31 March 2009

Being A Deserver Is A Lot Like Being A Decider

Believe it or not, there are people out there who are trying to explain why the guys at AIG (and Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan) deserve their bonuses/deferred compensation/ransom money for starting the financial wildfire that threatens to burn down the whole country.

Their numbers are few, but the rhetoric is strong, the tone is aggrieved, the righteousness is sanctimonious. "You people are dead wrong", they assert. "We're not going to take it any more."

I'll have to admit, I see why these people got to be executive vice presidents or so called economic whiz kids - it takes a well educated mind and a stupendous amount of motivation to concoct the elaborate straw man arguments these guys come up with. It is as if they are trying to maneuver us around the scene of the derivative wildfires that destroyed all the equity in our homes without letting us stare the charred remains of our own financial lives.

Being a deserver is a lot like being a decider - it's one of those things that can't be earned. You have to confer it on yourself.

This means if you are an auto industry chieftain who hasn't figured out how to convince the O-Team in D.C. that letting the domestic transportation industry die is a "systemic risk", they will give you your gold watch (and parachute) and tell you to clean out your desk.

I can see that President Obama is a dispassionate decision maker. He doesn’t seem to have any particular loyalty to a position, but to the logic behind "why this position is important." Which makes the disparity between the way his administration has treated Wall Street execs and the way they are treating the Big Three auto execs make even less and less sense.

Either Obama believes in the Deserver Doctrine - "I am the only one capable of deciding what is best for me and my company, despite all evidence to the contrary that may exist, and am not to ever be to judged, questioned, or doubted" - or there is something so bad in the banking system's books that bribing these guys to stay on and start more fires, the way they do in California to keep wildfires from spreading, is the only way to have a chance with this God awful mess.

You have to live in a bubble to feel the way the deservers on Wall Street do. I've dubbed them the "double bubbliers" (pronounced DOO - BLAY BUBE - LEE - AY - an extraordinary pronunciation for extraordinary people) because they live inside two bubbles. Not only has their lifestyle been unaffected - these people's outlook on their future is unaffected too, as though, despite all the financial carnage and the evaporation of value in the United States, they don't have to make any adjustments to their career paths, or their business plans, or their retirement plans.

The Double Bubbliers are not just symbols of a class divide between the haves and the have nots; they are a symbol of the way the nature of the relationship between the deservers and the deserve not's are finally being revealed in full detail. President Obama has to come up with a better reason than the ones he and his team have been giving us as to why he's standing with the deservers, because being on the wrong side of this is like wearing a capital "E" for elitist on your chest.

Fargo, North Dakota was nearly washed away by flooding last week. The Red River was the highest it had been in decades, and was threatening to set a new record when it crested on Saturday. The ENTIRE community - rich and poor, working and jobless, young and old, tired and tireder - filled sand bags, transported sand bags, and stacked sand bags against the river's onslaught. I don't have any visual evidence of this, but I'm sure an enterprising reporter looking for an angle could find a few bankers who put their boots on and stood next to their borrowers as the whole town toiled frantically day after day to hold back the rising waters.

The next time somebody starts shooting at our soldiers fulltime, we will wish we had GM and Chrysler and Ford - domestic automakers are the only place you can turn out mass produced tanks and light armored vehicles in a hurry. "Strategic strikes" haven’t won a war yet - bodies on the ground are the only way to bring major military conflicts to an end. I would hate to think we’d have to order our light armored transports from KIA, or beg Toyota to retool so they can build us some tanks.

We are throwing trillions out of the back door of the Fed - why is it so hard to send the 50 or 60 billion to Michigan? If their unemployment rate gets any higher it will be hard to get the state's economy back on track. If this industry disappears, or shrinks severely, it will be next to impossible. Can we as Americans in good conscience stand by and watch millions of our fellow Midwestern citizens get left out in the cold for being a part of the food chain of a failed industry while we hock everything we've got to keep the deservers living in high style, deservers who are also a part of the food chain of a failed industry?

Unless our deservers can get off of their high horses and out of their high rise mind sets, and figure out how to become preservers in a hurry, they may not get enough help from the rest of us when they need it the most to keep the whole financial system from going up in smoke.

Mr. President, that means you too.

Acknowledging the idea of the White House "bubble" is cute, but since you went to the trouble of keeping your precious Blackberry, why don't you use it. Call some people who don't sit at government desks all day so you can get some perspective on how bad all this looks to the deserve not's.

