Friday, January 30, 2009

Profit and Loss...

2008 was a year for the record books for American businesses. First, the loss leaders: the financial sector, which went belly up last fall. They became the beneficiaries of Paulson's trillion dollar rescue plan. And then after receiving hundreds of billions of dollars from the feds, the bankrupt businesses gave out billions of dollars in bonuses to their employees, rewarding them for God knows what.

Next, let's take a look at the profits seen in 2008 - and yes, there were profits to be had - especially if you were in oil. Today, Exxon Mobil reported a record profit of 45.2 billion for last year. That's right, in a year filled with bankruptcy, Exxon broke its own record for profits.

Here's what the Associated Press has to say about this bounty:

"The extraordinary full-year profit wasn't a surprise given crude's triple-digit price for much of 2008, peaking near an unheard of $150 a barrel in July."

Now, however, prices have fallen 70 percent since then, a welcome relief to consumers, but surely a profit-pinching scenario for Exxon. I'm not too worried about them, though. Even though revenue fell slightly more than 25 percent in the most recent quarter, the per-share and revenue results for Exxon exceeded Wall Street forecasts.

And hopefully, they've put some of that record-breaking profit aside for the rainy days ahead.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bewitched, Bewildered and Bonused...Wall Street had a great year apparently

I am a writer, not a business person. But in my career, I get to work with business people all the time - executives at Fortune 500 companies, lawyers, trainers, people who run mid-size businesses. That's why my work is so interesting - that's why I love doing what I do. I work with talented people to help them craft particular messages for particular audiences.

I am luckiest when I get to work with people who know exactly what their message is, who know exactly what they want the audience to take away from the communication. And I have to say that with most of my jobs, I'm a very lucky person - because most of my clients know what they want to say.

I confess I find the people on Wall Street to be utterly bewildering. I keep trying to figure out what they want us to understand about their business, but in all honesty, it is impossible to comprehend what they're trying to tell us - their story is ultimately too perplexing.

I grew up in the shadow of Reagan; in his first inaugural address, he famously gave us the line: "government isn't the solution - government is the problem."

Today, I see a flock of Wall Street capitalists racing as fast as they can to be beneficiaries of a rather expensive government solution to the problem of their fiscal irresponsibility. "Socialize our losses!" seems to be the mantra of the new free market.

Then I see the same Wall Street capitalists somehow congratulating themselves for the woeful year that was by paying themselves enormous bonuses. Check out this story in the NY Times: New York financial firms that have lost more than $35 billion in 2008, and have been the beneficiaries of at least $370 billion in federal bailout money, have also paid themselves $18.4 BILLION in bonuses! It's "the sixth largest haul on record," according the the NY state comptroller's office.

I wonder any number of things when I read those stats:

*Why do companies that lost $35 billion deserve ten times that amount in a bailout?

*How do business people, who I assume are devoted to making profits, justify rewarding themselves enormous bonuses when they've lost so much of their company's shareholder value through shoddy business practices?

*What do Wall Street financiers talk about when they talk about bonuses? I mean, really! When your firm goes belly up, the franchise is dead anyway - so why reward the people whose work helped the company die?

*What on earth did they do well enough in 2008 to deserve any reward at all?

What the message out of Wall Street seems to be these days is that "Wall Street isn't the solution; Wall Street is the problem."

And the government needs to step in and make sure that ANYONE who got a bonus this year at a company receiving a federal bailout gets fired.

To climb out of this terrible fiscal crisis, we need smart people in charge of the financial system who know how to make and sustain profit for the company. That's not what we have right now. Wall Street is filled with business people who are only successful, apparently, at lining their own wallets with astronomical sums of money. Certainly, their ability to operate a profitable operation is nonexistent. If you believe the story they're telling us, failed business leaders deserve to be bonused handsomely for driving their companies into the ground - and dragging the economy down with them. That's a bewildering tale with a very bad ending.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pictures of a President

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris had a fascinating story in the NY Times the other day. You can find it here.

