Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Lost Decade

The first decade of the new millennium is the "lost decade" for America, the one where we lost a surplus, gained a massive deficit, declared two wars with no intention of funding them, rounded up the usual suspects in those wars and set them to rot without charges in Gitmo for an undetermined amount of time, and threw in some VP-sanctioned torture as an add-on to the new millennial approach to national security.

It was a decade that began with all the drama of the hanging chad, a hotly contested presidential election teetering on the decision of Florida voters, a state led by the brother of one of the presidential candidates.

We finally came to decide the next president of the United States based on the opinions of the nine justices of the US Supreme Court.

The brother of the Florida governor won. When it comes to allegations of rigging a presidential election, the Daleys of Chicago have got nothing of the Bushes of America.

The transition of power happened peacefully; Democrats handed over the reins to Republicans and the spending began in earnest.

The new president realized that a vacation was in order, and many landmark moments happened when Bush was resting up – our president was in Crawford the month of August 2001 (just months after taking the oath of office) and thus missed CIA memos on possible terrorist attacks; he was on vacation when Katrina hit, and remained on vacation after it was apparent Katrina was the worst national disaster to hit the nation. Cutting branches seemed to be the occupation of preference for this particular president.

The decade included 9/11/01, the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. A shocking, astonishing, grief-stricken moment. The president rose to the challenge and gave us that lovely and unforgettable image of him standing on the rubble of the Twin Towers, bullhorn in hand, supporting the heroic firefighters and encouraging America to look forward, to never give up.

We went to two wars in this decade with the army we had, not the army we wished to have – so said Donald Rumsfield, in response to questions about lack of proper equipment in the field.

Arthur Anderson crashed in this decade, after making the decision to throw out rules of accounting - if numbers not adding up to the client's desired outcome pissed off the client, Arthur Anderson's accountants decided it was best revise established accounting practices to make sure the numbers added to whatever the client wanted, truth be damned.

Enron was the result. A massive collapse of a massive company just months after we all witnessed the collapse of the two towers in NY. This tragedy was American made, with many thousands of people crushed by the crash of the giant E.

(Have a sneaky feeling that Skilling will be let off, when the Supreme Court comes to its decision on his fate.)

This was the decade that saw the collapse of our financial system, that saw the conservative president and his conservative Treasury Secretary (Bush and Paulson) initiate one of the most massive entitlement programs for American business - TARP. One year after TARP began, we also are now seeing some of the biggest bonuses ever for bankers who'd received federal bailout funds and survived the crash.

This was the decade that saw the most precipitous loss of jobs in decades, job losses that began in earnest once TARP went into law and job losses that have not yet been halted by the trillions in federal money thrown at the problems.

This was the decade that saw the election of America's first African American president. The election night celebration in Chicago 2008 was an extraordinary moment in American history.

As we move forward into a new year, a new decade, we have many problems to resolve. We have enormous deficits to overcome. As Americans, we have a legacy of hope and strength to draw from as we work to solve our problems.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Of Fog and Phones

Jon Stewart's take on the absence of three CEOs from an important meeting with the President of the United States...

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Apparently, phoning it in was the best way for these top-notch bankers, mired in fog, to touch base with Obama...

It's a bitch when weather gets in the way of a personal meeting with the president.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The business that credit forgot...

New job requires a daily commute on the Metra. Went to buy my monthly pass and discovered a notice posted on the ticket window informing all patrons that credit cards will be accepted at the train stations in the spring of 2010.

It's cash or check until then...

Ten years into the new millennium, credit cards will FINALLY be accepted at Chicago's metra train system.

Nice way to reinforce the antiquated nature of this mode of transport...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Goldman Sachs changes compensation plan...

...for all 30 members of its management team.

Nice press release includes few pertinent details. Would love to know if this means the 30,000+ employees not affected by this plan now get bigger bonuses.

After all, Goldman's $17 billion bonus stash needs to be distributed to the many thousands of deserving employees, right?

In the press release, Lloyd Blankfein offers up this quotable nugget:

"The measures that we are announcing today reflect the compensation principles that we articulated at our shareholders' meeting in May. We believe our compensation policies are the strongest in our industry and ensure that compensation accurately reflects the firm's performance and incentivizes behavior that is in the public’s and our shareholders’ best interests.

"In addition, by subjecting our compensation principles and executive compensation to a shareholder advisory vote, we are further strengthening our dialogue with shareholders on the important issue of compensation.”

Strengthening the dialogue, perhaps, but giving the shareholders no real say in the matter, according to the press release.

"Shareholders will have an advisory vote on the firm’s compensation principles and the compensation of its named executive officers at the firm’s Annual Meeting of Shareholders in 2010."

Was not aware that shareholders needed Goldman Sachs to grant them "advisory" status on this issue. Seems like the shareholders have not been shy about offering their advice on this topic already.

Goldmans "news" provides valuable PR spin. But let's be realistic. Putting a limit on bonuses for 30 people in a company with 30,000 employees will hardly change a thing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Bank of America is set to pay back $45 billion it owes TARP.

Funny how the need to free the company from CEO pay restrictions provided motivation for such an action...

For more, here's Felix Salmon's report.

And here's what the WSJ has to say.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In time for Thanksgiving - a film review of The Searchers

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day filled with symbols of our great American mythology. Our founders, the European settlers, yearned for a new life free from the restrictions of Europe, so they got on those rickety boats and crossed an ocean to reach an unknown land.

The Pilgrims, in their quest for religious freedom, sought Nirvana far from home. The place they landed on was harsh, unforgiving, a landscape that required skill and knowledge in order to survive.

And instrumental to their survival, according to the American mythology, were the inhabitants of the "New World." As we all know, the Pilgrims shared a harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The modern American Thanksgiving dinner not only gives us the opportunity to give thanks for our blessings, but commemorates the cooperation between Native Americans and foreign born visitors who sought new life in a new world.

Of course, cooperation turned into warfare not long after. Another component of American story is the "cowboys versus Indians" mythology, in which cowboys wrested the land from violent, scalp-taking Indians.

Which brings me to The Searchers, a classic western made by John Ford in 1956.

For me, The Searchers ranks up there as one of the definitive American movies. Our mythology, particularly our Western mythology, focuses on our independence from others. Our heroes seem to need no one. They are self-contained and powerful. They save us from the evils that exist beyond the pale.

With The Searchers, Ford shows us the reality behind the myth. Ethan Edwards, for whatever reason, shunned love, rejected the home. Those early scenes in the film are so powerfully eloquent in visually expressing his love for Martha, and her love for him.

A 47 second scene from early in the movie that visually shows the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law:

We'll never know why they never married, but I believe it is because Ethan was not a settled man. Walls could not contain him. And so Martha settled for Ethan's brother.

With this film, did Ford and Wayne endorse Western racism or regret it? To me, it seems clear. The racist shoots people in the back. He's angry. He wants to kill his niece because the Comanches have defiled her. He's nasty to the young man who trails around the west with him in search of the lost white girl. There is far more than regret in John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan - there is condemnation too. It is Marty, tainted with that drop of Indian blood, who provides the moral center of the film. The man not fully white, the man without blood relatives, is the one man in the story who truly understands the value of protecting one's kin.

