December 02, 2009

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

Fearful symmetry indeed. One thing I have to say at the outset, it's hard to see this story as completely tragic. Okay, I know, the kids, the kids. But leaving the kids to one side for a moment...

Also, I do understand it's no one's business except Tiger & Elin's, but where's the fun in that? Anyway, my approach is to offer an angle on the story-within-the-story, to adduce what general truths about humanity might be divined from a careful scrutiny of Tiger's current predicament. And writing about the Federal Reserve Bank gets a little dry.

Tiger's wife Elin is a model (or was, till she struck it rich) from Sweden. She has a brother and a twin sister. That latter fact raises fun speculations. Elin (pronounced Elin) is 29. She and Tiger were married in 2004 on the 19th hole of a golf course in Barbados. Elin is the father of Tiger's two children, neither of which is named Tiger.

The Other Women, so far: Rachel Uchitel, 34, a "club promoter;" Jaimee Grubbs, 24, a cocktail waitress and reality show contestant; Kalika Moquin, 27, "marketing manager" for The Bank night club in Las Vegas. To date, only Rachel is represented by Gloria Allred. I surmise, therefore, she probably has the best story. Gloria will help her roll the story out in a maximally profitable way, while also making sure that Rachel is not "victimized" or "stigmatized" as Other Women so often are, according to Gloria. This is Gloria's niche practice: the representation of people who have no need for a lawyer but are on the periphery of cases involving people who do. Anyway, the dignity of the women involved is important. I note that they are talking in terms of "affairs" or even "relationships" to describe the random hook-ups with Tiger they've enjoyed over the last couple of years. This is true in about the same sense that Tiger has a "relationship" with his rental car while he's in town.

Tiger is 33, by the way. The mean age of Elin, Rachel, Jaimee and Kalika is 28.5. I think this makes things somewhat easier for Elin, although Jaimee, the reality TV show contestant and cocktail waitress, is an outlier who pulls the sample's average down somewhat, which doesn't help Tiger's cause.

Most of these affairs seem to be of fairly recent vintage, starting up after his two children were born. Here's my take on what's been going on: Elin has been busy a lot with the two kids at home in the mansion in Windemere, Florida. Tiger's a touring professional with an awful lot of money and a great deal of time on his hands when he's on the road. He stays in hotels and goes to restaurants and night clubs. There he might meet club promoters, cocktail waitresses and marketing managers with plumped lips and saline (by volume) in their chests equal to the displacement of the Titanic. These "hospitality workers" are on the payroll to doll up the place. To relieve the stress and boredom of life on the road, Tiger started plunking these gals whenever he was in town. While Tiger himself is a Stanford man, it was probably a matter of supreme irrelevance to him whether Rachel, Jaimee or Kalika (or Elin, for that matter) was a member of Mensa.

Tiger apparently told Kalika that married life had gotten a little dreary, which can happen with a couple of rug rats and the same wife he'd already been married to for five whole years. Ultimately, it's a question of philosophy. As to what happened that night at 2 am between Elin & Tiger, maybe what transpired is that Elin slipped Tiger an Ambien as truth serum and went to work on him while he was in a semi-hypnotic state. It's doubtful that rumors of Rachel, Jaimee and Kalika had entirely escaped Elin's attention. Tiger might have been out of it enough to confess to too much, but not so sideways that he couldn't tell it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. Thus, his bumpy ride down to the street, with Elin, still interested in continuing the interview, giving chase while brandishing (what else?) a golf club.

It's only a theory. Depending on what's in the prenuptial agreement, we may or may not find out what really happened. The police cannot force either party to testify against themselves nor the other party (husband and wife privilege).

As to what the future holds, it probably depends in part (but not entirely) on how many other women sashay forth from behind the velvet ropes in night clubs, bars and hospitality suites. The PGA tour goes pretty much everywhere, after all, and there is no name bigger than Tiger's.

