Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not Really Helping

Even though Hillary Rosen is right, she's not really helping matters much by pointing out the elitism of the Romney family.
It's true that Mitt has said he relies on his wife's viewpoint in the area of women's concerns. It may be idiotic, since as Rosen points out, she's not exactly your typical soccer mom, raising a couple of kids while scurrying around to take care of her aging parents AND holding down a job.
There are funnier, less subtle and far more damning ways of pointing out the Romney's incapacity to be as in touch as even the Bush family was.

Speaking Truth To Power

First, we need to establish a definiton: what is power?
The smartest political analyst I know once defined power as the capacity to make someone do something without resorting to force (this analyst also wrote one of the most prescient books on the American political system I've ever read. He was also one of my college professors and mentors.)
As we round into Occupy Spring, I want to quickly overview one of the problems inherent in the American system that make speaking truth to power nearly meaningless.
You read that correctly, but don't lose hope. Let me continue.
In various walks of life, you have people who are actors: politicians, businessmen, opinion makers, the guy who owns the dry cleaner.
Other things being equal, there are two forces operating on these folks: greed and responsibility. Some people will err towards responsibility when possible, others will err towards greed. Most of these decisions are pretty understandable, even the ones made with greed as the objective. It's when things get unbalanced that troubles arise.
When trying to speak truth to power, it's important to keep this in mind, because among the many obstacles that will be thrown in front of you, this dynamic will be the hardest one to overcome. Power is a powerful lure, while truth is, frankly, a pain in the ass.
If you want to put this metaphorically, you have this cartoon archetype of an angel and a devil sitting on the character's shoulder, filling the ears with reasons to do or not do something. Or if you need something a little more culturally relevant, think of power as the Dark Side, truth as the Force.
The lure of power is indisputable and there are precious few who can ignore the siren's call. Who among us hasn't listened to a juicy bit of gossip, or taken a few bucks to look the other way, or manipulated or been manipulated into doing something by the promise of a lifestyle enhancement or a bit of power?
The more power you have, the more you want. How else does an investment banker, who already has more money (power) than God make a ridiculous blunder and create a Ponzi scheme?
Power takes many forms: money, to be sure, but also information, influence, status, connections. Truth takes just one form: truth.
And truth has the power of being a pain in the ass. True, it has some impact on its own, but only to people willing to listen. For others, there's no power in truth.
It's an uphill battle for truth, until you marry truth and power.
See, as I mentioned, there are many forms of power, and people in general have power. If I write a letter to my Congresscritter asking for some action on a bill, that's me exercising my power. It may not be a whole lot, but look what happens if I can amplify this a thousand-fold.
If I can persuade a thousand people to write a similar letter to my Congresscritter, well, someone in her office is keeping score, be sure of that. And if all thousand of those letters mention or imply me as the impetus for each letter, suddenly I've become a leader of a community. I've gained power.
Similarly, power can coalesce around an idea: Occupy Wall Street is itself an example of this. Deliberately, the Occupy movement has made it clear that it's an egalitarian, democratic movement. No one person is the absolute face of the movement. The idea of income inequality is what matters.
And as we saw last fall and will see again this spring and summer, that idea has power. It's a magnetic message to a people who have had it with the "us v. them" motives that the elite of this nation have fostered (an idea that Roelofs' book goes into.)
It's not enough to get into, say Jamie Dimon's face about his bonus last year. But it might be enough to gather around his headquarters on Park Avenue and make him walk past a thousand silent people holding up signs as he scampers into his limo. Information has power, but information can take many forms, including imagery. That Dimon has to make a daily "perp walk" to his limo will take a toll, not only on Dimon but on the board of Chase Bank, on the employees who also have to make their way through that crowd, and on corporate morale in general.
Power grabs attention. Truth can't really do that unless the idea is both powerful enough and has a receptive audience.
There are many great progressive ideas floating around out there, a great many truths to be told. We just have to grab the power and exert it on an audience to get them to listen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How The Might Have Fallen

So how weak is Al Qaeda?
The FBI announced that Public Enemy Number One is now...a third grade teacher wanted for distributing child pornography and sexual abuse of children.

