28 February 2009

California Mayor "Unaware of Racial Sterotype That Blacks Like Watermelon"

When the mayor of Los Alamitos claimed that "he wasn't aware of the racial stereotype that blacks like watermelon" after sending a black person an email postcard that depicted the White House surrounded by watermelon fields, with the caption "no Easter egg hunt this year", there was a collective eye roll among black people across America.

In situations like this, you can count on it - the good old "I had absolutely no idea" explanation, which has to rank right up there with "the dog ate my homework" as one of the absolute worst excuses of all time.

I guess I'll have to bring up Eric Holder once again, because it seems that his statement becomes more apropos day by day. This is the kind of cowardice Holder is talking about, when a grown man who sends out an email that clearly uses a derogatory racial stereotype is not brave enough to admit what he was really thinking when he pushed the SEND button.

The thing Holder didn't describe in any detail is why we are cowards when it comes to having honest and open dialogue about race. Can you imagine, if this mayor had simply had a conversation with the recipient of the email, what would have been said?

If this mayor talks about why he is uncomfortable having a black man as the president of the United States, I imagine he will run out of verifiable empirical evidence that shows why black people are inferior human beings in about half a second, if not less. One of the reasons why we are cowards about race is because most of us don't like to say things that make us look stupid.

So the Los Alamitos mayor ends up sounding like your four year old when you catch them red-handed.

Maybe we should take another tack. Try something different the next time something like this happens. Instead of shaming these people into hiding, where they are likely to seek out like minded people for comfort as they lick their wounds, why not give them an outrage free eight minutes and a microphone? Why not let him tell us the mechanics behind the decision making process that goes into putting something like this on your "THINGS TO DO TODAY" list?

You might not be the mayor of Los Alamitos, but if you liked the postcard, or were thinking of sending one to your black friends, take a minute while you're here and let us know why. Eight words, eight sentences, eight paragraphs - I would just like to know.

IGNORANCE. It is one thing to say "I did not know."

DISREGARD. It is another thing to say "I know, but I do not care."

NARCISSISM. It is another thing to say, "I did not know or experience it, so it cannot be true or possible."

ENTITLEMENT. It is another thing to say, "I did not experience it, and therefore, I challenge the possibility that you ever experienced it. I did not suffer from it, so it is not conceivable or acceptable that you could suffer from it. And, seriously, I do not care so, therefore, it is not valid that you care."

From Lessons From The Watermelon Man

These are states of mind that are willfully achieved, not accidentally stumbled upon, or something that a person is casually coerced into going along with. These are states of mind that require a level of total and complete commitment to only acknowledging certain slices of reality.

There are times, even as the fate of our nation's future hangs in the balance, when I wonder if the die hard "Country First" contingent would rejoice in the crumbling of America if it meant the destruction of President Barack Obama.

27 February 2009

No "Magic Bullet" Theory Can Explain Economic Crisis

If you read through hundreds and hundreds of complaints on the web about the economic crisis, you will realize at some point that there is a common denominator between most of the complaints. Most of the people who are angry about this debacle are as confused as they are angry because they are not sure exactly who did this, or how it happened.

I told my buddy yesterday, "the most striking thing about this financial catastrophe is, there is no way to blame a 'rogue' trader or a 'rogue' bank for all of this. You know, the way we usually do when we want to suspend logic and common sense in order to get a neat, gift wrapped answer to the problem that the guy on the six o'clock news can sum up before they read the winning lottery numbers of the day. There will be no Nick Leesom, no John Jett, no Lee Harvey Oswald, 'magic bullet' type of cockamamie theory that will be advanced to neatly explain all of this."

To me, this will be one of the enduring frustrations of the financial crisis – that if you are going to blame anyone, you will have to include almost everyone in the financial food chain. In modern America, that is unheard of. In modern America, even the highly educated have tended to like our national storylines rendered in a beginning – middle – end fashion, with easily recognizable good guys and bad guys, and one crazed, lunatic psycho personification of evil to point at.

"Toxic assets" and "toxic loans" are catchphrases that every over-caffeinated TV and radio producer in the country relies on to paint a picture for their audiences; "community reinvestment act" is one of the hottest buzzwords on talk radio, that opens the door to the age old "the shiftless, lazy, good for nothing Negroes did this to us" - but these days the catchphrases and buzzwords seem impotent in the face of such a huge national calamity, as if the people mouthing the words have no conviction in their voices.

We don't want phrases right now - we want the enemy, the people who have reduced our 401(k) statements to meaningless abstractions, the people who have taken all of our jobs and still want to lay more of us off every week, the people who told us last week that our homes are worth less than we paid for them five and ten years ago.

Its pretty obvious President Obama didn't do this, but President Bush didn't have the power to do it either. If you take a look at a hundred year chart of the stock market, you won't see who did this, but you will see when it started - when the regular, gradual trajectory of growth started taking steroids, like the baseball players did, to keep up our string of economic homerun investment returns.

What do you do when the enemy you want to root out is woven into the fabric of your daily life? Even if you are the most parsimonious, credit stingy, life beneath your means person you know, is it in your power to convince all your neighbors that they don’t have to drink premium coffee? Is there any way to persuade them that the car they buy doesn’t have to have the capability of competing in the Indy 500 to haul them back and forth to work? Is there anyway to remind them that designer clothing, which seems ubiquitous now, was practically unheard of as daily wear for the masses of us forty years ago?

We have gone from a nation that used to have one phone number per household to one that has phone number, and one corresponding phone bill, per person. We pay monthly fees to watch the same TV stations we used to get through our antennas for free. Our expectation that we deserve the highest level of service and convenience is similar, in many ways, to the modern CEO’s expectation that he deserves the highest level of compensation and bonus.

You cannot sell derivatives to people who will not buy them. You cannot approve mortgages for people who do not apply for them. You cannot create off the books trading entities if the regulations do not allow them. You cannot convince people to pay high interest rates for things they don't really really want.

Finding the enemy is not hard. For most of us, he is a lot closer than we want to admit.

Dealing with him, though, will prove to be one of the greatest challenges of modern times, akin to putting toothpaste back into the tube. Contrary to popular belief, it can be done, but it is a slow, tedious, and very messy operation.

26 February 2009

After The Election: McCain Supporters Sound Off

Mandingo is not only wearing Armani these days - he's running the country.

That's the sentiment I picked up after watching Right America, Feeling Wronged, a documentary on HBO last night, created by Alexandra Pelosi - yes, daughter of THAT Pelosi - that chronicled the fears of McCain supporters in the aftermath of the election.

The bad thing about watching any political video effort these days is the tendency for the directors and the producers to find images and interviewees who fit the narrative they want to push, which often results in a work that is nothing more than pure propaganda. My spider sense tingled even higher as the name "Pelosi" flashed on the screen at the beginning - there is no doubt that this was the key to the greenlight on this project.

I planned on watching for a few minutes, figuring that I would be able to watch less of this than a Michael Moore production, but before I knew it, the hour was up. I didn't really listen to the words they were saying, or the questions that were asked - if you followed last year’s elections regularly, you already knew all the nasty little rumors and the malicious innuendo about candidate Barack Obama that seemed to prop up an alternate universe.

It was the faces and the language and the expressions that I watched - the physicality of these angry respondents as they expressed outrage or shock or disbelief that this thing was happening to them. To me, it looked as if I was watching the cast from a classic film from the thirties or forties that was set in the immigrant sections of Chicago or New York or Boston.

I grew up in South Carolina, which has more than its share of ignorance and backwardness, but it is a place where there are so many black people in the lower half of the state that it is impossible for white South Carolinians to pretend that good, decent, honorable, hard working, God fearing black people do not exist. The people who were yelling into the camera about Muslims and terrorists, most of whom live in the Midwest and Southwest and Appalachia, have never seen these things, or they would instinctively know, like my pale South Carolina brethren do, that there is a distinct difference.

Figurative immigrants are what I really saw when I watched this documentary - people who are so new to the modern American experience that they have to cling to the things they know to keep from being scared to death. Their idea of America is a static one, a romanticized past that most have never experienced, an idealized existence chased after with wages from jobs that no longer exist, fictionalized memories that whose importance is heightened by the overwhelming confluence of crime and mayhem from "out there" that is funneled from all around world to their very own TV sets.

