Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jabbering on aimlessly or certifiably insane?

You be the judge. Here's what we heard someone say (quoted from today's Christian Science Monitor):
“That’s why I say I, like every American I’m speaking with, we’re ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out,” she explained. “But ultimately what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Helping the — it’s got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans and trade — we’ve got to see trade as opportunity, not as competitive, scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today — we’ve got to look at that as more opportunity.”

Wait, wait... I mean, I beg your pardon? Healthcare? One in five jobs being created in the trade sector? WTF?

I know, I know, I'm practicing "gotcha blogging" now. Guilty as charged. I just so hope we don't end up the victims of a gotcha president! Good lord protect us all.

In other news

I know you've likely come over here to read my blog to find out about the financial crisis. A rare beam of common sense has flickered through the halls of Congress, and the House of Representatives summoned the wisdom to defeat by a small but decisive margin the ransom... errr, I mean bailout plan from the Treasury. Well, I believe that whole issue is going to come back, and there will probably be some sort of bailout once the real issues get sorted out. [Ed. Indeed, that has happened with Friday's passage of the now $850 billion bailout]

What I'm thinking about right now is how stunningly bad and cynical the GOP has become with its choice of presidential candidates. McCain is an honorable man. He's a good man for the party because he's a loyal, knee-jerk conservative who can be trusted to speak and vote the conservative party-line. He also knows a lot of people in Washington, and he seems to be reliable.

The problem is he's not a thinker. Far from it! When some tired, overused Republican nostrum fails to address a situation, he rummages around in his briefcase until he finds another one. He's also a victim of the fawners in his party who are looking to climb the ladders of power. He's got bad advisors. And they get him into trouble—are you listening Phil Gramm?

Here's what Paul Krugman says about the problem today in the New York Times:
The real revelation of the last few weeks, however, has been just how erratic Mr. McCain’s views on economics are. At any given moment, he seems to have very strong opinions — but a few days later, he goes off in a completely different direction.

Thus on Sept. 15 he declared — for at least the 18th time this year — that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” This was the day after Lehman failed and Merrill Lynch was taken over, and the financial crisis entered a new, even more dangerous stage.

But three days later he declared that America’s financial markets have become a “casino,” and said that he’d fire the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission — which, by the way, isn’t in the president’s power.

And then he found a new set of villains — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders. (Despite some real scandals at Fannie and Freddie, they played little role in causing the crisis: most of the really bad lending came from private loan originators.) And he moralistically accused other politicians, including Mr. Obama, of being under Fannie’s and Freddie’s financial influence; it turns out that a firm owned by his own campaign manager was being paid by Freddie until just last month.

Then Mr. Paulson released his plan, and Mr. McCain weighed vehemently into the debate. But he admitted, several days after the Paulson plan was released, that he hadn’t actually read the plan, which was only three pages long.

On one hand we've got McCain flopping around like a big salmon out of water, reacting to everything he sees with equal parts pugnaciousness and desperation. And on the other hand we've got Sarah Palin, whose still trying to get a few things straightened out in her mind—like who some important people are, and whether she should stick to her "you can see Russia from Alaska" remark as the linchpin to her foreign policy. Hint, Sarah—don't bother to defend hyperbole. It was a toss off remark. It's OK to admit that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Osama Bin Paulsen succeeds in bringing USA to its knees

OK, Hank Paulsen, Secretary of the Treasury, formerly chariman of Goldman Sachs, came to the Capital with a very short ransom note. "Give me 700 billion dollars, immediately, with no oversight, and no possible questioning or later review of any of my decisions as to its use, and we shall avert a financial disaster, leave everyone a few bucks in their 401K, and perhaps Wall Street shall not be reduced to rubble." The only thing he left off was a demand for helicopters to make a quick getaway. And the President bought the threat lock, stock, and barrel, as did the Congress—even the skeptical conservatives in the GOP after a time were persuaded. Pelosi, Dodd, and the entire Congress looked Osama—err, I mean Paulsen—in the eye, and realized he wasn't blinking, and they gave him what he asked for—the largest single transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich that's ever transpired. Paulsen is being characterized as the savior, who stuck it out through several contentious late night meetings on Capitol Hill (perhaps we should call it Capital Hill now), "hammering out a deal" with the unruly and contentious "GOP rank-and-file" (Pelosi's quote) and skeptical Democrats. Amen.

