Thursday, April 30, 2009
So the whole job took 45 minutes, front and back, start to finish. It was easy, even moving the trampoline around. I'm even thinking of cutting patterns in my grass like the groundskeepers do at baseball parks. That would be cool!
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
One of Specter's main reasons for leaving the GOP was that he faced a difficult primary challenge from the right wing of the party. Polls showed him running 20 points behind Pat Toomey, the Club for Growth's candidate. Since Pennsylvania's election laws prohibit a candidate from running as an independent after losing a primary, Specter concluded that running for reelection as a Democrat would be his best bet. As a result, the Republicans lose another senate seat as the true believers push another northern moderate out of the party. At this rate, they could go the way of the Whigs. You have to wonder, how much worse can things get for them? And how much better can they get for the Democrats? If I'm not mistaken, I think I can hear them humming that old Timbuk 3 song, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades."
It reminds me of the year 1994, when Timbuk 3 was still performing. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP. The Republicans had defeated health care reform in the first two years of the Clinton Administration and the president was on the defensive. Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey engineered the Republican takeover of the House with their Contract With America. The wind seemed to be at their backs. But then in 1995 the Republicans overreached and shut down the Federal government. The public turned against them as they rejected their small-government philosophy. It could be argued that the GOP hasn't regained its footing since.
After a career watching markets behave, I've learned that things often look their best at the top and their worst at the bottom. If Richard Shelby "bought the top" when he joined the Republican Party in 1994, then Arlen Specter could be doing the same thing now with the Democrats. As a supporter of Obama and his agenda, I hope not. But I also hope that the Democrats don't get overconfident, because fortunes have a way of changing. These next two years may be their best window of opportunity to get their agenda passed. And it had better work, because if the economy doesn't recover by 2012, there could be a resurgence of the Gingrich-Armey crowd.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Andrew Sullivan said the most intelligent thing I've heard about grading Obama on his first 100 days: It's pass/fail and he passed. David Brooks said that the biggest surprise for him so far is that a 47-year-old man who has spent so little time in Washington could prove to be such an effective manager.
The swine flu won't amount to much. These things almost never do. Remember the swine flu scare back in 1976? I didn't think so.
Reading between the lines, the results of the stress tests are telegraphing that either Vikram Pandit of Citigroup or Ken Lewis of Bank of America, or both, will be forced from their jobs shortly. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but the tea leaves are telling me that Ken Lewis is going to get the axe.
The issue of torture is taking on a life of its own. It's not going to go away and has the potential to derail the Obama agenda by dividing the country further and distracting it from its vital business.
Ever since I recommended Christopher Buckley as a must-read, he's turned out two or three very uninspired columns. Allow me to offer Gail Collins of the NYT as a mea culpa. She's funny!
Having Dick Cheney as the current voice of the Republican Party is a godsend to Obama and the Democrats. He's even more unpopular than Rush Limbaugh! Who's next, Richard Nixon's ghost?
The Republicans are bent out of shape about health care reform being subject to a simple majority vote. They say it will preclude debate. Who are they kidding? We've been debating the issue since Theodore Roosevelt first raised it a hundred years ago! The Germans have had national health insurance since Bismarck! Is there any doubt that the Republicans just want to torpedo reform?
Fox has announced that it will not air the president's news conference Wednesday night. So much for "fair and balanced."
My new lawn mower is all charged up and ready to go. I think tomorrow will be the big day.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Let's start with my own personal preparation. It begins by saying:
DRESS PROPERLY. Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry. They can be caught in moving parts...
No problem there. I almost never wear those long, flowing robes that Arabs or Indians wear--only on Halloween, as a matter of fact. I sure wasn't planning on wearing them to cut the grass. And the only jewelry I own is a wedding ring. I doubt that will be an issue.
...Rubber gloves, long pants and substantial, non-skid footwear are recommended when working outdoors.
"Non-skid footwear?" What does that mean? No wing-tips? This is getting complicated. But wait, there's more:
USE SAFETY GLASSES AND OTHER SAFETY EQUIPMENT. Use safety goggles or safety glasses with side shields, complying with applicable safety standards and, when needed, a face shield. Also use face or dust mask if operation is dusty. This applies to all persons in the work area. Also use a hard hat, hearing protection, gloves, safety shoes and dust collection systems when specified or required. Safety glasses or the like are available at extra cost at your local dealer or Black & Decker Service Center.
Wow! Apparently my neighbors either didn't read their instruction manuals or they just don't have a Black & Decker like mine. They just seem to walk out the door and cut the grass. It doesn't look like they've prepared at all! So let me see if I've got this straight. According to the manual, I should wear a hard hat and a face shield. (Might as well; it sounds more substantial than just safety goggles or safety glasses with side shields. After all, this is serious stuff.) I also need to wear a face or dust mask underneath the shield, that is, if I don't use a "dust collection system," whatever that is. And let's not forget the hearing protection, rubber gloves, long pants, and substantial, non-skid safety shoes (again, I have no idea what that means). This must be more dangerous than I thought! No wonder I've been leaving it to professionals all these years. Oh, and this applies to all persons in the work area. And who might that be? Do they think I'll have some team out there with me? My lawn is only a little bigger than my garage. At least you'll have no trouble distinguishing me from my neighbors when you drive down my street on the 4th of July. I'll be the one who looks like he's wearing a hazmat suit.
