Saturday, January 30, 2010

Proud of a Friend - Haiti...

Rough Fractals' friend, the Doctor, sent us the following report from Haiti where he arrived yesterday...

"If being out of your comfort zone is a good thing than I am golden. It is a Mash unit here with US Navy helicopters ferrying in patients and unbelievable stories of hardship, injury and death. The little hospital is primitive and overwhelmed. I am a little out of practice doing the type of medicine I am seeing. Lots of amputations and postoperative wound infections. There is a team of 4 pediatricians that are leaving tomorrow, being replaced by myself and one Peds ER nurse. Hope she's a good one with a sense of humor. At the moment this is the best hospital in the country and it is tiny and poorly equipped. The Haitians are lovely, they bathe and feed the injured. They give of their meager rations and care for complete strangers. This is the poorest place I have ever seen."

Not to bring something extraneous into this (I think it is enough to just be proud of a friend) but I wonder what Al Qaeda or any of the people who have come to believe that the West represents pure evil make of the response to the tragedy in Haiti. Do they notice? What do they make of such an outpouring of compassion? Do they not see it, do they not believe it? Do any believers question the myopic views and lessons of hate they are being taught in light of the evidence?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Time will tell...(the state of the union)

Too bleak for me but definitely pushes my fear that I am in denial button because I still like Obama despite these legitimate gripes and believe that his (Obama's) better strategic and principled self will rise to the challenge. I would like to think that his (Obama's) shortcomings thus far are due to getting his presidential sea legs (one year is way too short a time to judge a Presidency). In any event, I think Mr. Green's apocalyptic vision for the future is plausible but unlikely. I also think his list of things he would like Obama to do are unrealistic and somewhat tone deaf to the possible. Idealism is one thing but to rant about not accomplishing the absolutely impossible under the best of circumstances goes too far and I think undermines the one real chance progress has seen in 10 years.

Published on Friday, January 22, 2010 by

How to Squander the Presidency in One Year

Hey, Conan Obama: How About Now? Can You Hear Us Now?