In a 2001 review of the film, Roger Ebert says, "in The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide."

I disagree. To me, watching John Wayne's extraordinary performance, it was clear that this is a sharply defined portrait of the internal destruction that comes from living under a twisted moral code. Wayne exposes the myth for what it is, a sham. "What do want me to do, draw you a picture?" he screams at Lucy's fiance, when he finally has to reveal what happened to Lucy. The violence he's witnessed has destroyed him.

In The Searchers, we see that the Western hero is not impervious to grief and sorrow, as the myth would lead you to believe. The Western hero is isolated by independence, shut out from the soft, warm intimacies of family life. Is there any other Western that is so framed by the home? Those iconographic opening and closing images of the film are startling - the great, expansive beauty of the west, framed and enclosed by the love of family. Even at the end, Ethan rejects the comfort of love. His love is the land. But his independence is obtained at a very high price.

It is rare that I see a movie that affects me like this one. And while I admire John Wayne for accepting the challenge of playing Ethan Edwards, I do not admire Ethan. He is ambiguous and twisted. His courage is not necessarily the same as heroism. For me, the one flaw of the film is that in the end, his decision to save Debbie instead of kill her is completely unmotivated. The real Ethan Edwards would have shot her.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When God's Work requires an apology...

In a year that has seen unemployment spike to its highest levels in decades and government debt reach record levels, Goldman Sachs is on track to pay out its highest employee bonuses ever in the firm's history.

All part of "God's work," Lloyd Blankfein suggested in a recent interview with the London Times.

Here's the intro from that story:

"Number 85 Broad Street, a dull, rust-coloured office block in lower Manhattan, doesn’t look like a place to stop and stare, and that’s just the way the people who work there like it. The men and women who arrive in the watery dawn sunshine, dressed in Wall Street black, clutching black briefcases and BlackBerrys, are very, very private. They walk quickly from their black Lincoln town cars to the lobby, past, well, nothing, really. There’s no name plate on the building, no sign on the front desk and the armed policeman stationed outside isn’t saying who works there.

There’s a good reason for the secrecy. Number 85 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004, is where the money is. All of it.

It’s the site of the best cash-making machine that global capitalism has ever produced, and, some say, a political force more powerful than governments. The people who work behind the brass-trim glass doors make more money than some countries do. They are the rainmakers’ rainmakers, the biggest swinging dicks in the financial jungle."

Not sure which God Blankfein prays to, but it's the rare God that places high value on owning "the biggest swinging dick in the financial jungle." In my Bible, the excessive acquisition of wealth is generally frowned upon. And in the Gospel of Luke, the wealthy end up in hell, actually.

But in Blankfein's mind, the acquisition of record-breaking bonuses is God's work indeed. In fact, as he told the Times, "everyone should be happy."

But they're not - all those many people outside of Number 85 Broad Street. Congress isn't happy. Main Street isn't happy. And now Goldman Sachs shareholders aren't happy.

So what's Blankfein going to do?

Why apologize, of course.

“We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret,” Blankfein, 55, said at a conference in New York hosted by the Directorship magazine. “We apologize.”

A bizarre public relations move from a man usually more on top of his game.

But not to worry. The apology is not going to get in the way of the bonus payout. Because as the Goldman Sachs spinmeisters have told us repeatedly over the year, the best and brightest, the brilliant minds who "participated in things that were clearly wrong," will leave Goldman Sachs if they do not get their bonus.

Making some consumers feel like the economy is being held hostage by people who want astronomical sums for screwing up, then maximizing profit to be made from the government's generosity.

There'd be no Goldman Sachs today if not for the government bailout of the financial sector, a bailout that cost billions and added to the nation's debt.

But God works in mysterious ways. The bankers who survived the collapse of the financial sector - not because of their brilliance - but because the feds bailed them out, will be richly rewarded in this year of high unemployment and record government debt.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November is the cruelest month...

Yes I quibble with Eliot, whose most famous poem, The Wasteland, began with the most famous disparagement of the month of April.

November is the cruelest month in the calendar, bringing with it dead skies, the hint of winter and two of the most vivid memorials to our war dead... Veterans Day and the anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the day we now know as Veteran's Day, we honor those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the greater ideal of honor, courage and country.

And on November 19th, 1863, Abraham Lincoln uttered less than 300 words in one of the most famous speeches ever given to honor those who died for their country.

Let us always remember that neither Veteran's Day nor Lincoln's famous speech would have happened were it not for the incredible sacrifices of our soldiers.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust... said Eliot in The Wasteland, a poem both famous and obscure of meaning.

I can only imagine the fear of those men slaughtered at Gettysburg. I can only imagine the fear of our soldiers who are now fighting today in the name of honor, virtue and passionate dedication to our country.

To me, Lincoln was a more gifted poet than Eliot. So I end with his words, said in honor of our soldiers...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we cannot hallow this ground.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Our nation has been consecrated by the blood of all those who've died to protect it. We need to remember their sacrifice - we need to make sure that this American ground was not hallowed in vain.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How's Your Retirement Account Doing?

Schmuck! That's if you're like most Americans and have seen the value of your retirement fund dip alarmingly with the collapse of the economy.

Shoulda been a "top executive!" According to the WSJ, their pensions have risen an average of 19 percent in 2009 - with more than 200 excecs seeing a 50 percent increase in their pension...

Also news in the WSJ, the private sector shed more than 200,000 jobs in October and big bonuses are back for Wall Street bankers...

The yin and yang of life in America.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ayn Rand's Greatest Defender?

Ayn Rand is all the rage these days (and unbeknownst to me, has apparently been all the rage in certain circles since her career as an author began), with current interest jacked up thanks to the publication of Anne Heller's biography of Rand.

In catching up with my reading this weekend, I noticed Newsweek had a review of Rand cleverly called "Atlas Hugged." As I read it, I found myself irritated by some of the thoughts of the reviewer, who found The Fountainhead "a stunning evocation of the individual and what he can achieve when unhindered by government or society."

The reviewer pulls a quote from The Fountainhead to support the assertion, a claim by Roark:

"I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need... I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society."

As a working mother, I find such sentiments to be appallingly unrealistic - in all honesty, once one becomes a parent one is engulfed by responsibility toward others - one's children. To pound one's chest and brag about having no obligations at all in life except oneself - well good luck and all, but one needs relationships in life in order to survive. Show me a man who lives as independently as Howard Roark and I'll show you a Travis Bickle.

I wondered who was so inordinately drawn toward this rather heartless and impossible ideal. And then discovered that the reviewer is none other than Mark Sanford, the disgraced governor of South Carolina, the man who vanished over Father's Day weekend so he could hang with his mistress instead of his children.

I suppose that such a man would be a fan of Rand. That such a man as Sanford would love an author whose books proclaimed the primacy of self-obsession.

I read The Fountainhead a million years ago - it was not a book that changed my life or offered me a phenomenal new philosophy to follow. In truth, I thought the book highly unrealistic. I don't know a person alive who could live as isolated a life as Roark did. We're not built for isolation - rugged independence is the American myth, not the reality of our culture. There is not one CEO who could go it all alone, without any support or alliances - or without a fabulous admin assistant to schedule the CEO's life and act as the keeper of the gate.