He has neither sunk lower, nor risen higher, in my personal estimation. He's obviously a guy who likes to cat around. This is hardly unique, although for some reason everybody always pretends in these situations, including the guy who gets caught, that it is unusual. If Elin and Tiger patch it up this time, Tiger will be back on the prowl in no time, burning brightly in the forest of the night. It's his nature, of course, although currently he's apologizing for it. Gillette is insisting on that, I'm sure. Elin will have choices to make. She's learning, along with the rest of us, what the guy she married is really like. Life might have looked like one long, green fairway a few years ago, but now the ball has landed squarely in the rough.

The Obama Speech, or: Huh?

Well, that was different. Now I really don't get what we're doing in Afghanistan. I think the idea is that we will fight a war against the Taliban and the 100 or so remaining members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in order to encourage the Pakistani government to keep the same miscreants away from the nuclear weapons in and around Islamabad. We will keep doing this until about July, 2011, at which point the problem will have been solved, in perpetuity. The cost of the 100,000 troops, based on our new consensus-accepted calculation ($1 million per soldier per year), through July, 2011 will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 billion and however many lives are lost.

Something occurred to me as I watched our President go through the motions of this speech. One of Barack's main problems is that Bush left such a disheveled mess of a country in his wake that practically everything Obama does is simply an echo of Bush's agenda, either in furtherance or in contradiction thereof. The wars, the economy, the bailouts, the budget deficit, everything he spends his time doing is in reaction to the colossal catastrophe of the Bush years. The lone exception is health care reform, and let's face it: Congress is simply unequal to the task. It was a mistake for Rahm Emanuel to assign such a monumental undertaking to this group of clowns. They'll never come close to putting anything coherent together.

So the outlines of Rahm's reelection strategy for Barack are now plain. Barack's initiatives are done, because we're out of money, especially with these new war costs. The decision to focus on deficit reduction means that we're barely going to scrape by holding the federal government's core operations together. So Rahm's idea is that Barack, as of the fall of 2011 (one year before the election), will at least be able to say that the country is at relative peace. As for prosperity, maybe things will be somewhat better. One can hope. If so, then the reelection campaign will be based on the concept that Obama brought us peace & prosperity.

If Barack had simply announced a withdrawal from Afghanistan, he would have exposed his Right flank (the only one he cares about) to the criticism that while the redoubtable, pugnacious Bush had the courage of his convictions and ordered a Surge, thus "winning the war" (just before the Ungrateful Nuri told us to leave), Obama didn't have the tenacity to Stay the Course, put Boots on the Ground, and Prevail; that is, to do a Surge of his own. In the fall of 2012, the argument would never have worked that Obama did what he did (pulled the troops) because it was fiscally necessary and the war made no sense anyway. Too complicated - no one can follow that. The reasoning is in two parts, whereas "we stayed and won" is easy to remember. The timing is perfect: the Status of Forces Agreement with the Ungrateful Nuri requires us to have all combat troops out of Iraq by August, 2011, coinciding with the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in July of the same year.

Everyone comes home, and wins across the board! All we have to do in Afghanistan at that point is declare our victory. No one will be able to tell one way or the other. Does anyone know whether we've "won" in Iraq? Nuri is widely regarded by the Iraqi people as a Shiite version of Saddam, running a police state complete with torture chambers, political prisoners, repression and probably the suspension of scheduled elections. He has close ties to fellow Axis of Evil member Iran.

But it's a Win, because it's too complicated to figure out that it isn't. Similarly, any Republican who says that we left Afghanistan (or Pakistan?) before the job was done will be criticized for being a spoil sport and whiner. Of course we won!

So there you have it, the "thinking" behind the Afghanistan Surge. As nearly always the case with Washington, D.C., the non-correlation with reality is just about a perfect 100%. But that's not the business they're in, not anymore. It's the projection of Images of Reality. Those are all that matter, and since there is no chance that a permanent solution to turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be in place 19 months from now, the Image is all we're going to get.

December 01, 2009

This I gotta see

(A little while before viewing my President's speech on Afghanistan.)

(Cue music from "Rocky.")
Rahm Emanuel Productions Presents: Surge II: Afghanistan - This Time It's Focused!

