capitalists, even as they may eschew the term themselves; as evidence to support that proposition we’ll have a look at the statement adopted by The General Assembly.

If you know nothing about the Occupy events, let’s start with the setting: in the case of Occupy Seattle, the event has been taking place at Westlake Park, which is dead square in the middle of downtown; the 1/10th acre triangle is home to a couple of speaking platforms, a fountain, a big feeding and medical tent, and then several smaller groupings of sleeping bundles and a single group with a tarp over their sleeping bags (since I last visited, that “tarp over sleeping bag” tent is gone, thanks to the Seattle Police Department; 10 were arrested in the process).

You can’t use bullhorns to be heard above the street noise, and that’s why you’re seeing those videos of people chanting in unison whenever anything’s said: the “speaker” offers a sentence, then the members of the crowd (who are, collectively, “The General Assembly”) repeat the phrase for everyone else (it’s called “the people’s microphone”); hand signals are used to offer immediate feedback to what’s being said, and votes are used to make decisions, just like an old-style New England town hall meeting.

For The General Assembly to adopt anything, from a plan of action to a Statement, requires great deliberation and discussion, and on my second visit there was an ongoing deliberation as to whether the group should negotiate with the Mayor to move the encampment to City Hall.

Out of the New York City process, as we’ve mentioned before, came a Statement; right off the bat it would tell you this:

We come to you at a time when corporations – which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality – run our governments.

That doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of capitalism, and neither do the parts of the Statement that reference taking bailouts “with impunity”, even as Executives receive “exorbitant bonuses”, nor the comments about the destruction of the farming system or the issues raised regarding “the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals”; there’s a whole lot more I could cite to make this point, but what you need to take away from this couple of paragraphs is that there is a lot to be said against how we do capitalism, and these folks are voicing some of the same complaints we’ve all had lately.

Despite all that, there are some very telling portions of the statement for those who think Occupy Wall Street is intent on recreating Mad Max in Manhattan; here are a few (not in their original order):

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.

So what am I reading here?

I believe I’m reading something created by a community of people who expect to get an education, find work, and own a home. I believe they expect to find equal pay and safe working conditions at that job, and then they’d like to have some say in how the economy of our country works.

I believe they expect safe products, and access to reasonably priced, but still profitable medicine, and a safe environment that they might be able to pass along to future generations.

I believe they don’t like it when the rules of the game are written by referees who have been bought off by one of the teams.

And if you put all that together, my nervous Conservative friends…I believe you’re looking at a bunch of capitalists who want to take The American Dream and make it work a whole lot better than it does today.

I believe, when you hear them talking about corruption in government, and bank bailouts, and the need for affordable health care, and making American jobs available for an American future, they’re looking to do something about the same kinds of problems that also keep nice Conservative folks up late at night – and when you put all that together, I think you’re gonna find out that, Conservative or Liberal, Progressive or Tea Party, we, all of us, really are the 99%.

So put aside all that Fox “fear porn” stuff for a few minutes, think about the things that are making you upset about this country today, look at what these folks are saying about a lot of the same issues, and see if you can’t find a place for yourselves in this 99%.

Then get down to an Occupy event near you and see where it goes (and by now they are, almost literally, everywhere, including Taipei, Taiwan): ask questions, join The General Assembly for a session, maybe even move the conversation a bit yourself.

It’s free speech, it’s people seeking a redress of grievances in a peaceful assembly, there’s voting…hell, the only way this could be more representative of Truth, Justice, and The American Way is if everyone down there was wearing a Superman suit; so go on down there, be a patriot, speak your piece, do some listening, make some new friends, and let’s see if we can’t build a better planet, one Occupy at a time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On Imperfection, Or, How Do You Choose A New Bank?

Like a lot of people these days, we have come to the conclusion that it’s time to change our lousy bank.

And it wasn’t even like we chose badly, either – we were customers of Washington Mutual for almost two decades, and we loved ‘em: they were nice people to deal with, they didn’t constantly hammer you every time you came in to the branch with desperate sales pitches, and they didn’t even charge you for using another bank’s cash machines.