29 March 2009

A Sad Letter From Tom Joyner This Week

Radio jock Tom Joyner's letter this week to his Chicago listeners was an eye opener. The nationally syndicated radio host, who got his start in morning radio in Chicago, will no longer be on the air in that market. I don't listen to the radio very much - even more rarely in the morning - but when I do, I tune in to theTom Joyner Morning Show because I like what Joyner is doing. To me, our urban radio DJ personalities are powerful people. They have the ear of their listeners at least five days a week. Even if you go to church on Sunday, and Wednesday night for prayer meeting, most black people who listen to the radio regularly are exposed to their local DJ a lot longer than they are to their pastor.

What's going on in black radio? I haven't done any research, but I could imagine how XM radio, IPods, and CD players have reduced their audiences, along with the broadening of black listening habits. For the upwardly mobile, well educated set who has to let you know they aren't "typical", the line "I listen to NPR" has as much cachet as vacationing at Martha's Vineyard in the summer does.

Joyner's show losing ground is symptomatic of how changing demographics and the economic slowdown are going to affect all black media companies in the next couple of years. The Johnson Publishing Company has admitted that falling revenues from its flagship publication, Ebony Magazine, and its sister publication, Ebony/Jet Digest, have put its business at risk. TV One is suffering its own budget woes, even as the country's first African American president presents a prime opportunity for the cable network to expand its reach.

But back to the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Getting rid of Tom's show is one thing. Replacing it with The Steve Harvey Show - now that’s a travesty. You can't drive five miles in the morning without hearing to Joyner give someone somewhere some money to stay in school, remind his listeners to donate to a black college, or promote something related to higher education. There is no black radio DJ in the country who demonstrates his level of commitment to increasing the number of black kids who go to college.

Not one. Not even close.

To do this week in and week out in addition to all the other community issues he explores and promotes while still producing a show that entertains a mass audience is tougher than tough. Ask the people at NPR's News and Notes if you don't believe me - this black issues oriented news is either off the air or will be soon due to budget cuts, but the reality of their situation that I'm sure was taken into consideration was the size of their audience - I would imagine that it wasn't big enough to be near the top of the NPR food chain, even with nationwide distribution.

The reality that Joyner has to face is the age of his audience. I need to look it up, but I think the bulk of his listeners are in the 35 year old to 55 year old range. I have no idea what marketing guru decided that getting new customers for your brand should take a major share of your advertising budget. I've got a sneaking suspicion that the people over 30 make most companies much more money than their new ones will, but changing the conventional wisdom in the ad game is well nigh impossible.

So the Tom Joyner Morning Show - or the "TJMS", as they refer to it on the air - won't go on forever. So I'm glad Tom got his money out of TJMS while it was hot. And you don't have to feel too sorry for Mr. Joyner - he is a significant, if not the majority shareholder in Black America Web as well as a host of other media properties. His "Party With A Purpose" might have a smaller audience, but I’m certain the party will go on.

27 March 2009

Weigh Your Civic Consciousnesses Daily

I'm beginning a weight loss project.

Its not Jenny Craig, or Weight Watchers, or one of the hundreds of other weight loss brands out there. It's the "I Have Common Sense" program. "Eat less. Exercise more. Repeat."

As the mechanics of the process ran through my head last night - the recent review of my eating and exercise habits, the formulation of a plan to reduce caloric intake and increase physical activity, and then the actual follow through of the plan day after day - I thought about the present state of our political scene and our economic woes, and whether or not the American body politic is really ready to make the daily changes in our information gathering habits and our civic activities that are necessary to make significant changes in the area of political engagement, or whether we are just wasting a whole lot of hot air.

Congress is playing with itself right now, the way parents of unruly children do when they look at the chaos around their house, because both Congress and lazy parents know that to get and maintain order means that you are going to have to make a commitment to doing unpopular and unpleasant things until the unruly children or the underregulated industry realizes you mean business, and then be vigilant against the first, second, third, maybe even the one hundredth attempt to try to you, if need be, until the unruly children or underregulated industry believes that there will be consequences for inappropriate behavior without fail, each and every time it occurs.

All government agencies are not created equal. From the investors who have been taken advantage of by people like Bernard Madoff to the Congressmen who sat in hearings wondering how all of this chicanery by AIG and friends (Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, this means you too) in the financial markets had been allowed to take place, they all railed against the SEC for not doing its job properly. The IRS is feared by both businesses and individuals. The SEC is not feared – it is tolerated. The difference? The IRS agents can seize your property and bank accounts without a whole lot of red tape. The SEC can issue a judgment, which doesn't really mean anything. Or bar you from the industry, which as you can see with Mike Milken or Ivan Boesky, is sort of a "under your name only" detention program they have easily skirted after getting out of jail. The SEC might as well be mall cops. The IRS, on the other hand, has all the subtlety of a SWAT team breaking down the door to your house. When was the last time you were worried about a mall cop?