As an African American, I wasn't sure how to take these people, who were ready to hate a black man because of how he looked or how he spelled his name, because the other things they complained about - Obama's secret Muslim religious beliefs, or his supposed refusal to salute the flag, or his lack of a flag pin - sounded like outtakes from a Jerry Springer episode. It was hard to hate these largely powerless people, who were willing to swear on a stack of bibles that Obama would lead America into socialism or fascism without any real knowledge of the tenets of either of these political ideologies.

With all of the increased emphasis this year on Black History Month, and African American achievement, watching something like this seems anachronistic, as if you are seeing the last vestiges of the White Citizens Councils as they fade away into the sunset.

I hope that after they see that the world doesn't explode, that the three raised "6’s" haven't appeared on President Obama's neck, that the Koran is nowhere to be found in the White House, and the terrorists are not calling in on the red phone at 3 am to coordinate their next move with the Commander In Chief, these guys will give up these delusions and apply for citizenship in America 2009.

25 February 2009

Obama Stimulus Plan Can Be A Win For Everybody

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tiger Woods is going back to work today, the morning after President Obama’s address to Congress.

If I were Bobby Jindal, who is touted by many in the media as a rising Republican star, I would give Phil Mickleson a call, to see how he deals with the fact that he doesn’t have a chance in hell to catch the world’s number one golfer. Because that’s about how Jindal came across during his Republican response to President Obama’s address – okay, but no where near as good as Obama. Jindal looked more like a third year medical resident than the head elected official of Lousiana.

As I watched the people in the House chamber clamber over one another to get close to President Obama as he made his way through the room, I thought of Mr. Woods, another biracial American legend, who routinely generates the same type of enthusiasm. The PGA’s current fortunes aren’t quite as bad as the fiscal crisis the nation is in, but its future depends greatly on the efforts of one Eldrick “Tiger” Woods Jr. to bolster its declining ratings before the time comes to renegotiate TV and sponsorship agreements.

Woods has an unmatched temperament, unrivaled shot making ability, incomparable length off the tee, matchless drive and a mind boggling will to win. He has given the PGA the identity of a winner. From what I’ve seen so far, President Obama has the capability, the smarts, the demeanor, the energy and the will to do the same for America.

If I were Governor Jindal, or Governor Crist, or Governor Schwarzenegger, or Governor Sanford, or even Governor Palin, I'd try to look at the big picture, the way all the other guys on the PGA Tour do when they think about Tiger. Even when they lose to Woods, they still win, because ALL their paychecks have just about tripled since Woods came to the Tour thirteen years ago.

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican right now, a win for the Obama stimulus plan is a win for everybody.

23 February 2009

My Six Pence On The Economy

There is literally only one conversation going on these days - the economy.

I was in a restaurant yesterday with S. in Savannah, Georgia when she leaned over and said "all these people are talking about the economy. Can't they talk about something else?" We were in The Six Pence Pub on Bull Street, a cozy little English pub, complete with a red telephone booth outside, near the western edge of Savannah's historic district. It was the kind of place that attracts tourists and locals alike who are interested in something other than the chain restaurant fare.

The early afternoon crowd tended to be more grey haired than not. As I listened closer, I realized S. was right - at every table around us people were talking about how they were going to pay for college for their children, or how long it was going to take to sell their home in New Jersey so they could move to Savannah, or how long it was taking them to sell the houses they were building.

The tone was one of resignation, of a certain level of acceptance that things were going to be bad for some time.

The most striking thing was the lack of political rancor – no one was lambasting the president, or railing against the Democrats, or castigating the Republicans. Their conversations were at a more fundamental level than that, with occasional asides to announce the closing of a friend’s business, or the layoff of a relative.

At this level, political posturing is meaningless. Real people are losing real jobs, real property, and real businesses. Parents are concerned about their children's welfare, whether they are minor children they are trying to educate or adult children who have families of their own.

By the time we left the restaurant, I was convinced that I was seeing the beginnings of a nation that is almost ready to do one of the things we do best - come together temporarily in a crisis to achieve a common goal.

21 February 2009

African Americanness Becoming Unbound

How do you know when the narrative on race is expanding? When Campbell Brown and Lou Dobbs start to look indignant because the black, brown or yellow person they are talking to steps outside of the boundaries commentators like them have come to see as "acceptable" when talking about intraracial issues.

I was just finishing my dinner last night when I heard the guest on Campbell Brown’s No Bull, No Bias show, a white male historian, sputter on about the "incendiary" nature of the word "coward" that Eric Holder used the other day during a Black History Month speech to describe Americans who shy away from talking about racial differences.

What made my head snap around was this sentence:

"Holder - he's a nice enough guy. He has an unusual background. I would have confirmed him right away."

delivered by the historian with the kind of exasperated petulance, the sort of irritated and annoyed scowl that says "my people really make the rules around here."

How do you do that?

How do you appropriate the power to choose the Attorney General of the United States, even in a hyped for TV conversation, so easily?

The back and forth between the historian and Roland Martin, who was doing a live remote from a black journalists convention, was predictable, as was Campbell’s eye rolling when she felt that Roland was "getting out of hand". As I turned off the TV, I wondered - "how long is it going to take before Campbell Brown and the historian on her show and the rest of the inhabitants of Pale Nation, that stubborn subset of white Americans who still feel like they are doing all of us minorities a favor by letting us breathe the same air they do, realize that the feeling of discomboulation they have is going to be permanent?"

I don't know about anybody else, but these days, I feel like my peripheral view is wider than the thing I'm looking at, as if the object's image has shrunk a little, enough for me to see what there is behind it. Influence shapers like Mrs. Brown and Mr. Dobbs, who look as though the boundaries of our political narrative has gotten away from them, are more transparent. It doesn't matter what euphemism you want to use - the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the bird has flown the coop - African Americanness is in the process of becoming unbounded, a phenomenon that will demand some sort of transformation from all of us.

19 February 2009

We Rob People Here

My brother is the most parsimonious person I know.

He bought his first house a couple of years ago. The purchase process almost wore me out, even though I'm in the mortgage business, and it wasn't my house. I believe he looked at every house for sale in two zip codes in northwest Atlanta. After traipsing around the less decrepit parts of Atlanta's forgotten northwest corridor for a few months, I wondered - why is he going through all this? Why not just get a house in the suburbs, like everybody else, that is newer and has the kind of neighbors who hang around the streets in the morning, waiting for their kids school bus, instead of the kind of neighbors who hang around the streets at night, waiting for some shit to go down?

He finally found a house that he liked that he figured I would like too. Actually, I was very impressed with his find, a four bedroom, two bathroom ranch that was almost as big as the house we grew up in. It had hardwood floors, and an open floorplan, and an elevation that gave him a nice view of the gently curving tree lined street off of the porch. It was a brand new house that had never been lived in. Now THIS was worth all the months of riding around and looking at rattraps. It looked like it was going to be his new address.

Until he found out the price.

H called me, telling me that it wasn't going to work. The payment, he said, was higher than he wanted it to be. Then he said he had done a little more digging, and had found a house nearby with the same floorplan, by the same builder, that was in foreclosure, right around the corner. It needed some work, but it was almost thirty thousand dollars less. I couldn't argue with his logic, but as I walked through the foreclosure, I tried to picture my brother, who owned two screwdrivers and a pair of pliers, doing handyman type work to fix the place up.

I lobbied like hell to get him to reconsider the first place, that was sweet smelling and pristine and move-in ready, especially when they dropped the price. The two hundred dollars a month difference, I pointed out, would be the same as the thousands of dollars he would have to spend to paint and repair the foreclosure.

He didn't budge.

The second house fell through. It took a couple more tries before he finally found the place he owns now, another foreclosure that wasn’t quite as neglected as the first one. More importantly to him, the price meant he could pay his principal, interest, taxes and insurance within the budget he’d outlined. The original owners, who paid twice as much as he did two years prior to his closing, had not made it twelve months.

My father asked me why I wouldn’t do the loan for him. “Dad,” I said, “we rob people here. He will get a better deal somewhere else.” It was at the end of the that sentence that I realized how true that statement was – that my company “robbed” people with enormous house fees, and extraneous junk fees, and the ever present jimmying with the yield spread premium that often resulted in a borrower showing up at the table to find a rate higher than what he was expecting.

I could control the jimmying, but there was no way around the two thousand dollars in house and junk fees. It was a bad feeling, to be stuck in an office that was so wedded to the mortgage broker hokey pokey that I couldn’t even do a reasonably priced loan for my own brother.