It turns out, however, that all that beneficence came at a cost: WaMu made a lot of money making sketchy mortgage loans, and when it all came crashing down, we found ourselves customers of JPMorgan Chase, who we now hate with the fire of a thousand suns.

But it turns out choosing a new bank ain’t all that easy – and that’s where you come into today’s conversation.

"I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested...Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents."

--From a speech delivered by General Smedley Butler to an American Legion Convention, New Britain, Connecticut, August 21, 1931

We had a chance to do a refinancing deal which would lower our mortgage interest rate quite considerably at about the same time that WaMu went down, which we did, and although we thought we’d be doing business with our old bank, we got the news of the Chase takeover in all the confusion as the bank collapsed.

Our new friends at Chase were quite anxious for us to set up an “autopay” arrangement, which we did; three months later they were threatening to take our house for failure to make the payments.

When we had to explain to them that the money was right there, sitting in the account, and that they were failing to collect the payments every month, we knew we were going to have a problem with Chase.

Remember this scene from Seinfeld?

Jerry: I don't understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?

Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the

Agent: I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to
take the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation and
that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.

I actually got to have a variation of that same conversation with the Loan Officer who set up the autopay in the first place, when he asked why we hadn’t been making sure they were collecting the money more carefully, which was a lot of fun, if I might say so myself, even as he clearly hated it. I also made him call Chase Customer Service, in our presence, to fix the problem, which he hated even more.

As you might guess, we don’t have autopay anymore, and from time to time a teller will ask if we want it…and that gives us a chance to tell the story to any other customers who might be nearby, which they always seem to find, shall we say, “relatable”.

But what with all the new fees and the generally lousy atmosphere in the branches these days, not to mention the fact that we’ve come to view Chase as essentially pirates on a financial sea, looking to rob us blind, it’s time to cut ship and move on – and up to this point, that’s actually been a bit of problem.

See, the thing is, we’re having as much trouble finding a bank we like as the Tea Party is settling on a Presidential Candidate – and for the same reason: every one of ‘em has some sort of fatal flaw.

Fun Fact: the NYPD arrested 700 or more people today for marching in the traffic lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge – and in this video, you can see the NYPD leading the marchers onto the traffic lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The standard answer to this question is to choose a Credit Union, but that doesn’t work for us very well as the local Credit Unions don’t really have a presence outside the local area. (We live in Seattle and travel up and down the West Coast from time to time, so this is a bit of an issue for us.)

We have the same problem with banks like Sterling Savings or Umpqua Bank, which seem to have nice reputations, as banks go – and that leaves us having to choose from one of the banks we all hate.

At the moment, the “candidate banks” are basically down to The Usual Suspects: Bank of America, US Bank, Key Bank, and Wells Fargo.

Now we have some personal opinions of our own about each of these banks, but what I want to happen today is that you give us your opinions about each of these admittedly flawed choices: in other words, which one might be the least of the worst?

Think of it as a chance to vent – and if you have a bit of inside dirt on one of these banks that would tell us about fees or cutbacks, or anything else, for that matter, let it fly.

Think of this as an exercise in community “comment carding” – and keep in mind that with Occupy Wall Street and all, there are going to be a lot of folks like us who want a different bank, but won’t be able to make what might be the best possible choice, so let’s see if we can’t also comment to that larger audience as we go along.

Monday’s coming, and that’s a good day to get out of a bank…so let’s see if we can’t get a discussion going that helps a few folks do exactly that.

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Protecting The Innocent, Or, Is There A Death Penalty Compromise?

I don’t feel very good about this country this morning, and as so many of us are I’m thinking of how Troy Davis was hustled off this mortal coil by the State of Georgia without a lot of thought of what it means to execute the innocent.

And given the choice, I’d rather see us abandon the death penalty altogether, for reasons that must, at this moment, seem self-evident; that said, it’s my suspicion that a lot of states are not going to be in any hurry to abandon their death penalties anytime soon now that they know the Supreme Court will allow the innocent to be murdered.

So what if there was a way to create a compromise that balanced the absolute need to protect the innocent with the feeling among many Americans that, for some crimes, we absolutely have to impose the death penalty?

Considering the circumstances, it’s not going to be an easy subject, but let’s give it a try, and see what we can do.