The manual then goes on to discuss the proper use of the mower itself. It says:
USE RIGHT APPLIANCE. Do not use the mower for any job except that for which it is intended.
For what other job could I possibly use it? Also,
Operate mower only in daylight or good artificial light when objects in the path of the blade are clearly visible from the operating area of the mower.
Artificial light? What, like a miner's helmet? Do they sell those at the Black & Decker store, too?
Never operate mower in a closed area.
What the hell is a "closed area?" Like my living room? I don't know what that means. And then there's this:
Clear the area where the mower is to be used of objects such as rocks, sticks, wire, toys, bones, etc., which could be thrown by the blade.
Makes sense, but where do they think I live with all that crap in my front yard, Appalachia? And bones? This is my lawn, not some archaeological dig, for heaven's sake.
There's a lot more; it's quite extensive. But I have to get going. I have to get outfitted so I can cut my grass.
Friday, April 24, 2009
I just saw that Tarantino has a new movie coming out next month called "Inglourious Basterds." It's about World War II and I'm looking forward to the reviews. I like movies about that period, and I think Tarantino is a gifted movie-maker. In fact, "Pulp Fiction" may be the best movie I've ever seen. The acting, dialogue, music, and humor were all brilliant. Almost every scene was well-crafted and I liked the non-linear plot-line. I had never seen that before; it was very creative. The movie was an emotional roller-coaster and I was on the edge of my seat several times. I even found myself gripping the arm rests at one point and had to remind myself that what I was watching wasn't really happening--it was just points of light on a screen (I think you can guess which scene that was). And yet, having said all that, I don't think I ever need to see it again. It was just too disturbing.
What's also disturbing, although quite a bit less so, is that I'm afraid Tarantino is shaping up to be a one-movie movie-maker. (This is where I should duck and cover my head, because I know how unpopular that statement is.) Sorry, but I just think all the rest of his movies are forgettable, including "Reservoir Dogs." To me, it was just a bloody, sadistic mess and not at all interesting. But it set the table for "Pulp Fiction," which is turning out to be his magnum opus, so I'll cut him some slack. But ever since then, his movies just leave me scratching my head. What happened? "Grind House?" Is that a good use of his gifts? Is that how he wants to be remembered? I'm afraid that at this rate, Tarantino could end up as an example of incredibly wasted talent.
So what does all this have to do with Jack Kerouac? (I won't have to just duck and cover for this one, I'll have to run down to the basement.) Well here goes: Kerouac was a one-book writer (I can practically hear people closing this page now; if there were subscriptions to this blog they would be getting cancelled). Granted, On the Road was a great book. And I use that word carefully. It's a classic and every young person should read it. In some ways it changed my life, or at least the way I look at life. But all the rest of Kerouac's work is...crap. Sorry, but I went through a bohemian phase, too, and read several of his books and they were just mediocre, at best. So was all the rest of the Beat literature, for that matter, from John Clellon Holmes's Go to William Burroughs's Junkie. (I have to take a pass on Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," because I never finished it, I don't understand poetry, and critics give it high marks.)
But it's okay, though, to make one great movie or write one great book. We can't all be like the Beatles or Woody Allen and turn out a number of great works. But let's stop kidding ourselves that Tarantino and Kerouac have some great body of work to show for their efforts. They don't. Now Tarantino can still do something about it; Kerouac can't. So I'll be looking forward to this new movie to see if it's the beginning of a second act for his career.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
After Deng Xiaoping assumed power at the end of the Cultural Revolution, China began its thaw with the United States. Deng was the ultimate pragmatist and saw rapprochement with the West as vital to China's progress. The result has been a lessening of tensions and an increase in trade that has benefited both nations.
I think relations with Iran could be poised for a similar development. I see a number of parallels. Like Vietnam, the U. S. is bogged down in two civil wars on the borders of Iran with no end in sight. The Iranians have been the prime beneficiary of the wars and have gained confidence as a result. The U. S., in contrast, has become more aware of the limits to its power. Iran's continued isolation, however, has proven problematic to them and the desire to reenter the community of nations is now seen as advantageous. A reactionary government in the U. S. is no longer in office and its successors are seen as willing to restore diplomatic relations in an effort to lower tensions. And like China, Iran has been in the midst of a national nervous breakdown that is beginning to be seen by some as counter-productive. As a result, both parties would benefit from improved relations.
If the scenario I see plays out, Ahmadinejad will be defeated in the presidential election on June 12. I think the mullahs see him not only as an embarrassment but also as a barrier to improved relations with the U. S. If Mir Hossein Mousavi is elected it should set the table for a thaw. I see further evidence of this happening as Mohsen Rezai announced his candidacy yesterday, which should siphon off votes from Ahmadinejad. With new, more pragmatic leaders in both Iran and the U. S., a new era of peaceful coexistence could emerge.
If Ahmadinejad wins reelection in June then I was wrong and all bets are off.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I first suspected Al Gore was a hypocrite back in 1988 when he very conveniently became a huge champion of Israel right before the New York Democratic primary. He won the endorsement of Mayor Ed Koch (surprised?), but lost the primary anyway.
Needing a new issue for the next election, Gore soon discovered environmentalism and published the book Earth in the Balance in 1992, which was the basis for the movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Personally, I'm agnostic on all this Green stuff, but people who's opinions I respect tell me the science in the movie is suspect, at best. Whatever.