by David Michael Green

There's only one political party in the entire world that is so inept, cowardly and bungling that it could manage to simultaneously lick the boots of Wall Street bankers and then get blamed by the voters for being flaming revolutionary socialists.
It's the same party that has allowed the opposition to go on a thirty year scorched earth campaign, stealing everything in sight from middle and working class voters, and yet successfully claim to be protecting ‘real Americans' from out-of-touch elites.
It's the same party that could run a decorated combat hero against a war evader in 1972, only to be successfully labeled as national security wimps.
Just to be sure, it then did the exact same thing again in 2004.
It's the same party that stood by silently while two presidential elections in a row were stolen away from them.
How ‘bout dem Dems, eh?
One year ago today, there was real question as to what could possibly be the future of the Republican Party in America. That's changed a bit now.
And, speaking of ‘change', the one kind that Barack Obama did actually deliver this year was not that which most voters had in mind after listening to him use the word incessantly, all throughout 2008. Obama and his colleagues have now managed to bring the future of the Democratic Party into question, just a year after it won two smashing victories in a row.
Personally, I'm not real bothered by that. Today's Democrats are, almost without exception, embarrassing hacks who deserved to get stomped a long time ago.
What really upsets me, however, is what these fools have allowed to be done to the name of progressivism, and to the country.
Barack Obama has now, in just a year's time, become the single most inept president perhaps in all of American history, and certainly in my lifetime. Never has so much political advantage been pissed away so rapidly, and what's more in the context of so much national urgency and crisis. It's astonishing, really, to contemplate how much has been lost in a single year.
It was hilarious, of course, when Michelle Bachmann invoked the Charge of the Light Brigade at a rally against "Obama's" (has he ever really owned it?) health care "initiative" (isn't that too strong a word to use?), quite oblivious to the fact that the actual historical event was one of history's greatest debacles. Obama, on the other hand, seems to be actually reliving the famous cock-up in the flesh. Except, of course, that he doesn't really "charge" at anything. He just talks about things, thinks about things a real long time, defers to others on things, and waits around for things to maybe happen.
This week, though, something actually did happen. Alas, not precisely what the president had in mind, however.
But the election in Massachusetts was only slightly less inevitable than the sun rising in the east each morning. It was the product of an amazing collection of abysmal choices and practices over the last year that has produced a meltdown of equally amazing proportions for this president and his party. It is fitting that it comes on the anniversary of the president's inauguration, a moment filled with so much hope for so many just a year ago.
What has Obama - this Conan O'Brien of presidents - done wrong in order to produce this devastating outcome? The short answer is: Just about everything imaginable.
More specifically:
* He does not lead. Americans, especially in times of crisis, want their daddy-president to pick a point on the horizon and lead them to it. Often - especially in the short term - they don't even care that much which point it is. They will happily follow a president whose policies they oppose if he will but lead.
* And if he will demonstrate some conviction. I have never seen a president so utterly lacking in passion. This man literally doesn't even seem to care about himself, let alone this or that policy issue. He doesn't seem to have any strong opinions on anything, a sure prescription for presidential failure.
* He has therefore let Congress ‘lead' on nearly every issue, another surefire mistake. Instead of demanding that they pass real stimulus legislation - which would have really stimulated the economy, big-time, and right now - he let those dickheads on the Hill just load up a big pork party blivet of a bill with all the pet projects they could find, designed purely to benefit their personal standing with the voters at home, rather than to actually produce jobs for Americans. And on health care, his signature issue, he did the same thing. "You guys write it, and I'll sign the check." Could there possibly be a greater prescription for failure than allowing a bunch of the most venal people on the planet to cobble together a 2,000 page monstrosity that entirely serves their interests and those of the people whose campaign bribes put them in office?
* Well, yes, now that you mention it. If you really want to bring your government crashing to the ground, why not spend endless months negotiating with vicious thugs, who will never vote for your legislation anyhow, because they are so entirely devoted to your destruction that they're willing to call you a granny murderer? What a great and winning strategy!
* Another possible strategic move even stupider than deferring to Congress to write major legislation is to cozy up with the least popular people on the planet - including, in fact, the real-life granny killers. Got an economy that is so raw it's leaving thousands in literal peril of losing their lives? Why not draft some legislation to bail-out the people who created that mess and guarantee that they retain their multimillion dollar bonuses?!?! You know, the same folks who are always talking about how great capitalism is and how important it is to take risks! The same ones who are always telling us how awful the government is - the same government that saved them from extinction. Those folks. That's right, bail out with outrageous bonuses the very people who need it least and who caused billions of people around the planet to suffer, while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves! That'll raise your presidential job approval ratings every time! And while you're at it, bring in the much beloved health insurance and pharmaceutical corporate lobbyists, and negotiate a deal with them to craft your high profile health care legislation! What voter can't get behind that?