There are many of the same houses that he looked at two years ago in the area that are still for sale. There are houses on his street that have been vacant for some time, houses that friends of mine, upon visiting him, have immediately tried to buy as investment properties, but to no avail. The bankers will not budge one inch, leaving the investors no recourse but to stay on the sidelines until the prices come down to a level that will allow them to get 70% loan to value loans.

I've helped him paint some of the rooms. Clear brush out of the yard. Cut down small trees. And he has had to get the air conditioning and the heat reconditioned. There are things yet to be done. He was right, about keeping his payment where he wanted it, and about what he figured he could and could not live without.

What is the new homeowner relief package going to do for him? He needs relief too – not directly, because he can pay his bills, but indirectly, because he will never be able to sell his house if the vacant properties in his neighborhood aren’t purchased, fixed up, and lived in. And all of this is only four miles from downtown Atlanta.

These are the kind of stories that make you swear you wished you’d never learned how to run a loan application through Desktop Underwriter, that you’d never seen a mortgage rate sheet that showed you how to make three points on the back end of a loan, that you didn’t know how to get that sound in your voice that made people give you their social security numbers over the phone.

If President Obama’s foreclosure prevention plan does HALF of what he says it will, it will be a resounding success. And if it can pull off half of the other half, maybe my brother can get him some new neighbors.

18 February 2009

Is This A New HOPE for Homeowners?

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else."

    Winston Churchill

With the signing of the Economic Recovery Act on Tuesday in Denver, President Obama opened the floodgates on a huge pile of money. He announced this morning that 75 billion dollars, 25 billion more than expected, is now going to be earmarked to directly assist homeowners who are having trouble paying their mortgages. You may or you may not be in this category. There are other goodies strewn throughout the stimulus bill, but none will be lauded as publicly as this program.

We have been down this road before. Last year, we in the mortgage industry waited with baited breath for months for the government’s emergency aid package for homeowners. They came up with a program called HOPE for Homeowners.

A little about Hope for Homeowners below:

The HOPE for Homeowners program was authorized by the Economic and Housing Recovery Act of 2008. Since the President signed this vital legislation into law on July 30, 2008, the HOPE for Homeowners Board of Directors has worked diligently to develop and implement the program as directed by Congress. The Board was charged with establishing underwriting standards to ensure borrowers, after any write-down in principal, have a reasonable ability to repay their new FHA-insured mortgage.

The HOPE for Homeowners program ends September 30, 2011. The program is available only to owner occupants and will offer 30-year fixed rate mortgages - so the borrower’s last payment will be the same as the first payment. In many cases, to avoid what would be an even costlier foreclosure, banks will have to write down the existing mortgage to 90% of the new appraised value of the home

A co-worker of mine, who I used to give my standard answer – read the damn guidelines for yourself - whenever he started asking me questions about the details of a new program, did just that the day it came out. He was incredulous. "How the hell are we going to qualify anybody for this? If they need help that bad with an adjustable rate mortgage, there is no way they can get through underwriting."

His comments were more on the money than he knew – the much vaunted HOPE for Homeowners program, which was expected to assist HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of homeowners, has thus far helped LESS THAN ONE HUNDRED.


In fact, as of last week, it seems that this program has seen only twenty five applications get through the process successfully.

It cost more to print the brochures up, disseminate the new guidelines to lenders, and train the staff at the FHA hotline than they have actually used to facilitate the program.

The moral of this anectdote?

Since the media has proved itself to unable or unwilling to keep our elected officials feet to the fire on their grandiose ideas once they are passed into law, and have been funded through appropriation, the only people left are US – the same people who gather here daily on the internet - to watch this latest pile of cash like a hawk.

The projections most of these kinds of programs use are actually pretty good. But implementing them in a way that allows them to function as intended seems to be a different story.

I hope, for these homeowners sakes, as well as President Obama's, that they get the ghost out of the machine before trying to put all these dollars on the street.

17 February 2009

My Humanity Takes Center Stage Today

My mother received a flurry of calls last week from some of her friends and relatives who wondered if I had died.

A distant cousin of mine with a very similar name passed away last week. His name was listed in the obituaries in my hometown newspaper. Those who weren't aware or had forgotten that my given names are Arabic, not Anglo-Saxon, picked up their phones in a panic. It was the kind of anecdote that was funny and not funny at the same time, because it made me think about a subject most of us would rather not talk about – the possibility of my own demise.

The irony of this coincidence was further heightened for me less than twenty four hours after hearing this story, when I found myself in a church in Southeast Atlanta, staring at the polished wood of a casket just a few yards away. I was at the funeral of the father of one of S.’s longtime friends. I myself had only met the deceased once, but from the accounts of his life that I heard from his family and friends during the service, in many ways this ambitious, gregarious, expansive minded man was a lot like my own father, who also rose from humble beginnings to claim his piece of the American pie.

The pastor and the eulogist, who also happened to be a man of the cloth, did not shrink away from death, or the idea of dying – they met it head on. They placed the images of a man in his last days, images vivid in the minds of the family members who had attended to him in the end, into the context of the ceaseless cycle that will claim us all. They pushed, in the same way the thrusters on the space shuttle push against the earth to help the spacecraft break free of the Earth’s gravitational pull, against the agony that death tries mightily to bind to the living who are left behind.

For two hours, the things going on in the outside world that normally held our attention right about that time were crowded out. One of our common denominators – our humanity - had taken center stage in the lives of all the people assembled in the church for awhile. As the service went on, my mind pinging back and forth between the sobering brush with the thought of my own mortality, the manifestation of death in the form of a body in the casket in front of me, and the emotional fervor from the voice of the pastor presiding over the ceremony, I could feel a temporary rearranging of priorities going on inside me.

By the time I got in the car to go home, I was headed back to reality, both literally and figuratively, but with less of an edge than I’ve had of late. Reordering the locus of my own personal focal point, even for just a few fleeting hours, has altered the context in which I see things today.

So I won’t rail against Wall Street today – not that they deserve a break.

I won’t worry about the little things President Obama might do or say today while he signs the much needed Economic Recovery Act that normally rub me the wrong way.

I won’t attack my keyboard when I read stories about the massive graft in the rebuilding of Iraq, or the dead girl who was found in the Army barracks yesterday, or the dire circumstances of California’s empty state coffers.

I won't worry today about what I don't have, what I haven't accomplished, or what I have begun that I am nowhere near close to finishing.

Today, I will simply enjoy being alive.

15 February 2009

Public Wants Wall Street To Bleed A Little More

President Obama will have his first test this week. He doesn't like the executive compensation restrictions inserted into the stimulus bill last week by the Democrat Chris Dodd and his cohorts in the Senate, but he's going to have to sign it anyway. I hope he doesn't waste any time this week barking into a microphone in the middle of a cornfield somewhere about why we need to be worried about paying Wall Street's foxes enough money to guard the public's hen house.

The American public - the same people who are tired of being laid off, the same people who are tired of shrunken retirement and investment accounts, the same people who are tired of rate increases on credit cards they pay on time from some of these very same banks when we have the lowest interest rate environment since 9/11 - this American public just does not want to hear it, especially not when it can still see the feathers falling from the jaws of these foxes.

The public wants a little blood. They want to see some sort of shared suffering. They really want to know - what is so god awful important about this particular fraternity of self-important white men that not one hair on the head of their financial chinny chin chins can possibly be exposed to harm? That their earning power cannot possibly be reduced by one dollar? That their personal lives cannot possibly be allowed to go into a tailspin, the way it has for millions of other Americans who were also employed by insolvent firms, but in other industries, industries that didn't get bailed out?

There is no crime in being wrong. Some of the greatest innovations in our history came from men who were wrong way more often than they were right. But there is a crime, in this case, a crime that seems to go against the very laws of nature itself, to be so hideously, horribly wrong and suffer no consequences that come even close to matching the proportion of the mistakes that were made.

This inequity is where President Obama needs to start learning how to put the "bully" in his "bully pulpit" and use it often for items that benefit the public at large. If the rest of us can suck it up and be good patriots, why can't the guys on Wall Street do the same? Are they only into being "Americans for America" when money is involved? Is their sense of honor and duty to preserving a marketplace that has made them rich based upon some sort of conditional quid pro quo, the way it was for the Benedict Arnolds of the world?

There is no moral high ground in this situation. We've all lived high on the credit hog as a nation for the last eighty years, so blaming where we are on any one president who served in the last thirty years is illogical. We believe in credit more than we believe in freedom. And for some of us, who have no other way to conceptualize life, credit is freedom - the freedom to enjoy what we want today.