(Like a lot of other Democrats that year, Gore took a pass on challenging the first President Bush after his approval ratings soared during the Gulf War. Better to wait for '96, instead. As a result, a lesser-known governor from Arkansas had a more open field. Oh well.)
When I went to buy a car a few years ago I settled on a Honda Civic Hybrid, because of the gas mileage. Readers of this blog know how much I love to save money. What they might not know is that I'm also the kind of guy who does the research after he buys the car. And what I found out was that not only is a hybrid not necessarily the most economical way to go, but that not all hybrids get great gas mileage. Lexus SUV hybrids, for example, aren't like Civics or Priuses at all. In fact, they're not much better than standard SUVs. Again, whatever. But then I came across an interview with Al Gore where he was asked about how he was putting his environmental convictions into practice. And guess what kind of car he drives. A Civic? A Prius? Hah! Try a Lexus SUV hybrid. And he was taking bows for it.
Now I read in The Daily Beast that
his 10,000-square foot carbon-neutral mansion used nearly 221,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. The Tennessee Center for Policy Research said that energy use at his home actually increased 10 percent and became the equivalent to 232 homes once the greening was done.
I don't know what all of that really means but would a sincere environmentalist, who preaches to the rest of us through books and movies to live "greener," live in a mansion like that and drive a car that doesn't get good gas mileage? I'd love to ask him.
It all began innocently enough. The weather was turning nicer and I needed a new pair of running shoes. I thought I'd go shopping for them on my lunch hour and then break them in after work. Sounds simple enough. So off I went to my favorite retailer on the planet, Kohl's. They have all of last year's models that nobody else wanted at a deep discount. Then when you get to the register, they often take even more off for some reason. (I have dreams about this place.) So after carefully selecting the lowest-priced pair, I made my way to the cash register. Then came the Big Test. The guy behind the register stared at me with his arms folded. I felt like I was waiting to visit my half-brother at Cook County Jail. Without taking his eyes off me, he took my shoes out slowly and began to inspect them at some length as if I was trying to pass off Confederate currency. I half-expected him to hold them up to the light! C'mon buddy, do you really think I'd put one crappy pair into the box of another crappy pair? Even I wouldn't stoop that low! Once he was satisfied that I hadn't tried to pull the ol' switcheroo he grinned at me and even winked, I think. Let's go, I thought, I haven't got all day. A line was beginning to form behind me and the guy got a little flustered. He rang up the shoes and had me swipe my credit card. It was at that point that I realized that in addition to the price of the shoes and the sales tax he had deducted 10% for a "Senior Citizens Discount." Huh? My jaw dropped. I didn't even flash my AARP card at him or anything. (It reminded me a little of the last time I got carded, for a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer, no less. After examining my driver's license for what seemed like an eternity, the pimply-faced character behind the counter looked at the sign on the wall that said, You Have to be Born Before this Date to be Served Here... "Oh, you made it easily!" Thanks. Just give me the beer.) But what on earth made this guy at Kohl's think I was a senior citizen? Okay, maybe what remaining hair I have is turning a little gray. And maybe I was unshaven and had an old sweatshirt on. I could see him mistaking me for a bum, but not a senior citizen. This guy needed glasses! And he wasn't even a whole lot younger than me! Could it have been a mistake? Did he hit the wrong key or something? Should I have brought it to his attention? Not on your life! Seriously, what could he have been thinking? After all, these were running shoes! Senior citizens don't buy running shoes, do they? Did he think I was going to use these with my walker? Maybe it was the Velcro fasteners that threw him. All I know is, I got my first senior citizen's discount today.
It was bittersweet.
Now anyone who knows me knows I'm not a big fan of rankings; they're highly subjective. I've always been amused at how everyone's school district in America seems to be ranked first or second in their state. But having said that, I noticed that the World Health Organization, which is an American group, ranked the U. S. 37th out of 190 countries in "overall health system performance." The rankings were last compiled in 2000, and I really don't know what "overall health system performance" means. But if the U. S. has the best health care system in the world, as Cantor claims, wouldn't we be ranked higher than Costa Rica? Wouldn't we at least be in the top ten? We're just ahead of Slovenia, for God's sake! How many Americans could even find that on a map? Sounds like a place where they still use leaches. And as far as people coming to the U. S. for treatment, is that really true? Or is that just one of those urban myths? When was the last time you went to a hospital or a doctor's office and heard one of the patients speaking with a French or a German accent? I don't recall a receptionist ever looking at me and saying, "Oh, that's just another one of those Europeans who flew into town for treatment. You know how they're jamming the airports. I guess health care is really bad over there." Actually, I've read that people in other developed countries are generally very satisfied with their health care and aren't exactly clamoring for a return to a private system. In fact, many of them have private insurance to supplement their public plans. So much for the argument that a public plan would kill private insurance.
As for Cantor's second point, this is classic anti-health care reform baloney sausage, as my mother would say. Private insurers tell patients which doctors they can see, which procedures they will pay for, and how much the doctors get paid. This has been the case for decades; the doctor-patient relationship Cantor refers to hasn't existed since Leave it to Beaver went off the air. And that's if you can still qualify and afford private health insurance. Just make sure you don't lose your job or have any of those pesky pre-existing conditions.