Ladies and gentlemen, this man is the Secretary of the Treasury. He was accompanied by the head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. Also in attendance was the President—who apparently went home to bed on Friday after uttering the astonishing quote "if money isn't loosened up, this sucker's going to fall," but got up early on Saturday morning to renew the call for action. These are the guys who were responsible to keep this from happening in the first place! They're not the saviors, they're the pirates' negotiators. They were manning the guard post, fast asleep through the enemy invasion. And they hand-delivered the ransom note.

Now let's be candid—the Bush administration managed to cut a trillion dollars in tax revenues early in the first term, rushed pell-mell into a war they had to manufacture the cause for, and which has made us less secure than we were before it started, which has cost the US another trillion dollars (though it's estimated to cost three trillion before it's over), and now, just before they're finally swept out of Washington for good, they're blackmailing the American people with another trillion dollar gambit. And for whose benefit?

The (exceedingly well run and conservative) insurance company I work for competes in the market every day against AIG—recent recipient of an 85 billion loan from US taxpayers. Your bank is going to charge you more for your next mortgage, because we're all paying for all the other mortgages to all the unqualified people who got loans because every one of them generated an immediate couple of thousand of dollars in cash to pay the Wall Street princes. Those loans have turned out to be worthless, but the taxpayer will pick up the tab. We don't get the bonuses, commissions, or golden parachutes back. We don't get our local bank back, because it's been swallowed several times by the bigger fish. Bank of America owns it now. Or JP Morgan, or Goldman Sachs. This is no longer partisan politics—it's the moneyed class vs the rest of us.

And John McCain—Karl Rove's geriatric sock puppet—is muttering off in the corner tired Republican nostrums about how there's too much regulation in the financial sector. If there was ever a darling of the Wall Street princes, it's McCain, former member of the "Keating Five" who had, until a couple of weeks ago not one, but two members of his staff on the dole to (err, I mean consulting for) Frannie and Freddie, to the tune of $30,000+/month. And Paulsen was asleep at his post. And the Bush administration has done more damage to this country than all the terrorists in Asia and the Middle East and Montana could ever hope to accomplish. And both candidates households made more than a million dollars last year.

And I have moved my 401K funds to the money market for the time being. It's a little like hunkering down in a ditch, but it's all I've got.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What are the emperors wearing this year?

It's time to speak frankly. George W. Bush is a moron. When the Republicans voted for him, that's what they wanted. Fine. He's proven that it's possible to run the most powerful country in the world with a barely functional IQ, and the country will probably survive-- international issues, constitutional problems, and the financial system notwithstanding. And I suppose he has given hope to a lot of moronic would-be-successful people.

Sarah Palin is a world class moron. This is becoming more clear every time she's allowed to speak on her own. She has the vision, leadership, and intelligence of a fungus. I am guessing the GOP has figured if W was electable, they can really just pick any moron off the sidewalk and get them elected. Sarah can add a little femininity and sexiness to the McCain ticket, which was resembling more and more a gray sock-puppet for the neo-conservatives. Sarah comes to the meeting in heels with a plate of cupcakes and some shiny bling. That could make the McCain administration seem at least a little less funereal.

But here's what makes me wonder. It used to be that the best, most experienced, and most inspired people were in the positions of the most power. If you had a successful corporation or organization, it was that way because the person in charge was the best that could be found—someone who could inspire and lead their underlings to work toward achieving their vision and success. This was almost organizational Darwinism. For some reason, the Republicans have forgotten this, or perhaps it no longer applies. If the voters respond to a geriatric oatmeal man and a moronic ditz, and that gets them elected, then so be it. But whose going to run the store? Why would an organization place Tweedledeedee and Tweedledead in the front office? To mouth pious Republicanisms ("it's about job creation, and there's too much regulation, and strengthen the family, and we need to repeal the capital gains tax") and allow corporations to pursue their goals of amassing all of the wealth of the USA just before they move every job to somewhere with lower costs of labor.