This had better be good, after all the promo and build-up. Barack has been pretty dull over the last few months, but then how fascinating can you be when you're talking about health care reform and budget deficits? B-o-o-o-ring. So finally the early winter blockbuster (beating the other studios to the punch during the holiday season) we've all been waiting for to break the monotony of endlessly mind-numbing reports on the GDP, and jobless rates and whether or not we'll have another stimulus, fercryinoutloud.

This is all the stimulus the American people need. War! (what is it good for - dadunhdaDUNH!)

Since the O-Man's capitulation to the guys wearing scrambled eggs on their shoulder boards was always a foregone conclusion - (I mean, c'mon: what was he gonna do? Make someone unhappy?) I only hope he doesn't spend too much time apologizing for agreeing to do what everyone told him to do during those "tense," "grueling," "exhaustive" meetings he's been holding with Biden, Gates, Hillary, Petraeus, McChrystal and even, during the last meeting, the budget director Orszag (always a bad sign when one of the suits from the studio shows up to tell you you're running over budget). Knowing the President as I don't, however, I know he's going to hem and haw a lot as he explains all the codicils and conditions attaching to this escalation.

To wit, it's not "open-ended." It's not a "blank check." There will be "benchmarks" to gauge our progress and the progress of the Afghan government in meeting our benchmarks. Also (and this is the bathetic rationale for choosing West Point for the speech, aside from the zero percent chance of hearing anyone yell out "You lie!" from the audience), he will tell us that the hardest thing a President can do is to order men into harm's way, especially when he has to do it in order to placate Right Wing critics who will otherwise criticize him for being too "soft." (Thus forcing his Right Wing critics to criticize him on one of the 732 other bases they use.) Actually, I think there could be a couple of things harder, such as emulating George Washington and actually putting yourself in harm's way, but that's another matter.

Maybe he'll actually use the phrase "off ramps." (What kind? Cloverleaf? Runaway truck?) I sure hope so, but maybe it's too colloquial. Mostly, "mission," "cost" (especially the lives of our brave young men and women) and some stuff about terrorist bases and the like. We can't allow Afghanistan ever again to be the place chosen by those who would do America harm to "plot and scheme" to attack us. Instead, we've forced Bin Laden and Co. to travel 50 yards east into Pakistan.

I'm starting to see the problem with the Sequel as mass entertainment to get our minds off the fact the country is swirling down the toilet bowl economically. Rahm, I'm sure (since he knows the Biz) also is aware of the problem with this "vehicle." The war's over eight years old, you know? It's like "Seinfeld" got in the last season or so: repetitive, contrived, kind of forced. The magic is gone. The cool part was late fall of 2001, when the Marines were overrunning Kandahar and vindicating the American people. Now it's the last month of 2009 and...the Marines are trying to overrun Kandahar and vindicate the American people.

How much boffo box office does this franchise still have? Does it got legs left at all? Oh well. If any front man can sell it, it's our Prez. Hey look - didn't we buy into him?

November 30, 2009

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Goldman Sachs recently published a report indicating that the American economy is about 2/3rds of the way through the financial crisis, beginning its analysis with the concession, "bad loans = big losses." The losses so far are about $1.6 trillion, with total losses estimated in the range $2.1 to $2.6 trillion and about 70% of these losses are connected to real estate, one way or another. This estimate is more or less in line with quantitative analysis Nouriel Roubini performed much nearer the outset of the crisis, when he estimated that the total losses from bad loans would be in the neighborhood of $3 trillion.

Of course, that's still a lot of barbecue patios and breakfast nooks. However, I hope GS is right and its many detractors wrong. For example, Zerohedge immediately went on the attack, noting that Goldman had failed to take into account the FASB (accounting) changes (FAS 166-167) that are coming up which will force banks to bring hidden loan losses residing off-balance sheet up onto the deck where they can be seen. I didn't read, however, that Zerohedge and the witty Tyler Durden were really taking into account that Goldman is allowing for nearly a trillion more in recognized losses, which might encompass that delta between where we are (visible) and where we're going, including slimy creatures that might crawl out from under the rocks when 166-67 are operational.