Internet security companies realized long ago that the people they were up against – black hat hackers – were a sophisticated, highly motivated type of criminal element. So guess who has ex-hackers on their payroll? The SEC is in the business of hiring Boy Scouts to catch the financial equivalent of computer hackers – brilliant people who understand how to use the architecture of a system against itself. So hire a few of these guys to work for us. Or if there is no way to pay the kind of money to these people as civil servants it might require to get them onboard, put out Requests For Proposals for consultants that can contract with the agency to provide the kind of intricate analysis needed to keep the SEC at the heels of all the rule benders (do I have to type Goldman Sachs and Jp Morgan here again?) and out and out frauds.

The media, who claims it is working on behalf of the public, is a part of this too, playing with Congress and the White House as if it is one of those perennial "bridesmaid, never a bride" types who uses her dowry to attract one suitor after another in order to amuse herself before sending them packing. And we the public are lazy enough, or brain dead enough, to watch each new suitor’s arrival as if it some new kind of drama or intrigue between them might entertain us more than the last one did. How can you change the media’s focus? Since the thing we call the "news media" is really two entities - the news gathering and disseminating half, with its lifeless legs and foreshortened arms lashed to the back of the advertising delivery half, which holds up the people you see on TV or read in the paper – you can worry their sponsors the way the American Cancer Society worries smokers, day in and day out. Some of them are already falling. Hopefully the others will get back to their original mission.

There really is nothing that Kim Kardashian, Chris Brown, Alex Rodrieguez, Madonna, The Final Four, BMW, Mercedes, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Tag Heuer, Bruno Magli, Jimmy Choo, American Idol or 24 can help to provide you with any additional insight or motivation about regarding the things we say are most central to our lives. How big Kardashian's butt is this week or how much the latest top of the line Mercedes costs is what we end up knowing when we focus this kind of time and energy on these things. Does that mean these things are all bad? I may have a taste of chocolate now and again, but it is a far cry from my old approach, which was to supplement my nightly quart of chocolate ice cream with raids on my emergency chocolate stash, or have a bit with my morning coffee. A little entertainment news can go along way. the good thing is, the same people are always in the news, so if you miss something this week, you'll probably see it again next week.

There are things we as citizens can do to reshape our cultural and political landscape, the same way there are things, like curtailing my immense love of chocolate, that I can do to reshape my body. We've done them before, without one hundred percent support of the people, the same way I'm going to lose this weight without having to give it one hundred percent of my attention. But they were painful times, and often produced imperfect results, whether it was the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or Prohibition, or the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam War protests.

Maybe we all need to be a little bit hungry all the time, not for food, but for entertainment and fluff, in a way that makes us savor smaller portions even as we gaze at the emerging musculature of our new found civic duty in the mirror.

Maybe, just maybe, what we are experiencing these days has made enough of us uncomfortable with what we are seeing and hearing to commit to changing our habits and our activities in a way that make us active players in our political and social scene.

I will be weighing my civic consciousnesses daily - my body, once a week.

25 March 2009

Educator-In-Chief Schools Press Corps

The president showed up on time last night, did his thing, answered the same old questions with the same old answers from some of the same old faces and few new ones for an hour, and left.

The news media will still be talking and writing about this on Friday.

As Brown Man Thinking Hard Number One, President Barack Obama held court last night, searching for the most complete answer he could come up with in response to the wide ranging questions he fielded from the pool of reporters.

Maybe it's just me, but the reporters seem to have become a distraction in this process, not because they are asking questions of the Obama administration – I could go for a two hour press conference myself – but because of the amount of importance they place on their own roles in the process as news shapers rather than news deliverers.

I saw a few minutes of the chatter by the political pundits on CNN after the press conference. The things these people were coming up with to explain the meaning behind the question and answer session were so off base at one point that I simply turned it off.

One of the things I've learned in doing a lot of business over the telephone is that most people don’t listen well. In order to know that the person I’m talking to has been fully exposed to new information I’m trying to explain, I’ve learned to repeat myself by saying the same thing a second time with different terminology, then illustrating my point by using an example, and finally, recapping the whole exchange with a brief synopsis of what I'd just said.

This is pretty much what President Obama did all night.

I sincerely think that the current news model does not have the capacity to handle our current multi-channel, multilevel personal information delivery needs. If these media behemoths want to remain tied to the traditional linear narrative story arc that is the backbone of the system they are using now, they are doomed.

In a post modern world, your audience is more sophisticated than ever before. The two things President Obama pointed out, when he spoke about persistence in the face of adversity and the idea that many of the changes that are happening now won’t become apparent for years to come, were spoken as if he was talking directly to us, as if he speaking over the heads of the reporters who were licking their wounds because they didn’t get called on or scribbling furiously because they did get called on.

