February 20, 2009

A Dream Fulfilled

Perhaps it was not too early in my career to achieve the ultimate: a letter chosen as an "Editors' Selection" by the New York Times.  As a small child growing up in a nondescript neighborhood, suffering through the anomie of the Eisenhower years, such an accomplishment seemed beyond my grasp, perhaps because (a) there was no Internet and (b) there was no such thing as an Editors' Selection at the New York Times.  Maybe, however, such a prize, this Golden Fleece of the churlish Net-commenter, existed as a Platonic Ideal, one of those reflections or shadows on the cave wall he wrote about.  No, I never understood what Plato was talking about, either.

I had suffered, as most products of public education must suffer, as I saw all those commenters from Cambridge, MA and Greenwich, CT ascend to the heights of Editors' Recommendations. Why? I would ask.  Why can't one of my letters make the grade?  I had the West Coast advantage. I can read the Times columns at 9 pm Pacific Time and comment before anyone else can comment.  Or - was that the problem? Was my exclusion the all-too-predictable East Coast bias against the under-educated rubes of the Western provinces?  So many of the comments from the East Coast bear time stamps of 6:30 am or so, meaning that if I wanted to mix my contribution in among the East Coasters without drawing a lot of attention, I would have to get up at 3:30 am.  Was it worth it?  Well, of course it's worth it.  The reason most people read columns in the New York Times at all is simply to provide grist for their own opinion mills. Particularly if you're reading something as worthless as a column by David Brooks.

But my letter was in response to Dr. Nobel himself, Paul Krugman.  This is where the Big Boys come to post.  You know, hitch your wagon to a star.  If a man's reach does not exceed his grasp, what's a Heaven for?  Your turn, as Woody says to the Spanish couple in "Love & Death."

What does an Editors' Selection look like?  Like this, and by the way, I think it was the use of "sui generis" that made the Editors think that maybe, just maybe, I had gone to Harvard or Yale and was therefore worth taking a flyer on:

"Not too many columns ago, Prof. Krugman wrote that 2009 would certainly be a bad year, but that he felt fairly optimistic about 2010. I didn't understand his sunny attitude at the time. This column seems to clear that up. The previous prognosis was probably a reflexive analysis about recessions in general: they run their course in a year or two, things improve. What makes this downturn sui generis, I think, is that it's the culmination of a number of very bad trends in America all converging at once. A hollowed-out, offshored manufacturing base, leaving Americans with the crap jobs of the service economy; over-development of the suburbs leading to an excess supply of houses vs. qualified buyers; and decades of flatlined earnings by the majority of Americans, who watched the uber-rich take a disproportionately huge chunk of all income. On top of this, we've had a ridiculously unbalanced trade relationship with China and the oil exporters, we've run large budget deficits, and we failed to prioritize away from military spending (and adventurism) toward technological innovation such as green energy, mass transit, universal health care and energy efficient housing. Now we're in a world of hurt, and we've taken a lot of countries down with us, including those we were counting on to finance our way out of this mess. I think we'll certainly have our own Lost Decade. If we don't get creative, innovative and more self-sufficient, then in the immortal words of the Sage of Crawford, "this sucker could go down."

February 19, 2009

Tentative Feelings of Buyer's Remorse

I'm coming to terms with my disappointment in Barack Obama.  I was an enthusiastic supporter of his during the campaign, and I don't regret the choice of O over the unthinkable John McCain, but I must admit that Obama has settled into the all-too-predictable pattern of selling out to Beltway modes of behavior much sooner than I thought he would.  I worked in his campaign, I flew to Florida to work as a precinct lawyer, all on my own dime, I contributed more money to his campaign than I had ever previously donated to any candidate.  I know some of this smacked of desperation to avoid another Bush in the White House, another warmongering, "gut-following," intellectually limited inhabitant of the Oval Office, but a lot of it was based on that most fragile of emotions, blind hope.

In truth, Obama's done some very positive things.  His stance on global warming, for example, which despite its occasional eclipse as a front-running issue, remains the existential problem of our time.  Obama has completely reversed Bush's policies on allowing the individual states to set carbon-reducing standards higher than the federal government.  That is crucial, because federal action requires Senator Harry Reid to overcome his fetish about the "60-vote" rule, behind which Reid hides his own deep conservatism.  Reid will always tell us he can't do anything because the Republicans will tell him he can't if he tries.  

