Saturday, September 27, 2008

debate review

Well, this one is easy. One candidate had a flag lapel pin. The other one didn't.

Makes it easy to decide who I'm voting for.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

the delicious SS

Check out Sarah Silverman's new ad.

For some reason, Ilse refuses to use her connections to make an introduction. Jimmy's out of the picture! SS would adore me!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Other People's Money

or.. How The Oligarchy Threw Away Free Market Capitalism in Favor of Corporate Welfare

Something has been going on this week. Well, more correctly, something has been going on the past year or so. Ever since the real estate market (predictably!) went south, all sorts of lending institutions have had to deal with bad loans. First, there were the banks themselves. But since the banks had bundled their risky loans and sold them off to investment houses, the bad debts also hit the big investment houses. But that wasn't the end of it. The banks investment houses had gotten the loans insured and so some big insurance companies were in trouble to.

I don't want to rehash all the details here. There are better places to follow the story.

Anyhow, what's happening now? It appears that a lot of rich and powerful people who thought that it was fine and dandy to let people see their houses foreclosed are much less willing to let a bank fail, much less an insurance giant. So, the rich and powerful have decided that the only way out is for the American taxpayer bail them out.

To the tune of $700 billion.

What is shocking is not that Yet Another Bailout of Irresponsible Corporate Leaders has proposed. What is shocking is the instant consensus that This Must Be Done.

Fuck the rich. I get sick of their bullshit.

Anybody who supports this bailout should be required to never again talk about the virtues of "small government" or the need for tax cuts to "stimulate the economy", or any of that right-wing bullshit that has grabbed hold of the Baby Boomer mindset for the past two decades. More than anything else, I'm sick and tired of half-educated twits pretending to understand economics, and then whining about how "unexpected circumstances" led to their decisions to completely fuck over the American taxpayer.

Going back to the beginning: bundling high-risk loans never served to reduce the risk. Not really. One of the basic motivating ideas behind diversifying investments is that, when many high-risk investments are bundled together, the total risk is decreased. However, this theory depends on mutual independence of the risk involved. In the case of high-risk mortgages, it should have been patently obvious that the notion of independent risks was a facade. Indeed, all of the mortgage values depended on the state of the (bubbling!) real estate market, and when the market went down, all of the mortgages became bad debt.

But the really disappointing thing here is the complete acquiescence to the oligarchic view that it is the duty of American taxpayers to hand over $700 billion to the Treasury secretary, for him to use as he sees fit.

The new model for American crony capitalism is: risk whatever the hell you want. If the market bears the risk, you win big time. If it doesn't, and it looks like the industry is in trouble, well, you can just pass on the losses to the American taxpayer.

This isn't capitalism. It is a theory of economic structure that has taken the basic notion of "limited liability" to its obscene logical conclusion.

As usual, it seems the Glenn Greenwald is one of the only people who captures the obscenity of the practice adequately.

...whatever else is true, the events of the last week are the most momentous events of the Bush era in terms of defining what kind of country we are and how we function -- and before this week, the last eight years have been quite momentous, so that is saying a lot. Again, regardless of whether this nationalization/bailout scheme is "necessary" or makes utilitarian sense, it is a crime of the highest order -- not a "crime" in the legal sense but in a more meaningful sense.

What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism -- where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We've retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses. Watching Wall St. erupt with an orgy of celebration on Friday after it became clear the Government (i.e., you) would pay for their disaster was literally nauseating, as the very people who wreaked this havoc are now being rewarded.

More amazingly, they're free to walk away without having to disgorge their gains; at worst, they're just "forced" to walk away without any further stake in the gamble. How can these bailouts not at least be categorically conditioned on the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from those who are responsible? The mere fact that shareholders might lose their stake going forward doesn't resolve that concern; why should those who so fantastically profited from these schemes they couldn't support walk away with their gains? This is "redistribution of wealth" and "government takeover of industry" on the grandest scale imaginable -- the buzzphrases that have been thrown around for decades to represent all that is evil and bad in the world. That's all this is; it's not an "investment" by the Government in any real sense but just a magical transfer of losses away from those who are responsible for these losses to those who aren't.