Let’s Fix An Error Dept.: Apologies are in order, because in our last story we identified The Riverside Church in Manhattan as the place where George Carlin learned to be Catholic – and that could not have been more incorrect. Bad research was the culprit here, and it’s something that we’ll obviously be working to improve. So, once again: sorry, and my bad.

Now if all the states want to limit the imposition of the death penalty to just the guilty (and after what we just saw in Georgia, that’s no longer 100% certain), one way you could do it would be to make it a lot harder to prove guilt – and that’s what we have in mind for today’s proposal.

As you may recall, we convict today with a “burden of proof” that is described as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”; as we now know, it is possible to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, even when there’s a whole lot of reasonable doubt to be found.

In Davis’ case, he was given a chance on appeal to prove his innocence, and despite this conclusion from the Judge hearing the case…

"Ultimately, while Mr. Davis's new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors…"

…Davis was still executed.

So the way I would get at this problem would be to change the burden of proof in these cases: if you want to execute someone who is facing an aggravated murder or other capital charge, instead of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, I would require “guilt beyond all doubt”.

If you can’t get to guilt beyond all doubt, but you can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then you could impose no sentence harsher than life without parole.

If this proposal had been in effect in Davis’ case, there could have been no execution after he argued that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, because that would have erased “all doubt”; after that he would have had the rest of his life to demonstrate that he was wrongly convicted.

There are going to be a few reasons people might not like this proposal, and I’ll try to address some of them briefly:

Right off the bat, many will complain that because of the new burden of proof it will be virtually impossible to have executions at all; I would tell those folks that if that were to occur…then the system is working. The entire purpose of this plan is to make executions an extraordinarily rare occurrence and to move just about everyone on Death Rows nationwide to a “life without parole” future.

Beyond that, many will say that capital punishment is morally unacceptable under any circumstances, and to those folks I would respond that y’all make a pretty good point…but at the moment there are a lot of Americans who do not hold that moral position – and they have strong feelings too – and unless we can move them to a different point of view, then the best chance we have to prevent the innocent from being executed is to find some sort of compromise like this one.

(Don’t believe me about that “strong feelings” thing? How many of the readers here would be OK with the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden, if he were proved “beyond all doubt” to have been the person behind 9/11?)

A similar line of thought is expressed in the idea that we are seeing more and more voters who do oppose capital punishment, and with a bit of patience, this problem will go away.

After what happened to Troy Davis, I think there’s more urgency now than there was in times past, and that’s because we now see that at least one State will quickly kill a prisoner in order to “clear the case”, suggesting to me that patience is not as good an option as it was before.

Finally, I suspect many will feel that the effort to pass a proposal like this one would distract from the effort to end the death penalty, which is, again, a pretty good argument.

To those folks I would respond that we may get some states to end the death penalty today, but there are a lot of other states that are not going to want to give up the death penalty for some time to come (remember the people who cheered Rick Perry’s execution record?), and if we aren’t going to be able to end the death penalty completely, then I think we have to offer some sort of compromise; a compromise based on the concepts of “killing the innocent isn’t The American Way” or “you could still execute Osama” could appeal to voters who simply won’t give up on the death penalty altogether.

So that’s what we have for you today: even though I personally would prefer that we end the death penalty and just go to life without parole for all these crimes, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that in a lot of states; with that in mind I’m proposing a compromise that would protect the innocent by ending virtually all executions, even as it allows an extraordinarily difficult to reach exception that could satisfy those who absolutely do not want to see the application of the death penalty come to an end.

It’s an imperfect compromise, I’ll admit – but in a big ol’ swath of America that runs from roughly Florida to Idaho, it may be the best compromise we can make right now, and right now, in those places, that might have to be good enough.

Entirely Off The Subject Dept.: We are still trying to get signatures for the petition to change the name of Manhattan's W 121st St (one block from Seminary Row) to George Carlin Street, and we need your help; you can sign right here. The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures by Monday, so...get to it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Fixing The World, Or, Help George Carlin Stick It To God

Once again The Fates have come our way to provide a story, and once again, we have a contender for the “Ironic Story Of The Year”.