I've yet to read Atlas Shrugged, apparently the book that replaced the Bible over on Wall Street. I started it, but it's lengthy; my life is full; the demands of my own personal schedule meant I had to return the book to the library before I could finish it. I WILL finish it... some day.

The capitalists have it hard in Atlas Shrugged - the dreck also known as the laboring class throws up millions of obstacles in the way of progress, damn them! And then there are the wives of the capitalists and the mothers of the capitalists and the "friends" of the capitalists. Life sucks when you just want to work all the time and exploit labor to get ahead. No one "gets" you!

But in Atlas Shrugged, the capitalists overcame the obstacles set in play by all those collectivist types. Heroes, those capitalists, every last one of them! The saviors of America. Saviors we could use today, of course.

Today, in Mark Sanford's eyes, there is only one enemy to blame for our current malaise and that is government itself. Strange that a governor, a person actively engaged in the workings of government, feels government is the problem. He might want to think about a new career, come to think of it. Governors who loathe government are best suited for careers outside of government. He might just want to go with that particular flow...

Anyway, back to Rand. Back to Sanford's review of Rand. Here's what he has to say:

"As Rand shows in [Atlas Shrugged], when the government is deprived of the free market's best minds, it staggers toward collapse."

Sanford seems to have forgotten that the best minds of the free market (Goldman Sachs power structure) tend to end up in government - and precisely at the moment our economy was collapsing, a great free market mind - Henry Paulson - was leading the Treasury, and apparently listening intently to what another great free market mind - Lloyd Blankfein - had to say.

Sanford points out a major flaw in Rand's thinking: "She believed that man is perfectible – a view she shared with the Soviet collectivists she hated."

As Sanford himself knows all too well, man is inordinately flawed. And so, too, is Rand's philosophy. A society filled with people who believe they're beholden to no one is dangerous, not empowering. And if a man like Mark Sanford, who so clearly lacks ethical standards, is so inspired by Rand, we should question the source of his inspiration.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Things must be worst than I thought...

Walmart is getting into the death market.

As in caskets and urns used for cremains.

When planning a funeral, I suppose it's good to know that there are bargains to be had...

Here's a link to the AP story, if you want more details. It's got a great lead:

"The world's largest retailer wants to keep its customers even after they die."

A House Divided...

…Cannot stand.

Thus spoke Abraham Lincoln in an address to Illinois Republicans that he gave in 1858, two years prior to his assumption to the presidency. In his mind, the nation could no longer live half-slave, half-free. Shortly after Lincoln became president, the Civil War began, a terrible and bloody war waged to determine whether we’d live all slave or all free.

We know the outcome of that war. Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, this American house is again extremely divided... between the over-leveraged and the over-compensated.

On the one hand, much of our house exists in chaos. Highest unemployment in decades (a rate that doesn't even include those who've given up the search for a job.) Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost each month. Consumer side of the financial system in a shambles. Still loaded with toxic assets. Still crumbling from the weight of consumer loans that consumers can no longer afford.

Because as we’ve seen this year, with job loss comes the loss of income. For those in the trenches, the impact of the collapsing economy has trickled down to the consumer in ways that have been catastrophic for many.

Contrast that with the golden era today on Wall Street. Record profits. Record bonuses. Record compensation for many of the people who dragged the economy off the cliff.

The feds have clamped down by limiting compensation for the 25 most highly compensated employees at seven firms (Citi, BoA, AIG, GM, GMAC, Chrysler and Chrysler Financial.)

In other words, they placed compensation limits on 175 people who work at firms that employ tens of thousands of employees. For these few top wage earners, their cash salaries (excluding bonuses) are limited to $500,000. This in a year when the average family of four has an income of about $70,000 a year (if they're working).

Since everyone seems to recognize that the badly behaved business leaders cannot exist on half a mil alone, they get the rest of their compensation, which can head back up in the stratosphere, in stock options that cannot be cashed out for a number of years.

For those living day to day, wondering when the economy will get a jump-start on employment, that $500,000 cash “limit” would be a hefty pay day. On Wall Street, the limit is a federally imposed disaster. Apparently those who trash their businesses don’t feel compelled to hold themselves accountable for terrible business decisions that led to a massive federal bailout.

If you watched Frontline earlier this week, you saw middle-aged members of the middle class realizing that they'd been bumped from relevance. Unable to get a job. Discovering that all they'd worked toward, all they'd sacrificed over the years, all the skills they'd acquired meant nothing in today's job market.

They meant nothing in today's job market.

In the history of labor, this is a turning point. The middle class has been traditionally been protected from the punitive actions of capitalism. The middle class has thrived in capitalism. The middle class has grown fat on capitalism.

But not today. Not in this America. The middle class is just catching on to the fact that it has become an endangered species in 21st century America.

In speaking of "the house divided," Lincoln had borrowed from another source – the Bible.

“...Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation... ” Matthew 12:25

There is wisdom in to be found in the experience of history. There is wisdom in that passage from Matthew. Let us not fail to learn the lessons of history.

The terrible divisions that separate Main Street from Wall Street must be healed. But they cannot be healed if those on Wall Street continue to suck billions of dollars out of the system and into their pockets. The parasite is in danger of killing the host.

What we've learned in the years since Paulson unveiled TARP is that investing in bankers is no way to heal a nation. In fact, that kind of investment is rapidly bringing us closer to desolation every day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Olympian Failure...

Richard J. Daley, the father, was known as "the kingmaker." As mayor and as head of Cook County Democratic Central Committee, he controlled the votes of one of the largest block of Democratic votes.

Thus, back in the old days, when powerful Kennedys were plentiful, all Democrats seeking the highest political office in the land came to see Chicago's mayor, Richard J. Daley, the man from Bridgeport, hizzoner, the boss. The men who would be president would come to see to see this man who rose to prominence from very humble beginnings.

Richard M. Daley, the son, is not a kingmaker. There's no one in America who thinks Daley is the reason Obama was elected president last year. The vast blocks of city voters have been chopped up, segmented into smaller chunks, often powered-up by single issues like abortion.

In the third largest city in America, Daley is instead the king, ruling virtually unopposed in all areas.

He came to power after a turbulent decade of non-Daley rulers, including the first female (Jane Byrne) and black mayors (Harold Washington & Eugene Sawyer) for the city.

And today, he rules as an autocrat. When his father was mayor, you could count on the lakefront alderman of the 43rd ward to raise up an alarm over some issues. You had Mike Royko writing columns and his famous book that named the mayor for the world as "Boss."

The son has no voice raised against him. Not the Republicans, who've been emasculated in Chicago for decades. Not the City Council, which rubber-stamps virtually everything the mayor wants - without reading it apparently. There is no Royko in the local media to act as a gadfly.

Daley rules alone. A king over all.

And when one rules in such isolation, there is no one else to blame for failure.

In the weeks leading up to the big IOC vote, it became increasingly clear that Chicagoans were reluctant to assume the cost-burden of such an event. They live in a city with the highest sales tax. Thanks to a terrible 75 year parking deal, Chicagoans also pay some of the highest meter parking rates in the country. Property taxes have skyrocketed in recent years - as has the debt load carried by the city.