Obama's actions to stem foreclosures are another major breakthrough, because he has led the U.S. Congress actually to enact legislation, mirabile dictu, which assists the ordinary American citizen.  Since almost all Congressional enactments of recent years are designed to punish average Americans for their bad judgment in not being very rich, I had forgotten that Congress had that power.  Consider, for a moment, the Bankruptcy "Reform" Act of a few years ago, passed to make it more difficult for consumers to write off usurious credit card debt.  Joe Biden, your Vice President, was the lead man for the Democrats on that nasty piece of anti-commoner work.  He's now the head of Obama's "Middle Class Task Force."  Hey, good luck, Middle Classers!  And remember when Congress made it illegal for Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts with Big Pharma as part of its senior "Medicare prescription" bill?  That's why, in Michael Moore's "SiCKO," the woman who paid $120 for an inhaler in the U.S. could buy the same device in Cuba for five cents, because your Congress wants you to have no escape from monopolistic captivity.

I notice there's been no reversal of that ridiculous provision even though the Democrats now hold a commanding majority.  Also, the Military Commissions Act is still on the books even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the habeas-stripping provision is unconstitutional, and even though the retroactive exoneration provisions violate the Convention Against Torture (making it also unconstitutional).

Speaking of which, Obama's temporizing on whether the Bush officials involved in torture should even be investigated is beyond lame.  The Convention Against Torture, to which the United States became a signatory under Ronald Reagan, requires the United States to investigate and prosecute all torture offenses committed by its citizens where credible evidence exists of the crime.  In our situation, Bush & Cheney have admitted that they ordered torture (waterboarding, among other offenses).  The Convention expressly eliminates any excuse for torture: no "national security," no "advice of counsel," no "following orders," no other rationales work (on this ground alone, the Military Commissions Act is unconstitutional, since treaties are the supreme law of the land and prevail over domestic statutes).  It does not matter, according to the clear standards of the Convention, whether drowning the evil-doers, or flying them around to places like Jordan and Egypt to be tortured, was designed to "keep us safe."  

So Obama's bullshit about his "focus on the future" and "getting it right moving ahead," does not fly.  There are some awfully smart lawyers out there, such as Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley, Bruce Fein, Michael Rattner, Jack Balkin and others, who know there is only one way to deal with the Convention Against Torture honestly: comply with it, or expressly declare that for some reason the United States, which has always demanded that other nations comply with the Convention (and has assisted in the prosecution of war criminals based upon it), is not subject to a law which appears in the United States Code Annotated and expressly covers the offenses which Bush and Cheney have admitted openly.  Obama can give all the pretty speeches he wants about "bipartisanship" and "healing" and the rest of it; if he wants to be taken seriously as an intellectually honest lawyer, he's going to have to convince them.

President Obama is never going to be pressed on this specific, unavoidable point by the craven favor-seekers at one of his press conferences.  (I notice, sadly, that he has picked up Bush's practice of going down a list of reliable Media Stars when "calling on" reporters.)  It is to Obama's shame that he is not dealing openly with the issue.  If he wants to be "honest and transparent," then he needs to announce as follows:  "The United States is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture.  Credible evidence exists that members of the Bush Administration, including the President and Vice President, ordered acts of torture proscribed by the Convention.  We are under a mandatory duty to investigate and to prosecute, if warranted by the investigation.  Despite these clear, unequivocal and explicit duties, I am ordering my Department of Justice to violate the Treaty because... [fill in a reason]."

If he doesn't do that, he's dishonest.  If he does do that, he's complicit and part of an obstruction of justice.  The only way to avoid dishonesty and complicity is to seek an express abrogation of the Treaty and to declare that the United States, alone among all civilized nations, does not prosecute its citizens for torture prohibited by the Act.

February 18, 2009

Urban Outdoorsman

A fellow living in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco said that he preferred the term above to "homeless."  One thing about people who more or less completely drop out of the network of society's compromises is that they typically develop droll senses of humor.  Thoreau certainly had one.  Thoreau considered himself a denizen of the woods while he lived at Walden Pond between 1845 and 1847, but I doubt that he would have objected to "urban outdoorsman" as an interchangeable term.  Thoreau, after all, went to Harvard and held jobs in the straight world before he decided, at the age of 28, that such a "lifestyle" was too limiting and decided to transact his business directly with nature.

This guy living in GG Park, Tom Sepa by name, resides in a tent in less-traveled parts of the park, places where Mayor Gavin Newsom's homeless-rousting cops are less likely to find him.  He has a laptop and a cell phone and works as a telemarketer, logging on each morning at a Richmond District cafe. He prefers the park to homeless shelters because he doesn't like the annoying presence of drunks and dopeheads in the city facilities.  He says he makes about $2,000 to $3,000 a month, and can save almost all of it.  He maintains a low overhead, of course, but his budget allows him to check into a motel about twice a month for a shower.  He's got a line on available bathrooms in the area and prefers Starbucks, since you can lock the door.