The White House has been making overtures for days that these new executive restrictions have gone too far, and will create a "brain drain" on these firms just when they need these people the most, because they will leave for foreign banks and hedge funds.


I know somebody in the White House must subscribe to Forbes and Fortune. Our nation's leading business magazines don't print an issue these days that doesn't lament the loss of these exact same jobs. What I'd like to know, from those who do executive searches for financial services industries, is whether or not they are seeing any increased demand for candidates. Come to think of it, my old neighbor is a recruiter for financial services candidates with quantitative backgrounds - maybe I'll give her a call this afternoon.

There just aren't that many jobs out there in any sector. And all of these people that our bankers deem to be such key employees all came up the same way - up through the ranks. Which means there are second, third, and fourth in command employees in every trading department in the company who are thoroughly familiar with the proprietary trading strategies and positions their firms have, employees who are eager for a chance to prove themselves, even with the potential for drastically reduced bonuses, as the head of a major trading desk.

If President Obama is as good at reading the public's sentiment as his people says he is, and if he is as smart as his educational background and his meteoric political career suggest, he will understand instinctively why he needs to reverse his position on this issue. If he thought he got hit hard when the Daschle tax problem came to light, making any overtures to soften the language in this provision will make him wish Daschle was back in front of the cameras.

And if the latest internet scuttlebutt on the Bernie Madoff scandal - that Wall Street's execs knew what he was doing but kept their mouths shut - gathers any steam, they will wish no one knew what they looked like.

Our banks have no money left in them. So why should any representative of the people even waste any time considering paying a premium to retain "talent" to watch what are essentially empty savings deposit boxes?

It makes absolutely no sense to worry about the welfare of the fox when he is already inside the hen house, his belly full from the hens he has already eaten, his eyes glazed over as more hens are added to replace the ones he’s already gorged on.

These foxes will be just fine if they miss a few meals.

13 February 2009

A Nation Of Outsiders

I was talking to my buddy on the phone yesterday, just a casual conversation about the perils of joining Facebook, when I said "hey man, I've been meaning to tell you something."

"What’s up?"

"You know that wish list you have of all the stuff you'd like to buy because you always wanted it?"

"Uh, yeeeah," my buddy answered, wondering what list I was referring to, and why it was important now.

Old friends, especially smart ones, are usually pretty good at quickly figuring out when you are talking about something that actually exists, and when you are talking about its metaphorical equivalent, like I was yesterday.

"You need to take that list," I continued, "fold it up, and stick it in a desk drawer somewhere. This thing is badder than it looks. Brotherman, you need to be saving some money."

There is nothing more exasperating to a person who feels financially secure than to have someone begin to lecture them on their finances - particularly when the someone giving them advice has less money than they do. But these people didn't get where they were by ignoring advice, but by sifting through it and selecting the nuggets of wisdom from among the bushels of bull. I could almost hear my buddy lean forward at his desk. "So what indicators are you seeing that tell you this thing is so bad?"

I tried to think of the ones we all use - the Dow, the unemployment numbers, new home sales - before finally settling on interest rates. "If anything else happens, the Fed has nowhere to go. Interest rates can't get any lower unless they go negative."

My buddy exhaled a bit. I could see his mind working - was that it? "So Greenspan screwed us."

"Dude, it sounds simple to blame Greenspan, but he had to work with the hand he was dealt. We've been operating on credit for decades. Ever since-"

"Gold," my buddy interjected. "You know, I was just thinking about that last night - why did we ever get off the gold standard?"

"That's kind of water over the dam. Credit isn't bad. It's the way it's been used lately that is the real problem." My buddy was too calm now - I could hear his regular, easy breaths, could see him looking out the window of his high rise office, wondering why I was wasting his time with this when we could be talking about something more salacious.

"You know," I said, "I've been writing a lot about this bank bailout stuff this week, which means I've had to root around the internet to do some research on what was happening. The real problem is the amount of liabilities the major banks owe versus the amount they have in assets. It will take a few trillion to fill the hole."

I had his attention again - fully, this time. I could hear him sigh a few times. "So I guess these guys have really fucked this up."


We went on for awhile about how this could have happened, with my buddy wondering out loud why no one could see this coming. I wasn't until this morning, while reading Eugene Robinson's column in the Washington Post, that I understood some of my buddy's frustration when I came across the phrase "a nation of outsiders".

Being "in the know" is a hallmark of having arrived in America. Getting useful information before everybody else confers status as well as power. Sometimes it is as simple as understanding what the information means before everyone else figures it out. And for quite awhile in this country, an intimate understanding of the world of finance often meant those "in the know" could act faster on public information, because they were the only ones who had any real interest in deciphering it.

We're all "in the know" today. The guy spraying around your home for bugs knows more about how the 10 year bond prices affect mortgage financing than he does about insect nervous systems. The guy who gets your car running again at the repair shop comprehends the fundamental theory behind collateralized debt obligations the same way he understands the fluid dynamics in your car's hydraulic systems.

We're all "in the know", and what we know is this - something terrible has been taking place on Wall Street for quite some time, something terrible enough to knock the metaphorical Wall Street bull off of its figurative feet.

Whether or not we will remain a nation of outsiders, willing to accept any half-assed idea, whether its from President Obama, or Tim Geithner, or Congress, to help get the nation out of this economic nightmare, or fight to become a nation of insiders, who demand that we get to see exactly how they make the sausage from now on, is up to us.

12 February 2009

Congressman Compares CEO's To Bank Robbers

The soundbite is the currency of TV news, the primary political information source for most of America - simple, nice, neat, easy to pronounce phrases that an announcer can whip off after the guy behind the camera starts waving that they have ten seconds left until the commercial break.

If we lived in soundbite sized homes, and worked at soundbite sized factories, and got soundbite sized bills, and had soundbite sized problems, soundbites might remotely begin to have a chance at being relevant.

But until the majority of the public gets tired of wallowing in their stupidity – and if it offends you because I am saying this, yes I mean you - it will remain the currency that counts, because we don't demand any better.

I’ll use Massachusetts Representative Michael Capuano as an example of what happens when you substitute soundbites for the real thing. Capuano went on a tear this afternoon during the bailed out bank hearings today on Capitol Hill.

If you’ve saw Capuano on the news last night, or read about what he had to say in today's paper, you probably got this brief clip:

"You come to us today on your bicycles, after buying Girl Scout cookies and helping out Mother Teresa, telling us: 'We're sorry. We won't do it again,' "said Rep. Michael Capuano (D., Mass.). "America doesn't trust you anymore."

Or this one:

"You come to us today on your bicycles after buying Girl Scout cookies and helping out Mother Theresa and telling us, 'We're sorry, we didn't mean it, we won't do it again, trust us.' Well, I have some people in my constituency that actually robbed some of your banks and they say the same thing."

But it just so happened that I saw Representative Capuano speak live during the hearings, and listened to his remarks in their entirety. No soundbite in the world can begin to do justice to what he had to say to the panel of bankers.

Capuano's opening questions really served as a rhetorical introduction of sorts for the five minute statement he made, a monologue that married the emotions on Main Street with a solid understanding of Wall Street accounting chicanery to perfectly articulate the disgust so many Americans have right now with the entire industry.

I've transcribed the ubiquitous Youtube video of his performance below:

"I've got a couple of more detailed questions. Of all of you, just by a show of hands, how many of your banks, either directly or indirectly, and by indirectly, I mean by loaning money to people you knew would be using this money to invest in credit default swaps, how many of you engaged in that?

None of you engaged in that?"

"We engaged in credit default swaps - but, uh, when you asking the question 'are we lending money for them to do that - I'd have to come back to you with specifics - I cannot tell you."

"Okay, how many of you directly engaged in purchasing or investing in credit default swaps? How many of you directly or indirectly engaged in credit, uh, in CDO’s? How many of you have, uh-"

"Excuse me - very good recorder, but recording raised hands doesn’t work - we'll need something oral–"

"We can fill that in later. How many of you, um, how many of your banks had or currently have Special Investment Vehicles - those off the books, somehow unregulated subsidiaries of the bank, or sister corporations?

"We have SPV's"

"So, basically all or most of you engaged in all or at least some of the activities that actually created this crisis in my opinion.

Because every one of those activities, especially the SIV's, especially the SIV's – to me I think they're illegal. I cannot believe no one has prosecuted you on this, but then again, we’ve had no prosecutorial action whatsoever from the last administration and the new administration has a little time to figure this out. We’ll find out whether anybody really cares.