It’s got everything you need for serious irony: an irascible comedian who mocked religion at every opportunity, a city that loved him, and the rich coincidence of his having been born at the crossroads of New York City’s communities of religious education.

And that’s why, today, we’ll be talking about the effort to name the street right next to Manhattan’s Seminary Row…Carlin Street.

(And before we go further, a language warning: we’ll be quoting George Carlin liberally, and that means there may be present today certain of the seven words with which he created one of his best known routines. You are now officially warned.)

I’ve begun worshipping the Sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the Sun. It’s there for me every day. And the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, a lovely day. There’s no mystery, no one asks for money, I don’t have to dress up, and there’s no boring pageantry. And interestingly enough, I have found that the prayers I offer to the Sun and the prayers I formerly offered to God are all answered at about the same 50-percent rate.

--George Carlin, from the book Brain Droppings

There is a peculiarity to life in Manhattan that exists nowhere else on Earth: for more than 120 years, two of the world’s most important seminary institutions, the Union Theological Seminary and The Jewish Theological Seminary, have been literally kitty-corner from each other, right there at Broadway and W 122nd St.

It is such a significant part of the culture of the community that W 122nd St is now officially known as Seminary Row, as it has been for over 40 years.

And just one block away is the place where George Carlin grew up, on W 121st. During his childhood the Catholic Carlin was an altar boy, and it has been suggested that all this religious exposure may have impacted his comedy:

Now, speaking of consistency, Catholics, which I was until I reached the age of reason, Catholics and other Christians are against abortions, and they're against homosexuals. Well who has less abortions than homosexuals?! Leave these fucking people alone, for Christ sakes! Here is an entire class of people guaranteed never to have an abortion! And the Catholics and Christians are just tossing them aside! You'd think they'd make natural allies. Go look for consistency in religion. And speaking of my friends the Catholics, when John Cardinal O'Connor of New York and some of these other Cardinals and Bishops have experienced their first pregnancies and their first labor pains and they've raised a couple of children on minimum wage, then I'll be glad to hear what they have to say about abortion. I'm sure it'll be interesting. Enlightening, too. But, in the meantime what they ought to be doing is telling these priests who took a vow of chastity to keep their hands off the altar boys! Keep your hands to yourself, Father! You know? When Jesus said 'Suffer the little children come unto me', that's not what he was talking about!

It’s not just the two seminaries, either, that would have influenced Carlin: Columbia University is immediately next door, as are The Manhattan School of Music/Julliard (The Julliard School later moved to Lincoln Center, but when Carlin lived on the block they had 1800 students enrolled), and The Riverside Church, which is presumably the exact place that set Carlin on his future path.

Fun Fact: Italian game design studio Molleindustria, the same folks who partnered with YesLab to produce Phone Story (the App that was yanked after one day at the App Store because it says a bit too much about how phones are made; it’s still available on the Android market), also created the game Operation: Pedopreist, which is one of several “Radical Games” that you can play online at their website.

So now comes before us Kevin Bartini (he’s the warm-up comic for “The Daily Show”), with an organizing effort to change W 121st to Carlin Street.

Bartini, who told the Village Voice that this is a “no-brainer”, says his interest is motivated not just by the fact that Carlin grew up in the neighborhood; he also wants to acknowledge the influence the neighborhood had on Carlin’s comedy:

“…and the Invisible Man has a special list of ten things that he does not want you to do, and if you do any of these ten things he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, ‘til the end of time – but he loves you.”

A petition is now circulating, and after 6 days 3000 signatures had been collected…but this is George Carlin, and this is New York City, and, dammit, this is America, and I think we can do a lot better than that if we try, so do me a favor, sign the petition, and go show some love to someone who truly deserves the recognition.

You won’t have to wear a suit or a big hat, no one will be bowing or kneeling, and there won’t be a collection plate. Sacramental wine is encouraged; if you’d prefer sacramental pizza I’m sure no one’s going to complain – but if you have ‘em both together, make sure it’s not at a Sbarro or something.

I think we’ve enough for today, and there’s no need to drag this out when you have your mission, so let’s go get those signatures, and let’s get Carlin Street officially on the map.