A leader-- a thinker-- would ask questions and might just make a risky decision that could have a negative impact on the platform of complete doctrinal corporatism. Think about it. Not you Sarah, you can just go and fix your lipstick. And bring me another cupcake, OK?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dear America

Dear America,

We do not owe anything to the mortgage bankers on Wall Street. Repeat after me-- We do not owe anything to the mortgage bankers on Wall Street. We, as Americans, have done nothing wrong, and we do not have to pay a $700 billion fine to the Wall Street investment banks to keep ourselves out of hot water.

Paulsen's bailout is a bald, undisguised end-game gambit by the Bush administration to send the Wall Street royal class a final parting gift. George W. Bush gave half a trillion in tax cuts to the "moneyed class" in the first year of his administration, and is now about to give another three quarters of a trillion to buy out the bad paper-- toxic assets they're calling it now, which the banks financed the economic bubble with-- in the last two months of his presidency. And everyone in Congress-- both houses, and both sides of the aisle-- are so star struck by the "royalty" traipsing through the marble halls, they can only gasp and sputter and finally go along with the deal. Even the normally erudite Barak Obama has been left speechless by the majesty of being invited to attend the star chambers of vast power and even vaster wealth to discuss this niggling little-- err, I mean deeply troubling issue.

Folks, this is revolting and it's dangerous, and it's not inevitable. Paulsen, and Bernanke to a lesser extent, were appointed to "deliver the news" to Washington that the sky is going to fall if we don't give Wall Street wheeler-dealers 3/4 of a trillion dollars this week! These are bankers-- the kind who can look you straight in the eye while they re-possess your iron lung. Vile, ugly, greedy, self-serving men who have in their lifetimes amassed extraordinary wealth, for themselves and for their companies (Paulsen was the chairman of Goldman, Sachs before he became Treasury Secretary, and took home a half-billion dollars from that job). Everyone is falling over themselves to say "let's negotiate this." It's like negotiating with a mugger! These guys don't blink. But someone in Washington has to speak out.

Because now, American business persons, you are going to find yourselves competing with the government to make a buck, because they're (we're) going to own, or subsidize, the largest and most crooked insurance companies, finance companies, banks, and brokerage houses in the country. We have no representatives in either house of Congress, or anyone on either side of the aisle who will tell the bankers to take their toxic assets and salvage or write them down themselves. It's disgusting, and I hope it leads to an even bigger house-cleaning than the last election. I feel helpless and frustrated and I have lost all trust in anyone in Washington. They're star struck by the billionaires. Please someone, please speak up!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The company you keep... you can't punish anyone if you repeal all the laws!

The Treasury Department's requested bailout of the beleaguered financial sector is an unabashed, and unannounced full-frontal attack in the class war. The American middle class taxpayer is being asked to bail out Wall Street. The upper class has already gotten a half trillion tax break from the Bush administration, so it's you and me who are going to pay for it. If we don't bail out the banks, they say, grandma's pension is going to disappear, and your neighbor's house is going to be foreclosed.

OK, so let's look at some of the players in this mess. Let's talk about Phil Gramm. Until July he was the chief economic advisor to the McCain campaign. Former senior senator from Texas, and now a vice chairman of UBS, the Swiss financial conglomerate (which has recently written down 9 billion in bad debts and laid off 25,000+ workers worldwide). He's been a special friend of the banking industry for years. He was one of five co-sponsors of the "Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000," which contained the "Enron Loophole" that allowed the whole Enron mess. His wife just happened to be a member of the board of directors at Enron at the time. Shady? Nawww. He was also key in passing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which gutted regulations dating back to the post-Depression era, which prohibited the conglomeration of banks, insurance companies, and investment brokers. Guess who we're bailing out now? The same conglomerates which formed as a result of that deregulation-- Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, AIG Insurance, UBS, Bank of America, JPMorgan Stanley-- all banks, brokerages, and insurers. Thanks, Phil.