Such prognostications are a severe test, emotionally, for the Selbstschadenfreudeners such as Zero Hedge, Karl Denninger and others. Their stock in trade is financial doom: dollar implosion, sovereign debt default, chaos and murder in the streets. Partly their hidden agenda is the cultivation of their cherished personal beliefs in gold, as in the mineral Au; they reassure themselves that fiat currency regimes always crash, and that gold, which they're flogging and which the Comment Cowboys (h/t: Dan) on their threads buy a lot of, is the only real depository of value. Naturally, this raises questions: can you actually eat the stuff, or burn it to keep warm? (The answers to the same two questions about greenbacks are, (1) Yes, but pointlessly; and (2) Sure, for a little while.) Nouriel Roubini, usually a favorite of the Selbst-essers because he's known as Dr. Doom and successfully predicted the financial crisis about two years in advance [so did I, but did I sell my house? No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.], recently went on their scheisse list because he refused to recommend gold as a hedge.

It is increasingly apparent that Ben Bernanke's basic operating premise is buying time, or as those in the SS say, extend-and-pretend. The Fed itself has essentially become the secondary market for all mortgage-backed securities (MBS) guaranteed by FannieMae and FreddieMac. Its balance sheet, in the course of about a year, went from less than $800 billion to its present $2.2 trillion, and most of the increase is the purchase, by the Fed, of these distressed securities. Bernanke's strategy is to hold these mortgages long enough to give the housing market a chance to reflate, thus putting these instruments back in the money. In the meantime, and as a complement to this approach, the Fed has been hyperactive in the secondary market for Treasuries as a means of holding interest rates down to (a) add a knock-on depressant effect on mortgage rates and (b) keep the vast deficits being run up by the government under control.

The SSers contend that Bernanke's real aim is "to destroy the middle class by destroying the dollar." This is fatuous, of course, as a statement of volition or intention. No, he isn't. Actually, what he's done (whether it works as well as he hopes or not) is borderline brilliant. Semi-smart, as Burt Reynolds might have said in "Semi-Tough." It's the one way out of this bad loan fiasco that doesn't result in massive bank failure (in the 2,000 + range) and further ruination of the housing market.

Zerohedge, The Market Ticker, et alia, need Bernanke to be wrong because that is their stock-in-trade: the day by day prediction of the Apocalypse. Thus, the attribution to Gentle Ben of these nefarious, Dr. Moriarty-like predilections. We're a society now so drenched in class warfare, and so traumatized by the Depression-like miasma hanging over the country, that it's hard to be reasonable anymore. But in fact, if Bernanke succeeds, as difficult as that might be, it redounds to the benefit of every strata of society.

November 29, 2009

A Modest Proposal for Saving the Country

I mean, you have to think big.

Let us posit at the outset that the United States, as presently constituted, simply does not work anymore. The compromises necessary to keep this place together in its present format, and under the present system, have reached the point where no one really gets what he or she wants out of the government, except for those very people in the government in Washington, D.C. Most of them probably like it just fine; they have fame, power, job security, enormous benefits and virtually no talent other than the artful skill of telling routine lies to their constituents so as to assure reelection. Too harsh? You know it isn't.

The country is comprehensively bankrupt. The finances of the federal government are a sick joke at this point. The Feds are simply running a Ponzi scheme to keep the game going by borrowing enormous sums at an accelerating pace, and using those funds and the diminishing tax base to run a military-industrial complex to benefit insiders and to pay the mounting interest on past borrowings. The Feds will never touch the principal of the national debt again. It's too big and they lack all discipline and sense of priorities, such as cutting the defense budget, necessary to achieve it.

The central government, meanwhile, vacuums up money from the states that they could use to run their own governments with balanced budgets and with a regionalized sense of priorities. For example, if Georgia and Oklahoma choose to ban the teaching of evolution in their schools, make the science curriculum wholly a matter of religious indoctrination, and outlaw all abortion under any circumstance, it's okay with me. I say that because I don't live there, and I'm very tired of the dreary compromises that must be made, for example, in choosing Supreme Court justices on the basis of one criterion, and one criterion only, the issue of "choice." In turn, I imagine the Christians in the Southern states and elsewhere in Red America, where they constitute the majority, are very weary of having secularists tell them what must be taught and what must be allowed. As well they should be.