Morris makes his living weaving story to pictures, and in this NY Times story, he takes a look at key photographs taken of Bush during his presidency. Most of the pictures are ones I've seen before - Bush in the classroom at the moment he was informed about the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Bush with the bullhorn on the rubble of the World Trade Center; Bush on the fly-over of New Orleans after disaster struck;

What I found absolutely fascinating is the number of pictures where he is vitally engaged with someone else in the frame. This is the president of the United States; usually, presidents are photographed in highly staged photo-ops, staring at the audience as they inform us of key messages. And there are a number of these types of photos in Morris' story - the "Mission Accomplished" photo op on the air craft carrier, the President surrounded in 2005 by flag waving soldiers who all happened to be in Texas during a time when we were engaged in two wars in two countries; Bush driving Putin in a Russian Volga, waving to the international audience; Bush giving the "thumbs up" all dressed up in a flight suit.

But many of the images Morris selected for this piece surprised me. They surprised me because a president who seemed significantly tone deaf when it came to reading the mood of the public is seen in these photos as a man of compassion, a man who connects with others in the moment, a man with a sense of humor.

And in all honestly, I did not expect to see this in photos of Bush.

In many of the photos in this piece, he is listening or looking intently at another person in the frame. In one photo, he's staring into the eyes of Nancy Pelosi on her first day as Speaker. In another, he's reaching out to a downcast Rumsfeld at the moment he leaves his post as Defense Secretary. He's reaching for a soldier's baby and looking straight at the mother.

The most remarkable images in this article are found at the end - a series of three photos of Bush as he returns to the White House after his final address to the nation in 2009. Here is a man who is overcome with emotion; in the first two images, he looks physically devastated. In the last one, the wreckage of his reign is written all over his face.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the Words of "The Speech"

January 20, 2009
A black hand rests lightly on Lincoln's bible.

The chief justice stumbles over the word "faithfully."

A bright sun fails to bring warmth to the bitingly cold day.

An enormous crowd of nearly two million citizens descends onto the capital, chilled by the weather and warmed by the belief that they were witnesses to history.

A day filled with startling moments.

The Bright Promise
A man born into power and privilege peacefully handed the position of president to a man who hails from the south side of Chicago by way of Kansas, Hawaii and Kenya.

The new president stood tall.

The crowd cheered.

The market swooned.

The former vice president left his position as a man as crippled as the economy.

A day of contrasts in a country full of contradictions.

This Moment in History
A crisp, cold, bright day, like many other inaugural days. The crowd gathered, but never such a crowd like this. During a time of debate and discussion about the historical legacy of the Bush years, nearly two million people stepped outside of their ordinary life and swarmed the capital to participate in history, to bear witness to a shining moment.

In tone, the gathering at the capital was reminiscent of the election night party last November in Grant Park. Crowds of people - happy - thrilled - joyful - came together to celebrate the great American tradition, the transfer of power from one president to the next. It was a day for cheers, for smiles; for some, I'm sure, it signified the arrival of doom. A black man, a Democrat, is now our president. And for others, true despair...

A White Sox fan is in the House.

But not just any White Sox fan. A Harvard educated community organizer. And his inaugural speech was one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory.

The Inaugural Speech
The new president is famous because of his skill with words; the nation wanted to know how he would use words to frame his thoughts around this moment. Millions of people watched on TV, listened on the radio, witnessed it in person in the nation's capital.

To many, his inaugural speech did not hit it out of the park. Safire felt it lacked a strong theme. The New Republic called it a "disappointing hodgepodge." NY Times writer Roger Cohen was "stirred but not transported."

I saw a different speech. President Obama took the oath of office at a watershed moment in our nation's history, and I saw him give a great speech that painted a vivid picture of where we are right now. His speech included images of slavery ("the lash of the whip"), a tribute to our soldiers who were once and are today at war and a reference to a Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers musical ("pick yourself up, dust yourself off...")

It was American to the core.

Good-Bye to All That
It was remarkable also for its stinging repudiation of the Bush regime:

"...We are ready to lead once more."

"...Our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause..."

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works..."

"...We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

In this speech, President Obama clearly and forcefully stated a farewell to Reaganomics - after 30 years, it has become clear that the rising tide lifted only the prosperous already in the boats. He clearly and forcefully departed from the Bush era tactics of shredding the constitution in order to protect it.

A Revolutionary Influence
Obama comes to Washington from the land of Lincoln. And Lincoln is clearly an influence on our new president. But in ending his speech, he reached further back into our history, reminding us of words used by a man noted, not for words, but for his actions.

George Washington was the "father of our nation," a general who led our troops into battle during the Revolutionary War. He was the first president of our emerging democracy. As one of our Founding Fathers, his most revolutionary action was the simple act of leaving the position of president after two terms, ushering in the remarkable American tradition we witnessed on Tuesday, the peaceful inauguration of a new leader, a tradition that remains strong and vital more than 200 years later.