It's hard to listen to the Eric Cantors of the world talk like this, especially with people like Joe Kernan nodding silently in agreement. But if this is the best the Republicans can do, then I think we may get real health care reform this term.
Monday, April 20, 2009
calling on those in his flock to build their faith on “trust in what cannot be seen,” and not only “on empirical, scientific evidence.”
Given that advice, what would prevent someone from believing that a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith had a vision in upstate New York in the early part of the nineteenth century? 13 million Mormons worldwide believe that. They also believe that Smith was called by God to found the Mormon Church and that he translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates he received from the angel Moroni. The Book of Mormon is thought to be an ancient record of the people who inhabited the American continents. Among other things, it says that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri and that Jesus visited America after his resurrection.
Sound a little goofy? I think so, but don't laugh too hard. The Mormon Church is one of the fastest growing in America. And why not? With sermons like Dolan's, what's to prevent someone from believing anything?
Are there limits to faith? If so, where is the line? What wouldn't you believe? George Carlin used to joke that he was a member of a church that taught that when you die your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo. Is that a whole lot crazier than some of the stuff the Mormons believe? And are the Mormons any nuttier than anyone else?
Why not rely on "empirical, scientific evidence?" Wouldn't that be a better approach to reality? Otherwise, you might find yourself believing some day, as the Mormons do, in magic underwear.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Take the guy to my north for example (let's call him Ray). He's seventy-something and the chairman of one of the many engineering departments at Northwestern University. He's obviously a bright man, but I'm not sure you would arrive at that conclusion from watching him do yard work. First of all, he doesn't start until about five or six in the afternoon. He's a night owl, you see, and I know that because he once told me that a car pulled into our driveway at around three or four in the morning. Never mind why you're up at that hour, Ray. Why are you up at that hour looking out your window at my driveway? Then there's the matter of how he dresses while cutting his grass. Most men would be better off not to appear in public without their shirts. That goes double for seventy-plus year-old men with big bellies and no tan. To make it worse, he combines this with tiny shorts that in another era would have been known as hot pants. As if that wasn't enough, he also wears old black dress shoes with low black socks. Talk about scaring children! One time when my wife and I were sitting on our patio minding our own business, Ray thought it would be a good idea to drop everything, run inside and get some old photo albums and show us pictures of himself as a child. The whole time he was narrating this fascinating journey down memory lane, I could tell it was all my wife could do not to laugh out loud. When I asked her about this later she noted that one of his shoes was being held together by duct tape. I've seen better-dressed panhandlers than this guy! And that's when he isn't outside wearing his jammies. I'm not kidding. It kind of reminds me of that old mob boss in Brooklyn who used to go everywhere in his pajamas to make the Feds think he was senile and therefore harmless. I wonder what Ray's excuse is.
And then there's my neighbor to the south (we'll call him Dick), who's really eccentric. He's 80 and a widower. I know he's 80 because we went to his birthday party last year (says a lot about our social life). Dick also wears shorts, although they are of the cut-off sweatpants variety. He wears them pretty much year-round, even to shovel snow. But he doesn't always wear them all the way up. Just the other day, I came out of my house and Dick was bent over tending something in his garden. He didn't just have the plumber butt thing going--it was almost a full-fledged moon. Dick, this is a family neighborhood!
Now about that "garden" that Dick was tending; it requires some explanation. It's actually a group of small trees (weeds) surrounded by a semi-circle of about thirty rocks that he's painted silver. Yes, silver. I haven't yet decided if that's an improvement over the bright red that they were painted before. When we went to his birthday party, I had to ask his daughter about that. She laughed it off at first, but when I pressed her on the issue she got a serious look on her face as if to say, "We both know he's nuts so just drop it." Fine. But that's just the front yard. What about all those brightly colored flags in the back yard? You know, those little things landscapers put down to inform you that your lawn has been fertilized. Or that the cable or phone company put down for whatever reason. I'm sure you've seen them. Well, Dick has at least fifty of them in his backyard. I can see them in the winter when all the leaves are down between our houses. He says they're in place of flowers. The rabbits and whatnot eat his flowers and he wants a little color back there. Sure you do. Sometimes I wonder if there's a body buried under each one of those flags. His daughter didn't want to talk about that, either. I can just hear the other neighbors musing to the TV reporters: "He was a very nice man...very quiet...kept to himself...no one ever dreamed anything like that was going on over there..."
Dick's been retired from the advertising business for about thirty years. God knows what he lives on, although he doesn't seem to spend much, certainly not on clothes. He confided in me that at one time he thought he was going to have to go back to work before his house caught fire. He got a pretty good settlement from the insurance company, though, and was able to continue his life of leisure. That was the first time he had a fire at his house. Yes, the first. There's been two of them, the second just after we moved in. And talk about a Chinese fire drill! He and his wife Edie couldn't remember if it was 911 or 919 0r 991 that you were supposed to call in an emergency. It didn't matter anyway because Edie had the phone line tied up while she was writing the Great American Novel on her computer at the time. So the two of them had to run out to the back where the children from the school behind their house were watching the show through the fence. "Quick, kids," Edie instructed them, "Go tell the principal to call the fire department!" So the fire department responded, the fire was put out, and Dick and Edie went to live somewhere else for about a year while their house was being repaired. "I recognized the fire chief from my first fire," Dick told me later. "He's a real nice guy." I didn't have the heart to tell him that it's not necessarily a good thing to be on a first-name basis with the fire chief. It's not like you were having an open house. I have to admit that sometimes it's not very comforting to live next door to a guy who's house is always catching fire.