And just think: if we succeed – it could well have been God’s will.
And what could be more ironic than that?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Not Doing 9/11, Or, Right Now, I’ve Got A Desk To Clear

I’m going to be really honest with you: after all the fights at the mall to get just the right present for everybody and the giant hassle of going to the Post Office so I can get the perfect stamps for my cards – and then worrying that I left someone off the list – I am just not in the mood to do a 9/11 story. And it’s been getting worse every year. I mean, just like the “It’s Christmas Every Day Store”, I know there’s one of the “9/11 Every Day” stores open, in the all-too-human form of Rudy Giuliani, and I’ve learned to live with that, but it seems like they got started with the 9/11 earlier than ever this year – and by the time the TV memorials and analysis and retrospectives are all over, to paraphrase Lewis Black…I’m going to hate freedom. In an effort to stave off this fate, we’ll be headed in a different direction today: I have three stories to pass along; each is important enough that you really should know about them, and yet they’re each very much bite-sized and easily digestible. It’s all good stuff…so let’s get right to it.
ASHES TO ASHES FOREST TO DUST KEEP WISCONSIN GREEN OR WE’LL ALL GO BUST BURMA-SHAVE --Burma Shave sign, 1949, as quoted in the book Verse By The Side Of The Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.
So let’s start with AIDS. If you have it, you need AIDS drugs – but you might not be able to afford ‘em. So what do you do? Well…one obvious choice is to die, slowly – but another is to seek help from the State. In most States, that is done in a fairly routine matter, but in some Sates it is not; for some of the folks in these States, instead of drugs, they get a waiting list. And since AIDS doesn’t really recognize waiting lists…this is bad. (Fun Fact: See if you can guess where the 12 States who have waiting lists are located; if you guessed more or less the Old Confederacy, you get a cookie. Of the 9200 Americans on waiting lists, only about 225 live above the Mason-Dixon Line; almost 6000 are in Florida and Georgia alone.) But it can be fixed, for about $105 million, if we lean on the right people, and as our friend D. Gregory Smith over at Bilerico tells us, Congressman Denny Rehberg (MT-01) is one person to be leaning on. A petition is circulating that you can sign to help move this along, or you can call Rehberg’s DC office Monday at (202) 225-3211 – and whichever one you do – or both – you’re going to be doing a whole lot of folks you never met a whole lot of good. So now that you’ve done your part to help out those who need it…how about a bit of a thought experiment? You are no doubt aware that you’ve been subsidizing, with your hard-earned tax dollars, the use of fossil fuels – and in fact, if you’re a typical American, you spent just about $500 over the past five years to do just that. Of course, over the same time period you’ve been subsidizing solar power as well, and here’s where the thought experiment comes into play: Try to imagine how much you’ve spent on that subsidy. Whaddaya think? $250, $150, $900? $825, $3350, $847.63? How about none of the above. How about…wait for it…$7.24. That’s right: at the same time you’ve been handing over an extra $100 a year to oil companies…for no particular reason…even as the price of oil keeps going up…you’ve been providing about a $1.40 a year to encourage the rollout of a technology that can potentially pay for itself, might just help get us off oil as a transportation fuel, and could even provide a few million jobs along the way – and as we all know, if we build “solar stuff” in the USA and throw it right up on our roofs, then it’s gonna make it pretty tough for OPEC or China or whomever to raise the price of the Sun as we back away from oil and build out electric cars. Pretty much all of this argument is presented in one handy graphic by the folks at 1 Block Off The Grid, an organization that seeks to put solar electricity generation on your roof, and I became aware of this because it was Tweeted to me (and to be honest, I get enough Tweets a day that I’m not going to go back and figure out who it was (mea culpa) – although I can tell you that Roger Ebert posted the handy graphic at his blog on the “Chicago Sun-Times” site; he’s also Tweeted on the subject. That’s two out of today’s three stories down, and the last one is a good one: If you don’t know The Yes Men by now, you should; they’re a modern version of the “Merry Pranksters” who blow minds by helping corporations stumble over their own deep embarrassments - very publicly. Here’s the most recent example: Peabody Energy mines coal that is associated with air pollution that is threatening the lives of the kids who live near…well, air, anyway, and The Yes Men did a little collaboration with a group called Coal is Killing Kids that involved creating a fake “health campaign” supposedly orchestrated by Peabody (the “Coal Cares” Project). The fake announcement said that Peabody would begin giving free inhalers to kids living near coal-fired power plants – and to make asthma more fun for the kids, “fake Peabody” announced their new line of kiddie inhalers: “the Bieber”, “My Little Pony”, “Baby’s First Inhaler”, and, of course, the “Harry Potter”. There’s also a webpage with fun activities for the kids (try the wordsearch…or perhaps you’d rather color in “Puff” and “Ash”); just swing on by to join the fun. Naturally, the real Peabody had to deny everything, and they’re not at all happy about it – and that is what equals victory in these “assaults of embarrassment”. (There was an additional, coincidental, victory: Scholastic Books decided to sever their ties with the coal industry, and CoalCares helped; as a result coal industry-funded curricular materials will no longer be distributed to schools.) Now the reason all this happened is because The Yes Men have decided they couldn’t fix the world all by themselves, and they’re sort of “growing the brand” by launching the YesLab (it’s another collaboration, this time with New York University). Are you in New York on the 14th? Attend the launch event. It’s free, and it will be fun. But amidst all the fun and frivolity, there’s a serious side here: this thing is not going to be cheap, and while I almost never ask you to donate to anything – even me – I am going to ask you, if you have a few extra bucks, to help out the YesLab, which you can do by hitting that “Donate” button on the left side of the page. So that’s it for today: you can help fix the world, you can help spread the word about energy subsidies for fossil fuels, and maybe you can help someone get off a waiting list that, at the moment, is leaving them waiting for death. Or, I suppose, you could go pop on the TV and watch the rest of that 72-hour 9/11 marathon that’s been on every single channel in the world – but with my 9/11 cards now sent out and the presents all delivered…I know which one I’d prefer.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Bilking The Sophisticated, Or, Check It Out: We’re Suing Banks!