Keep up the good work, Educator-in-Chief.

24 March 2009

My Money Is On The Welterweight From Illinois

I compared candidate Barack Obama to Muhammad Ali months ago, just after his speech at the Democratic Convention in August, when he seemed to exhibit a steely eyed resolve in an address that laid off of the soaring rhetoric he was known for and got down to defining in meat and potatoes terms how he was going to battle John McCain and the Republican Party during the fall campaign. "No More Rope A Dope For Obama" was the title of that piece. He landed a few punches down the stretch, but for the most part, relied on some fancy footwork and a superior corner team to cruise to an undisputed victory.

From where we are now, with the president himself coming on TV tonight to let us know what is happening on his end, right there in the White House, the campaign was an amateur fight. This thing President Obama is up against now - an economy that is teetering on the brink of disaster, due in part to a financial sector that has run amok - is like Joe Frazier and George Foreman and Sonny Liston all rolled into one big, bad, rough and tumble opponent. One solid punch from this financial catastrophe could stagger the president badly enough to give his opponents the kind of opening that leads to a political knockout.

Slipping punches and dancing around the ring does not win heavyweight boxing titles, the same way dodging miscues and flying around the country doesn’t fix economic meltdowns.

President Obama has to define his space in the ring.

He has to hit back against his foes, whether they are financial executives squandering taxpayer dollars or a media intent on repurposing his message, with punches that pack some real power, jabbing his adversaries in the solar plexus hard enough to make them think twice about coming inside on him.

This is going to be a fight that goes the distance, an old school fifteen rounder that promises to leave both victor and vanquished exhausted by the final bell. Points won't win a fight like this. Technique won't allow either opponent to outclass the other. And there will be some cuts and bruises and swollen eyes along the way.

The people in the stands are going crazy, and the fight hasn't even started yet. The reporters are having a hard time keeping up with all the hoopla, especially since they are having to scratch through the choice phrases they had already picked out to tell the story of what is really happening in the ring in order to record the actual action on the canvas.

The weigh-in is tonight. It will be broadcast worldwide. The president will be smooth, as usual, and a little longwinded, as usual, but he will be standing on that podium at that lectern tonight with the tiniest bit of positive momentum at his back from the events of the last few days. Sometimes that's all a fighter needs to know before he gets in the ring - that he's got just a little edge on his opponent.

I'm putting my money on the welterweight from Illinois.

22 March 2009

When Are White People Going To Stop Waiting For A Handout?

A phrase you will hear every now and then is "when are blacks going to stop waiting for a handout?" I saw it in print last night while reading commentary by Roy Blount Jr. in the Oxford American, whose latest edition is dedicated to race (that means its only about black people in America) this month.

I chuckled a bit after reading that phrase - it wasn't a half an hour earlier that I'd watched a news clip on The Larry King Show that featured a small group of protesters going from house to house in Connecticut to demonstrate in front of the mansions and estates of AIG executives.

If you've been watching the news, reading the newspaper (SUBSCRIBE NOW - THEY NEED THE MONEY), or surfing the web the last two weeks, you can probably understand why I was busy trying out that age-old phrase, one that is often uttered by those who feel that hundreds of years of racial discrimination should be bygones, with a substitution of my own.

When are these white men going to stop waiting for a handout?

The alliteration between "handout" and "bailout" does not escape me. Because that's what it feels like right now - that there is absolutely no difference between the two.

The only people I see on my TV these days, arguing with Congress about how much they think they should make even though their businesses would closed by now without taxpayer assistance, or pouting to cable news analysts about the severity of their company’s situation, are white people. White men in particular. They all seem to be waiting for the government to do something to help them now that they are in trouble.

And I imagine we are about due now for another bombshell announcement in your local newspaper (THE MOST INFORMATION YOU CAN GET FOR THE MONEY) about yet another "paragon of investing virtue" whose financial chicanery will be unveiled as a total fraud. There have been several who have been uncovered in the last few months, including Allan Stanford, the "billionaire" from Texas whose tight lipped exhortations were prominently featured on CNBC on a regular basis. Haven’t seen one black face in the bunch.

This racial stereotype has gotten so bad that the CEO of Dominos Pizza, in a commercial that skewers the whole bailout fiasco, is walking down what is supposed to be a New York City street amid a gang of Dominos delivery guys who are handing out boxes of their "bailout special" pizza to everybody on the street when he pauses to snatch a box back from a pinstriped suited, grey haired, gruff looking white man, yelling "sorry, Mr. Hedge Fund."

If I see one more white guy get accused of a multi-million dollar financial fraud scheme, I'm going to call the Justice Department myself. This racial profiling has simply got to stop.