Coroner's Inquest

As you probably know by now, Rick Santorum schiavoed his candidacy yesterday.
It was about time, to be frank. He was a real source of laughs with his puppy-dog clumsiness on the national stage and his outrageous positions on issues that many of us had felt were settled law, like women's rights.
Indeed, his very candidacy forced those issues to the surface and a lot of the lunacy we experienced, like transvaginal sonograms and outlawing contraception...OK, that was mostly hyperbole...grew straight out of Santorum's national prominence.
He gave political cover to the stupid and pestulent, is what I'm saying.
Santorum pulled an already out of touch Republican party further into the ozone, all but guaranteeing President Obama's re-lection. Hell, the economy could tank again, gas prices could rocket to $7 a gallon and Obama would still squeak by, thanks in large part to the backfire Santorum lit amongst moderates and especially about women.
Here's the chilling part: if you look back a few elections, the Republican runner up in one primary campaign is almost always the nominee in the next cycle: From Reagan, to Bush the elder to McCain, they all ran in the next available slot as the nominee.
Santorum leaves the race as the runner up (no way Newt Gingrich gets enough delegates to surpass him. Ron Paul stands a stronger chance!)
Hello 2016!

To Market, To Market

It often amuses me what rationales people come up with when a market moves in one direction or another.
To-wit: an analyst in England makes a positive comment about the banking industry, and glory be! the FTSE jumps up.
The comments specifically addressed this broker's belief...a broker, mind you, not a government official...that central banks around the world will address the lagging economy with stimulus packages.
Gee, thanks for pointing that out, Captain Obvious! A central tenet to Keynesian economics gets reitertated in the national press and markets suddenly facepalm and go "Now why didn't I think of that?"
I've spoken all along about the ruthless and brutal efficiency in which markets work: since the major players use software packages to discern exploitable areas of the market-- and many of these software packages can now account for some emotional context-- this market jump makes absolutely no sense, at least based on this fuzzy rationalization.
So there's two alternatives: analysts are blowing smoke up our collective asses because they don't know why a sector filled with underperforming firms is spiking, or they're covering up for something else.
If they don't know, then they should probably shut up, but here's the thing: Analysts are paid to know.
They used to be paid to find out, but it turned out that wasn't nearly as cost-effective as having them pick up a press release and parrot it. See, I worked as an analyst (not stock, but I did analyze public companies) and we were paid a very nice salary to ask questions. We could look at a balance sheet and a profit-and-loss statement and begin to understand the deviations from the norm, and ask why this was happening.
And the rules were simple, too: FASB regulations made our job that much easier, it was all in black and white, and there were very few gray areas to hide stuff in.
The landscape shifted. As with journalism, science, education, and mortgages, what used to be pretty transparent became mystical and unknowable. And people became afraid to do their jobs, not because they weren't good at it anymore, but because they had been perceived as unreliable and basically just thorns in the side of society.
Indeed, entire industries (I'm looking at you, Mergers & Acquisitions) grew up around strategies devised to throw analysts off the scent. We ended up having to play catch up on the one hand while explaining to our clients how we had been fooled so badly (if you've ever wondered what a mortality and morbidity hearing at a hospital is like, just sit in on a bad debt meeting.)
When a person becomes scared to do his or her job, he's going to take the path of least resistance, which is precisely what the crooks want you to do. Why should I take a computer and try to work out a program that discards the grotesqueries of a financial statement to bring it back to a level I can understand in a glance when I can just rely on the public statements of the CEO and the imprimatur of the CPA?
(In case you were wondering why Sarbanes-Oxley is an important law, that's why in a nutshell: if the CEO is going to lie, he ought to be held accountable.)
Indeed, that's precisely what started happening and why I got out of analysis: we found we could duck a lot of questions by pointing to the statements and saying "And all the analysis we could come up with did not dispute his claims."
Of course it didn't! It couldn't!
We didn't know, because we couldn't know, which is what is going on in market analysis now. Worse, we knew we couldn't know, so we also knew we were passing on a load of horseshit but damned if you'd find anyone who'd own up to that.
Which is also what's going on in market analysis today.
Why? Now you're asking the right question...
I guess it comes down to this: there are two markets. There's the market you and I can invest in, through mutual funds and stock ownership and our 401ks and IRAs, and then there's the smart money market.
When an analyst throws out an excuse wrapped in a reason like this asshat did, you can bet your bottom dollar someone has worked out a scheme to make money off it. My best guess is short the banks now, and wait for the pop from this jerk's message to wear off to turn a profit, or worse, bet on the put derivatives and really clean up without risking a thing.
The analyst knows he's talking thru his hat, but if he says nothing, he looks stupid and loses the faith of his clientele (odd thing that: admitting you don't know is penalized higher than taking a guess and getting it wildly wrong.) He's strung between a rock and a hard place, and either way loses. This way just hurts his bonus less.
The really damnable thing about it is, if half as much energy was put into working out a program that truly analyzed the complexities of a financial statement and parsed out and distilled the right questions to ask, the world (at least the rest of us) would be better off and smart money could still make a decent and fair profit.
But, you know, there are still crumbs left on the table...