But they're really good neighbors, and I often think of how good we have it. Just to give you an idea, shortly after we moved in Dick was in his front yard talking to a friend who had stopped by in his car. He was bent over the passenger-side window and his backside was just too tempting a target for my older boy who was all of three at the time. So my son reared back with a snowball and threw a perfect strike, hitting Dick right in the butt. Great way to make a good impression, I thought. What's this old guy going to do? And to my surprise Dick spun around and yelled, "Great shot, Joe!"
"You can bet I would be active and present and, I hope, articulate in this particular position."
How is this supposed to make gay Catholics feel? Welcome? Accepted? And what are tolerant Catholics supposed to tell their gay friends, neighbors, and relatives? "Oh, that's not me, that's just my church. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.)" Does a priest like Dolan really believe that gays are sinners who choose their sexuality? Doesn't he read anything or talk to anyone? A lesbian once asked me, "Why would we choose this lifestyle?"
Why does the Catholic Church always seem so reactionary? And why does it seem that the Church always lags behind the population as a whole? The Church was even slow to condemn something as seemingly unambiguous as slavery. Why is that? And why do some Catholics have such patience for this? Why don't they leave and join a church more in line with their beliefs? After all, aren't most Christian churches in agreement on the Big Things?
I asked my sister-in-law this question recently and she had a good answer. According to her, the Holy Spirit can act by changing individual Catholic minds which can ultimately change the Church as a whole. The hierarchy then validates these changes over time. At least that's how I understood it. So for example, after the Pope re-affirmed the Church's position on birth control in 1968, the laity could gradually change its mind thus influencing the hierarchy. Fair enough. But it's been forty years! Most Catholic couples dissent. How long do these people have to wait for the hierarchy to join them? Another forty years? Won't most of them be dead by then? Are they content to be considered sinners for their entire lives? And as far as I can tell, the Church shows no signs of changing its teaching on this matter. So it could practically take forever.
The same is true for same-sex marriage. Most Americans seem to be evolving to a position of at least live-and-let-live. I'll bet most Catholics are evolving this way as well. But the new archbishop of New York, which is probably the most high-profile job in Catholic America, took the opportunity of his first news conference to reiterate the Church's official position of intolerance. Why not flip the historical pattern on its head and lead the congregation instead of following it? (Paterson is Catholic, by the way.) I know it sounds crazy, but what if Dolan had said, "We're going to stop condemning gays and lesbians and instead ask for their forgiveness. While we can't sanction their relationships just yet by marrying them in the Catholic Church, we can at least end our official disapproval and give Governor Paterson our full support in this matter."
Instead, it's business as usual, and progressive Catholics who stay in the Church will just have to suffer in silence. But the Church will eventually come around on this issue, just as it did on slavery. It will just come around after everyone else has come around. It might take fifty years, it might take a hundred, but it will happen because that's the trajectory of history. And this is what I have so much trouble understanding. Why are good people willing to stay in an institution that may not change in their lifetime? Why remain in a church filled with such ignorance and intolerance? Why follow leaders who won't lead?
Friday, April 17, 2009
The United States prosecuted some Japanese interrogators at war crimes trials after World War II for waterboarding and other methods detailed in the memos.
That settles it then. If it was torture then, then it's torture now. And if it was wrong for them to do it, then it's wrong for us to do it. End of conversation.
...may well go down as one of the most important events in the history of American capitalism. Gross hyperbole? Maybe. But I choose my words carefully. In Bloomberg this morning, Fed governor Janet Yellen is quoted as saying that it was a mistake to allow Lehman to collapse, that the firm was “too big to fail,” and its bankruptcy caused a “quantum” jump in the magnitude of the financial crisis.The article goes on to say that:
Some experts have since said that the U. S. gazed into the abyss after the events of September 15. I don't know. It's above my pay grade. (Actually I don't feel so bad about that. From the look of Bush during the crisis, he didn't understand it, either. And he was the president! Neither did McCain or Obama, for that matter.) But to me this is the question upon which this entire financial crisis hinges. Were these firms, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Citi, etc. too big to fail? Were they so large and their counter-party obligations so vast as to endanger the entire U. S. economy and by extension, the world's? Would ATMs have ceased working? Would companies have been unable to meet their payrolls? Would things have descended into chaos? If so, then we did the right thing. But I don't know. Again, it's above my pay grade. Sounds a lot like the Y2K fears that never came to pass. Or the "mushroom cloud" scare tactics that the Bush administration used to rush us into the Iraq War. But when the chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, who is considered to be an expert on depressions, and the former CEO of Goldman, the Cadillac of Wall Street, Hank Paulson, tell me that we need hundreds of billions to bail out these firms or else the doomsday scenario will play out, who the hell am I to argue? And what's more, who the hell are the Republicans--including Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich--to argue? So we bailed them out and Armageddon was averted. For now.
Since then I've read that Paulson bailed out AIG to save Goldman. Perhaps. But that sounds like a conspiracy theory to me and I'm naturally skeptical of those. And besides, how does that account for Bernanke's role? He sure seems impartial to me. No, as far as I'm concerned if two of the top experts in American finance tell me something, I have to take their advice. It's just as if the best neurosurgeon in town tells me that I need to go under the knife or else I'll die. I'm just not going to argue. He's got the fancy degrees hanging on his wall; I don't. And it's my life we're talking about here.