Now that I think about it, how come they aren't arresting more black Wall Street criminals? Are you telling me that the Asians aren't smart enough to commit these kinds of crimes? That East Indians don't have the resolve and fortitude necessary to carry out these dastardly deeds?

I can be in the kitchen, rinsing off the dishes while the news is on - I don't even have to look up when they start talking about "millions believed lost in the latest Ponzi scheme." I can see the straight hair, the pale skin, the blue suit, along with the affable smile that radiates nothing but goodwill without even looking at the screen.

I predict a new look will be coming into style soon among the rich well-financed. It will consist of rumpled clothes of unknown origin, a buzz cut, wrinkles, and bags under the eyes. The fashion mavens in the Style section of your local newspaper (YOU WILL MISS THEM WHEN THEY ARE GONE - SUBSCRIBE TODAY) will dub it the "I Actually Work For My Money" look. Because we all know that when white men get mad as hell, and decide they aren't going to take it anymore, they just dig in and outwork everybody else so they can regain total world domination by the sweat of their brow, right?

Nope - they revolt. Secede. Take other people's property and rename it as their own. Shoot a few folks if they get in the way.

Which is how you get British colonies that become the United States of America. Or, in its most recent incarnation, the Glen Beck led group of insurgents known as "We Surround Them", along with those infamous "Tea Parties" that are supposed to be taking place all over the country This small but determined fragment of America's white population, along with their favorite token minority self hate monger, Michelle Malkin, have decided that they are tired of their values and their way of life being rejected by the government, and the rest of the public that doesn't agree with them. They are ready to "take back the country."

When, oh when are these white people going to stop waiting for somebody to give them something?

Oh well. I guess I'll be turning on the TV in a few minutes to see yet another privileged group of white men, who insist they they and they alone are entitled to hold the opinions that count on the economy, the government, and the president.

It's only a matter of time before this bunch starts whining about losing its lack of influence.

21 March 2009

Government Tired Of AIG Outrage, Public Is Not

There are so many stories floating around right now about the public’s rage over the AIG bonuses putting bailout efforts in jeopardy that it almost seems like they have been planted in an effort to browbeat Americans into laying off of the Obama administration for a while, so they can "do their job" in peace. As if the financial meltdown we are all in the middle of is a golf match, where the nation should behave like proper spectators and be absolutely silent while the players are taking their shots at the green.

But we're not playing golf - we are gutting dead fish.

If you're going to gut a fish, you've got to cut his belly open first. The mess that pours out all over your hands and stinks up the place is a part of the gutting process.

The articles that I've read presume that the public can only focus on one thing at a time, like we are a swarm of two year olds, as if we aren't capable of keeping one eye on the bonus fiasco and the other on those trillions that are flying out of the Fed. These articles suggest that our sixth senses are not operative - that we haven’t already braced ourselves for the next call for a another hundred billion, or another two hundred billion, to stanch the bleeding at AIG.

Our government officials sound as if they've are the kind of people who would tell their children that grandma "went away" instead of announcing that she had died.

I was at a neighborhood gathering a few years ago when the conversation got around to pets and the lengths their owners were willing to go to keep them alive. S.'s dog had recently been put to sleep, and I was recounting the difficulties of doggy grave digging when my next door neighbor abruptly said, "when I was growing up, everybody shot their own dog when it was time to put them down."

The room went silent. With all eyes on her, my neighbor continued. "We were on a farm. You didn't take a dog to the vet for something like that. When your dog got to sick to go on, my father would get his pistol, hand it to you, and tell you to make sure to shoot him in the head."

The suburban crowd was mostly taken aback. I remembered my own grandfather's farm, something about an old mule, and a gun shot or two. I wondered, as the conversation began to regain its footing, how big the hole must have been, and who dug it.

There is something visceral about that image of a hand holding a gun, and a beloved animal being shot to death, something visceral and repulsive and honest, all at the same time, that makes me wonder how much of our modern lives are actually connected to reality.

My neighbor's father didn’t beat around the bush, or hem and haw about life and death, or drag his feet in an effort to avoid having to deal with the unpleasant facts of death – he simply did what was necessary and went on about his business.

Our government is having trouble dealing with the unpleasant facts surrounding the bank bailout. Unfortunately for the president, it is not as simple as shooting a dying dog. Shooting one dog doesn't kill any other dog. But putting one of our mega banks out of its misery will most certainly result in significant harm being done to some of the other mega banks that hold our financial lives together.

Our real problem is complicated further by the idea that full disclosure of the dire straits we are in will damage the entire world banking system, an idea that may not hold water much longer if much more information is leaked or forced out in the open. This idea of keeping us mostly in the dark is starting to backfire, because the protestations of "all's well" are not jibing with the never ending rivers of money that seem to pour out of the Treasury and into the banking system.