I took a break to enjoy the holiday, as I’m sure many of you did, but my inbox kept busy, and on Friday came a doozy, courtesy of the Washington Post.

You remember that little bit of a banking crisis we had a couple of years back, where banks around the world might have possibly, maybe, just a little, conspired in a giant scheme to package toxic mortgage loans into Grade A, investment-ready securities instruments, which then blew up in everyone’s faces to the tune of a whole lot of taxpayer bailouts?

Well all of a sudden, it looks like an agency of the Federal Government is looking to do something about it, in a real big way.

Last Friday the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced they’re suing 17 firms (I’ll give you a list, bit it’s pretty much all the usual suspects); depending on who you ask the Feds are seeking an amount as high as $200 billion.

As Joe Biden would say, it’s a big…well, it’s a big deal, anyway, and that’s why we’re starting the new week with this one.

“An artist is only answerable to himself. He promises nothing to the centuries to come save his own works. He stands caution only for himself. He dies childless. He has been his own king, his own priest, and his own god.”

--Charles Baudelaire, as quoted in the book Cezanné and Beyond, edited by Joseph J Rishel and Katherine Sachs

So what do we know?

As we said, on Friday the Washington Post and others reported that there were a series of lawsuits filed by the FHFA in their capacity as Conservator of the assets of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac against darn near everyone.

The FHFA is alleging, to make a long story short, that everyone involved misled Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac (the “Entities”, in the words of the lawsuits), to some extent, and that the misleading involved making representations to the Entities about the various metrics related to what Fanny and Freddy were buying from these banks.

For example, it’s alleged that when certain banks sold batches of mortgage loans to the Entities, they lied about how many of the owners were actually living in the homes; that makes a difference when you’re trying to figure out how likely a borrower is to pay back a loan.

It appears that a defense the banks will offer is that Fannie and Freddy were “sophisticated investors” who should have known the risks buried in the batches of loans they were buying (and they were sophisticated investors: they bought, literally, trillions of dollars worth of loans) – but if it can be proven that the banks were lying about what was in the loan packages, that defense might not do so well in front of a jury.