So back to Lehman. How does that decision become the most important in the history of American capitalism? Because it justifies the government's role in the economy. If Bernanke and Paulson were right and these institutions were too big to fail, then Armey, Gingrich, Rick Santelli, Ayn Rand devotees, followers of Milton Friedman and all the Austrian economists like Hayek and von Mises, libertarians, all the congressional Republicans that voted against the bailouts and the stimulus and all the teabaggers that protested on Wednesday are wrong and need to shut up once and for all. If the economy and the financial system have become too complex and interconnected, then large firms like AIG and Lehman cannot be allowed to fail. Maybe firms that are too big to fail should not be allowed to become too big to fail. But that requires government intervention also. Either way, the government has a legitimate role to play in the economy and the free-marketeers are discredited. If companies like AIG and Lehman can fail with no systemic risk to the nation, then the pure capitalists are right and the free market should resume its job of picking winners and losers.
But my sense is that the world has just gotten too complicated for the free market approach. This isn't the nineteenth century and we're not going to eliminate the Fed or go back to the gold standard. And derivatives and complex financial transactions are not going away. It's just not going to happen. We've come too far down the road of government intervention in the economy to turn back now. We can debate its merits all day long but it's kind of like debating the merits of the automobile over the horse and buggy--at this point it's academic.
The problem with economics is that unlike the hard sciences we can't go back in a lab and test what would have happened. Maybe if AIG had failed we would have all survived just fine, thank you, and saved billions (no, trillions when you add it all up). But we don't have that luxury. We'll never know what would have happened. So either Bernanke, Paulson, Geithner, and Summers are right and the economy recovers or it doesn't and the Armey-Gingrich crowd takes over in 2012. And if they do and large financial firms are allowed to fail with no dire consequences for the economy, then they were right and all of this money we spent was a colossal mistake. But if it's determined that some firms can't fail, then the government has a legitimate role in the economy and the argument is settled.
Another analogy is the U. S. role in World War II. Before the war, Charles Lindbergh and the America First crowd argued against American entry into the war. Had the war gone poorly, they would have been vindicated and it could have changed the course of U. S. foreign policy. But the war went well, and the isolationists were never heard from again. They may or may not have been right, but the victors (in this case the interventionists) wrote the history.
So stay tuned, and see how this one plays out. It just might be the most pivotal event in modern American economic history. It could set the tone for the role of government in the economy for years to come.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
How fair is the current system? I'll bet the casinos in Las Vegas wish their odds were as good as the private insurers.
My impression of the tea party brigades is that they are a small, vocal minority. Very small. And not even that coherent. Their gripes were all over the map. I saw signs calling for a repeal of NAFTA practically next to posters of Ayn Rand, the big proponent of free markets. And although a number of them turned out yesterday, I'll bet they amount to even less than the thirty-something percent that still approved of George Bush at the end of his presidency. The silent majority remains with Obama. Recent polls say that about 60% trust him to make good decisions on the economy while less than 30% feel that way about the Republicans in Congress. That could change, of course, if things don't turn around by 2010 or 2012, but for now the teabaggers look more like just a bunch of cranks to me.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Every once in a while I'd wonder if everyone else was right about this water thing except me. Was I just being my usual stubborn, cantankerous self? Nah! Should I just give in and start drinking a ton of water? And then one day I looked at my dog and noticed that she wasn't running to her water bowl every five minutes and drinking the equivalent of eight eight-ounce glasses a day. I guess it was because she couldn't read and didn't know any better. Or maybe she knew exactly how much water to drink. You see, she had a water strategy, too. She'd wait until she got thirsty and then saunter over to her water bowl and lap up a few ounces, although not necessarily eight. (Not only could she not read, she couldn't count very well, either. At least that's what I always assumed. Maybe she was awesome at it.) It wasn't a very complicated strategy, but it seemed to do the trick. She died of old age, not dehydration. (We actually put her "to sleep," although she was old.) So on I went through life scowling as everyone around me compulsively hydrated, hydrated, hydrated. Until one day everyone Just Got Tired of the whole thing. They got tired of constantly running to the bathroom, they got tired of paying money for what had always been free, and they got tired of carrying water bottles everywhere they went. (One guy on my train used to have three bottles of water sticking out of his briefcase every morning. I used to wonder, where does this guy work, the desert? Don't they have running water in the office somewhere? I wonder if he still does that. I wonder if he feels silly whenever he thinks back on that. If I ever see him again, I'll be happy to remind him. That image is forever burned into my retina.) So everyone got tired of it, the debunkers did their debunking, and the world went back to the way it had always been. And then one day while I was getting a drink from a water fountain someone walked by and said, "Hey, you don't have to do that anymore. It's been debunked."
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I agree with Warren Buffet; we'll all be living better in five years and even better in ten. Why? Because that's been my experience in fifty years on this planet.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
"It's moving forward."