How can possibly any regulated bank have something on its books that's totally unregulated that for all intents and purposes does the same thing the bank does? That's for your lawyers to answer, and I my hope is that you will be answering those questions in court someday - we'll find out later on.

But basically, you come to us today, on your bicycles, after buying Girl Scout cookies, and helping out Mother Teresa, telling us 'we’re sorry, we didn’t mean it, we won't do it again. Trust us.'

Well, I have some people in my constituency that actually robbed some of your banks, and they say the same thing. 'They’re sorry, they didn't mean it, they won't do it again. Just let 'em out.'

Do you understand that this is a little difficult for my constituents to take, that you 'learned your lesson?' And it’s all the same people doing this - the same people who created SIV's, who created CDO's, who created credit default swaps - that never existed a few years ago - you created them, you created the mess we’re in, and you're not the only ones - you just happen to be the ones here today. I can’t wait to get the credit rating agencies here some day again.

And now you’re saying 'sorry, trust us, and by the way, we don't even want the money.'

Interesting, no one has ever come to me and said, 'you must take billions of dollars.'

And as I heard earlier, you have an option. Basically, they said 'you have to capitalize better, because we no longer trust your books.' You can either take this money and do it, or you can do it on your own – if you don't want the money, you can give it back, you just have to come up with the capital. As I understand it, and if you can't do it, I think many of us would be happy to change that law.

You have to understand, I don't really have a question, but I was told I can use the five minutes, cause the questions I have, you've answered them, and you're going to continue to answer them, and that's all well and good.

The problem I have is that honestly, none of us - America doesn’t trust you anymore.

I for one, between myself and my various campaigns and my own personal business stuff, I get a lot of money to put in banks. I don't have one single penny in any of your banks.

Not one.

Not one.

Because I don't want my money put into CDO's and credit default swaps and making humongous bonuses - me personally. Until that changes, none of us really believe - I don't believe - anything will change.

Until you change the people who brought you into SIV's - who was the brilliant person who came and said 'let’s do credit default swaps?'

Find him.

Fire him.

Tell me you fired him.

Get out of CDO's. Start loaning the money that we gave you. Get it on the street. And don't say 'oh well, we’re not using that money for bonuses.' Come on! Money's all of a sudden not fungible in your entities. It’s fungible everywhere else, but not in your entity.

Get our money out on the street. And if you don't want to give it back, don’t come here and tell me that you can't. Yes you can. As long as you live up to the requirements of the program you're in now.

In the new world that you created and we have to clean up."

Soundbites have made their own contribution to this mess, by allowing otherwise sane adults to believe that they can remain fully informed about the world around them by watching a thirty minute or an hour long program on TV that is made up of dozens of these little news chicklets.

11 February 2009

Wall Street And The Art Of The Big Con

The movie The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman, was one of my favorite films growing up. I didn’t really know much about Redford or Newman or con men or gambling, but I was awed anyway by every turn in the convoluted plot, by every piece of the elaborate plan Paul Newman's character devised to rob a mob banker of his money.

Their performances won the movie an Oscar for Best Picture.

Today, we will have a similar production take place on Capitol Hill. Rich men who run our nation's largest banking institutions will leave their private jets in their hangers for the day and get on trains and commercial flights to commute to Washington, as if they are ordinary Americans.

They will be ushered in front of a committee of Congress. Camera crews from all the major news networks will jockey for position. Lights will shine. And the committee members will peer over their glasses, frown, glare, and explode in righteous anger at these bank executives for half a day or so.

And after the lights go off, when the executives are on their way home and the members of the committee are through answering questions from political reporters, you and the rest of the American citizenry will be in exactly the same position the mob banker in The Sting was - wondering what the hell happened.

You won't know anymore by tonight than you do right now, because the entire setup is just like the make believe gambling parlor in movie, designed to give you the impression that what you are seeing and hearing is the real deal.

You won't come any closer to knowing, for instance, what it is that is so God awful in the books of these banks that has our government racing to hand them billions upon billions of dollars at the blink of an eye.

The anecdote President Obama used on Monday night to explain in a thumbnail sketch what the banking crisis was all about - "what got us into this mess initially were banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people's monies based on shaky assets and because of the enormous leverage, where they had one dollar's worth of assets and they were betting thirty dollars on that one dollar, what we had was a crisis in the financial system" - pretty much laid it all right out there in front of everybody, except he forgot to tell you how many trillions of dollars worth of assets these banks wagered.

You won't be getting that number today either.

According to Ian Welsh, over at FireDogLake:

"...the Fed and the Treasury together have spent, loaned, and guaranteed in excess of 8 trillion dollars at this point. That's more than the entire loans and leases portion of the domestic banking industry. Given the net assets of the banking industry are only about 1.3 trillion dollars, for a fraction of that price, they could have bought out the entire banking industry."

Now you should understand why there is such antipathy towards spending any real time, money, and energy on the educational system here in the United States. The entire gambling industry relies on the fact that most of us don't understand probability. And the men who will gather at Capitol Hill today to put on their show are counting on our ignorance to see them through.

The mob banker in The Sting ended up losing half a million dollars because he had a little success at first based on inside information, which is pretty much the same thing that happened to the nation's banks when they first started fooling around with derivatives. So the mob banker started making bigger and bigger bets. Robert Redford's character sucked him in gently, slowly ratcheting up the level of the mob banker's trust as he fed him tips that always won. By the time Redford and Newman were ready for their big score, the mob banker was hooked on Redford's system. He couldn't live without it, so he literally bet the bank.

The men whose faces you will see on your TV's all day today, or on the news tonight, got hooked on the same kind of sure thing.

I've seen some numbers bandied about the internet lately that attempt to "guestimate" how big the gap is between our nation's banking liabilities and the actual value of our nation's banking assets. I'm not going to print them here because they are likely to be pure speculation. The actual numbers, for all practical purposes, aren't important anyway - whether it's a twenty dollar difference or a twenty trillion dollar difference between what they have and what they owe, if it's more than they've got, then it's more than they've got.

So even though what you see and hear today will have very little relationship to the truth about the bank bailout, and even though the men testifying really represent the failings of an industry-wide corporate culture, you need to pull for these rich bankers this afternoon. You need to hope they get those investors who watch CNN International from around the world to believe enough to place their next bet at the Wall Street window.

Irony of ironies - just like in the movie, you end up pulling for the bad guys.

Related Article: "Bad Banks" for Beginners

10 February 2009

Professor Obama Lectures White House Press

I called my buddy immediately after President Obama exited his press conference, before the commentators could begin to start telling us what we just saw.

"My man," I said, "did that Negro talk his behind off or what?"

"Man, I fell asleep. I just woke up."

"You're in good company. S. was asleep before the president finished answering the first question. Dude, the damn dog was yawning at the TV."

My buddy paused, letting a small yawn of his own pass. "He's going to have the reporters scared to ask questions with answers like that."

I've never really been a fan of these kinds of things, because they usually are more about style than substance. Multi-dimensional thinking is what I want in my president. Someone who has the capacity to use the entire capacity of their brain power when things go wrong – not just the left side, or the just right side, or the just damn middle, but the whole entire thing.

President Obama transformed into Professor Obama before our eyes, segueing from reading his remarks from the teleprompter to answering questions from the press. Professor Obama proceeded to take over the question and answer session with a fifty minute performance. At times, it seemed like he was teaching freshman seminar classes in economics and political science.

It was very impressive at first, but by the end of the evening the president's wide ranging answers had become a bit pedantic, with the length of his comments threatening to try the patience of even the most dedicated political junkies.

"You probably felt like you were back in law school watching this," I said to my buddy as we joked about the president's "around the world in eighty days" method of not exactly answering the questions he was posed.

My buddy groaned audibly, as if I had dredged up a painful memory. "Yeah - he's a professor alright."

"Man," I said, "Obama was excited to be there. There was fire and enthusiasm in his monologue. It was like the trip to Elkhart was his warm up, like the day trips used to be back on the campaign for his big night time rallies that were more likely to be on prime time TV for free."

President Obama put the "bully" in "bully pulpit last night, using his celebrity and his breadth of knowledge to shape practically all of his answers to press corp questions into vehicles for his main themes - creating new jobs, easing the credit crisis, stabilizing home values, and getting some kind of expansion in our economy to counteract the current contractions.

If you didn't know these were his main themes, you were probably asleep too.

I was actually surprised when he didn't somehow turn the question about Alex Rodriguez's admission of steroid use into yet another illustration of how his economic recovery plan was going to help the citizens of Elkhart, Indiana, and by extension, the rest of America.