Daley's 75 year parking contract brought in $1.2 billion, but apparently short-changed the city. Not only did the terrible deal mean parking rates increased dramatically overnight, Daley actually could have gotten at least a billion more - but didn't. And Daley's using that money now - apparently taking money we've been paid for existing and future assets (parking and Skyway revenues) to today pay for the debt acquired yesterday.

Apparently to pay for everything this year, we'll saddle future generations of Chicagoans with even more debt.

So a great many citizens of my favorite city looked at the Olympics with absolute fear. How could we afford such a spectacle, given the very poor financial situation we face today? As the IOC came closer to its vote, Chicago support for the Olympics waned dramatically. Less than 50 percent of Chicagoans polled wanted the event to come to Chicago.

The king failed in his bid for glory. And the city that works is increasingly becoming the city that's broke. A terrible legacy for any ruler to leave.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Irrelevance, Interrupted...

He came to the swamplands of the Potomac swathed in a cloud of scandal. He's been ignored since the day he arrived at his new job.

And today, my senator, Roland Burris, has me humming a little Janis Joplin right now (lyrics by the talented Kris Kristofferson)...

"Freedom's just another word, for nothing left to lose
And nothing's all that [Roddy] left me, yah."

Yes, Roland Burris rolled into Washington with a a whole lotta nothing in his back pocket. He'd been handed the senate seat by a man charged with trying to sell it, Rod Blagojevich, the Kipling-quoting ex-gov of Illinois – and allegedly a future "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant.

(Can one be The Donald's apprentice from behind bars? Because the ex-gov's someday going to stand trial on corruption charges and sometimes such things end up with a jail term....)

So Roland Burris came to DC as a lame duck senator, with just two years left in the term Obama left when he became president. Because of the scandal surrounding his appointment, because a great many people believed Roland wanted to carve out "Senator" on that big old gravestone he's already purchased for himself, wanted the title of senator badly enough to purchase the rights to it, Roland Burris has been utterly irrelevant in Washington. He was supposed to show up, remain quiet, vote the way the Dems wanted him to vote. And for a good few months, Roland has behaved. He's been quiet.

Until now. The man from Illinois has decided that his lame duck status has given him a certain power. Like that sad, mournful lover of Bobby McGee, Roland's got nothing to lose - and he's taken that bit of nothing Rod gave him and maneuvered his way to the front and center of the health care debate.

In one of the most hotly contested issues of 2009 - in a year filled with bitterly contested issues - Roland Burris has drawn a line in the sand. He will not vote for any "health care reform" unless it includes the public option.

And thus, the most irrelevant man in Washington has made himself utterly relevant once again. In a town devoted to ensuring the interests of health insurers and banks are well-served, Roland Burris wants to make sure the public is not totally forgotten.

So for all those lobbyists working so hard to sway our senators and reps to do their bidding, I close with another Janis Joplin song of "great social and political importance." Here's what the highly paid lobbyists are working so hard for out there in the swamps...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Anne Frank has gone viral...

What a strange world we live in. Rare film footage of the young girl whose diary became one of the most moving pieces of Holocaust literature has gone "viral."

I find myself undeniably moved by the fact that the brief glimpse we have of Anne Frank in motion was shot to memorialize the wedding of a neighbor. Love and life amid the gathering storm clouds. The world depicted in that video seems unbearably normal.

And yet all hell was about to break loose.

Some links:

NY Times story on the clip

The Anne Frank Museum (If you ever have a chance to climb the steep stairs up to the secret annex, it's an experience I highly recommend.)

From Anne's diary: "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Proof We are Not Ruled by Rationality....

For all those who truly, madly, deeply love the notion that rational minds move the invisible hand – this one's for you...

If Tom Delay (is he wearing heels a la Ginger Rogers?!) dancing the cha cha to "Wild Thing" on Dancing with the Stars isn't enough to erase all dreams of rationality in America, then dream on baby! Or better yet - show me those rational threads that bind the fabric of America together...

Here's the Bloomberg TV report on the event...

Here's a Gilded Frame for that Lovely Picture They've Created...

In the year since the crash, Goldman Sachs has been very busy, as you would expect of the financial giant. The company has paid back its TARP loan (with interest!) and, after some haggling, paid the full amount the fed wanted for its warrants (good citizenship!)

And it's been very clear that it never needed the $12 bil that it got from AIG via the feds.

Apparently, according to Gary Cohn, Goldman president, Goldman didn't need any of the extraordinary financial interventions it received in the last year. He's quoted in a NY Times story last August:

"'We did not have a near-death experience,' said Gary D. Cohn, Goldman’s president. The government saved the financial industry as a whole, but it did not save Goldman Sachs, he said."

And Goldman has also stated publicly that it has not changed the way it does business, and in fact, has profited hugely by the current business climate, the climate that seems quite chilly and foreboding to so many millions who do not work at Goldman. Here's Cohn again, quoted in that August NY Times story:

"'Our risk appetite continues to grow year on year, quarter on quarter, as our balance sheet and liquidity continue to grow,' Mr. Cohn said."

Now Spiegel Online talks to Lloyd Blankfein about the current economic crisis. And it's a fascinating interview.

The reporter certainly didn't hold back any punches - opening with a frank discussion of Mr. Blankfein's $67.9 million bonus from two years back:

"SPIEGEL: Mr. Blankfein, two years ago, your $67.9 million bonus was the largest ever paid to a Wall Street banker. You recently said that you could understand the anger that people are expressing over inflated bonuses. How are we to understand this?

Blankfein: I think people legitimately question whether compensation is tied to performance and, looking back, they see that some people were enriched but did not seem to have any alignment with their shareholders. A large part of the compensation paid to our senior people, including mine, is paid in shares, which may be worth less or more depending on our performance well after they were granted. This is what our shareholders want and we are convinced of this alignment of interests."

And Blankfein makes it clear that he has no choice in the amount of compensation the board wants to pay him, thus the issue of compensation is out of his hands:

"SPIEGEL: Still, $67.9 million is an astronomical sum. Is there any way to justify this?

Blankfein: Our board of directors sets the pay of our most senior executives, including mine. They tie pay to the firm's performance and I believe we have established a strong track record of correlating growth in revenues to growth in compensation. The real test is whether compensation is reduced when performance changes. For example, in 1994, the firm made a loss and the partners had to pay money back to the firm so that the staff could be paid. And, in 2008, which was a very difficult year as you know, I was paid no bonus, even though the firm was profitable.

SPIEGEL: That all sounds very rational. But don't such payments promote greed as the primary motivator?

Blankfein: I think we all know that greed can drive behavior, but it tends to be short term and ultimately destructive. Our leadership team stands out because most of our people have built their whole career at the firm and stayed through many years and many changes in the market. When our people leave they tend to go on to other positions -- whether in government or other forms of public service -- that no one would do if their were motives were financial. Those characteristics don't make me think of "greed."

With regard to the crisis, there is plenty of blame to go around - and Blankfein offers his ideas of who is responsible:

"SPIEGEL: This week in Pittsburgh, the G-20 will discuss stricter regulation of bonus payments. Based on what you have said, you believe that such efforts will do nothing to prevent future crises?