I didn't ask him which direction it was moving; I was pretty confident that it wasn't moving backward. But before I could respond he took a call on one of those blue tooth cell phones he had attached to his ear. At first I thought he was expanding on his unintelligible answer, but I was soon distracted by the next guy behind me, who started ripping into his wife on his cell phone about the long line. Something told me his wife ordered the ham and sent him to pick it up instead of napping in front of the Cubs game all afternoon. "That's what I said, Dear, it's about an hour wait!" An hour, I thought! I didn't bring a hat and the sun was beating down on my bald head. I briefly considered running back to the car to get it but I didn't think this would be the type of crowd that would let me back in easily. They all seemed to have a short fuse and although I have never actually seen one, it made me think that this is what a lynch mob looks like. You'd never know it was just a bunch of people waiting on line to pick up hams. So I stayed, and not wanting to be the only troglodyte not bitching at his wife on an electronic device, I texted her, "You should see the line!" And my wife, who is well-known for her empathy, texted me back immediately, "tough shit just get the ham," without any capitals or punctuation.
By this point we had gotten in the door only to find one of those snake lines that used to be common at banks. Now the guy behind me was getting really steamed. This had to have taken us at least five minutes! It was at about this time that another older guy noticed his Notre Dame sweatshirt and asked him if he went there. "No," was the reply, "but my son did." "So did mine!" said the first. Before they could get much further I figured it would be a good time to ask them what they thought of the budding controversy involving Obama's commencement speech in May. And much to my surprise they both had different opinions on the subject and felt very strongly about them, too. I would have liked to have stuck around to hear the debate, but just then I was called up to the counter to claim my ham. I hadn't felt so important since the last time I walked across the stage to collect my diploma. I was very polite, though; I didn't want to blow it like Elaine did with the Soup Nazi. I didn't dare come home without the main course. When the lady asked me if I wanted to see the ham I said "Sure," since everyone else felt compelled to inspect the goods. I didn't know what I was supposed to say when she unwrapped it so carefully, so I just said "Yep, that's a ham, all right!" She resealed it with a look on her face that practically said, "I can't believe I only have to do this a hundred more times until six o'clock!" That got me thinking, and I asked her if there would still be hams available if someone showed up as they were closing their doors. She got another exhausted look on her face and dropped her head so she could look at me over the tops of her glasses. "Yes," was all she said. I took this as my cue to pay her and get out.
When I emerged from the store the line outside was even longer than when I got there. Everyone looked nervous and appeared to be bitching at their significant others on their cell phones. With my eyes staring straight in front of me I couldn't resist saying loudly but to no one in particular, "You'd better hurry up, they're running out of hams in there!"
While I'm on the subject, I still haven't arrived at a strong opinion on the Obama-Notre Dame controversy, even though I wrote a piece about Pat Buchanan's take. I can see the merit in both sides of the discussion, but so far I think it's a decision for the Notre Dame community to make.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Now I have to admit I think that's a little crazy. She and her father ought to have their heads examined. Who ever heard of dipping orange sorbet in key lime syrup?
I hope Miley Cyrus turns out just fine. After all, Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster certainly did. But child stardom is not always easy to navigate. I sure hope her father knows what he's doing.
Senate Republicans have already voiced their opposition to giving all Americans access to government-run health insurance.
“Forcing free market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an unlevel playing field and inevitably doom true competition,” several senior Senate Republicans wrote in a letter to Obama dated March 4.
“Ultimately, we would be left with a single government-run program controlling all of the market. This would take health care decisions out of the hands of doctors and patients and place them in the hands of another Washington bureaucracy.”
Is this true? Are health care decisions currently in the hands of doctors and patients? Not in the world where I live. Those decisions are in the hands of private insurance companies. They are the ones who decide who gets coverage, at what price, what procedures patients will have, which doctors they can see and how much those doctors will be paid. Now I know we've all been taught since Reagan to believe that the government is always less efficient than the private sector (it's almost become axiomatic), but after having dealt with private insurers over the years, I can't believe a Washington bureaucracy could be much worse. Maybe the health insurers should be run more like utilities. Without the incentive to maximize profits, maybe the doctors and patients would get a better shake.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
...recently as he and his school, Whitney Young, won the Illinois state basketball championship. Apparently, Jordan had tears in his eyes as he watched his son's last high school game. As a father I can certainly relate to that. I've never been one to cry easily but I could imagine my eyes welling up at an emotional moment like that.It reminds me of another story of a famous guy crying. In December of 2007, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appeared on Meet the Press and said that he...
...wept with relief when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon church, announced a 1978 revelation that the priesthood would no longer be denied to persons of African descent.His eyes appeared to fill with tears as he discussed the emotional subject...
“I was anxious to see a change in my church,” said the Republican presidential candidate, appearing for the full hour just two weeks ahead of the crucial Iowa caucuses.
“I can remember when I heard about the change being made. I was driving home from — I think it was law school, but I was driving home — going through the Fresh Pond rotary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I heard it on the radio and I pulled over and literally wept.
“Even to this day, it’s emotional,” Romney went on.
"What the ..."
"Are you okay? Is there something you want to tell us?"
"Was it something you heard on the radio? Was it the weatherman? Did he say this cold snap was going to last longer than he thought? Tell us Mitt!"
"Was it that thing about the Mormon Church? Oh yeah, you're a Mormon. I forgot. That must have been it. What did he say again? Are they going to let blacks be priests, or something? Is that good or bad? Was that it, Mitt? For the love of God shake your head, YES OR NO!"