I don't have a dog of my own, but I'd be willing to shoot the dog we've got myself if he got to the point that he couldn't go on living much longer.

I am willing to become a student again, if that is what it will take to better understand the nuances of the financial calamity we are in.

Most of us don't want the details, though. We want the synopsis. We want the Cliff's Notes version. We want the soundbite that we can digest while we are flipping channels during a March Madness commercial break.

For most things that we form opinions about in life, you can get by with that approach. Moral righteousness alone is often enough to validate your position, even if you have no understanding of the actual mechanics underpinning a controversial situation.

But to even voice an opinion on this, you have got to be able to grasp the importance of a few key financial and legal details in a way that allows you to understand how this alternate universe of high finance has completely upended the "positive outcome equals good, negative outcome equals bad" mantra we use to gauge whether or not an action is to be labeled "good" or "bad."

Outflank the media at their own game. Hit them with a barrage of cogent, well thought out emails everyday for the next two weeks that point out how they could do a better job of providing real information in a way that gives us context. Ask them questions on these radio and TV shows that show we've done a little bit of homework.

And shoot an email or two to the White House, to let them know they can get more leeway from the public with better thought out explanations about what is going on. To ask them if someone on their staff can spare the thirty minutes it would take to craft a Powerpoint for the web that can give an official overview of what is happening, with weekly updates to insert, delete, or correct information.

20 March 2009

Can The President Take A Hint From Leno?

It's still a little hard to wrap my mind around President Obama appearing on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno has become almost as much a Tonight Show institution as Johnny Carson used to be, in spite of all the competition from the late night shows on cable. But Leno's still a comedian.

Luckily, President Obama hasn't developed the wooden version of presidential cheeriness yet, that forced smile that takes away the natural plasticity in their faces, a look that became a caricature of itself in almost every modern commander-in-chief except the first George Bush.

The audience had been searched. The Tonight Show band were all wearing suits. Jay Leno was noticeably excited but contained in his monologue. You really couldn't call this an interview, with the president getting plenty of room to deliver his pre-written jokes, but it was something less than a pure infomercial. It wasn't until about a third of the way through the president's visit that Leno's eyebrows began to inch skyward in disbelief, the way they normally do when his guests give him half answers.

You got the sense from watching this that Leno reluctantly went to the softball questions about the Obama's dog and Air Force One to wrap up the evening. He looked as if he could have asked questions about AIG until six in the morning.

The one thing this visit pointed out to me is a need for someone - the president, the treasury secretary, or some high ranking official - to go ahead and do a podcast or a webinar that actually explains step by step what kind of mess we are in, complete with a link to a glossary or on screen definitions so they can use all the correct names and terminology involved. Telling us that AIG's Financial Products division's foray into manufacturing derivatives was like "putting a hedge fund on top of an insurance company" may have been the best President Obama could do, but that was the kind of buzz word filled answer that leaves most listeners as clueless as ever. It was about as effective as explaining sex to your kids by using "the bird and the bees" analogy.

A presentation on AIG, how it works, and why the government feels it so important to the world economy may end up being an hour long - maybe two - but I think we deserve better pronouncements from our government officials than using half baked analogies to describe one obscure product nobody understands by comparing it to an obscure industry most people don’t understand.

For those of you who are also unsatisfied with all the eighth grade explanations about this, I've got a couple of links you need to check out.

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street


If you're an investor, you have a choice these days: You can either lend directly to borrowers or sell investors credit default swaps, insurance against those same borrowers defaulting. Either way, you get a regular income stream—interest payments or insurance payments—and either way, if the borrower defaults, you lose a lot of money. The returns on both strategies are nearly identical, but because an unlimited number of credit default swaps can be sold against each borrower, the supply of swaps isn't constrained the way the supply of bonds is, so the CDS market managed to grow extremely rapidly. Though credit default swaps were relatively new when Li's paper came out, they soon became a bigger and more liquid market than the bonds on which they were based.

When the price of a credit default swap goes up, that indicates that default risk has risen. Li's breakthrough was that instead of waiting to assemble enough historical data about actual defaults, which are rare in the real world, he used historical prices from the CDS market. It's hard to build a historical model to predict Alice's or Britney's behavior, but anybody could see whether the price of credit default swaps on Britney tended to move in the same direction as that on Alice. If it did, then there was a strong correlation between Alice's and Britney's default risks, as priced by the market. Li wrote a model that used price rather than real-world default data as a shortcut (making an implicit assumption that financial markets in general, and CDS markets in particular, can price default risk correctly).