Now Phil can't keep his mouth shut, and his statement in July that the people complaining about the economy are just a bunch of "whiners" upset enough people that John McCain fired him, though according to Wikipedia they're still close friends. But look at what our uncle Phil has accomplished-- there's no way to prosecute any of these conniving robber barons for putting their banking institutions (and grandma's hard-earned pension) in jeapordy, because Gramm and company repealed all the laws against that behavior. He (and McCain) are still crusading for less regulation in banking! And good, flag waving neoconservatives and ditto heads are all shaking their pin-shaped heads in agreement.

And then there's Mr. McCain. Do you happen to remember about 20 years ago, near the end of the Reagan presidency, when there was another paroxysm of greed which shook the financial markets to the core, and required a huge government bailout? It was called the S&L crisis at the time. It's what the Whitewater Investigation was looking into when Ken Starr found out president Clinton was getting head from Monica Lewinsky. Well, Starr was originally investigating shenannigans in some real estate ponzi scheme in which some thought perhaps Hillary was involved. That turned out to be a dead end (except the cigar and the blue dress and the blowjobs, that is). But there were a few villians identified in that greed-fest, errr... I mean scandal. There was one name onto which all of the excesses of the time were attached. Charles Keating, who spent 5+ years in Federal prison. Well, Keating was found to have been helped out (again, by the removal of or protection from regulations pertaining to what you could do with a Savings and Loan Association) by powerful friends. The best way to make illegal behavior legal, then as now, was to repeal the laws against it. That takes partners in high places, and after long and careful investigation, Congress's own ethics committee pointed out some "bad guys" right in their midst. Five of them. The "Keating Five" they were called. Guess who was on that list?

John McCain-- who was cleared of charges of actually breaking the law (the charge was he interfered with regulators trying to enforce the rules), but was roundly and publicly criticized for bad judgement-- was a member of the Keating five.

That debacle brought an end to Savings & Loan Association industry, and cost taxpayers near $150 billion. Our current crisis will almost surely bring an end to investment banking as we know it, and cost much, much more. But we've still got Phil Gramm, spouting on about how we can't get anything done with all the regulations in the way. And we've got John McCain, the republican presidential candidate, who still can't seem to find better company, even after all these years. And he still doesn't think anyone has done anything wrong.

God bless America.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Supposedly Tedious Writer I Enjoyed Reading

I have a friend who for a couple of years obsessively recommended I read the book Infinite Jest. About a year and a half ago, I took her advice (thanks, Meghan). The book was maddening in every way. It was so huge (1000 pages and another hundred pages of footnotes) I developed a problem in my wrist from holding it up while reading it in bed. For almost 600 pages it appeared to have no plot. It was incredibly wordy, and seemed at times to be manically obsessed with odd issues, characters, situations. Occasionally I felt the author hadn't let me in on the joke. More than once I put the book down in disgust, vowing to let my wrist heal and forget the weirdness-- it wasn't a book, it was a lifestyle. Always, within a couple of days, I'd be back reading.

I couldn't tear myself away from the descriptions of the denizens of a halfway house for alcohol and drug abusers, the students at a tennis academy run by a bizarre family, the colorful junkies-- one of whom was a transvestite who lived in the mens room of a bus station-- or the insular group of Canadian separatists bent on mayhem and the fall of the government, nor the society of people with unspeakably disfigured faces who wore veils everywhere. This writer could get into the heads of the most strange people imaginable, and make their characters live.

When I had finally slogged through all 1,100 or so pages, and did my best on the footnotes, I felt satisfied and inspired. Infinite Jest is a huge, ambitious novel, and finishing reading it felt like I had accomplished something large. And I mean large like building a dam across the Colorado River, or curing cancer.