Washington was also a slave owner. He inhabited a world built by slave labor. And today, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, the descendants of slaves, live in the White House.

We witnessed more than the peaceful transference of power on Inauguration Day.

The March Continues
In the audience on Tuesday were people like U.S. Representative John Lewis, who fought alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the battle for civil rights. In the audience were children who do not know that once in this country, a black boy could be murdered for smiling at a white girl. In the audience were people who cried because a day had come they never thought they would see, a day when a leader was judged for the content of his ideas, not the color of his skin.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 was a day when we came closer to realizing the "self-evident truth" that all are created equal in America.

"The Ground Has Shifted Beneath Them"
And in his speech, President Obama expressed an ideology that is as old as our nation. The beacon of liberty cannot shine when it subverts its values through the use of torture and gulags. Our allegiance to the "ideals of our forbearers" is the source of our strength. A long time ago, some brave and fearless men decided to change how citizens were ruled - and American democracy has done much to influence and change the world for the better.

The Bush era exposed the flaws of our system. The ship needs to be righted. We need to get back on course. We can and should continue to strive to be that "shining city on a hill."

And on Tuesday, President Obama laid the burden of bearing the responsibility for our collective success squarely on the shoulders of everyone.

Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Hope, Dreams and the Sublime Courage of a King

Martin Luther King, Jr. was 39 years old when he was gunned down in April of 1968. A young man with a young family. A preacher. A man of faith. An American citizen who was jailed for acting on his belief in the equality of all men. A forceful advocate for justice. A man who was murdered during the war on racism.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a day set aside to celebrate the life of a remarkable man. King was a man who cautioned against waiting for time to heal the wounds of slavery and racism. He knew that "time was neutral." He understood that the actions of people determined whether time was used constructively or destructively. And in his short time on this earth, King worked tirelessly toward his dream of freedom and equality.

Today, we honor his legacy, his spirit, his dream.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the time-honored American tradition of swearing in a new president. The peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next is a hallmark of our vibrant democracy. And tomorrow, the torch is passed from George Bush, child of privilege and power, to Barack Obama, child of Kansas, Hawaii and Africa.

As of tomorrow, a black man will be the president of the United States. An improbable outcome of an improbable campaign that improbably focused on hope and renewal. As the long campaign progressed, Obama found that his focus on the promise of America was the message that seized the imagination of the American voter. This is nothing new in American politics - the lineage of hope stretches long into our history - it is the message of Jefferson, of Roosevelt, of Reagan, and of course, hope is the message of King.

And what Obama's election tells me is that hope still matters in America. It tells me that this nation is still filled with millions of dreamers who want only what King wanted – that moment King described in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, that moment when "the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty."

Friday, January 16, 2009

The benefits of the Ponzi principle

In this story in today's Wall Street Journal, the people over at the US Treasury department seem to be borrowing heavily from Bernie Madoff's book of finance.

They've decided, those experts over at the Fed, that Bank of America desperately needs billions in federal money to beef up its capital and to fund a guarantee program to limit BofA's future losses.

There's just one catch (to quote Joseph Heller) - the TARP money is all accounted for.

But no problem - the Senate just approved the next round of federal funds - so they'll give BofA money that already has been allocated to other financial institutions - and we'll just make a note that billions of the new funds have already been spent.

Not clear how turning TARP into a Ponzi scheme is going to benefit the economy in the long run. Not clear how tossing money into a clogged system will rescue it. Not clear how TARP is benefiting the nation at all.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Words Matter: The Legacy of Bush

On Tuesday, Barack Obama, a man with a reputation as a master of words and rhetoric and the art of oration, will become the next president of the United States of America. His words at the 2004 Democratic Convention - "there is not a Black America and a White America...there is the United States of America"– catapulted him into the national spotlight. His speech on race will be studied for years to come, and his Inaugural Address is highly anticipated.

George W. Bush, the man who now exits center stage, was never known to be a master with words; in fact, it was just less than a month ago that Karl Rove alerted Wall Street Journal readers that Bush actually enjoyed the act of reading – especially when a contest was involved.

But as we say goodbye to the 43rd president, we have to acknowledge that, like every effective leader, he understood the power words have to influence, to persuade, to shape the actions of people.

So here is an examination of some of the influential words used by Bush to sway the nation over to his point of view...