...but there it is on Yahoo:
MONTPELIER, Vt. – Vermont on Tuesday became the fourth state to legalize gay marriage — and the first to do so with a legislature's vote.
The House recorded a dramatic 100-49 vote — the minimum needed — to override Gov. Jim Douglas' veto. Its vote followed a much easier override vote in the Senate, which rebuffed the Republican governor with a vote of 23-5.
I have to tell you I'm shocked. I had no idea Vermont had a Republican governor!
CUBS WIN WORLD SERIES!
(Live to see it.)
And below was an ad for a place that will help you quit smoking.
I hope I do live to see it. I'm 50 years old and have been a suffering Cubs fan since 1969. My son once told me that he'd like to see the Cubs win the World Series just for my sake. That was nice but I told him that I'd like to see the Cubs win just for my Uncle Ed's sake. He's a bigger Cubs fan than me and hasn't seen the Cubs win the World Series either. And he's almost 80 years old! George Will once noted that the last time the Cubs won the Series Tolstoy was still alive. Even the Red Sox and White Sox have won in the last few years. If this is purgatory at least tell us what we did wrong in our former lives. Hopefully they were sins of commission and not omission.
Friday, April 3, 2009
That's certainly a disturbing thought, but the New York Times magazine had a cover story this past weekend on an 85-year-old physicist named Freeman Dyson. Apparently, he's a brilliant scientist who's a bit of a skeptic on global warming. You can still find it online and it's a really interesting piece. But one of his quotes stuck out in my mind when I was reading this article on Yahoo:
“Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice,” Dyson said. So maybe the first paragraph of that AP story is misleading. Anyway, if you have the time you should take a look at that article in the NYT magazine.
Moore gushes about the President of the United States firing the CEO of the "wealthiest and most powerful corporation of the 20th century." He claims that "this bold move has sent the heads of corporate America spinning and spewing pea soup. Obama has issued this edict: The government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business." Well, not exactly. In fact, if you don't go to the federal government with your hat in your hand asking for money you're probably okay. My guess is that Obama doesn't want to own GM any more than anyone else. They're an albatross and only life-long residents of Michigan like Moore haven't figured that out.
I'm not a big fan of Moore's, in case you can't tell. I've seen a few of his movies and I've decided that he's either dishonest or just plain nuts. None other than John McCain called him a "disingenuous film-maker" in that annoying high-pitched voice of his at the Republican convention in 2004. I don't recall if he prefaced that remark with his creepy verbal tic "my friends" but I remember agreeing with him. You know it's bad when you're quoting John McCain. And while I'm trashing him, Moore is also a bit of a hypocrite (as are we all). I couldn't help noticing in his piece that when he was a struggling artist "the assistant manager at the movie theater would sneak me in so I could watch an occasional movie." He doesn't say, but I assume this means he didn't pay. That's stealing. Moore would pillory anyone else who did that.
He concludes the piece by saying that he wondered what his old friends and neighbors "must have all thought when they woke up this Monday morning to read in the Detroit News or the Detroit Free Press the headlines that Obama had fired the CEO of GM. Oh, wait a minute. They couldn't read that. There was no Free Press or News. Monday was the day that both papers ended home delivery. It was canceled (as it will be for four days every week) because the daily newspapers, like General Motors, like Detroit, are broke." And why is that? Because they can't compete with the Internet and with Web sites like The Daily Beast, where Moore chose to publish this article.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
The woman who cut my hair today wasn't clear on the number two buzz, however, and had to bring the older lady over to help with the back of my neck. I couldn't help asking her what language they were speaking and she responded, "Assyrian, the Lord's language." Huh? In Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which was praised for its accuracy, Jesus spoke Aramaic. I didn't correct her, though. I figure it's never a good idea to antagonize someone who's holding sharp metal instruments in close proximity to your throat. She finished up, finally (how long is this going to take?) and held a mirror up so I could see the back of my head. This is always an awkward moment as I'm never sure what I'm supposed to say. "Looks good?" That's not very creative. What I want to say is, "Hey, what did you do to my mullet?" It's like when you're at a restaurant and the waiter pours you a little wine to try before he fills up everyone else's glass. It's kind of an E. F. Hutton moment. Everyone at the table stops what they're doing to look at you and see how you handle it. What are you supposed to do? Hold the glass up to the light, swish it around a few times and then drink it? Meanwhile, the waiter is either sighing audibly or rolling his eyes.
"C'mon, buddy," he's thinking. "I've got five other tables to take care of."
"Yep. That's definitely a '97 Pouilly-Fuisse. Thought for a minute there that you were going to try to slip a '98 past me." At that point everyone exhales and you can get on with the meal.
But I turned to the barber and mumbled, "Looks good," or some such banality and she looked relieved. I really wonder if that was her first professional haircut. Now she's wondering if the tips are always so meager. Oh well, you get what you pay for. Haircut looks good, though.
Now lavish spending I can understand but poor investments? I found out that Vick signed a ten-year contract for $130 million. NFL contracts are a little tricky but let's assume for the sake of argument that he was paid $13 million a year. If he invested it in risk-free Treasuries at 3% interest a year (is that assumption too high?) he'd take down $390,000 a year before taxes and never touch the principal. Shouldn't 390K a year be enough for anyone to live on? I'll bet that's more than his father ever made. Wouldn't you think that he'd be pretty much insulated from ever declaring bankruptcy?