Three nights ago, in Claremont, CA, the author of Infinite Jest, David Forster Wallace, was found dead in his home. He had hanged himself. I remember while reading him, thinking there was an unmistakable feeling of manic energy in the prose-- and thinking a candle burning so brightly couldn't possibly burn for long. I am deeply sad, for his wife and loved ones, and for the literary world which will miss out on hearing his voice. There won't be another, maybe even more infinite, jest.

The obit in the LA Times has some quotes from David Foster Wallace, which I shall quote verbatim:

In 2005, Wallace gave a commencement address at Kenyon College in Ohio that has been widely circulated in classrooms and on the Internet. In that speech, he told the graduating seniors: "[I]t is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head." Up until this week, I would have said that those were words to live by, but in Wallace's case, perhaps, the opposite was true.

Rather than a repudiation, this just makes his work seem all the more urgent, especially the promise that "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

Peace be with you, David Foster Wallace. You have witnessed our ugly times, and written it down truthfully, and for that we all owe you. I hope the voices have stopped. I hope, against the odds and evidence to the contrary, we're not all "totally hosed."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lipstick on a woman

OK, you're going to hear it here first. Ms. Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president is not a woman! Nope, you read that correctly-- in the eyes of the Republican electoral apparatus, Ms. Palin is not a woman, she's a demographic!

You see, for the last eight years, the wheezing, larcenous, and paternalistic Republican party figured out they were losing even their loyal wives as supporters. In the name of "national security" they manufactured barely enough evidence to attack the feckless Saddam Hussein, and now are mired in a 2 trillion dollar neighborhood rehab project in Iraq that hasn't made any Americans safer (quite the contrary). The GOP gave a couple of trillion dollars in taxes back to the super-rich, and somehow turned the fiscal surplus the Clinton administration left into a record deficit. During the Reagan administration, taxpayers were forced to bail out the Savings and Loans to the tune of 500 billion dollars. We are now in the process of bailing the mortgage industry out to the tune of another 500 billion at least. Facing the highest gas and heating oil prices ever, the GOP is now proposing drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. To Hell with polar bears, I need to gas up my Hummer! And on top of that they're planning for an attack on Iran, and financing a proxy-war there, just in case. Farmers can't get their crops picked because the conservatives have somehow equated migrant workers with el-kaaduh terrists, and turned ICE (I believe they're the enforcement arm of INS) onto an unprecedented crackdown of undocumented workers.

The GOP has been unmasked by the brainless foibles of G. W. Bush as having zero leadership, zero vision, and zero charisma. This is the W who wanted to turn all of our Social Security over to Wall Street-- a particularly troubling thought, given the recent mortgage-backed credit mess that's going on there.

So now, the GOP candidate, recognizing even his wife wasn't going to vote for him if something didn't change, has chosen Ms. Palin as his running mate. What could be better? She's a Christian fundamentalist and pro-life. She's from a "small" state (population-wise, at least). She hunts and fishes and runs a family and goes to PTA meetings and runs a small town (smaller than the US Capitol building at noon, I believe) as mayor. And she's a lady dag-nabbit, so Mr. McCain can stand up for her aggressively if she's not treated like the "lady" she so obviously is. So when one of them tax and spend Dems (Mr. Obama) uses a quaint old-fashioned term like "put lipstick on a pig" it's obvious it's time for Mr. McCain and all the talk-show pugiligists to come to the defense of the honor of their "lady." Lady's use lipstick, right? And ladies ain't supposed to be called "pigs" right? Ferget all those nit-picky debates about issues that matter-- there's a lady in distress!

So we've got a useless war (in which our involvement so far has lasted longer than the two world wars combined), and a health care crisis, and an immigration crisis, and a class crisis, and the financial markets are in shambles, and government is going through its own crisis in ethics, and the Republicans seem to be interested only in nostrums of "national security" and "defense of a lady's honor."

It's time for the GOP to be out of Washington and go back to where they came from and find out what their constituents really want. And here's a hint. They're not primarily interested in the lady's honor. Even a lady in lipstick.