Compassionate Conservative
As Bush campaigned for the presidency in 2000, he identified himself as a "compassionate conservative." In a White House fact sheet dated April 30, 2002, he defines what this means for him:

"I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results. And with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people's lives."

If you believe at all that the man who inhabits the Oval Office has any power to affect national events, then yes, Bush has made a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans. In the last two months, a million workers lost their jobs; No Child Left Behind created a maze of new education standards for schools to implement but provided little funding to back it up; Bush's decision to preemptively invade Iraq without preparing for a long war has been costly and took valuable resources away from the real war on terror. For most of the Bush era, compassion was lacking.

For many, the true image of Bush's compassionate nature came after Katrina touched land. The president lingered on vacation as the residents of New Orleans suffered the consequences of the worst natural disaster to hit the United States. When he felt compelled to stop cutting brush, he hopped aboard Air Force One for a brief fly-over of the devastation. As a president who made a point of highlighting the importance of compassion, his detached approach to the crisis showed him to be lacking a basic understanding of what it means to be compassionate.

Heck of a Job
It was during the Katrina crisis that Bush uttered some of the most memorable words of his tenure. He patted Mike Brown, the head of FEMA, on the back and claimed that Brownie did a "heck of a job" in the relief effort, when anyone who watched any news during that time could see that the job was not well done at all. Bush's accolades for Mike Brown made the president seem completely clueless and out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Sixteen Words that Made a Big Difference in the World
In his 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush made the 16-word claim that "the British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." We were in the midst of the war on terror that had recently brought down the World Trade Centers; the administration was building a case to declare a preemptive strike on Iraq; the image of a nuclear cloud appearing on the American landscape courtesy of Saddam Hussein was utterly terrifying to most Americans.

We began war on March 20, 2003; Baghdad fell on April 9th; On May 1, while on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush declared "mission accomplished" – that the war in Iraq was finished.

Today, our troops remain in war-torn Iraq; no weapons of mass destruction were ever found; a 2008 bipartisan U.S. senate committee issued a report that concluded the Bush administration misled the country into war. Here's what Senator Jay Rockefeller (D), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had to say on this:

“Before taking the country to war, this Administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the Administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence.

"In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

In other words, the 16 words Bush used in his State of the Union address were a misrepresentation of the available intelligence.

The late night comics have been making fun of Bush's inarticulate manner of speech throughout his presidency. But the real story isn't how he articulated his message; the real story of the Bush presidency is that words matter. It's what you say that counts. And for George W. Bush, his words showed him to be man who said what he didn't necessarily mean and who acted in ways that were at odds with his words. Which brings me to the last word on Bush...

The Decider
In 2006, Bush, in response to growing criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pointed out that "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best." And it is as "the decider" that he will be remembered. Bush is a world leader who decided to take the country into Iraq for reasons that shifted based on what they didn't find over there; he decided to stay on vacation when the people in the Superdome were clearly suffering terribly; he decided to remain a "hands off" president when the financial system was growing mortally ill on his watch. As a self-proclaimed "decider," his words – his actions – his decisions changed the course of this nation. He was a highly effective leader in that he accomplished much of what he said he would do.

And one of the striking lessons he leaves us with is that no mission is accomplished just because a president claims it to be so. Words spoken without the backbone of honesty are meaningless.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Nation's first MBA president proves a bust for economy

"Economy Made Few gains in Bush Years" is a headline from today's Washington Post. According to the story by Neil Irwin and Dan Eggan, the nation's first president with an MBA (from Harvard, to boot!) "has presided over the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades."

The story is filled with gloomy statements that define the Bush era as "as a time of little progress on the nation's thorniest fiscal challenges," and as a period that showed "...the most tepid growth over any eight-year span since data collection began seven decades ago."

The Bush team, with characteristic bravado, claimed pride in their economic accomplishments. Here's what Edward P. Lazear, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted in the article as having recently said:

"It does look like a great eight years, aside from the last quarter, unfortunately. In the long term, things look good. The reason things look good is this economy will rebound, and it will rebound strongly. . . . We expect things to turn around, and I would say early in President Obama's administration."

The Post article counters Lazear's rose-tinted optimism with some dismal statistics:

"The federal government had a modest budget surplus when Bush took office in 2001, but ran a deficit – funding itself to a significant degree with borrowed money – of 4.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2004 and 4 percent in 2005, even as the economy was growing at a healthy pace."