It was a brilliant simplification of an intractable problem. And Li didn't just radically dumb down the difficulty of working out correlations; he decided not to even bother trying to map and calculate all the nearly infinite relationships between the various loans that made up a pool. What happens when the number of pool members increases or when you mix negative correlations with positive ones? Never mind all that, he said. The only thing that matters is the final correlation number—one clean, simple, all-sufficient figure that sums up everything.

The effect on the securitization market was electric. Armed with Li's formula, Wall Street's quants saw a new world of possibilities. And the first thing they did was start creating a huge number of brand-new triple-A securities. Using Li's copula approach meant that ratings agencies like Moody's—or anybody wanting to model the risk of a tranche—no longer needed to puzzle over the underlying securities. All they needed was that correlation number, and out would come a rating telling them how safe or risky the tranche was.
As a result, just about anything could be bundled and turned into a triple-A bond—corporate bonds, bank loans, mortgage-backed securities, whatever you liked. The consequent pools were often known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. You could tranche that pool and create a triple-A security even if none of the components were themselves triple-A. You could even take lower-rated tranches of other CDOs, put them in a pool, and tranche them—an instrument known as a CDO-squared, which at that point was so far removed from any actual underlying bond or loan or mortgage that no one really had a clue what it included. But it didn't matter. All you needed was Li's copula function.

The CDS and CDO markets grew together, feeding on each other. At the end of 2001, there was $920 billion in credit default swaps outstanding. By the end of 2007, that number had skyrocketed to more than $62 trillion. The CDO market, which stood at $275 billion in 2000, grew to $4.7 trillion by 2006.


To put this in perspective, the entire U.S. housing mortgage debt is 11 trillion dollars.

Now that you've got a better foundation to understand WHAT happened, reading this next excerpt, you might begin to feel like you are standing in the shoes of your government officials, with a clearer picture of why they are scared to death of doing anything to keep the AIG crew away from their desks.

The excerpt below is from AIG itself.

EXCERPT: AIGFP Employee Retention Plan Executive Summary

There are also substantial risks related to the hedging of AIGFP's various books. Although we view the large-market risk books at AIGFP as generally well hedged, the hedging is dynamic - that is, it must be monitored and adjusted continuously. To the extent that AIGFP were to lose traders who currently oversee complicated though familiar positions and know how to hedge the book, gaps in hedging could result in significant losses.

This is driven to some extent by the size of the portfolios. In the interest rate book, for example, a move in market interest rates of just one basis point - that is 0.01% or one-100th of one percent - could result in a change in value of $700 million dollars if the book were not hedged. It has virtually no impact on the hedged book. There are similar exposures in the foreign exchange, commodities and equity derivatives books.

AIGFP's books also contain a significant number of complex - so-called bespoke - transactions that are difficult to understand and manage. This is one reason replacing key traders and risk managers would not be practical on a large scale. Personal knowledge of the trades and the unique systems at AIGFP will be critical to an effective unwind of AIGFP's businesses and portfolios.

In this current environment, any perceived disruption in AIGFP's ability to conduct business, such as one that would result from the departure of a number of key employees, could also cause parties to limit or cease trading with AIGFP. Obviously, this would adversely affect its ability to continue to cost-effectively hedge its positions.


That pesky devil, it seems, is still always in the details. In all fairness, though, I fall asleep fast enough already while watching The Tonight Show - 11;30 at night is not the time to be introducing these kinds of concepts.

Hopefully, the president took a hint from Leno, a certified car guy who loves domestic cars, who didn't ask ONE question about the GM or Chrylser situations. AIG will be here to stay, Mr. President, until the answers we get about the how and the why behind this never-ending bailout starts matching up with the urgency and the action you're taking with our money credit.

19 March 2009

People Just Want To Feel Good Right Now

"People just want to feel good right now" is a sentiment I heard from a friend earlier this week.

"We're tired of all this bad news all the time. We want some relief."

But is this desire a valid one, given where we are today? Is pinning a few minutes of "feel good" on our chests like campaign buttons going to do anything to change our lives?

Will a temporary positive vibe, a sentiment that at this juncture can only be achieved by sticking our heads in the proverbial sand, make it easier for many of us to wrap our heads around the new paradigm shifts that are taking place in our culture?

The Seattle Post Intelligencer, midsized newspaper in Washington State, published its last print edition Tuesday, and became available only online. Its staff of 167 people shrank to 20 people. Even if half of the 167 employees were not news gatherers, how can twenty people possibly cover as many events and proceedings as before? And of the areas they have to stop reporting on, which of these areas will their community miss having information about the most? City council? School board? Sewage treatment? Public health? Social services? White collar crime? Whistleblowers?