The other thing about the sheer amount of verbiage contained in President Obama's responses is the indirect effect it will have on reshaping the media narrative. In addressing all of the things he touched on for the next few days, the news media will have to jettison some of the "strife between the parties" storylines, effectively removing the Republican message from the forefront of the public's minds at a time that is crucial to the passage of theeconomic recovery bill.

S. woke up after the ninth or tenth question. She got a little perturbed towards the end, when I mentioned that the press conference, the one we'd both figured would be over in half an hour, was coming up on the sixty minute mark.

"What? This thing is about to mess up my shows."

Blowing Smoke: "Huff Po" Hits Big Time

The real news of the night for the blogosphere was when President Obama looked down at his list of reporters and said "Huffington Post". I didn’t completely catch the question, because my mind was busy reconciling some of Sam Stein's crazier posts with the moment. I wondered – at what point does an alternative outsider tabloid cross the line and become a part of the insider status quo press?

"Huff Po", as it's name is abbreviated on the web, probably doesn't have to worry about crossing the line anytime soon, but you never really know what Arianna Huffington is going to do next – she's never meet a social order she wasn't willing to scale to get to the top. She always reminds me in television interviews of Zsa Zsa Gabor, as if she is a homelier but more intelligent cousin of the Austrian born actress.

If Fox News is a shill for the Republican Party, "Huff Po" must be the White House's house organ. The only site any more pro-Obama is www.barackobama.com And its headlines - well, let's say they don’t really seem to worry too much about the headline matching the story in the promo department.

But if you are tired of reading the same old tired, recycled headlines in the traditional papers, you cannot beat "Huff Po" for going with a story hours before others will even think about touching it. For instance, it is the only source today that sticks this quote right at the top of its home page - "Huff Post's Sam Stein Asks Obama About Leahy's Proposal To Investigate Bush Officials - President's Response: 'Nobody Is Above The Law'."

How do I know all of this? Because the web address sits right smack in the middle of my address bar drop down box.

09 February 2009

Dancing With The One Who Brung You

After listening to the TV pundits and reading the opinion columns the last few days, all of them railing about the failings and deficiencies of President Obama with hyperbolic vigor, a vision came to me.

I imagined that instead of Obama, we had President John McCain standing behind the White House press room podium, intoning, in the manner of Ronald Reagan that "the fundamentals of the economy were sound."

I pictured Vice President Sarah Palin on Meet The Press, stumbling over an incoherent explanation of exactly how a proposed trillion dollar tax cut package actually creates those jobs we need to boost our ailing economy.

They would be facing the same problem President Obama has - a Congress dominated by leaders on both sides of the aisle who have come to worship the rigid, severely restricted boundaries of their respective ideologies. Tax cuts, which seem to be the only tune Republicans can all whistle together, don't mean a god damned thing to you if you have no job. Funding projects slated to start three years from now, which appears to be a constant theme running through the Democrats list of proposals, mean even less.

Which means your president can be as bold and as visionary as Jesus - and get the same kind of bloody reception.

Or he can try to figure out how to get a passable economic recovery package in front of the members of Congress, which means appealing to their political needs and desires. Coming back to the nation empty handed with his Boy Scout values intact is not an option for President Obama.

He has to "dance with the ones who brung him", even if they are a little embarrassing.

Both political parties are fooling themselves with the labels "liberal" and "conservative" – almost all of their members are centrists, men and women who don't have the guts to back anything but the party Kool-Aid if their lives depended on it. I don't know why they even waste time swearing themselves in, because the things they pledge to honor and uphold in that ceremony simply do not occur.

The president needs to get his hands on a pile of cash, metaphorically speaking, that can be allocated in ways we haven't tried before, even though the last two piles we've spent on the banking industry, another a method we haven't tried before, hasn't shown any immediate relief. The president needs the ability to intimately influence the distribution of these dollars, and he needs it now.

And the pile needs to be a lot bigger than the one Congress has come up with, not to solve our problems, but to even have a chance at stemming them. Two trillion dollars is the bare minimum, and even that may not be enough. I'd add another five hundred million just to mess with the deficit hawks, who have been swooning like Scarlet O'Hara over the thought of borrowing one more dollar when we already owe so much.

But there is no one in any country in the world except the United States that really believes we have the capacity or the will to pay our deficit off – and frankly, they don't care, because they like getting the interest.

It is almost painful to watch men who appear to have common sense look so pained when they talk about the enormity of the deficit, as if it is some kind of moral failing, inconsistent with our nation's values, when it is in fact an exact reflection of who we are and what we believe, because if we don't believe in anything else in America, we believe in "buy now, pay later."

"Buy now, pay later" is why the banking crisis hurts so much.

So man up, representatives of the people, and represent something besides some god damn slogans for a change. Hand your president the biggest pile of cash you can gather, and tell him he has our lives in his hands. Find every program and agency available that can begin deploying any infusion of cash they get in 90 to 180 days - not just the "shovel ready" ones, but the "classroom ready" ones too, to start retraining all of us whose jobs are never coming back.

Try to expand your horizons beyond the narrow confines of the yesteryear platforms your respective political parties cling to far enough to be able to actually see the people you say you represent. Because the bills they get in the mail don’t come in red or blue envelopes. The groceries they buy don't end up in red or blue bellies.

You might not want to dance with one you brung, but the jobs you save this time, Congressmen and Congresswomen, may be your own.

08 February 2009

Book Review: Brotherman - The Odyessy Of Black Men In America

One of the questions I almost never hear from black men is “what are you reading these days?”

What I do hear is "you know, I was reading Power Moves For Power Guys last week while I was headed to Vegas for the IT tradeshow where me and my partner showcased our new company" from my buddy who is trying get a start up off the ground.

Or "that Joe Kennedy was a son of a bitch. I just got this book about how his crooked ass transformed Wall Street" from my buddy who is obsessed with the Kennedy patriarch's ruthlessness.

For my buddies, mentioning a book they've read recently mostly serves as an opportunity to tell me what they are focused on doing, or as an adjunct to a broader narrative that signals a new direction they've decided to take in their life.

So I was pleasantly surprised, at a party back during the Christmas season, to hear an African American man who was not a college professor ask me "what are you reading these days?" It turned out that in addition to the books he read to stay abreast of trends in his industry, he also took the time to read literature and essays written by black men.

We ended up having a great time that night, with a sprawling conversation that ended up including practically all the party's late night stragglers as we talked about the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, and Richard Wright, and E. Franklin Frazier, and even Carter G. Woodson, who was the catalyst for the idea of Black History Month.

So when I came across Brotherman: The Odyssey Of Black Men In America - An Anthology, I was impressed, when I flipped it open, by its voluminous table of contents.

There are one hundred and fifty excerpts from essays, novels, and speeches written by African American men, divided thematically into six sections, that span practically the whole of our existence here in America. The large span of time that these authors represent has a leavening effect right off the bat, largely allowing it to escape the ideological boundaries that often limit the appeal of a compilation.

Other anthologies centered around the literary output of black men tend to veer towards a particular group – writers or politicians or celebrities – or a particular time period – the sixties or slavery - and are often dominated by the same well known names we see in the media over and over.

Forty of the names in this book I’ve never seen before. Of the others whose names I instantly recognized, there were many who I'd never seen in print.

In some ways, reading a short selection from a varied list of authors is an experience akin to standing in your local Barnes & Noble bookstore, flipping through a few pages of a few books that catch your eye to see if they are worth buying – except there is no retail chain bookstore in the country that have more than a handful of these authors on their shelves.

I’d never seen anything written by Duke Ellington himself before – reading his account of his musical credo, I could practically feel his total immersion in the world of music. Ellington's reliance on the insider lingo of a professional jazzman and the cadence of his sentence structure did more the his actual descriptions to give me a behind the scenes look at the life of a traveling musician in the golden age of the jazz band.

I finally got a glimpse at a story from Elbow Room, a short story collection by James Alan McPherson I’d never gotten around to ordering online, who is one of the world’s greatest living short story writers.

And I was immediately captivated by Sidney Poitier as he rounded out the details behind the beginnings of his career, which I had always associated with the famous anecdote about the way he had learned to speak English well enough to act – by listening to the radio.

In reaching beyond the traditional academics, politicians and celebrities whose lives and opinions we are used to memorializing, to include the work of many men who have remained at the margins of history, or have not received wide spread acclaim, editors Herb Boyd and Robert Allen have taken a big step towards broadening the narrative imagery associated with the African American male, incorporating voices from across the spectrum of black life in America.