Everyone involved” includes Bank of America (B of A), Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Countrywide (which means B of A is actually being sued twice), Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, the UK’s HSBC and Barclays Banks, France’s Société Générale, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Nomura Securities (representing Japan), and GE and GM (GE Capital is a surprisingly large and varied business; GM got in the banking business to finance auto sales, and you may today know them as Ally Bank).

Of course, Wall Street is also part of “everyone”; that’s why the list also includes Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch (which means, thanks to acquisitions, that B of A is actually getting sued three times). The City of Memphis also proudly makes the list, thanks to First Horizon.

Some notable names not on the list? Key Bank and Wells Fargo, who seem to have escaped action so far; there’s also UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland), who was already served with a similar lawsuit in July.

It is difficult to determine exactly how much money is involved, as various sources disagree, but we know that Deutsche Bank is being sued for about $14 billion, all by itself. (B of A is being sued, all told, for a bit over $50 billion; they’ve already paid out more than $12 billion this year to settle another similar claim.)

Felix Salmon, at the Seeking Alpha website, has created a chart that seeks to measure who is in the most trouble here; by his measure JP Morgan Chase is far and away at the top of the list…except that the current incarnation of B of A represents three of the top eight spots on his list, which suggests the FHFA is targeting them for the most recovery. (Salmon used the number of individual defendants, how many pages were in the lawsuit, and whether the suits seek punitive damages as his yardsticks; from there he calculated a score that makes up his rankings.)

All this had to happen right now, it appears, because a statute of limitations is in play; the WaPo reports that a failure to file the suits would have meant the FHFA would have lost the ability to recover those monies. (It’s also reported that pre-lawsuit negotiations were stalling, and those negotiations will presumably continue, with a series of impending court dates to help, shall we say, sharpen the focus.)

Now that is pretty much all the story I have for you today on this one – except for a bit of a “discuss amongst yourselves” to finish things up:

It has been suggested that the FHFA is in an inherently conflicted position in all these cases. That’s because the agency is acting as both the regulator of these banks and the “victim” as we seek any monies that may be due from any fraud.

So what would be a better situation?

Should the FHFA continue to regulate the banks they’re suing as a victim, or should another regulator be put in place…or should another Conservator be appointed, leaving the FHFA as “just a regulator”, and not a victim?

It’s a question worth about $200 billion, more or less – and even in these times, that’s still a lot of your money.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Doing Better Than 50%, Part Two, Or, Is “Made in USA” A Jobs Program?

When last we met, it was to discuss a Big Idea that the Obama Administration might apply to get some job creation going, despite a difficult Congress; the Big Idea was to look at the “Buy American” provisions that exist in our laws, regulations, and Executive Orders and see if we could practice a bit of “jobs arbitrage” by not just meeting the “Made in USA” requirements when governments across this country make purchases, but exceeding them.

(As it stands today, pretty much any “good or service” with more than 50% Made in USA content qualifies as a Made in USA purchase, even if 49% of the “good or service” comes from somewhere else).

At the time, I told you that if all went well we could look forward to comments from both Labor and the Administration as to the practicality of the Big Idea, and as it turns out I have comments for you that hit close to that mark – and a bit more besides:

On Saturday I just happened to bump into Congressman Adam Smith (WA-09); in the course of that conversation I told him what we’re doing here, and he wanted to offer a few thoughts of his own…and when you put all that together, I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about.

“Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them; Britain has trembled like an auge at the report of a French fleet of flat bottomed boats; and in the fourteenth century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was preformed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc.

--From The Crisis, by Thomas Paine; essay of December 23, 1776

So the two-second recap of the Big Idea is that if government, at all levels, were Buying More American we could create More American Jobs, and as we mentioned above, the way the rules stand today, 51% Made in USA is good enough – and that seems to leave a lot of room to do better.

Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and despite what Tom Lehrer might say, it’s not all skittles and beer for this proposal either.

I have a source in the Administration who would not go on the record for this story; nonetheless I was sent a detailed email response “on background”, which I’ll paraphrase for our use today:

We are looking to expand US trade abroad, and we have made deals for access. We agree not to restrict, for the most part, where purchases can be made, and we expect reciprocity from the rest of the world when their governments do their purchasing - or at least from those governments with whom we have a WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) or a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). (Want even more details? Check out either the Trade Agreements Act of 1979 or this Congressional Research Service report).

