Archive for November, 2008

The Wrong Questions

November 28, 2008

We’re asking the wrong questions.

In our haste to figure out what went wrong with the economy, how to fix it, how those banks and other financial institutions could have been so stupid in the first place, and how they can morally accept taxpayer bailouts with a straight face and without apology, we’re overlooking a more fundamental question.

How did so much economic power get concentrated in so few men?

Crowd on Wall Street after the 1929 Stock Market Collapse

Crowd on Wall Street after the 1929 Stock Market Collapse

And they were men.  Women haven’t yet achieved the basic human right of equal pay for equal work nor have they achieved the basic human right of running elephantine banks.  It is an interesting question whether a woman would have joined all those men-lemmings in the rush off the cliff to buy “securitized mortgages.”  A woman might have said, “That’s a cliff. I’ll wait here.”

Surely she would have been suspicious of that awful “verbing” of a  perfectly good noun “security”.  That should have been warning enough, but we’ve gotten lax with the English language and look what a mess it led to.

Think about it; the world’s economy is in ruins because a few men, maybe no more than a thousand or so, controlled trillions of dollars of assets.  Just for fun, they started buying mortgages, putting them in nice vellum covered packages and selling them to each other.  Apparently it never occurred to these geniuses that the housing market might decline or that house values were artificially inflated.

They controlled so much money, these financial titans, that no one was insulated from their stupidity.  Not that it ever occurred to them that they were stupid.  How could you be atop the world’s financial system and be stupid?

Well, nothing rises so fast or is as dumb as a feather.

But we’ve always known that the top echelon of corporate heads can be stupid.  They brought us the Edsel, asbestos, nicotine, telephone trees, oil addiction, and the Great Depression.

Edsel

Edsel

So how did so much power end up in so few hands?

As satisfying as it is to be angry at the stupidity and immorality of these men we must answer that question.

But before that, let’s take another moment and examine the morality of these men who, as George Packer notes in his New Yorker blog, haven’t even apologized.  Packer theorizes that all of them have child-like morals.  Those are the morals of “I’d better behave or I’ll get in trouble with the grown-ups.”  Packer says,

The moral code of these Wall Street executives corresponds to stage one of Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous stages of morality: “The concern is with what authorities permit and punish.” Morally, they are very young children.

Packer continues,

In private life, extreme indebtedness, bankruptcy, the ruin of those close to you, and dependence on the government dole are generally thought to be causes for anguish, self-denial, and a degree of shame. But if you’re a financial executive with an exalted title, a big enough salary, a deep enough debt, and a vast enough handout, these same disasters entitle you to go on living and feeling about yourself much as you did before.

Packer wants them to apologize.  I want to take all that power away from them.  I want the engine of capitalism decentralized.  I want somebody to enforce the antitrust laws.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith

The antitrust laws are like the Kingston Trio — people have heard of them but can’t quite place them.  Here is a quick primer.  In the 1890s a lot of financial power was centralized in the hands of a very few men, the Robber Barons we called them.  There was a big recession then caused, in part, by the economic power wielded by those few men.  Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act empowering both the government and private citizens to break up large accumulations of economic power and to stop price-fixing and other nefarious anti-competitive prices.  Congress was remembering its Adam Smith, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

The antitrust laws were created and enacted into law to protect us from exactly the kind of concentration of wealth which brought down the nation’s economy in the 1890s, in 1929, and in 2008.

But we stopped enforcing the antitrust laws in the early 1980’s and haven’t really gotten back to it yet.  True, Anne Bingaman and Joel Klein, who were in charge of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division during the Clinton years tried some enforcement, but Bill Clinton was not Teddy Roosevelt nor was he the FDR of the 1930s.  President Clinton inherited an antitrust division that Ronald Reagan had closed years before and he wasn’t all that interested in re-opening it.

By that time the University of Chicago School of Economics, in one of the great snow jobs of all time, convinced the policy makers that the antitrust laws get in the way of “efficiency” and so really are obsolete.  The idea that great concentrations of wealth was bad for a democracy was just out-of-touch with wise economic theory.

Those professors of economics were just as wrong and just as dumb as the current titans of finance.

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We’ll be back with more about the antitrust laws.  One of the “prune” jobs awaiting the new president is the Assistant Attorney General of the Antitrust Division, a job once held by Thurman Arnold.  Let us hope that President-elect Obama doesn’t install a Chicago-school acolyte in that job.