More than a mere anthology, this book is a gateway. This ambitious assemblage of excerpts from essays, stories, documents, poems, narratives, position papers, novels and autobiographies has no equal in size, scope, or mission. "The central purpose of this introduction," stated plainly in the book's introduction, "is to create a living mosaic of essays and stories in which Black men can view themselves, and be viewed without distortion."

It has already caused me to add several books to my list of "must have's". And it has added new dimensions to many of the stories I already know about the men whose life histories have been drilled into me since my youth.

For black men on the go, like some of my buddies, who have confined their reading since school to trade journals and self help books, it is an eclectic collection of excerpts that has the ability to expand their perspective of the world. For black men who have become allergic to reading anything outside of the sports pages, like some of my other buddies, it is an excellent way to get back into the swing of reading again.

And if you are one of the millions of non-black Americans who have depended up until now on television news or rap music to inform you about what black men are thinking, I couldn't think of a better way to begin to educate yourself on the vast array of perspectives and experiences of your darker brothers.

07 February 2009

Moving On To Your Next Shot

President Obama, you've had a long week. Lost a nominee. Had to cut stimulus plan. Capped exec pay at banks living on the federal dime.

And I imagine, just two weeks into living at the White House, that you've had to make some adjustments. Tried to get used to the brand new mattress they put on your brand new bed. Wondered how long it would take to get used to the whole live/work/play in one space idea. Wistfully recalled the days when you could get the attention of five or ten million of us from your computer without even putting on a tie.

The good thing about your new job, Mr. President, is that its a lot like playing on the PGA golf tour. Every time you get ready to tee it up, there is a scoreboard, right behind you, that shows how you're doing. The world's number one golfer, Tiger Woods, doesn't always get the ball on the fairway. He doesn't always hit the green on his approach shot. He might end up with a lie beside a tent, or behind a tree, or next to a rock.

Getting in trouble on one or two holes, even if they are back to back, doesn't faze Mr. Woods. He does what he has to do - turns the club head backwards, swings from a left sided stance, putts with his driver off the fringe- whatever it takes to get the ball in the hole.

And on Sundays, more often than not, he is in one of the final groups, with a chance to win.

So don't worry about these bumps in the road this week, Mr. President. You're still on the first hole, lining up your approach.

Just take a presidential mulligan, and bring your "A" game the rest of the way.

And when you've made a bad call, like you did with Daschle, leave it behind you. Move on to the next shot. When you've got to play politics, like you've done all week with Congress, and Rush, and us, including today on your radio address, come at it from any which way you need to in order to get the outcome you think the American public deserves.

And when you need to do a little trash talking, like you've done about Wall Street execs...

...back it up with a bold shot.

05 February 2009

Obama Begins PR Blitz For Recovery Bill

The byline on today's Washington Post op-ed article titled The Action Americans Need states simply "the writer is president of the United States."

I liked the understated style of the piece, Mr. President. Everything from the direct, declarative title, to the use of only your name, "Barack Obama", to the logical way one paragraph progressed smoothly into the next.

With your radio addresses, weekly podcasts, yesterday's TV interview blitz, next week's planned prime-time news conference and a subsequent address from the Oval Office to the American public, it looks like you have become a one man public relations effort in your bid to get your economic recovery bill passed.

Today's plainly worded seven hundred and sixty seven word missive in the Post, with a straightforward message that keys on the need for a sense of urgency to drive any action the government plans to take to get our nation’s economy on track, is not the kind of thing that would tax you, President Obama - we all know you are well versed at expressing yourself through your keyboard.

We often think of our presidents as hands off executives, who have someone on their staff to do just about everything but chew their food for them.

But the language you used, the repetitive cadence near the end that mimics your speaking style, and the fact that this is the same thing you have been saying for the last two weeks suggest to me that you probably whipped this article out in an hour or so, which is about the amount of time it took me to write this piece, although you probably had a little editorial input from your chief speechwriter.

There are a lot of the same words and phrases in here that we’ve been hearing over and over - "crisis", "jobs", "savings", "homes", "renewable energy", "health care", "education", "energy independence", "health care" and "partisan gridlock" - the same issues you campaigned on, and the same issues you’ve been talking about everywhere there's been a live microphone in the last few days, which is why I don’t think it took you too long to write this yourself.

It's a great effort, and the buzzwords are nice, Mr. President, but you are going to have to expand your narrative a little wider. Maybe you can trot out a team of economists. Not the Nobel Prize winners, but the ones who teach econ to college freshman, the kind who can do question and answer sessions with the media that will bridge some of the gap between what the American public doesn't understand about your plan and what you believes it will accomplish.

If you were to speak to the American people on Monday intimately, in specific detail, and without reservation, the way you did when you delivered your "race" speech in Philadelphia during the Democratic primary campaign, it would be a great help to your cause and our futures.

If you were to expand the narrative this way, instead of merely rebutting the reactions and the spin of the Republicans who are against your stimulus bill, it would significantly reduce the potency of the "us versus them" dynamic that is currently threatening to curtail widespread support for your proposals. More importantly, it would help you to step outside of the box the press corp want to put your presidency into already, a group which may be more dangerous than your political opposition.

Turning your one man public relations endeavor into a group effort will go a long way towards getting the kind of public support you need to get your stragglers in Congress on board.

04 February 2009

"President Relentless" Hounds Wall Street

By the time you see the news tonight, President Obama's address to Wall Street this morning will have been analyzed, sifted through, taken apart and put back together again - by the same brilliant members of the punditocracy who interpreted what the last president really meant.

The real political narrative is wider and broader than anything these columnists want to deal with - their editorial and aesthetic constraints force them to deliberately focus in on the three soundbites that can be shoehorned into a thirty second news clip.

But there is more in this speech announcing new bailout rules than a few buzzwords.

This speech is the beginning of the unveiling of a new attitude from President Obama, a more forceful, more authoritarian one we are not used to seeing.

"For top executives to award themselves these kinds of compensation packages in the midst of this economic crisis is not only in bad taste - it's a bad strategy - and I will not tolerate it as President."

As much as I hated hearing the phrase "I will not tolerate this" growing up, I can appreciate hearing it from the president in the context of the Wall Street bailout bonus bonanza.

For as much money as our Wall Street friends make, they ought to have thick enough hides to take it.

I took it for free back when I was growing up.

The current phrase of the day - "this is unacceptable" - is fairly innocuous, akin to someone snorting, or sucking their teeth in displeasure, when things go haywire. "I will not tolerate this" implies, no, promises that severe disciplinary action will be on the way like a firetruck to a four alarm fire if the intolerable behavior continues.

Obama does not have the physical stature of the ex-farm boy turned college graduate type of fathers I grew up around, but the timbre of his voice sounded ominous enough to bring back memories.

For all the talk about Obama’s rhetorical gifts, it is his ability to state starkly, in a simple, direct, and unwavering voice, exactly what he means without any unnecessay adornment.

"…in order to restore trust, we've got to make certain that taxpayer funds are not subsidizing excessive compensation packages on Wall Street."

This is the same thing he said last week.

Guess what - if you are a C-level exec who works on Wall Street, and you work at AIG, Citigroup, or Bank America, you will get tired of hearing these words, the same way I got tired of hearing "I will not tolerate this" back in my youth.

Take it from me, guys, the best way to combat this is to do what the president asks. You'l have less stress. You’ll live longer.

The thing that is really amazing to me, especially since I live with a lawyer, is the level of specificity President Obama gets to in parts of his speech.

"Companies receiving federal aid are going to have to disclose publicly all the perks and luxuries bestowed upon senior executives and provide an explanation to the taxpayers and to shareholders as to why these expenses are justified.

And we're putting a stop to these kinds of massive severance packages we've all read about with disgust; we're taking the air out of the golden parachute."

It sounds to me like the most wired president in American history has somebody – likely very many somebodies – taking the temperature of the internet daily, if not hourly, because this mirrors what I've been reading on all the political blogs for the last few weeks.

I’m obviously biased here, but it seems like a smart move to get beyond the one note ninnies who are wasting space in many of our nation’s top newspapers, masquerading as public thinkers, and go direct to the blogosphere, the place where real public opinion is cultivated these days.

The phrases that appealed to me the most were these:

"The economic crisis we face is unlike any we've seen in our lifetime. It's a crisis of falling confidence and rising debt. Of widely distributed risk and narrowly concentrated reward."