Here We Go Again

It will be interesting to compare the local response this time as opposed to the Christmas 2004 tsunami, if there is one.

UPDATE: Although India has withdrawn its tsunami warning, Indonesian authorities report a one meter tsunami is bearing down on Sumatra.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Not-So-Free Speech

I'm struck by the diversity of comments here with regards to an interview given by the new Miami Marlins manager, Ozzie Guillen.
Guillen committed the nearly unpardonable sin of having kind words to say about Fidel Castro and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
A little background. The Miami Marlins baseball team opened a new stadium this season, right smack in the heart of Little Havana, la communidad el Norte for Cuban refugees. This casts an intriguing light on what Guillen said, for it's the older Cuban-Americans who have a problem with it, while later generations are more "Who's Castro?"
I could parse and dissect this difference, but let me sum it up by saying there could possibly have been a bit of calculation in Guillen's comments, trying to drum up some audience for the Marlins, who not only spent an enormous sum of money for the stadium (some of which was highly questionable funding) but also shelled out the better part of the GDP of a small nation for new players, mostly Latino.
Nonetheless, once Guillen realized what he had said had created an huge backlash in the community, he apologized for saying it. Needless to say, it's also an election year (Miami mayor), and this ruckus has infiltrated into the election.
Guillen is scheduled to hold a press conference this morning and is expected to repeat his apology and possibly expand on it.
Here's the thing: it's a free country and Guillen had every right to say what he said. However, Guillen also works for a private corporation, which limits what he can say without repercussion. And there's the nub of the question.
Should politics be kept out of sport and sport kept out of politics? It seems logical, and yet, it rarely happens because of the money involved. After all, no one builds a major league stadium through completely private funding. Usually there are tax breaks involved or loan guarantees.
Similarly, given the popularity of sports, no politician in his right mind isn't going to exploit a team's fan base for the sake of identifying with the team and scoring a few cheap votes. You saw it all the time when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York. He would constantly be shown in his front row seat at Yankee games, and God help anybody who got between Giuliani and a camera when the Yankees would win a title.
If Guillen worked for, say Wal-mart, he likely would have been called down to HQ and either fired outright or demoted, or apologized and had it accepted. No one would have batted an eye, no outcry would have occured and things would have moved on. Business was taken care of.
But here we have a different, more nuanced situation: Guillen de facto works for a quasi-public entity. Major league baseball is exempt from certain laws with respect to monopoly practices, and under those auspices, receive political scrutiny far beyond what any other industry would get.
How else do you explain Congress getting involved in a drug scandal?
In this capacity and as a public figure, Guillen has influence beyond the domain of his clubhouse.
Generally, sports figures stay away from politics. It's bad for contract negotiations, which is also why you see players setting up charities for kids with cancer or who are poor. And remember, Cassius Clay spent time in jail after he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and refused the draft for Vietnam as a conscietious objector.
It has happened, however, where ballplayers have gotten involved in making political statements and paid no price: in the 1960s, black players would express support for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some ballplayers even protested the Vietnam War (Tom Seaver, one of the greatest pitchers ever, springs to mind). 
Hell, Castro was scouted for baseball when he was a kid!
Guillen should pay no price, either. He's apologized, but I don't think he needed to. If Guillen is to pay a price, if we are to clearly remove politics from sports (which might not be a bad thing, but right now, is not a necessary thing), then Tim Thomas should be forced to remove his helmet while playing for the Boston Bruins. He paid no official price for refusing to meet with President Obama, either. If Guillen is punished, then so should Tim Thomas.
My suspicion, however, is that we want the right kind of politics (in all senses) from our athletes, which is even stupider. If we're going to claim Tim Thomas has the right to wear a Teabagger symbol on his helmet, then fairness-- a doctrine America was built on-- demands that Guillen be allowed to speak out, or tattoo a hammer-and-sickle on his arm, or whatever else.
For if we're going to have "politics for me, but none for thee," then this country is in very grave danger.