* Another brilliant presidential tactic is to be such a Mr. Happy Nice Face that you acknowledge no enemies for the country, or even yourself. Not the health care corporate vampires who suck the blood out of Americans from San Diego to Bangor, providing absolutely no value-added health service whatsoever, while denying treatment to deathly ill human beings at every opportunity, all to rake in billions more in profits. Not the reckless pirates on Wall Street who bet all our money on insane gambles that wrecked the global economy, took government bail-out money to survive, and yet are still drowning in bonuses as rewards. Not the Republican Party who spent three decades downsizing the middle class, plunging the country into wars based on lies, deregulating every protection in sight, fattening up corporate cronies, wrecking the environment, trashing the Constitution and polarizing the country politically. And not even a catastrophic climate disaster speeding toward the planet with relentless determination. No! We must all be happy and talk nice! No bad guys. Not even the bad guys can be bad guys.
* While you're at it, if you're trying to run the most failed presidency ever, a really good idea is to campaign in the grandest terms possible, and then deliver squat. You know, talk about bending the arc of history. Invoke Martin Luther King's dream and his struggles and even those of the slaves. Ring the big bells of generational calling. Remind voters every thirty seconds that the country badly needs "Change!". Then get elected and turn around and continue the policies of your hated predecessor in every meaningful policy area. Only with less conviction. People will love that.
* A related brilliant move is to mobilize a giant army of passionate volunteers dedicated to putting you in the White House, and then do nothing with them once you get there, other than taking them completely for granted and never calling upon them to do anything in support of your agenda. Be sure to deflate their enthusiasm in every way possible.
* Even more importantly, if you're trying to run your presidency into the ground you'll definitely want to avoid mobilizing the general public behind your agenda. To make sure that you don't repeat the great legislative victories of FDR or LBJ or (unfortunately) Reagan or (really unfortunately) Little Bush, never use their method of appealing directly to the people. Never express your legislative program as a moral imperative, a great calling to the nation. Never attempt to rally the public behind your cause. Never express any urgency. And never call upon them to demand that Congress pass your bills. Then, you can rest assured they won't!
* And let's take it up a whole ‘nuther level, while we're on the subject. A successful president is one who articulates a strong and compelling narrative for the nation. So, in your quest to avoid rising even to mediocrity, be sure to leave a great big gaping canyon where that whole narrative thing is supposed to go. No New Deal, no Great Society, no New Frontier or War on Terror for you. Nope! Just a thousand little projects with little non-solutions to big problems. Hey, why not inject yourself into Cambridge, Massachusetts community police politics while you're at it! Or the New York State Democratic Party gubernatorial primary! Or you could deliberate for weeks about which breed of dog to get for your kids! That's a great use of the president's political capital!
* As long as you're walking away from the grand narrative, why not let the opposition define you as well? Let them say anything imaginable about you, and never respond. You're a socialist! No, you're a fascist! No, you're both! At the same time, no less! You're a granny killer! You're not really even an American! You're taking over the US for the Muslims! You're a massive taxer and spender! You're running around the world, apologizing for America everywhere you go! No worries. Just remember the golden rule, and your presidency is sure to sink: Never engage, never respond, never preempt, never attack, never fight back.
* In general, you'll also want to take the most important power the president has - the bully pulpit - and totally piss it away. Appear everywhere at once, all the time, saying lots of nice words, about a thousand different issues. But never with passion, never with compelling simplicity, never with repetition, and never with urgency. Pretty soon you'll turn being everywhere into being nowhere. Everyone one will tune out your ubiquitous self. Give up the high moral ground which is the most important asset of the office you hold, and you'll make sure that no one ever listens to you anymore. You will persuade the public of nothing. Except that you are irrelevant.
* But you can do better still. Help your enemies, so that they can crush you more effectively! Start by not even realizing they are your enemies. Then, treat them with greater respect than your friends, even though they've run the country over a cliff. Defer to them at every opportunity. Consult with them even as they insult you to your face. Allow them to run Congress, even though they have small minorities in both houses. Never force them to vote against simple, popular legislation. Never call their bluffs. Never associate them with the destruction they've caused. Never label them the treasonous hypocritical liars that they are. Help them to resuscitate the comatose near-corpse of their political party, just before it's about to die, so it can rise up and savage you.