You will see well dressed, red faced men on your TV for the rest of the week, sputtering their denials, listing their accomplishments, and telling you how unfair all of this is. Many of them will look like they want to jump out of a window.

Oh, if only the windows of modern high rise buildings were designed to be opened...

Many of them will go home today just like the rest of America has been lately - tired, disgusted, scared, and afraid to look at the mail. They will lay awake tonight like the rest of America has been - uncertain of how they are going to afford to make it from month to month, in doubt about their children's futures, speculating about the distinct possibility that they may not have the retirement years they have been planning on.

When they wake up, they will feel a lot like the thousands of people they have laid off from their own firms with little or no warning in the last year. They will feel the same way their ex-employees did, like their whole world has been changed literally overnight.

For President Obama to state squarely what the real deal is, that the American public has been played for patsies by fake capitalist wannabes who think we have forgotten how to do basic math, is practically heroic in this era of doubletalk and message speak.

Instead of President Obama, I may start calling him "President Relentless" - because I get the feeling he will keep beating this drum until Wall Street learns to dance to his tune.

Obama Ends Bailout Bonus Bonanza

I was climbing down from the attic, dirty air filter in hand, dreading the trek all the way down to the basement to complete the other half of this task, when a grade school level metaphor hit me - the new $500,000 cap on senior executives whose firms receive government financial rescue money put in place today by President Obama was a lot like changing the air filters in our home air-conditioning system.

Changing your air filters regularly does more to improve the operation of your air conditioning system than it does to affect the air quality in your house, the same way capping excessive executive compensation will do more to improve the operation of the banking system than it will do to affect the economic recovery. Because if you don’t clean out the ducts through which the air passes, all you’re really doing when you change your air filter is keep whatever has accumulated in there from tearing up your blower motor.

I don't have to tell you what kind of filth has accumulated in our financial industry.

I took a look at the dirty filters before I threw them away to see if there was anything more in them than a uniform layer of fine grey dust that signaled all was well with the system. I would imagine that President Obama’s people did the same thing, reviewing the often arcane methodologies used to justify executive bonuses amid huge corporate losses to see what ill effects they might have added to the bottom lines of their companies.

If the current crop of wonder boys decide to desert their posts for greener pastures, there are plenty of up and coming banking executives who would fight for an opportunity to make a name for themselves in a time of crisis. These are the kind of people who won't blink at the pay caps today, knowing that a successful tenure when all the chips are down will bring plenty of visibility, and plenty of big paydays, down the road.

Need I spell out that well trained and qualified minority executives usually thrive in situations like this - giving twice as much effort for half as much pay?

Years ago, working part time on the weekends with my uncle, who was in the heating and air business, I got to see first hand what happens when you don’t regularly change your air filters. Old, stiff filters layered with dust, dog hairs, and pollen an inch thick would literally choke the life out of a furnace by overloading the blower motor.

If the customer was lucky, we could sometimes get their system going again by simply cleaning out the furnace, tweaking the blower motor, and taping up the gaps in their ducts.

I imagine we are all keeping our fingers crossed right now, hoping, as our new president begins to find his way amid the wreckage of our economy, that he can implement more changes like the one he has put in place today to improve the financial health of our nation's banks, the same way new air filters and aluminum tape can often get a balky furnace restarted.

03 February 2009

Hype Is Our History

Last night, I was half-listening to Campbell Brown wonder out loud about the stimulus package President Obama is trying to get through Congress, and what America had to do to fix its economic crisis when she said, "we'll be right back after this."

The commercials that followed were a glitzy lineup of hype for stuff I really didn't need to have. A nation full of people with no money to buy stuff we don't really need in the first place is one of the reasons for this economic crisis. Our economy, it seems, only has one speed – full bore – anything less and it begins to sputter, like the engine on a drag racer when you try to let it idle.

We live in the land of hype.

Everybody is a salesman these days, including Brown, who had just done the CNN News Anchor Baton Switch, where the person coming up next gets a cameo appearance ten minutes before the end of the hour to hype their time slot.

Hype. That's what we are - a nation that talks its way around facts, ignores data that doesn't support our conclusions, and pledges allegiance to form over function. The fiction of American moral purity is a hype job unto itself. The trip that put us on the European map was a hype job.

How else could you convince broke people to emigrate from England to a land with no infrastructure whatsoever? How else could a loosely organized group of men with an inadequate supply of firearms convince the masses to fight for American independence?

Hype is our history.

It made me think about a friend of mine I talked to over the weekend who is a budding entrepreneur. He and a partner have put together a new technology. They've formed a company. They’ve gotten interest from venture capitalists, and rounded up actual cash money from investors to get the product built.

I was in the middle of something else when he called, but once we got going, my old instincts kicked in. I wasn’t sure if he remembered that I used to help engineer financing for no-name internet companies back in the 90's, after spending a couple of years as a stockbroker at a third tier firm.

I started hitting him with questions, but the more I probed, the longer his ecommerce buzzwords got to be. So I asked him a question about the revenues. After some hemming and hawing, he finally gave me a straight answer. I did the math, ex-stockbroker style, like I needed to ask him to pay for a trade before he hung up the phone. He grudgingly agreed, the same way my old clients used to do, that the total I had come up with was right.

To him, the number sounded a lot smaller than the hype that led up to it.

In my mind I was ten years younger by then, back to duking it out with slick guys who would fly in from New York or Florida to make presentations to me and my ex-stockbroker buddy in his cubbyhole of an office, with a list of questions designed to flush the B.S. out of the Powerpoint slides we were often subjected to watching.

So I asked my friend another question - "so what are your gross margins?" - a fairly standard question real investors want to know. He backpedaled. He browbeat me. He belittled the question.

"One of my biggest clients, back when I was a broker, told me that he always read an offering prospectus from back to front," I said, exasperated at the evasiveness. "Do you know why he started at the back? Because that's where the numbers are."

My friend is on the right track - he was just talking to the wrong guy.

Conventional morality would have us believe that hype is evil, that hype is wrong, that hype is so un-American, even though our history suggests otherwise. The reality is, the numbers don't sell deals by themselves. Its the hype that goes along with them that makes those numbers sizzle, the right words delivered with enough gusto that turn the black and white framework of financial projections into full color visions of a profitable future.

Back before my ex-stockbroker buddy could afford a lot of attorney time, I assembled the offering prospectus on behalf of the companies we were raising money for. The SEC doesn't really require that much in the way of documentation other than the financials, but investors do. So we gave these companies the full treatment, describing their products and services in the kind of lingo and detail that you would see on a hundred million dollar offering.

By avoiding the facts and ignoring the data that didn't support our conclusions, we were able to convince people who knew better to at least take our calls, where the real hype job commenced.

I thought about all these things last night as I watched Campbell Brown, with no trace of irony, come back after the commercial break for things we don’t need, those commercials that pays her salary, to resume her admonishment of the American populace for failing to use its money wisely.


The gross margins that our economy depends on don't come from the stuff we have to have - they come from the non-essential items that we have convinced ourselves are now necessities. The stuff you aren't buying right now, because you haven't gotten a raise lately, or because your hours have been cut, or your salary has been "adjusted", or the job you used to have doesn't exist anymore is the stuff that puts the pep in our economy's step.

We are a nation of major league spenders with minor league income. We know Starbucks is not about the coffee. We know the cost of designer jeans has no relationship to the utility value of the fabric covering our behinds. We know expensive foreign cars do not get us from Point A to Point B any quicker than a Ford or a Chevy. We know the latest cell phone does not increase the significance of the words we say into it.

We know all these things, but we do them anyway, in numbers so great that to do an about face now, to descend here in 2009 into a world of chaste consumption, of parsimonious penny pinching, where all of us have savings accounts full to bursting, and buy nothing before it wears out, or unless we really need it - that will be the end of America.

President Obama will be all over your TV later today with a hype job of his own, when he will avoid some of the more uncomfortable facts of his economic plan, blow right past the data that doesn't support his conclusions, and ask you to pledge allegiance to the idea of a stimulus package that includes the things he wants.

The plan is far from perfect. Some of the numbers are a lot bigger than the hype suggests. But the picture he will attempt to paint for us, with the right words and enough gusto, won't be the black and white, nuts and bolts version, but the full color one, the one where we get to keep our homes, and get our jobs back.

The real hype job on the stimulus package commences today.

So here's a thumb's up to the president, and my buddy - I hope they both get their deals sold.