Thus, let us put more emphasis on the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; to wit,

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Naturally your first instinct might be to imagine that I've gone all Strom Thurmond or George Wallace on you, but I haven't. I'm simply very tired of the dysfunctional Congress which is incapable of accomplishing anything, and of the Executive Branch which spends all of its time devising (a) ways to make sure its campaign donors in New York City are taken care of, and (b) wars. What has happened is that the several states have allowed the Federal government to run afoul of Thomas Jefferson's basic axiom, "that government is best which governs least." We have allowed the central government, and its illegitimate financial arm, the Federal Reserve Bank, to run roughshod over the Tenth Amendment.

Power must be reasserted at the local level. The Tenth Amendment needs to be the rallying cry. The Federal Government is tremendously expensive and yet it accomplishes nothing. The Social Security fund, for example, is a self-sustaining system paid for by the citizens of the country and would be solvent except that Congress stole all of the surplus for its own uses. The same can be said of Medicare. The arrogation of power by the Federal government has been accomplished by expansive readings of Constitutional provisions by the Supreme Court, in particular the Commerce Clause, by which the feds assumed jurisdiction over practically anything (literally) that moved.

Along with many other legal thinkers, such as those at Balkinization, I think a new Constitutional Convention is needed to address the multiform dysfunctional aspects of American government. Such as:

1. Dropping the direct election of a President. The tremendous disappointment almost all of his supporters feel in Barack Obama ought to mark the termination point of this quadrennial farce. He's simply another operator, a machine politician pretending to care about American citizens. Enough of that. The United States (or whatever it winds up being called - maybe just "America") should adopt a parliamentary system whereby the electoral districts of the country vote in Representatives or Members of Parliament, to serve four-year terms. The electioneering period for such elections will be limited to six weeks and a serious cap placed on campaign financing. The various caucuses elected nationwide (meaning parties, and I really hope there are five or six) will appoint a Prime Minister or President from among the membership (by majority vote) to serve one six-year term. Votes of No Confidence will be allowed whenever a majority of Parliament concludes that legislative business cannot be successfully pursued, giving rise to special elections for new Parliamentary members.

2. The House of Lords (Senate) will be abolished. Since the average age of the Old White Man's Club is about 137, they may not notice for several years. A replica of the Senate chamber can be built on the outskirts of Las Vegas as a tourist attraction, and the "Senate" can hold hearings there and talk about the "60-vote" rule, just as they do now, until each "Senator" drops dead (if this can be detected).

3. The electoral districts will be apportioned on a strictly one person, one vote basis, so that each district has the same per capita right as all other districts in the country. There will be no more 435 member artificial limitation, which results in disproportionate under-representation in populous states. Choose any number which seems practical, for example, 1,000 members of Parliament, meaning that about every 300,000 citizens have one Member. Every electoral district would have the right to recall or impeach its own Member. Reapportionment would be done every eight years, to coincide with alternating election cycles.

After the first meeting of Parliament, the rest will fall into place. The Members will know that they have to do the business of the people back home or they're through. The Federal central budget will be cut to the bone in favor of local taxation, where a much more efficient use of revenue can be made. The Federal Reserve system will be abolished in favor of state banks, as North Dakota has now. The common defense can be worked out. As many of the expensive and inefficient accretions of the present system as are possible to be rid of, will be gotten rid of. The new federal capital will be located in the center of the country; Washington, D.C. can be turned into a theme park, like the ruins of ancient Rome.

Think about it. Never again will you have to hear about any presidential candidate's "national campaign" (especially four years before the election), watch an ad, or listen to Chris Matthews or Bill O'Reilly tell you how it will turn out. A person living in a theocratic state can move, but the whole country will not be turned on its head in the impossible pursuit of a "workable compromise," because no such thing exists, and hasn't for a very long time. Progressive states which want to live in the modern world will have the money and the political freedom to do so, without federal interference.

It's just crazy enough to work. If nothing is done voluntarily, I'm reasonably sure the United States will undergo chaotic and uncontrolled mutations in the not so distant future, either in the form of (a) insolvency, (b) imposition of martial law or (c) both.