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UPDATE – MARCH 5, 2005

Well.  Someone in the MSM, – you know, the grown-ups – finally has asked this question.  Here is David Ignatius of the Washington Post on this issue.

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Guns and Commas – Snow Job

November 26, 2008

gnstroyrogers_lgSome perceptive conservative jurists and columnists have looked into the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller v. D.C. in which the Court held that the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual’s right to keep guns.  While conservatives generally applaud the ruling — because it agrees with their political and emotional views on the topic — it is subject to many of the same infirmities of Roe v. Wade, which liberals generally applaud — because it agrees with their political and emotional views on the subject.  The line between the two cases is short and straight  according to J. Harvie Wilkinson — appointed to the 4th Circuit court of Appeals by President Bush and on conservatives short list for a seat on the Supreme Court.  Both cases to him are “guilty of the same sins.”  According to Richard Posner — Reagan appointee to the 7th circuit court of Appeals — the majority opinion in the gun case is “evidence of the ability of well-staffed courts to produce snow jobs.”

Both cases are forays by the Court into quintessential cultural and political issues which dispassionate observers admit is constitutional ambiguity.  The words of the Constitution do not provide clear answers. In addition, many thoughtful observers, on both sides of both issues, question the wisdom of the Court involving itself in either.  A case can be made that the political process would resolve them faster.

In addition, Judges Wilkinson and Posner, together with conservative columnist George Will, argue that both Heller and Roe exhibit judicial immodesty .

Judicial modesty, in this context means, as Justice Brandeis eloquently warned judges, “We must ever be on our guard, lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles.”  Judges are not “knight errants” according to Justice Cardozo.  Judges ought not usurp the legitimate powers of the executive and legislative branches but should defer to those branches of government unless the Constitution unambiguously commands otherwise.

For Judge Wilkinson, the majority opinion in Heller failed that test as it failed others.  The opinion was a “failure to adhere to a conservative judicial methodology.”  Representing a transfer of power from the political branches of government the opinion is, for him an “exposé of original intent as a theory no less subject to judicial subjectivity and endless argumentation as any other.”  As in Roe v. Wade, Heller recognizes a substantive right “grounded in an ambiguous constitutional text,” a right the courts will now spend years defining in countless lawsuits.

For Judge Posner the irony in Justice Scalia’s opinion was that the originalist method of constitutional interpretation championed by Justice Scalia “would have yielded the opposite result.”  Questioning both its method and result, Posner sees the case as evidence that the current Court exercises “a freewheeling discretion strongly flavored with ideology.”

Such discretion, incompatible with judicial modesty, led the Court in the gun case to impose a national rule “neither necessary nor appropriate.”

Posner concludes,

A preference for judicial modesty–for less interference by the Supreme Court with the other branches of government–cannot be derived by some logical process from constitutional text or history. It would have to be imposed. It would be a discretionary choice by the justices. But judging from Heller, it would be a wise choice. It would go some distance toward de-politicizing the Supreme Court. It would lower the temperature of judicial confirmation hearings, widen the field of selection of justices, and enable the Supreme Court to attend to the many important non-constitutional issues that it is inclined to neglect.

Justice Scalia, the author of the majority opinion in the gun case, no doubt disagrees.  He has been accused of many things, but never modesty.  He is a man either incapable of introspection or one capable of breathtaking hypocrisy, but modest he is not.

Viagra Blues © 2

November 21, 2008

Bad news today for men throughout Europe.  Viagra will remain a prescription-only drug in the European Union.  Pfizer has withdrawn its application to make the drug available in Europe without a prescription.  The European regulators were worried that too many men might take the drug “recreationally.”

Huh?  Why else would any man take it?

We wondered recently about the preoccupation men seem to have with Viagra and the other penile-stiffening drugs available on the market.  For instance, we noted the large number of advertisements for the drug on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report which, we assumed, have a young audience.  That turns out to be correct.  According to a recent poll 42% of viewers of The Daily Show and 43% of Colbert’s viewers are under 30!  What do men under 30 need with Viagra?

Now we know the answer, recreation. (And never mind the punning possibilities there.)