And all of this was both foreseeable as well as foreseen -- see the 2002 grave warnings from Warren Buffett on pages 14-15 of his shareholders letter (.pdf), among many other things -- and it's also happened before, when the Federal Government bailed out the S&L industry that (with John McCain's help) was able to gamble recklessly and then force the country to protect them from their losses. The people who did this have no fear of anything -- they completely lack the kind of healthy fear that impedes reckless behavior -- because they know how our Government works and that they control it and thus believe that their capacity to suffer is limited in the extreme. And they're right about that.

What's most vital to underscore is that the beneficiaries of this week's extraordinary Government schemes aren't just the coincidental recipients of largesse due to some random stroke of good luck. The people on whose behalf these schemes are being implemented -- the true beneficiaries -- are the very same people who have been running and owning our Government -- both parties -- for decades, which is why they have been able to do what they've been doing without interference. They were able to gamble without limit because they control the Government, and now they're having others bear the brunt of their collapse for the same reason -- because the Government is largely run for their benefit.

If there is any "pitchfork moment" -- an episode that understandably would send people into the streets in mass outrage -- it would be this. Nobody really even seems to know how much of these losses "the Government" -- meaning working people who had no part in the profits from these transactions -- is undertaking virtually overnight but it's at least a trillion dollars, an amount so vast it's hard to comprehend, let alone analyze in terms of consequences. The transactions are way too complex even for the most sophisticated financial analysts to understand, let alone value. Whatever else is true, generations of Americans are almost certainly going to be severely burdened in untold ways by the events of the last week -- ones that have been carried out largely without any debate and mostly in secret.

Final thought: $700 billion is a hell of a lot of money. Let me put this in perspective....usually I compare any spending proposal to the budget of the NIH, an organization I know well. In this case, we're off by an order of magnitude (or two).

How do I place $700 billion? Well....this is more than the defense budget of the United States of America for 2009.

This is highway robbery. Where is this money coming from? Of course, the government is simply increasing its debt ceiling.

Updated 9/25

Apparently a deal is in the works. Pelosi is quite content to fork over $700 billion to the Bush administration to bail out the reckless bank leaders.

This proposal has the support of something like 8-10% of the country! Why on earth are representatives going along with it? And the big concessions that Pelosi is trumpeting are

(a) she didn't go along with the original language, which would have allowed Paulson to write himself a check for $509 billion with no legal recourse whatsoever (duh!)

(b) There is going to be some provision to limit executive pay.

As a taxpayer, I could care less about (b). What I care about is the massive burden being placed on the taxpayer!

I am fairly certain that this is a simple "stick-up" by arrogant bankers with a wish list. "Give us $700 billion or...the world will blow up!"

I cannot support this step. I'm strongly considering re-registering as an Independent again.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Drill, Baby, Drill!

That was the chant sung out at the Republican National Convention. The thinking is that, hey, if we just drill a bit more oil, we'll have enough time to adjust our economy to non-petroleum energy sources.

The lie implicit behind this argument is the notion that the amount of viable out there is in any way significant. Indeed, the person who signed the offshore drilling ban was none other than President George H.W. Bush.

If drilling offshore was such a panacea, why didn't the Republicans think of it back in 2001, when Republicans controlled all branches of government, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were instituting every government change requested by Cheney's energy task force?

There just isn't that much oil to be had any more. The naive attitude, so cheerfully articulated by Paris Hilton and John McCain, would have been appropriate, say, back in the late 70s.

Back when Jimmy Carter tried to get the country off the addiction of oil. And saw his policies laughed off the political stage by Ronald "Don't Worry, Be Happy" Reagan.

In any case, it is hard to discuss the oil issues, and more generally the energy issues, without discussing the relative low character of the filthy rich individuals involved.

Our latest example of the "Drill Baby Drill" mentality was exposed today when the Inspector General released a report about 13 employees of the Bush Department of the Interior who have taken the notion of "fraternizing with industry contacts" about as far as humanly possible.

These kinds of revelations, and the revelations about what we know Enron did back in 2001, make me laugh at the people who casually dismiss any talk of market manipulation in the oil futures market which may have led to the enormous increases in gas prices this year (up, what, 33% in a 12-month period?)

But, sure enough, prices will be down in time for the election.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Brady on IR

From the Globe:

The Patriots just released the following statement regarding Tom Brady:

"After extensive tests this morning, it was revealed that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's left knee, which was injured in the first quarter of yesterday's game, will require surgery. He will be placed on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the 2008 season."