The Administration would tell you that 95% of the world’s consumers live outside the USA, making trade reciprocity particularly valuable for the US.

They would also tell you that if we decide on our own to “change the deal”, then we should expect retaliation from other governments.

Beyond that, they would suggest that there are US companies that source many of their products or product components globally, and those companies would actually be hurt by stricter Made in USA requirements.

Finally, the Administration points out that there is a dollar cost for more Made in USA, as opposed to using what can often be cheaper foreign sourcing.

In the introduction I suggested that I had a comment from Labor, and that’s somewhat correct. I contacted the Washington Sate Labor Council (WSLC) for a comment, and they sent me material that came from the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), at the same time telling me that the AAM’s position on Buy American is the same as their own.

It is inaccurate to refer to the AAM as a Labor organization, however, as they are a partnership of Unions, manufacturers, and other interested parties. Among those partners are the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW); the USW was one of the founders of the group.

They take issue with a great deal of what the Administration has to say, and I’ll start with a quote from an email sent to me Friday by the AAM’s Steven Capozzola:

The threat of retaliation for buy America is ridiculous. The law [the Buy American Act, 41 USC 10a-d] is specifically written so as to be applied when permissible under our existing trade obligations.

Here’s a quote from AAM material that was referred to me by the WSLC:

…the U.S. is, by far, the world’s largest importer, soaking up a net $819 billion in goods in 2007…The U.S. imports far more than it exports, a balance of sales that our trading partners are anxious to preserve. This is not about restricting imports. It is about using taxpayer dollars, when allowed by our international obligations, to purchase U.S.-produced goods. As the global downturn has progressed, many industrialized countries such as France and China have already taken similar action to support their domestic manufacturing base.

…These trade agreements do however allow for domestic preference under a number of circumstances…These preferences were negotiated for a reason. It would be irresponsible not to utilize them to the fullest extent possible.

…By contrast, other countries have held themselves out of the reform movement and have instead opted to promote their own manufacturing base through closed self-procurement programs. A good example is China, which, in addition to a recent $586 billion stimulus program, continues to subsidize its own producers via deliberate (and illegal) currency undervaluation. Until countries like China make the same commitments, and sign-on to internationally accepted procurement agreements, the U.S. will accomplish nothing by making yet more unilateral concessions.

In addition, as noted above, these contentions rely on the baseless assumption that the U.S. currently has any significant access to foreign procurement markets that would be at risk if other countries “retaliated.” The majority of the foreign stimulus in PPI’s tally is made up of $614 billion being spent by countries that have no procurement obligations towards the United States and that already apply domestic procurement preferences (principally China, but also India and Brazil).

-- Alliance for American Manufacturing, The Facts on ‘Buy America’ and Domestic Sourcing, February 2009

The AAM would also want you to know that in addition to China numerous other countries, specifically Canada, certain European nations, Japan, and Brazil all use other forms of “discrimination” to “preference” their goods over ours when it comes to government procurement: impossible-to-meet technical standards, “murky” purchase procedures, and bid rigging are all tools used around the world to make sure local suppliers are just a bit more, shall we say…reciprocal…than a US supplier might be.

Look, I hate to do this to everyone, but we’re once again running longer than we should, and we still have a lot more to talk about, so at this point I’m going to call “cliffhanger!” and set us up for a Part Three.

Here’s the “agenda”:

We’ll be talking about how the devil’s in the details: specifically, we’ll be looking at what “Buy American” is already excluded from these various trade agreements– and there’s a lot more than you might think, even as some of it is targeted in amazingly specific ways (to do that we’ll be paying particular attention to the annexes to the WTO agreement); we’ll also get Congressman Smith’s reaction to all of this…and once again, we’ll see if we can’t get it all done in 1500 words or less.

And on a lovely summer’s day, what could possibly be better beach reading…what with the redolence of the lazy sea breezes and the surf washing gently up on the shore and all…than 1500 more words on the annexes to the WTO agreement and how it all relates to sneaking a jobs program past recalcitrant Republicans?

I can’t think of anything else either, and I can’t wait to see you there.