Monday, April 09, 2012

A Fighter Remembered

In the course of my infamous college career, I held many majors. One of the fun ones, one I wish I had stuck with, was journalism.
I went to college in the glory days of journalism: Reporters had just brought down a war machine, reporters were just about to take down a President.
Reporters were doing their jobs. Gathering facts, not repeating talking points. Investigating to see if there was a "there" there, and then writing stories that fit the facts, not just parroted position papers.
Think of the world-altering stories that came out in that time frame: the Pentagon Papers, the scandals at Willowbrook and other homes for the developmentally disabled (it was still ok to call them "retarded" back then), and of course, Watergate.
It seemed that journalists would roll up their sleeves and tackle any story to see what was behind the curtain. And then it all fell apart, and they herded into the same meadow the rest of us sheeple were grazing.
Once in a while, one of the old rams would rear his head and break a big story. Usually, it was this man: Mike Wallace.
It was once said that the most frightening sight for a CEO or politician was Mike Wallace walking up the driveway with a film crew. Certainly, Wallace's questions were the highlight of any interview, because the answers rarely mattered. The questions exposed the facts Wallace learned, all he was fishing for was a reaction.
Wallace was one of the last of a breed of journalist who can trace their roots back to the Golden Era of TV: Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the wrongly disgraced Dan Rather, even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein owe a debt of gratitude to the television news departments of that era, and particularly the legendary Edward R. Murrow (born Egbert, so we can imagine where he got his fighting spirit).
Indeed, Keith Olbermann signed off his now extinct "Countdown" with Murrow's catchphrase "Good night and good luck," some 55 years after Murrow was off the air.
Murrow's career ended gloriously, ironically pointing out in a famous speech in Chicago (you can watch it recreated in the movie "Good Night and Good Luck") how news had taken a backseat to entertainment and getting fired for it. Murrow would no doubt blanch today watching any local news broadcast promotion of the network's latest offerings or the corporate overlords latest pet film project or product.
Wallace's confrontational style, best described as "tough but fair," is a direct descendant of Murrow: play their words back to them, then make them answer for their words. Cite facts, not opinion, and don't interpret. Let them either make their cases or dig their graves, even tho you already know which will happen.
And he had to do this in an era when TV news went under the unmbrella of entertainment and was expected to turn a comparable profit, something even Murrow never had to truly contend with (usually, Murrow's programs had a single major underwriter to pay the bills.)
Wallace made mistakes, the largest being smearing General William Westmoreland, for which Wallace was forced to issue a public apology. He claimed that the United States military had deliberately underestimated the size of the North Vietnamese forces arrayed against them.
They had, but Wallace claimed it was a cover-up for incompetence in the original analyses, while in truth, it was a political expediency. Westmoreland sued for $120 million. He settled for an apology. That should tell you how not-far fro the truth Wallace was even then.
So it was reporters like Wallace that made journalism attractive, that made finding out the truth important. It's a goddamned shame that America doesn't have anyone to pick up that mantle. Who really does exposes anymore? The only reporter I can think of is Greg Palast and he free-lances for the Beeb.
Now we have news agglomerators (yours truly included.) The best ones find out the truth as best they can, and relate it to you with all their experience and knowledge. The worst ones just repeat what you've read elsewhere and call it "news".
You listening, Drudge?
Godspeed, Mr. Wallace. You were enough.