We wonder — again — what medical science is doing for the more important problem of human sexuality, Erectile Disinterest.  The biological fact of matter is this: Women lose interest in sex when their child-bearing years end.  That causes Erectile Disinterest, a far more pressing problem than flaccid penises.

In fact, Erectile Disinterest is the leading cause of penile disuse atrophy.  If modern medicine would make a pill to stimulate older women’s sexual interest, penile erection dysfunction would disappear overnight.  Literally.  Men don’t need a pill; women do.

This sad biological fact of life, has theological implications.  Only three possibilities exist to explain it.  Take your pick.

1.  God is indeed a jealous god.  Unlike most other gods, He is spending eternity without a female consort.  All the sex down here makes him jealous, but he has the small pleasure of depriving men of sex after their consorts reach a certain age.  The resulting frustration for humanity provides God with a measure of schadenfreude. And now modern medicine has given God more chuckles; millions of men wandering around with useless erections.

2.  God is not male.

3.  God does not exist.

Falconry in Australia

November 20, 2008

Down-Under Falconry

Jobs in the Obama Administration – Updated

November 18, 2008

William Safire, in his Sunday language column for the New York Times, discusses applying for jobs in the new administration.  Before you subject yourself to the indignity of writing down everything bad you’ve ever done, you first need to get a copy of the “Plum Book” which describes about 9000 non-career appointed positions that will be available for President Obama to fill.

Be warned: It is 217 pages long.

There is also a shorter listing of jobs that are not “plums.”  They are “prunes.”  Safire explains them like this, “That unofficial adjunct was first published in 1988 and is now available on excelgov.org, dealing with “the 25 toughest subcabinet management positions.” It explains that prunes are “plums seasoned by wisdom and experience, with a much thicker skin.” You can reach that listing here:

Although the way things are going it looks like you don’t need to worry about it unless you worked in the Clinton Administration.

Jobs in the Obama Adminstration

November 14, 2008

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Here is exciting news: Anyone can go online and apply for a job in the new Obama Administration.  Here is how it works: Go to http://www.change.gov./ click on “jobs” – “Apply Now”, and fill out the simple form stating an expression of interest.  They will then send you a link to the long application form.

Now comes the bad news:  The long form they send demands that you disclose everything bad or embarrassing you have ever done in your life.  Here, for instance, is the last question on the form:

(63) Please provide any other information, including information about other members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect.

Until that question I had thought about serving my country in the new administration but that question killed it.  Now, as far as I know, I have never done anything that would embarrass President-Elect Obama.  Nor, as far as I know, has anyone in my family, but I would not swear to it. But a list of everything that could be a possible source of embarrassment to me?

My god, the list would go on for pages.  If those people think I am willing to go dredging through my personal history of everything I’ve ever done which was embarrassing — or would have been if anyone knew about it — just to get a government job, they are crazy.  (Well, maybe for a Supreme Court nomination, but nothing else I can think of.)  I’ve tried to put all those embarrassing moments as far behind me as I can.  I’ve made what amends I could and then buried that stuff as deep in my sub-conscious as I can find a place for it.  No way I am going to try to dig it up. The mere thought makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.

The E.O.B.

The E.O.B.

But that isn’t all they want.  They want every email I’ve ever sent that might be a possible source of embarrassment to me, my family or the 44th President.  They have to be nuts.  I try to delete all those emails from my computer and forget I ever wrote them. (See above re: sub-conscious) I never want to see them again, but I bet the Bush Administration’s NSA could dig them up although they managed to somehow “lose” two years of their own White House email.

I am safe about one thing: They want all my diary entries that might be embarrassing.  The only thing about my diary that would be embarrassing is that I’ve never kept one.  Tried a couple of times but it didn’t work out.  Too boring.

The rest of the stuff seems easy enough.  All they want is a detailed history of every financial and sexual episode I’ve ever had.  That is going to make for some boring reading.

I don’t see why I should have to go through all that nonsense.  I have seen Mexico, Germany and England, two oceans and one sea, and even though I’ve never seen it, I know Africa is a continent.  Shouldn’t that be enough to qualify me as Secretary of State?  I once lived down the street from a general.  Doesn’t that qualify me to be Secretary of Defense?  I have a home.  That ought to be enough to be Secretary of Homeland Defense.  (Bt the way, I don’t know why the Obama people aren’t asking me questions.  I have lots of good ideas. For instance, why doesn’t President-Elect Obama pick Joe Lieberman to head up Homeland Defense?  It would get Mr. Lieberman out of the Senate and into a job where the President could fire him at any moment.  Although President Obama might want to keep him around as a potential scapegoat if anything does go wrong.)