One wonders how many case studies on the economic power of debt Bush studied when completing his Harvard MBA. Not only did he rely on debt to fund the government "even as the economy was growing at a healthy pace," he leaves office throwing billions of dollars of borrowed money at Wall Street firms that paid their executives astonishingly large sums of money to bundle up bad debt into little-understood devices known as credit default swaps and the like.

The crash caused by the nation's dependence on debt in all sectors - manufacturing, governmental, financial and personal, is devastating. People are likening the crash of 2008 to that of the Great Depression. More than a million people have lost jobs in the last few months. During the 2008 holiday season, it was harder to get a seasonal job at Best Buy than it was to become a freshman at Harvard.

And as the nation leaped into the acquisitional frenzy it couldn't afford, it was a Harvard M.B.A. man who held the reins.

In the wrap-up interviews Bush has been doing lately, he appears comfortable with how he feels historians will view his legacy. And his legacy is indeed something for historians to ponder.

The future, however, is something that concerns all Americans. Bush now moves off the world stage, but his presence will be felt for many years to come. The debt he leaves is astronomical, and we will be feeling the weight of it far into the future.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Gaping holes in TARP, says COP

According to a story in today's Wall Street Journal, the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) will issue a report today critical of the Troubled Relief Asset Plan's actions to date. TARP was designed by the Treasury Department to "protect and recapitalize our financial system as we work through the stresses in our credit markets." Today's report, says the Wall Street Journal, calls the bailout effort "mismanaged."

Mismanaged or not, TARP makes me realize that I want to recharter myself as a bank. For it's as a bank that you become a recipient of the TARP's outstanding generosity.

If you look at the organizations that have been granted money from TARP, you see familiar names like Etrade, Goldman Sachs, Capital One, Bank of New York, Northern Trust, Wells Fargo - you can find the list here.

I encourage you to check it out. The list of companies is a list of the money guys - the investment companies that paid out huge salaries to people who ran their companies into the ground last year. The economy collapsed and now these companies are apparently the sole focus of federally funded TARP payouts - which could reach nearly a trillion dollars.

The biggest concern COP continues to express is the lack of accountability for TARP funds. Here's what the the COP report has to say on this:

For Treasury to advance funds to these institutions without requiring more transparency further erodes the very confidence Treasury seeks to restore. Finally, the recent loans extended by Treasury to the auto industry, with their detailed conditions affecting every aspect of the management of those businesses, highlights the absence of any such conditions in the vast majority of TARP transactions. EESA does not require recipients of TARP funds to make reports on the use of funds. However, it is within Treasury’s authority to make such reports a condition of receiving funding....

Detroit, apparently, needs to account for the money, but not Treasury Secretary Paulson's friends on Wall Street.

Another flaw of TARP, according to the report, is that the strategy expressed by Paulson for the funds is far more fluid than the banks being funded - it's a strategy that ebbs, flows and changes course depending the moment in time, like the tide.

Here's what the panel has to say about strategy:

The Panel’s initial concerns about the TARP have only grown, exacerbated by the shifting explanations of its purposes and the tools used by Treasury. It is not enough to say that the goal is the stabilization of the financial markets and the broader economy. That goal is widely accepted. The question is how the infusion of billions of dollars to an insurance conglomerate or a credit card company advances both the goal of financial stability and the well-being of taxpayers, including homeowners threatened by foreclosure, people losing their jobs, and families unable to pay their credit cards....The need for Treasury to address these fundamental issues of strategy has only intensified since our last report.

So with less than two weeks to go before Bush passes the baton to Obama, we find our TARP is riddled with holes. The protection it was to provide is weak if you're a homeowner, a car company, a small business or a college student approaching graduation into the sickest economy since the 1930s.

But if you're a bank or insurance conglomerate, that's a whole different story. For financial institutions on Wall Street, TARP is sweet money that you don't even have to account for.

And so my New Year's resolution is to become a bank, so I can get me some of that federally sponsored protection too. It is, after all, my money.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Roland Rolling Over

As a resident of Illinois, I have absolutely nothing against Roland Burris. I found him to be an adequate public servant, if lacking in inspiration and vision, when he served as the state's Comptroller and Attorney General. I just don't want him to be my senator.

And here, I disagree with august personalities like Senator Diane Feinstein and others who feel that the appointment of Burris is completely legit.