Blankfein: That is not what I said. The incentive aspect played a role in the crisis, but it was not the primary cause -- I think you have to look at the macroeconomic backdrop, the concentrations of risk in certain institutions and the fact that many, including regulators, should in hindsight have had better information and acted sooner to address capital and liquidity shortfalls."

I am intrigued by the idea that regulators should have had better information and that they should have acted sooner to address capital and liquidity shortfalls. I should have thought that such items would have been on the agenda of those in the C-Suites of the banking firms that stacked up enormous piles of debt on the off balance books - but apparently, that was the responsibility of regulators.

Lloyd Blankfein is clearly a man who feels ostentation is inappropriate.

"SPIEGEL: One gets the impression that the issue of bonuses is mostly a problem of image for you. A few weeks ago, you called on your employees to act more modestly, in order not to draw undue attention to themselves in a time of government bailouts for banks. "Spend like a pauper," was the headline in one US newspaper.

Blankfein: That's not exactly true -- I didn't send that message then, but it almost doesn't matter. We are in the public spotlight. And, in any event, I think it is bad form to be ostentatious."

Here's his take on Goldman's biggest mistake:

"SPIEGEL: You say that Goldman did things better than many others in advance of the crisis. What was your biggest mistake?

Blankfein: Goldman Sachs has traditionally been strong in business with mergers and acquisitions. We also provide financing for acquisitions by companies ...

SPIEGEL: ... and through private equity funds, which shortly before the crisis financed corporate takeovers at astronomical prices using almost exclusively borrowed money.

Blankfein: When this market for so-called "leveraged finance" was booming, we wanted to remain competitive and maintain our market share. We extended even larger lines of credit to our clients and did so at the same time as lending terms were getting easier. When companies like Chrysler began to falter, we acted quickly, but we did not act quickly enough, which was a mistake.

SPIEGEL: Was that your only mistake?

Blankfein: Another area where we didn't act fast enough was real estate. We recognized that property markets were eroding, but we didn't realize how bad things would get or how quickly the decline would happen.

SPIEGEL: How did the massive excesses in the real estate market come to be in the first place?

Blankfein: Owning a home is part of the American way of life. And the dream of home ownership was furthered politically, through tax deductions for mortgage payments and the easing of credit terms, to give two examples."

What caused the crash, according to Blankfein, was debt:

"Blankfein: This crisis was not just caused by complex derivatives.

SPIEGEL: What caused it, then?

Blankfein: Too much money was lent to people who had bitten off more than they could chew. When the bubble burst and recession hit, default rates went through the roof."

So the man smart enough to earn a $67.9 million bonus was caught off guard by the collapse. Somehow, he hadn't heard of NINJA loans or no-doc loans. He didn't realize that money was being handed out all across America to people with no hope of paying back the loan.

How could he know that? He was busy running the operations of one of the largest, most successful investment banks in the world. But does that mean we should diminish the size of the banks? Of course not.

"Blankfein: So what is 'too big to fail'?

SPIEGEL: When a bank is so large that in the event of insolvency, it could take the entire financial and the entire economic system along with it into the abyss. The state would then rescue the financial institution with taxpayer money.

Blankfein: The size of the bank is not the most important factor. Whether a certain risk is bundled at a single bank or spread across several is completely irrelevant. That doesn't diminish the size of the risk. In fact, this would only change the problem from 'too big to fail' to 'too many to fail.'"

Blankfein notes that risk is the key factor - not the size of bank. And for risk managers to misunderstand the risk they're working with - that's not the fault of bankers who earn millions to manage risk. That's the fault of the borrowers and the regulators and the American dream of home ownership (and the tax deduction that goes with it.)

The images the men of Goldman Sachs have left us with this year are very powerful. And in this interview, Lloyd Blankfein frames the picture they've painted with an appropriately gilded frame.

When the system goes belly-up, the bankers who earn millions for their wisdom and knowledge get bailed out - even if they claim they don't need it - and they get to point fingers at everyone else for the collapse. That our financial sector accumulated so much risk/leverage/toxicity that it brought down the economy is not at all the fault of bankers at all.

Now pay them their bonuses for a job well done.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Where's Elliot Ness When You Need Him?

Over at Rortybomb, Mike Konzal and Jeffrey Friedman have engaged in a lively discussion on the role of regulation in the failure of the financial sector.

Jeffrey Friedman is the editor of Critical Review, and a contributor to the Causes of the Crisis blog (a great resource for people like me who are seeking out various perspectives in an attempt to understand why the economy tanked so terribly.)

Jeffrey believes the crisis is the result of regulation - specifically, no-recourse laws that many states had on the books that enabled consumers to walk away from mortgages they had no interest in paying back, and the Recourse Rule, which rated MBSs favorably, thus were more attractive to bankers. Since I'm not a banker or economist, I'll let Jeffrey explain the Recourse Rule:

"Under the Recourse Rule, an AA- or AAA-rated asset-backed security, such as a mortgage-backed bond, received a 20-percent risk weight, compared to a zero risk weight for cash and a 50-percent risk weight for an individual (unsecuritized) mortgage. This meant that commercial banks could issue mortgages—regardless of how sound the borrowers were—sell them to investment banks to be securitized, and buy them back as part of a mortgage-backed security, in the process freeing up 60 percent of the capital they would have had to hold against individual mortgages. Capital held by a bank is capital not lent out at interest; by reducing their capital holdings, banks could increase their profitability."

(I personally do not understand how the Recourse Rule absolves bankers from issuing mortgages responsibly, but I'm not an economist.)

Mike, both on Rortybomb and over at the Atlantic Business Channel, takes a look at the rule in question:

"So let’s look at this new amendment more critically. It takes an older, blunter government rule (all mortgages at 50% risk), and makes it more market friendly (mortgages at the level where the market prices risk). It outsources risk-management to private companies, the ratings-agencies, assuming that companies willing to pay to get ratings on their mortgage bonds would lead to more efficient information than government regulators. It takes as granted that financial innovation has “worked” and that government regulation should act to help move the latest financial innovations more coherently into the regulatory regime."

Mike thinks that this rule is in line with deregulation, something all capitalists claim to desire. And he notes that the regulation trusts the financial markets to manage the risk. Here, Mike quotes from the regulation itself:

"The [regulatory] agencies expect that banking organizations will identify, measure, monitor and control the risks of their securitization activities (including synthetic securitizations using credit derivatives)...Banking organizations should be able to measure and manage their risk exposure from risk positions in the securitizations, either retained or acquired, and should be able to assess the credit quality of any retained residual portfolio…Banking organizations with significant securitization activities, no matter what the size of their on-balance sheet assets, are expected to have more advanced and formal approaches to manage the risks."

In several comments responding to Mike's post, Jeffrey provides intriguing arguments to counter Mike's reasoning - including this provacative image:

"If the prohibition of liquor was enforced with only 90% success and as a result of this “loophole,” the cost of a drink went so high that gangsters started killing each other for the right to control the supply of liquor, would you defend prohibition on the grounds that it’s the loophole that’s causing the problem? Or would you acknowledge that there would be no problem without the artificial profitability of liquor caused by prohibition?"