* Another great trick for crashing a presidency is to pick all the wrong priorities to ‘fight' for. Imagine, for example, if FDR had substituted for his ‘Day of Infamy' speech right after Pearl Harbor a ringing call for an American revolution in cobbler technology! Yes, that's right, in response to the devastating surprise attack by the armed forces of the Empire of Japan, what if the president urgently called upon us all to start making really amazing shoes?! Before it's too late, and we all get blisters on our feet! Similarly, Mr. Obama, your spending the last year on (jive) health care and jetting around the world dipping your toes into foreign policy problems while Americans are losing their jobs and their houses is a fine way to kill your presidency. Guaranteed to work every time.
* And, finally, perhaps the most important thing one can do - and the thing that helps explain many of the other items above - is to adopt really, really pathetic policies. If you're doing a stimulus bill, for example, make sure that it's too little money, not targeted at real stimulative levers in the economy, costs a lot, doesn't kick in for a year or two, gives away about a third of the money to ineffective pet projects for Republican while none of them vote for it anyhow, and leaves the unemployment rate stuck at a miserable ten percent. Or, if you're doing a bail-out of the banks for the purpose of producing the liquidity essential to restarting the economy, let them take bonuses as big as they want, and don't actually require that they loan out to anyone the money you've given them. Or, how about spending nearly all your political capital on ‘health care' legislation, which is really an insurance company boondoggle bill instead? That's really what the people want, eh? No wonder Obama's not out there writing the narrative, fighting the good fight or crushing his enemies. Even he can't get excited about his own priorities, so extraordinarily abysmal are they.
All of this represents the best prescription I can imagine for wrecking a presidency, and Obama has followed it with exacting precision. Indeed, doing so would appear to be his only real passion. It's almost as if he were a Republican sleeper politician in some party politics version of the Manchurian Candidate, planted to arise on cue and destroy the Democratic Party from within.
And thus - while anything's possible, of course - I am hard pressed to see how the Obama administration is anything but finished. Consider his options from here.
He could turn to the right, like Clinton did in 1994. But the first problem is that he's already there. If you look carefully at his policies, he is basically running George Bush's third term. Regressives (conveniently) forget that. They call him weak on national security, even while he dramatically escalates the war in Afghanistan, hardly draws down in Iraq, breaks his own promise to close Gitmo, and smashes through the $700 billion mark in military spending for the first time, not even counting Afghanistan's costs. They ignore his Bush-cloned policies on state secrets, renditions, executive power and other civil liberties issues. They forget that Bush's health care bill was far more socialistic and far more fiscally irresponsible than Obama's, and that his bail-outs and stimulus actions were almost identical. So, in short, for Obama to turn to starboard at this point would literally require him to outflank the GOP to its right. Moreover, the Limbaughs and Becks and Palins would still excoriate him, no matter what. Worse still, such policies would only make the lives of ordinary Americans a lot worse, just as they have been doing for thirty years now. So what could be gained by a turn to the right?
Second, he could go small-bore, as Clinton also did in the 1990s. But, of course, these aren't the 1990s. FDR didn't win four terms during a Great Depression and a world war by focusing on school uniforms and V-chips. This is not the 1930s or 1940s, but it's close. People are hurting, frightened and angry. Obama is suffering badly already because he is not addressing their very tangible concerns. More of the same policy-wise will produce more of the same politically. Going this route, he'd be lucky if the public was kind enough to let him finish his single term as a James Buchanan wannabe, then go home.
The obvious solution, of course, would be a sharp turn to the left. Go where the real solutions are. Fight the good fight. Call liars ‘liars' and thieves ‘thieves'. Do the people's business. Become their advocate against the monsters bleeding them dry. Create jobs. Build infrastructure. Do real national health care. End the wars. Dramatically slash military spending. Produce actual educational reform. Launch a massive green energy/jobs program. Get serious about global warming. Kick ass on campaign finance reform. Fight for gay rights. Restore the New Deal era regulatory framework and expand it. Restore a fair taxation structure. Rewrite trade agreements that undermine American jobs. Rebuild unions. Fill the spate of vacancies in the federal judiciary, and load those seats up with progressives. Rally the public to demand that Congress act on your agenda. Humiliate the regressives in and out of the GOP for their abysmal sell-out policies.
All of this could be done, and most of it would be very popular, especially if it was backed by an aggressive and righteously angry Oval Office advocate for the people who knew how to use the bully pulpit to shape the narrative, to market ideas, and to mobilize public support.