Well, it’s the Nation’s loss; that’s all I can say. I would have been a sterling Attorney General, an exemplary White House counsel, or a first-rate Secretary of the Interior.

If I want to do any more governmental service in my life, I guess I’ll just have to run for office myself.  That way I can ignore any questions I don’t want to answer.

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The satiric faux news web site 23/6 has a post up entitled “You’ll Never Work in the Obama Administration” which takes issue with the information demanded by the job application.  Then they add another page of fake questions including such information as all the porn web sites you’ve visited in the last five years and, my favorite, one demanding hard copies of all blog entries you’ve created if you are a blogger.  The last sentence of that question reads, “If your blog title contains the phrase ‘daily musings,’ thank you for your interest, but the Obama administration will not require your services.”

Fear trumps Whales

November 12, 2008

If there was anyone left who still thought that the Supreme Court is not a political institution, all doubt was erased this morning when the Court released its 5-4 decision in the case of the Navy versus the whales.  The five most conservative members of the court agreed that the Navy should not have to take any action to protect whales and other mammalian sea denizens when it is training its sonar operators off the coast of California.  The four more moderate members of the Court all dissented.  But because Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion it was his decision to delay releasing the opinion until after the recent election.  Knowing that the decision would further motivate people who care about the environment to get out and vote, he held the opinion until after the election, which was his right as Chief Justice.

Citing such legal giants as Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington, neither of whom had ever heard of sonar,  Roberts wrote, that “the Navy’s need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines plainly outweighs the environmental concerns . . . .”

Plainly?  Why then did four members of the Court disagree?  Not to mention all the lower court judges who ruled against the Navy.  There is much more involved in this case and nothing about it was “plain.”  Easy cases, plain cases do not make it to the Supreme Court.

We’ll be back with more on the decision in a few days.  In the meantime, you can read it here.

The Last Post

November 11, 2008

It is Remembrance Day in Europe and Veterans Day in the United States.  The British equivalent of Taps is The Last Post. World War One ended on this day 90 years ago.

_____________________________

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

— A. E. Housman

Free Advice for the Obamas – Border Collies

November 10, 2008

This blog will have lots of advice for President Obama.  It’s author possesses many opinions on many subjects, ranging from judicial appointments to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  (Technically, since Congress long ago abdicated its responsibility to declare war, neither is a “war”; both are “conflicts.”  But try telling that to a soldier stationed in either place.)
dsc_0007
It appears though that the first place advice would be helpful is in the choice of a family dog for the new first family.  A Border Collie is the logical choice.  Some are smooth haired and so are relatively non-allergenic.  All are smart and, of course, have symbolic importance because they are black and white.

The Obamas will need two of them however.  And a herd of sheep for the south lawn at the White House.  Border Collies need work and a herd of sheep is just the thing.  (Livestock at the White House has historical precedent.  For instance, Millard Fillmore kept his horse there.)  A minimum of two Borders is required, not only for the herding the sheep but to entertain themselves when the humans are at school or busy running the country. Mischief is sure to result if there is only one.  In fact, mischief will result in any event.
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Here are a few other suggestions for the President-elect:

1.  Cabinet Appointments – Secretary of State, Bill Richardson; National Security Adviser, Richard Holbrooke; Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel; Secretary of Education, Joel Klein; Secretary of the Treasury, George Soros; Attorney-General, Janet Napolitano; Secretary of the Interior, Ted Turner.

2.  First official act after the inaugural speech, — which I am hard at work on — close Gitmo.

3.  First Supreme Court Appointment – me.

That’s all the advice I have time for today.  I do have a life you know.

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I’m not the only writing about President-elect Obama and the new puppy.  Here is William Kristol of all people on the same subject.

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UPDATE – NOVEMBER 13, 2008

For any doubters left about those sheep on the South Lawn here is a photo from the official White House web site taken while Woodrow Wilson was president.

White House Sheep

November 4th, 2008

November 7, 2008
Lincol Memorial November 4, 2008 by Matt Mendelsohn

Lincoln Memorial November 4, 2008 by Matt Mendelsohn