And I think to myself - is a conservative writer really bringing up Prohibition in a discussion of the economic crisis? Because yes - we all agree that Prohibition was a huge regulatory failure - and I'm sure we all agree that enormous regulatory failures were at play in the collapse of the economy.

But last I checked, when Elliot Ness went after the masters of the mayhem resulting from Prohibition, he wasn't going after the guys who legislated Prohibition into law. He went after the men who picked up the guns and pulled the triggers and profited greatly on a crappy piece of legislation.

So if Jeffrey wants to absolve bankers from their abysmal failure to manage risk - which is a big part of the job they're paid awesome sums of money to do - then he really should avoid any reference to Prohibition. People who push through loopholes to create mayhem should be held accountable for their actions. And that's true for banksters, as well as gangsters.

(See below if you're a Sean Connery fan...)

"I'm making you a deal. Do you want the deal?"

(Useless trivia - I worked on this film for a week. Filming at night in a dark and smelly alley. Kevin Costner's parents came into town to watch him work (it was before he was famous.) Total run time in the film for the week of work was about five seconds (Charles Martin Smith gets gunned down in an elevator created out of smoke and mirrors by the crew - the mob, like Enron, knew that if you wanted to screw up the free market, it was essential kill the accountants....)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Lehman... and its Failure

The most provocative line in last week's Newsweek is not the inflammatory headline that graced the cover, "the case for killing granny."

No, the most provocative line in the magazine comes on page 47 of the print edition, early in a story about Jamie Dimon, our post-millennial American hero, the man who somehow had the strength, courage and conviction to "eschew the siren call of investing in risky mortgage securities."

(That's what passes for heroic these days in America - god bless us everyone...)

The line I found most astonishing was this:

"The only remaining question was whether it would be Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs to fail next."

How's that for a bit of revisionist history?! Goldman Sachs on the verge of failure - at least according to those liberals over at Newsweek. That's trash talking there - language far more inflammatory than that bit about killing granny.

Because Goldman, as we know, is the gold standard for how investment bankers should act. And Goldman, as the folks at Goldman have stated in the year since the crash, was well-positioned to ride out the tsunami that brought down so many of their competitors. Here's their take on their health, described in a press release issued on 9/21/08, during the height of the turmoil:

"We are pleased that the Federal Reserve recognizes the strength and health of our liquidity and funding and the overall quality of our risk management."

No wonder Goldman is having one hell of a year this year, with estimates of "record" profits and bonuses back up at pre-crash levels. And no wonder that they were too healthy to fail last fall.

But not according to Newsweek. In their interpretation of the events that happened that black week in September last year, Goldman was as wobbly as the rest of them.

Because, as this New York magazine story points out, "before the market crashed, Goldman Sachs was betting 28 times its underlying capital."

That's quite a load of leverage to be carrying, especially after the markets crashed last September. And prior to the crash, they had carried that leverage proudly, had in fact eagerly sought out such leverage, thanks in part to some lobbying Henry Paulson had done prior to becoming Treasury Secretary, back when he was CEO of Goldman Sachs, to change the leverage requirements for investment banks back in 2004.

The failure of Lehman was a turning point in the history of American finance - as significant a turning point as the bailout of Continental Bank (now part of BoA!) was back in the 1980s. In 1984, Continental was the 8th biggest bank in America, loaded to the gills with debt, thanks to a business model that made it susceptible to making bad loans. The feds stepped in with a controversial bailout, noting that the bank was too big to fail.

A bit of moral hazard had been injected into the financial community.

In September 2008, there was nothing to indicate that TBTF institutions would NOT get bailed out. Earlier in the year, the government came to the aid of Bear Stearns. The government came to the aid of Fanny and Freddie.

And then in September, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson did something generally viewed as extremely dangerous - he changed horses in midstream. He said that Lehman was on its own. Without the support of the government (that entity Reagan pointed to as "the problem"), Lehman failed.

Thus, the panic.

A central assumption that had gone unchallenged by the failures of Bear, Fanny and Freddie - that TBTF institutions would be bailed out - was not necessarily a fact set in stone. Even the healthiest, strongest banks were at risk, because when irrational exuberance is replaced by irrational fear, no one is safe. Especially when the off-balance books are loaded with toxic assets.

For the remaining banks that had operated so profitably for so long in those unregulated shadows, Lehman's collapse showed that in such turbulent times, the great capitalists are worth nothing at all without Uncle Sam's support.

Uncle Sam learned that in order to prevent massive and terrifying panic, bailing out TBTF banks is now absolutely essential. With TBTF even bigger in 2009, all those in such companies who risk big this year know that no matter what, the feds will prop them up with a TARP, should the risks fail to pan out.

That's a moral hazard that can kill even the healthiest "free market" system.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Outsourced! (The Hyatt Way...)

Thanks to the recession, the Hyatt hotels in Boston have experienced a significant drop in revenues - 21 percent. The corporation's response to such challenging times?

According to this story, they fired their housekeeping staff - approximately 100 people.

In their place, Hyatt brought in 100 housekeepers who agreed to work for half ($8.00/hour vs. $15/hour) of what the fired employees had gotten. And no benefits.

The fired workers had been getting health insurance through Hyatt.

Here's how Hyatt characterized the move:

"'As part of an ongoing drive to address challenging economic conditions, the Hyatt hotels of Boston have restructured their housekeeping services,’ according to a statement from the hotel. 'Regrettably, the restructuring included staff reductions.'"

Bringing in employees to replace the ones you've fired is not a "staff reduction." It's a transformation of the workplace. It's letting go of people, some of whom devoted two decades to the company, and replacing them with low-wage, no-benny workers who will barely be able to scrape by on the salary they earn in this job.

According to the news story, the Hyatt experience is "uncommon" in the industry:

"Other hotels have taken a different approach to riding out the recession. Earlier this year the Liberty Hotel ended its contract with the company that provided its security and night janitorial service and replaced them with hotel workers from other departments who might have otherwise been laid off. “We would not [outsource housekeepers] because we want to tightly control the guest experience here and the cleanliness,’’ said managing director Jim Treadway.

Representatives from the Hilton and Marriott hotel chains said they have not outsourced their housekeepers and have no plans to do so."

Just this week, BusinessWeek included Hyatt on its list of "Best Places to Launch a Career."

Not if you're a housekeeper at Hyatt, obviously. But that's just a job. Not a career. So who cares? We'll see if such innovation in HR is contagious....

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eight Years of This...

All I can say after reading the story in this month's GQ written by Matt Latimer, Republican speechwriter for George Bush is: no wonder we're swirling around in the toilet today.

Some quotes from Latimer's story below...

Matt learns about the impending crash...

"Chris had just come from a secret meeting in the Oval Office, and without so much as a hello he announced: 'Well, the economy is about to completely collapse.'

"'You mean the stock market?' I asked.

"'No, I mean the entire U.S. economy,' he replied. As in, capitalism. As in, hide your money in your mattress.

The secretary of the treasury, Hank Paulson, had sketched out a dire scenario. And Chris said we’d have to write a speech for the president announcing his 'bold' plan to deal with the crisis. (The president loved the word bold.)