But I doubt Obama has anything like the constitution for that sort of presidency. I think his personal disposition is so strongly controlling of his politics that he would rather preside as a three year lame-duck over a failed one-term presidency, than actually throw an elbow or two and make anyone uncomfortable. Think how unpleasant it would be.
Moreover, by blundering during the only chance he'll ever have at introducing his presidency, he's now created an additional set of problems for himself which may well be insurmountable, even if he were to now try to live up to his campaign billing. He needs Democratic votes in Congress to do much of anything, but they're all focused on the looming tsunami of next November. The very same people who might have swallowed hard and reluctantly followed the lead of inspirational new president Obama one year ago, today will join everyone else in the world and spit in the eye of useless, feeble, washed-up Barack. He's got zero leverage over his own party in Congress now. As for the public, it's gonna be pretty hard to now market himself as the great enemy of the people's enemies, when he's just finished a year of making secret sweetheart deals that benefit Wall Street bankers, health insurance pirates, and pharmaceutical predators, all while leaving his own base and the public he's supposed to be serving out in the rain. Politicians can reinvent themselves, but you need time and there are certain limits of plausibility that cannot be ignored, any more than you can ignore the laws of physics.
Of course, I don't give a shit about Barack Obama anymore, other than my desire that really ugly things happen to him as payment in kind for the grandest act of betrayal we've seen since Benedict Arnold did his thing. But what about the country?
Not so good there, either, I'm afraid. What happens when you have two parties to choose from, and one of them wrecks the country with dramatically evil policies so radical even backward America hates them, but then you turn to the other party, which spends an entire year on the campaign trail promising change, only to turn out nearly identical to the first lot when in government? What do you do?
One option is to find another party. To some extent that is happening, but absolutely not where it should be. The tea partyers are the ‘alternative' vision for salvation in today's America. (Very) unfortunately, they are not alternative in any sense, have almost no coherent vision whatsoever, and - as the possible third right-wing party for voters to choose from, out of three, obviously offer zero salvation whatsoever. All the tea party lunatics seem to know is that they don't like taxes and they don't like federal spending. But they can't even tell you what they'd cut if they actually controlled the government. My guess is that it would be nothing, just like the Republicans before them, or else they'd slash entitlement spending, which would surely make them one of the flashiest flashes ever to get royally panned by the public.
The other option, which the voters are now exercising, is to continue a process begun in 2006 of voting for the party which is not the party in power. Today, that means Republicans, as witnessed in Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts. The absurdity of this, of course, is that it was these exact same people who created this astonishingly thorough mess we find ourselves in. What is Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or Sarah Palin going to do for Americans who don't have jobs? Cut taxes they no longer pay (and thus also further increase the national debt, by the way)? What will they do for those same folks who've lost their health insurance? Kill Democratic plans, even when they're nothing but corporate giveaways anyhow?
Americans will simply be more sick, more broke and more unemployed two, four or six years from now than they are at this moment, if they put the Republicans back in control of the government.
Of course, there's one other possibility, which is that this time the Cheney Party goes balls-to-the-wall, bringing down on our heads a full-on fascist dictatorship, serving corporate interests in total, and likely launching a couple of good wars abroad to complement the complete repression of dissent and freedom of expression at home.
Ridiculous? I try pretty hard every day - and it takes some work - to keep my most apocalyptic totalitarian nightmares for this country in check. But think about this chronological sequence for a second: The Democrats get killed in November for doing nothing while the public suffers. But they are still seen as the party in power in 2012, so they get killed even worse, with Obama sent packing and Palin or her equivalent moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the new radical GOP regime's policies are even more detrimental to voters than Bush's or Obama's. Maybe the public is distracted for a year or two by some bullshit foreign policy ‘crisis' or another, but pretty soon they're getting real restless. After about six years now of suffering badly, they're getting real surly, and ‘anti-incumbent' doesn't begin to describe the mood of the country. Now they really want some serious change.
Of course, anything can happen - but which part of that sequence seems improbable? And if the answer is none, then the salient question becomes: What does the regime do at that point, faced with an angry mob? What are the Dick Cheneys and Sarah Palins of this world committed to? What are they capable of when pressed?
I don't think those questions really require a response. I think we all know pretty well the answers.
This is the country that Obama - the great Hope guy - is bequeathing us.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