I would imagine that Tom knows firsthand that Thoreau's essential premise, that the fundamental requirement of life is the maintenance of vital heat, is ineluctable.  You have to eat to fuel metabolism and protect yourself from the elements to conserve the heat thus generated.  An energetic scientist (in both senses of the word) writes:  

"I've mentioned to you before the parameter of daily energy expenditure called the Physical Activity Level (PAL), which is the ratio of daily total energy expenditure over the resting metabolic rate. 70 kg humans rest at about 75 watts and typical hunter-gatherers have a PAL of about 2.0. So on an average day primitive humans operate at about 150 watts over the 24 hr of a day (put another way, a total daily energy expenditure of 24 hr x 150 watts = 3.6 kilowatt-hrs). The US energy grid is delivering about 3.4 terawatts at any given moment, so the average American accounts for over 10,000 watts. It's like we have 10,000/150 = about 60 hunter-gatherers working for each of us around the clock."

A fellow like Tom Sepa obviously is not pulling his weight.  I wouldn't be surprised if his body weight is the idealized 70 kg, but I would surmise that his exogenous power usage (unrelated to his own ambling and talking on his cell phone) is confined to plugging in his laptop at the Zephyr Cafe and recharging the phone.  On the other hand, I'm sure he does a lot more walking than most Americans, but this pulls no power from the grid.  He is not hunting or gathering, per se, but he is moving, which is closer to our aboriginal roots. Since he's not chasing down zebra, it's quite possible he's in the 1.5 range above resting wattage, a goal worthy of emulation. 

The breakdown of the "consumer" economy, where finance plays a 20% role in our GDP and 72% of all GDP is related to consumer spending (and where manufacturing has shrunk to about 12% of GDP), will have the tendency to move the majority of Americans along a continuum away from Donald Trump and in the general direction of Tom Sepa, the Urban Outdoorsman. Despite the efforts of Washington D.C., with its bought-and-paid-for bias in favor of reestablishing the status quo ante, that of a Bubble Economy built upon extravagance, asset inflation and prodigious overuse of energy, we will move relentlessly toward simpler and less energy-intensive ways of maintaining our vital heat.  We need this, the planet needs this. Maybe what the Obama Administration could do, most efficiently, is simply give us all of our money back (instead of giving it to Citigroup and B of A) and let us take it from here, establishing local economies built to local scale. Then Barack could become mayor of Washington D.C. and the Congress could hold hearings about holding hearings.

Americans are moving in these directions, mostly because they have no choice.  We're driving less, saving more, and doing without.  Imagine the cushion that most of us have versus the Urban Outdoorsman, who demonstrates how wide the margin is between waste and basic viability. Maybe we can cut down our personal hunter-gatherer workforce to, say, 30 aboriginals.  We could do this while still living indoors if we think it through.

February 17, 2009

Don't You Know It's Gonna Be, Shooby Do, All Right

First, as an exercise in relaxation, do the following.  Go to YouTube and type in "Sungha Jung i will."  That's really all you have to do to brighten your mood for the rest of the day.  If a smile does not break out on your face while you listen to this absolutely amazing twelve year old kid from South Korea work his way through the Paul McCartney tune, then there isn't really much I can do for you anyway.  What makes it so beautiful is that Sungha, who looks nine, not twelve, and plays the acoustic guitar with an angelic grace and touch that few mortals ever achieve in anything, does not appear to take himself seriously at all.  Maybe that's the way it is with genius: no straining after effect.  If you need further proof, then dial up his take on Glen Hansard's "Falling Slowly," for which there are probably a hundred lesson videos by other guitarists showing you how to play it.  Sungha's arrangement, and playing, will simply blow your mind.  Same tune, but so different.

Somewhere back in the 1960's Paul McCartney dreamt up a simple melody based on a routine chord progression found in half of all folk songs and a great deal of other music besides, and then wrote lyrics (with John Lennon) suggesting a somewhat whimsical, yet nevertheless steadfast, love for a woman he apparently has not yet met.  "For if I ever saw you/ I didn't catch your name/but it never really mattered/I will always feel the same."

It was on the 68th take on September 17, 1968, that the Beatles got "I Will" just the way they wanted it and added it to the White Album.  It runs 1 minute 53 seconds.  Forty years later a Korean boy brought that beautiful little ditty back to life.

"The world is wide and full of marvelous people."  Oscar Wilde said that, and it behooves us to remember it.  These seem like tumultuous times, and indeed they are, but paroxysms often precede paradigm shifts.  America could not keep going the way it was going and so it will not.  It will change and I strongly suspect it will change for the better.  Humility, whenever it is learned, is a good thing, and America will be profoundly humbled by the changes underway.

In the meantime, listen to Sungha and bear in mind that time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once.  Meanwhile, I'll give this "I Will" arrangement a shot.  It's in D major, I can see that, even if I can't follow a lot of the up-fretboard stuff.  But I'm inspired.  Out of the mouths of babes, you see. In youth is the renewal of the world.