We had to reassure the American people that everything was going to be okay. As it turned out, Secretary Paulson had a plan that would fix everything: a $700 billion bailout of the financial system. The plan, like the secretary himself (who’d been pretty much a nonperson at the White House), seemed to come out of nowhere, as if it had been hastily scribbled on a sheet of paper in the secretary’s car on his way to work. Basically, it could be summed up as: Give me hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and then trust me to do the right thing.

There was no denying it. This plan was certainly 'bold.'”

He talks about his dream to assist with the Reagan Revolution:

"As soon as I was able, and with the support of my baffled liberal parents, I packed up my old maroon Dodge Dynasty and said good-bye to my sleepy hometown.

My youthful exuberance cooled as I moved up the rungs of power. On Capitol Hill, I worked for a congressman who 'misremembered' basic facts, such as the 'Eisenhower assassination.' I worked for a senator who hid from his own staff. I was assigned to coach Republican senators on how to reach out to the media and entertainment world. (You try explaining The View to a group of 65-year-old white Republican men.) At the Pentagon, as chief speechwriter to Donald Rumsfeld, I battled an entrenched civil-service system and an inept communications team.

In 2007 I finally made it to the Bush White House as a presidential speechwriter. But it was not at all what I envisioned. It was less like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and more like The Office. After watching Karl Rove’s bizarre farewell to White House staffers and hearing the president dismiss the conservative movement I believed in (“I know it sounds arrogant to say,” he told me, “but I redefined the Republican Party”), I thought I could muddle through till the end. Washington might not have been the city I had dreamed of, but I figured things couldn’t get much worse."

He discusses his lack of confidence in the president's economic team...

"Unfortunately, I can’t say any of the president’s top economic advisers struck me as having a firm handle on the economic mess ahead. The economic team the president put together at first included his friend Al Hubbard. He may have been a competent adviser; I really didn’t know him. The only thing I knew about Al was that he went around putting whoopee cushions on people’s chairs in the West Wing."

Here we learn of the president's passion for being decisive (he was The Decider, after all)...

"AFTER CHRIS, Jonathan Horn, and I learned about the president’s $700-billion-bailout proposal and drafted the remarks announcing it to a stunned nation, Ed said the president wanted to see us in the Oval Office. The president looked relaxed and was sitting behind the Resolute desk. He felt he’d made the major decision that everyone had been asking for. That always seemed to relax him. He liked being decisive. Excuse me, boldly decisive. The president seemed to be thinking of his memoirs. 'This might go in as a big decision,' he mused.

'Definitely, Mr. President, someone else observed. 'This is a large decision.'”

On the puzzling and evolving nature of TARP...

"'We’re buying low and selling high,' [President Bush] kept saying.

The problem was that his proposal didn’t work like that. One of the president’s staff members anxiously pulled a few of us aside. “The president is misunderstanding this proposal,” he warned. “He has the wrong idea in his head.” As it turned out, the plan wasn’t to buy low and sell high. In some cases, in fact, Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth in order to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president’s proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. It wasn’t that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three."

According to Matt, Bush referred to the McCain campaign as a "five-spiral crash" and wondered, with a twinkle in his eye, if Sarah Palin was the governor of Guam.

Then Matt leaves us with an indelible image...

"The president was clearly frustrated with what was going on, but there was little he could do at this late hour. He went up to take a nap, saying he was beat. He looked it. I’d never seen him more exhausted. His hair was out of place and shaggy. His face looked drained and pale. Even more distressing, he was wearing Crocs."

Crocs. That's just not the choice of footwear I'd expect in a decider...

Man, God & the Wall Street Journal

One of the top stories in the Wall Street Journal this week is "Man vs. God," which asks Karen Armstrong, a religious writer and Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist to answer the same question:

"Where does evolution leave God?"

Leave aside for a moment the intriguing notion that the WSJ (whose readers tend to worship at the altar of Mammon) ran this story the week we commemorated both 9/11 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Let's look at how faith and biology influenced the answers of the two writers...

Karen Armstrong starts out with a bang:

"Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful."

For Armstrong, evolution has killed the Christian God as we once knew him.

(However, in that the Bible shows a history of pain, death, slavery and the tortured extermination of God's son, it is not intuitively obvious that people who follow the Bible necessarily believe in the existence of a benign creator. A creator, yes, but one not always appearing in the Bible as "benign.")

Armstrong, author of A History of God, provides a summation of that history in this column, noting that premodern religion was heavily dependent on symbolism.

"St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history."

Science created an environment where proof of God's existence became more necessary than faith. Armstrong notes:

"Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously 'very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.' Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity."

Darwin's theory of evolution created a fissure in the cast-iron certainty of God's existence.

"Darwin made it clear once again that — as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the "God beyond God." The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words."

For Richard Dawkins, evolution is clear evidence that there is no God at all.

"Before 1859 it would have seemed natural to agree with the Reverend William Paley, in "Natural Theology," that the creation of life was God's greatest work. Especially (vanity might add) human life. Today we'd amend the statement: Evolution is the universe's greatest work. Evolution is the creator of life, and life is arguably the most surprising and most beautiful production that the laws of physics have ever generated. Evolution, to quote a T-shirt sent me by an anonymous well-wisher, is the greatest show on earth, the only game in town."

Life itself is remarkable on its own, not at all for being the gift of a divine being. For Dawkins, it's physics - and physics alone - that determines everything. The scientist looks at the world through a prism created out of physical laws.

"Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information."

But that question remains - who turned on the switch? Who created the clay that molded earth and sky and stars and humans? How did that primal protoplasm, from which everything evolved, get here? For Dawkins, it is not God who is the creator; it is the Universe.

"Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex — statistically improbable — and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe—the miracle-free zone that is physics.

"To midwife such emergence is the singular achievement of Darwinian evolution. It starts with primeval simplicity and fosters, by slow, explicable degrees, the emergence of complexity: seemingly limitless complexity—certainly up to our human level of complexity and very probably way beyond. There may be worlds on which superhuman life thrives, superhuman to a level that our imaginations cannot grasp. But superhuman does not mean supernatural."

In fact, Darwinian evolution is proof that there is no God at all.

"Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip.... God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place."

For Dawkins, the lineage of the Universe does not stretch back to God - such a possibility is "statistically improbable." His faith centers around the immutable laws of physics.

The religious writer sees evolution as proof that faith matters, as it has always mattered when contemplating the existence of God. The evolutionary biologist sees evolution as proving God was never a presence in the creation of the world.

What is clear - evolution will never deter those who believe in God away from their belief. And those who believe evolution completely disproves God's will never bow their heads in prayer.

An eternal divide exists between believers and unbelievers.

There is one thing, however, that can be utilized to bridge this division between two groups: compassion. As Armstrong notes:

"In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart."

In this world, there are those who seek enlightenment through their belief in God. And they live everyday with people who find their form of transcendence in examining the physical world. But the desire to "cultivate new capacities of mind and heart" is not limited only to those who head into church every Sunday. Compassion is something that can be claimed by all, regardless of faith.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thus Spoke Bernanke...

The recession is "very likely over," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told us today, exactly one year after Lehman filed for bankruptcy.