God numbers each one of our tears...

I received this note from an anonymous friend who has a kid struggling with addiction. Like so many, she wonders how did she get here and where will it lead. I know her (my friend) pretty well and am certain that she will stay the course. Her son has taught her the value of that ...

"I am so sad to tell you all that, after 9 months, my 17 year old son is no longer in Rehab. He left yesterday after struggling since the holidays. In recent weeks, he just has been unwilling or unable to comply with the program. I believe the staff has done everything they could to help him, but as we all know, we just cannot make the choices for our children. So they asked him to leave.

This time in Rehab has not been a failure— our son has grown and learned and matured, and takes away with him a great deal that I hope will help him in the years to come. And I have learned so much in the time he has been there, that will equip me to face the future with this child. I am grateful for that, too.

This is all so sad for me as his parent and I feel this loss very keenly. Another loss in years of losses. But God numbers each one of our tears. And despite this setback, I feel that I am still a part of a community, united with other parents who are going through these very difficult experiences with our children. I will continue to share what I have learned, in the hopes that it will support and encourage others, as other parents have supported and encouraged me.

My self sustaining mantra is: hang in there, stay the course, never give up hope."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Seeing each other through tiny keyholes...

I happened to watch the movie, Adam, recently. Adam is an autistic adult with aspergers syndrome who struggles in the world of normal social intercourse. He is also a science wiz. One of the science facts that fascinates him is that, according to the Big Bang Theory, the entire universe was created out of a very small amount of matter that weighed less than 20 lbs and all matter was formed in less then one second to the negative 39th power. The Universe continues to expand at more than the speed of light (the universe itself is moving faster than the speed of light - it is just things within the universe that cannot travel faster that the speed of light).

This bit of science fact as well as the theme of the movie - "autistic or not, communication of who we are (deep down) is a daunting task (which I would point out in the Hollywood version of reality Adam does better than many despite his syndrome (or maybe even because of it) made me think of this passage from the story "Good Old Neon" by David Foster Wallace.

"...You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny key holes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.".

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Election Day

If Scott Brown wins in Massachusetts, which appears likely, there will no longer be a filibuster proof majority in the senate. Despite the grim reality of losing a Democratic seat in Massachusetts, there is one small silver lining. The administration no longer has to spend all its capital keeping Joe Leiberman and Ben Nelson happy. Leiberman will lose his power to be a one man wrecking crew and Obama will just have to go to the mat for what he believes in and let it be filibustered. He may lose many more seats next November, and it is clear that staying popular with massive unemployment is impossible. But catering and caving to Joe and Ben has had a cost, and the proof is in Massachusetts.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dear Toyota of America...

Dear Toyota of America:

I am a longstanding customer of both Toyota Sales and of the Service Department at my local dealer where I service my 1996 and 2007 Camrys. I am an appreciative customer and am pleased with the service with one almost paradoxical exception. As I do my final paperwork at the cashier I am always asked to fill in a survey and am politely told that any mark short of "excellent" (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) is considered "poor". I say this is paradoxical because, but for this request, I would be inclined to check "5" but the request itself brings my evaluation down one notch from excellent.

I understand your dilemma. Your excellent service department holds themselves to a very high standard (e.g. "excellent"). Anything short of that is in their eyes "poor" (although I would argue that the occasional "4" or even a "3", for example, indicating that the coffee in the waiting room was not hot or that the one donut left in the Dunkin' Donuts box was left over from yesterday (based on its staleness) or that despite a promise that my car would be ready at 3:00 PM it was not ready until 6:00 PM might actually be of assistance in your never ceasing efforts to enhance your already really fantastic performance. (By the way, kudos to your graphic designers for that really catchy "customer satisfaction" poster that you rightly and proudly display prominently in your service area indicating that 99% of your customers rate your service "excellent").

I understand that service businesses (especially those in the much beleaguered and maligned auto industry) are complicated and that much of what goes into running your business is simply beyond the ken of an average consumer such as myself but I know you appreciate all input from your customers especially those of us who are loyal and very satisfied with your excellent service.


Rough Fractals

PS. I thought you might appreciate this really funny thing that recently happened to me at your shop which I tell all my friends about and that they also think is really funny. At my most recent service I had my tires rotated. By total coincidence, I thought I might have a slow leak in one of my tires so I had put an "X" on the tire (rear passenger side) in chalk to remind me to ask about it. Of course I forgot until after my car was returned to me and I paid the bill (including the $49 charge for rotating the tires). In any event, I thought well since I am here, I might was well ask about the slow leak so when I got the car back I circled the car to find the tire with the "X" on it to see where it had been moved in the rotation and funnily enough it was still in the same rear passenger side position. I asked my service rep about this and he asked me to wait in the waiting room (and have a donut and cup of coffee) while he looked into it. He informed me that the technician had run out of time (it being close to 6:00 PM and the car had been promised for a 3:00 PM release) and so he did not get to rotate the tires and had (funnily enough) mistakenly checked the "done" box instead of the "not done" box. Isn't that a riot!!! I think they call that Murphy's Law. It's almost like what I for one think happened with this whole financial crisis thing. I mean everyone wants to blame the banks and cut back on Wall Street bonuses. I say if it wasn't for auto and banking innovation what shape would the American economy be in right now? Funny huh?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Meditations On Bank Regulatory Hearings...

I found the banker regulatory meetings yesterday very interesting and almost metaphysical.