Unfortunately, I don't see his appointment as Illinois' junior senator as anything more than a swindle. In fact, the appointment of Roland Burris only makes me think of Bernie Madoff, the $50 billion brains behind the biggest swindle known to man (thus far.)

Now I categorically do not believe Roland Burris is a swindler - not by any stretch of the imagination. When I say that this situation reminds me of Madoff, it's because of people like Senator Feinstein, who feel that Governor Rod Blagojevich's capacity to choose should not be questioned merely because he has not been found guilty of a crime.

He's only been arrested and charged with attempting to sell this very same senate seat to the highest bidder. In fact, he's been caught on tape blustering about the "this golden thing" (the senate seat) and how he needed to get at least half a mil for it.

And that brings me to Bernie Madoff. Now clearly, Madoff has not been found guilty of any crime just yet. But I highly doubt that Senator Feinstein would hand over even a penny of her money for him to invest. Nor would she think his capacity for handing out investment advice should go unquestioned.

And that's why I don't want Burris to be my senator. I don't want anyone representing me who has been appointed by a man who tried very hard to make money off the seat. Obama's former senate seat is indeed a "golden thing," as are all elected positions - they are golden because they represent the will of the people and not money in the bank for a corrupt politician. Burris should never have let his own ambition get in the way of what's best for Illinois. A senator appointed by the "pay-to-play" governor is not in the best interest of the state.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On the Road to History...

"History takes a long time for us to reach," said George Bush nearly a year ago on a Fox News program. He was referring to the fact that in his mind, there is no way to predict how history will judge his place among presidents.

However, historians have already begun the journey to place this president within the context of history. And today's judgement of Bush's place in history is not good.

According an "unscientific poll of professional historians," more than 98 percent of historians polled view the Bush presidency as a failure. And more than 61 percent view Bush as the worst president in the nation's history.

Bush likes to point to Truman as why he hopes for a more positive place in history. Truman is, after all, the president who is now known to be not nearly as bad as we thought when he left office.

And Bush is right; we have no idea how history will regard the president who turned a budget surplus into an astronomical deficit, who presided over the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, who advocated torture, who remained on vacation after Katrina hit, who launched a pre-emptive war when he sent troops to Iraq during of the War on Terror.

But it's clear that today's historians view him as a failure.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"Bailout for Bonuses!"

Came across this interesting nugget of info in the January '09 edition of Bloomberg Markets magazine, courtesy of columnist Jonathan Weil:

Here's all you need to know to see who lost and who benefitted most at the Five Families of Wall Street, otherwise known as Bear Sterns Cos., Lehman Brothers, Merril Lynch, Goldman and Morgan Stanley. From the start of their 2004 fiscal year through October 20, the big stand-alone investment banks lost about $83 billion of stock market value. During the same period, they reported about $239 billion of employee compensation expense.

So for every dollar of shareholder value destroyed, the employees got paid almost three.

Interesting that compensation on Wall Street seems in recent years to be completely divorced from actual performance.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Thousand Pages – a review of Arthur Schlesinger's journals

Crack open Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952 – 2000, and it’s like opening a window on history right as it is being made. In his life, Schlesinger was many things, historian, teacher, speechwriter, friend, father, husband, author and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Jackson and A Thousand Days.) His journals showcase the intense curiosity and lively intellect that led him to be one of the nation’s most prolific historians.

Journals: 1952 - 2000 was distilled from 6000 pages of notes Schlesinger had left upon his death in 2007. Two of his sons, Andrew and Stephen, were assigned with the task of editing the entries into an abridged version of approximately 1000 pages. The book is lively, conversational, but always one wonders, what has been left out? What nuggets were left on the cutting room floor?

Regardless, the book is fascinating. The age of Schlesinger starts with the Eisenhower administration; at the time, Schlesinger was a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson, the two-time presidential candidate who apparently never really wanted to run (and thus never won.) The book ends as the Bush era commences under the burden of the hanging chad.

In between, Schlesinger observes some of the most significant moments of the time: the Bay of Pigs (as a Kennedy insider), the assassinations of the 1960s, the rise and fall of Nixon, the ascendence of Reagan and the humiliation of Clinton. His list of friends seemed endless and his social calendar was crowded with events that included high jinks at Bobby Kennedy’s Hickory Hill home, friendship with the children of FDR and (improbably) hanging out with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall at one of their parties.

His was an astonishing life and his journals are well worth the read.