The recession may be over, but we're still left with an economy that sheds jobs by the hundreds of thousands each month, a bank closure rate that has increased significantly since July, and TBTF financial institutions that are now even bigger one year after the collapse of the financial sector.

The end of the recession is not the end of pain. Though the economy is "growing," so, too, is the unemployment rate.

In response to Bernanke's cheery update, stocks rose today to its highest finish since October 6th, 2008.

And gold likes what Ben has to say...

Additional links below....

Newseek called it weeks before Bernanke did - in its its 8/3/09 issue

WSJ declared recession's end on 8/11/09

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Injection of Morality to go with that Injection of Capital....

U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff today overturned the $33 million settlement hammered out between the SEC and BoA over the $3.6 billion in Merrill Lynch bonuses paid to execs just prior to Merrill's merge with BoA. (A deal to pay the bonuses, agreed to in secrecy, without notifying shareholders, allegedly.)

In his ruling, the judge concludes the agreement "does not comport with the most elementary notions of justice and morality...."

"Morality" - a rarely used word in today's business climate.

The judge takes issue with the settlement because it "...proposes that the shareholders who were the victims of the alleged misconduct now pay the penalty for that misconduct."

Which, according to Rakoff, makes such a settlement "neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate." Apparently he believes the people who allegedly lied to the shareholders about an extremely costly and secret business deal should be left holding the bag... not the shareholders.

BoA and SEC had argued that bank execs could not possibly be held accountable for following the advice of their lawyers, thus, in their mind, the shareholders should pony up the cash.

Curious what Henry Paulson has to say about this development....

More links follow....

WaPo coverage of the decision

NY Times story

Naked Capitalism's take on the story

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Schism Grows....

Two fascinating stories coming out of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

First, a release issued by CBPP on 9/10/09 has this to say about the state of our economy:

"Poverty increased, median household income fell, and the percentage of Americans with employer-based health coverage continued to decline in 2008...."

Seems "trickle down" never worked all that well for those on the down-side of the policies.

However, there was good news in a release issued by CBPP on 9/9/09 - for the top income earners:

"Two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of U.S. households, and that top 1 percent held a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928..."

Seems Bush/Cheney knew how to enact policies that really rewarded their base - at the expense of everyone else.

Links to the releases below....

Poverty Rose, Median Income Declined, and Job-Based Health Insurance Continued to Weaken in 2008 - Recession Likely to Expand Ranks of Poor and Uninsured in 2009 and 2010

Top 1 Percent of Americans Reaped Two-Thirds of Income Gains in Last Economic Expansion - Income Concentration in 2007 Was at Highest Level Since 1928, New Analysis Shows

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Playground Politics Go National....

Health care costs are careening out of control - in the last decade, employer-provided premiums have risen 119 percent - four times the rate of inflation and wages, according to the National Coalition on Health Care.

The number of uninsured Americans has grown to 46.3 million, an increase attributed to the job losses seen in the last year.

Providing and paying for health care in America is seriously flawed these days. Thus, there is a push for reform.

The president appears before Congress to outline key goals and provide motivation to affect change in this area. And what happens?

Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouts out mid-speech that the president is a liar.

It was, according to the NY Times, a rare breach of protocol.

If you've got children, you know this kind of screeching happens all the time on the playground. And you know that calling someone a liar is never an appropriate way to solve a problem - especially when the other person isn't lying.

At this time of crisis, at this moment when America is experiencing critical failure in so many areas - health care, jobs, banking - the list of wounded sectors is endless - a vociferously loud branch of the Republican party has decided to opt out of rational discussion, choosing instead to favor tactics used by playground bullies.

For whatever reason, Republicans have made the decision to view anything said by the president as false. Joe Wilson calls him a liar during an address to Congress. Jim Greer of Florida rages wildly about an innocuous speech to students. Sarah Palin talks about how health care reform will end up killing granny, thanks to the death panels that don't exist in any of the pending legislation.

These Republicans have decided that to respect the president of the United States is not an option. And they've decided to engage in low and dirty discourse, instead of fighting hard to help their constituents.

America can be a "large-hearted" nation. We can be a beacon of hope to those in distress. But not today, apparently, with one party in the thrall of playground bullies.

President Obama warned about this in his speech last night - he knows that if we ever reach a point...

"...When any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves."

If there's any hope following Joe Wilson's howl, it's that his Democratic challenger has raised approximately $200,000 since the gaffe. Americans don't favor bullies in the House, apparently.

Some links about the speech follow below....

Text of the President's speech

The (official) Republican response

WSJ story on backlash felt by Wilson

WaPo's Dana Milbank's story on the speech

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Here in America, you get to write your own destiny."

On Friday, we began the Labor Day weekend with news that unemployment has increased to 9.7 percent. If you add in the figures for underemployment, the percentage of Americans who are not working as productively as they'd like is now almost 17 percent.

As Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, says:

"Bottom line: almost one out of six Americans who need a full-time job either can't find one or is working part-time."

So on Labor Day, the day we honor the achievements of labor, many of us lit up the barbecue feeling a bit queasy about our future prospects for employment.

Today, the work week begins anew (for those of us who are gainfully employed.) And today, we sent our children off to school where they may or may not get to hear a highly controversial speech given by the president of the United States. The president's intention from the start was to "challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning."

And that he would deign to say such things to America's students set up a firestorm of controversy. Jim Greer, head of the Florida GOP, issued a press release that called the president's address to students "an invasive abuse of power."

The White House has put up a link to the president's prepared remarks. Let's take a look at this incendiary speech:

"...At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

"And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education...."

I personally do not understand how a presidential speech to students asking them to take individual responsibility for their success in school became a source for extreme outrage for so many.

But in today's America, it did. We're faced with a cultural environment that simply cannot tolerate debate and discussion any more. We apparently cannot even tolerate the notion that the president would ask students to work hard and be accountable for their success.

Our president links an individual student's success in school with the future of the country:

"What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

"You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

In his speech to students, President Obama acknowledges that the circumstances of one's life are "no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude."

That's advice we can all heed. But in today's difficult economic environment, it's not easy to view the future with optimism. It's not easy to believe the president when he says:

"Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

We are a nation that for so long believed in our ability to write our own destiny. It's a belief that is severely challenged today, when one of the few areas of growth we see is the disparity between the top wage earners and the rest of us. The rich are getting richer. The rest of us - we're muddling through as best we can. Our ability to make our own future seems dimmed somehow. But we cannot give up.

As the president says,

"The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best."

Though bitterly divided by issues, we remain one nation, led by one president. His words in this speech deserve a wide audience. We are all accountable for our actions. We all have the opportunity to initiate change at a local level. We all have the chance to turn our dreams into our destiny.

"So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?"

(One change of note since the text of the speech was posted on the web: Jim Greer, the GOP leader who initially claimed Obama was using this speech as an opportunity to indoctrinate the youth of America into socialism, now says that it's a "good speech," and that he'll allow his own children to listen to it.... though because of his initial howl of protest, the schools in Florida are not mass-broadcasting the speech to all of its schools.)

The full text of the president's address to students follows...

Prepared Remarks of President Barack ObamaBack to School Event
Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009

The President: Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.
I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.
Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.
I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.

That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.
Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.

And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.
Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn.

Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.
So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.