The Bankers are of the view that they cannot be said to have been wrong (looking back) given that the market priced the risk at the time within the then probability parameters even if (in the future) they (the Bankers) turned out to have mis-understood the risk. Put another way, how can Congress claim that the past assessment of risk was "wrong" simply because the low probability (yet possible) downside did in fact (we now know) materialize?

This is why Blankfein used hurricanes as a metaphor - if a giant hurricane only happens once every 100 years (on average) should you asses the risk based on the fact that it could just as likely happen next year as not? Over time what does "risk" really mean? How do you quantify probabilities given that in the future the outcome becomes known and is therefore "certain" (e.g. what in the past was in fact a 1 in 100 hundred chance did occur (i.e., it happened).

As I listened to the philosophical musings of Messers. Dimon, Blankfein, Mack and Moynahan I wondered; is our perception of risk somehow influencing the very nature of the risk in and of itself? Is risk a special category that because we can only perceive it through our own time limited, mathematical perception, by definition, misunderstood? Does risk really exist outside of our human perception as a special a priori category that if we could only dislodge its apperception from our senses we could see it in its pure (i.e., true, timeless and accurate) state (i.e., Pure Risk)?

I was thinking about the Congressional hearings at great length when I fell asleep and had a dream. When I awoke from that dream for one second I was not sure if I was dreaming or awake and could not distinguish between my waking state and my dream state. I wondered upon awaking more fully, how do I know that I am now awake sitting at my desk or rather that I am some other creature dreaming that it is me sitting at this desk and in the dream I simply think that I am me? At that moment I realized that my perception of "me" is limited at all times to my own self perception and therefore is of little help to me in determining the nature of things as they truly are but merely useful in determining things as I perceive them to be. As I thought through the implications of this I realized that no matter what my own self apperception (i.e., dreaming or awake) I must exist. For if I do not exist there could not be a "me" who is awake or a "me" who is dreaming.

The implications of this on our banking system were immediately apparent to me - for in applying this same principle to my Critique of Pure Risk I realized that Banco Capital Riego Ergo Inadequato, meaning: inadequate capital allocation requirements relative to risk was the main regulatory and industry failure which inadequacy was delusionaly thought to be OK by the very people in charge of determining capital adequacy requirements. Those delusions were egged on by compensation systems designed by the deluded to maximize pay off if the dream became real. This resulted in a nightmare.

In other words - "Banks take risk therefore they need way more capital than they/we think". This is the apriori nature of risk.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Armed Tea Party

There is an explicit threat coming from the Tea Party Movement: The use of armed force will be the next logical stage of action if the country continues in the direction the President and the Democratic Congress are leading it. Carrying assault style weapons and powerful holstered pistols is normal and accepted at Tea Party events.

As far as I can remember, The Black Panther Party was the last organized movement on a national scale to advocate armed struggle, and demonstrate openly carrying weapons. Black men in berets carrying rifles were the object of massive FBI infiltration and the murder or imprisonment of its leadership. This new movement holds armed rallies with members of congress cheering them on. The fun-loving Tea Party militants are all the rage.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Best List of 2009

Author David Foster Wallace wrote a list of things he said you learn in Rehab. I think the Rehab part is irrelevant - they are all equally learnable outside of rehab. (My favorites (because they have been the hardest for me to learn) are the first and the last items on the list):

What You Learn From A Substance Recovery Clinic...

That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. Then that most non-addicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on.

That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

That sleeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abused.

That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it.

That loneliness is not a function of solitude.

That (both a relief and a kind of an odd let-down) black penises tend to be the same general size as white penises, on the whole.

That cliquey alliance and exclusion and gossip can be forms of escape.

That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agenda-less kindness.

That 99% of compulsive thinkers' thinking is about themselves. That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking.

That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.

That you don't have to hit somebody even if you really really want to.

That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.

The shopworn "Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure" would seem to have been custom-designed for the case of tattoos.

That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.

That if you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way shape or form trying to get credit for it, it's almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.

That everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.

That AA and NA does not apparently require that you believe in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you.

That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Best (to me) essay read in 2009...

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude - but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete ...

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues". This is not a matter of virtue - it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home - you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job - and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

Or if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks ...

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

· Adapted from the commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College, Ohio.


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