February 16, 2009

Beyond Ideology into the Brave New World

Nouriel Roubini is an Iranian Jew who teaches business at the Stern School at New York University.  From this paucity of facts, that Mr. Roubini, an Iranian Jew, is (a) alive and (b) someone who continues to thrive, we can deduce, in the manner of Sherlock, that he must be an adaptable, savvy and insightful individual.  

On the cable news financial channels, such as CNBC and Bloomberg, he is usually greeted on his occasional guest appearances with all the enthusiasm of the Plague at the costume ball  in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."  He has earned the sobriquet Dr. Doom because of his relentlessly downbeat assessments of the American economy.  He is hurried on and hurried off, appearing only long enough to bum everybody out.  As soon as his spot is over, the regular shills for the financial industry begin bad-mouthing him, and quickly bring on a more reliable cheerleader who talks about a "bottom" having been reached in the Dow and that it's time for John Q. Public to go long on American stocks once again.

Nouriel is a major irritant because he's always right.  He was writing in detail about the bursting of the housing bubble and the tsunami of bad debts that would overwhelm the banking sector about three years ago.  He was steadfast in pointing out that the figures used for subprime losses (originally estimated at maybe $200 billion) were vastly understated.  His own current estimate of the total eventual loss, worldwide, from bad U.S. mortgage debt is $3.6 trillion, about half of which will hammer American banks directly.  With $1.8 trillion in losses, the U.S. banking system is insolvent.  As a result, Mr. Roubini argued yesterday in the Washington Post that the major insolvent banks (Citigroup, Bank of America will no doubt be among them) should be nationalized.

As the amount of bailout money continues to pile up toward the ionosphere, one must admit that Prof. Roubini has a valid point.  There will be no end to the shoveling of "taxpayer" money into the open maw of these insolvent, imprudent, incompetent banks.  Just take them over so the People have direct control.  The bankrupt banks have lost the right to control their own destinies. A lot of support is lining up behind Dr. Doom, and some rather surprising (at first glance) opposition is also taking shape.  

As one prominent example, Barack Obama prefers that the banking system remain in private hands.  One has to wonder: is this a practical decision or an ideological one?  One can understand the reluctance to turn over the banking industry to a deliberative body as thoroughly, irretrievably corrupt and incompetent as the U.S. Congress.  These are the fools who have managed to wreck the Social Security system by burning through its trust fund.  They are as bad as those corporate greed-heads who have run the banks into the ground. Still, nationalization simplifies the role of Congress.  Congress simply has to appropriate the money, and then it can use lawyers to work out the details of acquisition and hire people from the private sector to run the federal bank. Congress can probably handle that; what it can't handle is coming up with a complex solution to guiding and solidifying the banks while they remain in the control of existing management.  That's way past its skill level.

If the banks under private management, despite the coal-tender approach of shoveling money into the corporate furnaces, become officially, recognizably insolvent, then all hell is going to break loose.  That should probably be the operating principle of the Obama Administration: do those things, and only those things, which avoid all hell breaking loose.  We don't want bank runs, we don't want everyone stashing their cash in mattresses, we don't want a bankrupt FDIC.  If the banks are stabilized by taking them over, then we know how much it's going to cost.  Indeed, Dr. Doom has already told us.  We need a couple of tril.

The question then becomes where to get all this money.  Again, simple ways are best.  We'll be borrowing it, and the most likely place to come up with all the money necessary for this (bad-idea) stimulus and the bank acquisition and liquidity "injection" is through a meltdown of the American equities markets. I imagine this will happen on its own as the American economy continues its inexorable contraction.  The Dow to 2,000, the NASDAQ to 20 or so, the Standard & Poor to very poor indeed.  The cash coming out of these corporate yard sales can be funneled into the investment of last resort, U.S. Treasurys (that's the plural spelling the Serious guys use, I've noticed).  So we'll have the cash and the most boring financial market since the USSR, circa 1955. Those who have money to invest can buy Treasurys; those who need to borrow can borrow money from the federal bank.  The interest rates should be set to earn a little for the federal government; say 5% interest paid, 6% loan rate.

There is a name for this kind of arrangement, of course.  In essence, it's a credit union.  Other vital industries, such as car manufacturing (re-tooled to produce mass transit and electric cars), can also be nationalized, now that we see that GM and Chrysler simply present the same problems as the banks.  Buy them, don't throw money at them.

I can see where Barack Obama would resist a lot of this.  He thought he was going to be President of the United States, not General Secretary of some American socialist state.  Still, we'd better get real.  As a friend always includes with her notes: Reality is that thing, even when you don't believe it, refuses to go away. To avoid truly unimaginable social dislocation, President Obama needs to avoid ideological hair-splitting and focus simply on things that will keep the immense, clumsy, faltering American system from total collapse.