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hamlet 2 - Rock Me Sexy Jesus

I saw Hamlet 2 yesterday, and it's pretty good.

Steve Coogan plays high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (pronounced 'Mar-sc-t-z' as a four-syllable word) who produces the high school play at a school in Tuscon every year. He is frustrated because he realizes his talent does not quite live up to his love of the craft, and he is beleagured by the harsh reviews in the local paper. The high school paper. Whose critic is a 14-year old boy, who seems to know more about drama than Dana does.

The current trimester opens with a bunch of new 'ethnic' students (the film's word, not mine) joining the two loyal drama geeks in Dana's one course, which is taught in the school cafeteria, where the lunch ladies are unpacking the food in the background. Following the advice of his critic, Dana decides to write his own play: Hamlet 2.

The thinking behind Hamlet 2 is that Hamlet is just a bit too sad. Dana finds it too sad that everybody is dead at the end of Hamlet. How do you fix that? With a time machine! And Jesus comes along to help! The plot starts in current day, where Jesus has a "swimmer's bod", hence "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus", the play's musical medley. And the play goes from there.

When Dana cuts down the lines of Laertes, who's played by his male drama geek, Rand (played by Skylar Astin) and also makes Laertes "bi-curious", this sets off a chain of events leading to the school banning the play. And that gets the attention of the local press. And that gets the attention of the ACLU.

At this point, the plot is clear, and it's what you expect from the film trailers. But the trailers are misleading: this is more than a film filled with offensive bits designed to tweak the Religious Right. I think the advertising for this film doesn't do it justice. Steve Coogan does a really good job making Dana Marschz into a consistent, believable character. The supporting cast is good, too, esp. the high school kids, and Elizabeth Shue has a nice bit in a supporting role playing herself (well, kind of).

Steve Coogan has been a big deal in the UK for quite some time. He's excellent at developing interesting, off-beat characters in comedy. He's had small roles in "Night at the Museum" and "Tropic Thunder", but he really presents a great work here. It's too bad that it's gotten drowned by a misguided advertising campaign and a reactionary ostrich campaign by the religious right, who completely overreact to the way Jesus plays a role in this film.

The film is more about bad art than about religion. It's a celebration of the idea that anybody can be creative, and about overcoming negative voices. (Actual human voices - not psychosis, as Dana explains.) Also, it's interesting watching Steve Coogan at work. With comedy, a lot of the value comes from expectation, and when comedy doesn't follow the lines that the audience expects, often people do not react well to it. Sometimes when I'm watching Steve Coogan, or Simon Pegg, or Ricky Gervais, or the ensemble comedy 'Green Wing', I'm confused by the feeling that I don't know where it is going. I pretty much never have that feeling with American comedies. At first this is disorienting, but I've really come to like it.

From box office returns, it looks like Hamlet 2 won't be in theaters long. I hope it will have a good life on cable and on DVD. It should be around for years on Comedy Central, like "Best in Show".

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Quick NFL picks

AFC East:
Pats 12-4
Bills 8-8
Jets 6-10
Fins 3-13

AFC North
Steelers 10-6
Browns 9-7
Ravens 7-9
Bengals 4-12

AFC South
Colts 11-5
Jags 11-5
Titans 9-7
Texans 7-9

AFC West
Chargers 12-4
Broncos 8-8
Raiders 5-11
Chiefs 3-13

NFC East
Cowboys 12-4
Eagles 10-6
Giants 10-6
Redskins 6-10

NFC North
Packers 12-4
Vikings 10-6
Bears 6-10
Lions 4-12

NFC South
Bucs 10-6
Saints 8-8
Panthers 8-8
Falcons 5-11

NFC West
Seahawks 11-5
Cardinals 7-9
49ers 6-10
Rams 4-12

Wildcard weekend
Jags over Steelers
Colts over Browns

Vikings over Seahawks
Eagles over Bucs

Pats over Colts
Chargers over Jags (just to mix things up)

Packers over Vikings
Eagles over Cowboys

Conf. championships
Eagles over Packers
Pats over Chargers

Super Bowl
Pats over Eagles

Yeah, I noticed while filling out the playoff bracket that I'm falling into the trap of picking last year's winners by and large. So I changed a tiebreaker to dump the Giants. :)

These will look like terrible picks by the end of the sesaon, I'm sure.