The local Atlanta real estate scene, according to a report on a local news station, is still in the doldrums, although a realtor the reporter interviewed commented that "we're beginning to get some activity in a few areas of town. I'm seeing a few more contracts on starter homes." Starter homes? There is no real estate term I despise more. Are we still stuck in this linguistic trap that belittles the kind of home many Americans need to see as their only home - the 3 bedroom, 1 and ½ bath variety that doesn't hold your monthly budget hostage?

Retirement accounts have been hit so hard that they are half-jokingly referred to as 201(k)’s these days - but probably not by anyone over 55. Many, many people who were about to retire have no choice to keep working. So how much longer will this keep some of the millions who have been laid off from going back to work? At what point does the collective frustration of those of this generation who had the best of plans, only to see them evaporate, begin to change how younger Americans sees its future?

My own parents did not put "feeling good" anywhere near the top of the list of things we needed to be thinking about - "doing good" was a much more important barometer for them. For people like them, who went from being cotton pickers to college graduates, "feeling good" sounds like a luxury.

All of the downsizing and rightsizing that has taken place so far has been the external, corporate fueled variety. The hardest transformation that is about to take place in this country is the one between our ears. It is going to require a downsizing and rightsizing of our desires to realign them with the things that we really need to have vibrant, productive and enjoyable lives. The middle class might finally get to be a true middle class again, instead of an imitation of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Those who inhabit society's upper stratosphere could even begin to feel a sharper, more urgent sense of responsibility to the communities from which they derive their financial success.

And hopefully, more of us will begin to teach ourselves how to feel good about the things we can control, and learn to endure the things we cannot.

18 March 2009

AIG Dream Team Holds White House Hostage

GM is practically dancing a jig and mouthing "yassuh, boss" every time they call Washington for emergency cash, while AIG's "Dream Team" impetuously suffers its way through the humiliating process of asking our government for a new truckload of greenbacks. Maybe the management at GM didn't read the same "How To Be Successful In Business Without Really Trying" books as the execs at AIG. You know the ones I'm talking about, where they impart the famous dictum, "in order to get people to give you money, you have to act like you don’t need it."

GM can't get the 20 or 30 billion or so that it says it needs to stay open unless everybody in its food chain - employees, suppliers, bond holders, executives - gives something up. The kind of restructuring they are going go through is a lot like going through a bankruptcy, except there's no judge involved. Even the smart people at GM, the ones considered to be the brains of the operation, have to give up their pound of flesh. I guess this would be the "old fashioned" way of asking the American public to lend a hand when things in your business have gone horribly wrong on your watch.

The attitude that seems to permeate the culture of AIG - "we are impervious to our mistakes" - is the thing that has Americans of every stripe ready to tar and feather anybody with an employee badge from the insurance giant. When we see this kind of arrogance and self centeredness from a company that will need 200 to 300 billion dollars by the time this is finished just to become a shell of its former self, it gets the nation's collective dander up.

The ideological terrorists who crashed those planes into the World Trade Center have had much less impact on our economy and our national psyche than our own homegrown financial terrorists who are reporting to work today at AIG, these Americans of ours who feel so strongly about deserving bonuses for being smart and wrong that they are willing to hold the country hostage in order to get it.

I don't have a problem with paying an office professional more than assembly line technicians because the professional can do complex quadratic equations in his head and manipulate computer models with impunity. What I do have a problem with is the disconnect we have fostered within this group of people when they feel that they are entitled to the reward just for being smart - not for being smart and right.

You won't see this in any study, because the only dysfunctional culture we will identify by name in this country is always in a ghetto, but my own unscientific years of observation in the suburbs has shown me what you already know but may not want to articulate - that the arrogant, reckless and entitled attitudes being displayed by the execs and the rank and file at AIG, who are mostly college educated white men, is homegrown right here in our nation's own suburbs.

If you want to see for yourself, take a ride to your nearest upscale suburban area around the time school gets out and park your car at a gas station near a high school, or next to a Starbucks.

When you grow up in isolation from the factories and warehouses and power plants, when you are cloistered in a bubble of perpetual youth that has no room for the old, the infirm, or the mentally ill, when you are segregated from the people who make the deliveries when you click your mouse, the thing you know as reality is different, different enough for you to believe that the people who turn wrenches and lift boxes and operate heavy equipment need you more than you need them.

Congress could horsewhip AIG CEO Edward Liddy today in their congressional hearing, the way they used to do to runaway slaves - shirt off, blood streaming down his back, the cries of agony echoing across D.C. - but it won't change the way his people think about what they've done, or how absolutely wrong they have been, or how much their errant calculations are responsible for taking America's economy to the brink of disaster.

Whether we can convince AIG's "Dream Team" that this alternate universe they think we live in - the one where it costs you all your marbles when you are dead wrong - is really the real world remains to be seen.

17 March 2009

What AIG's CEO Really Needs To Say

What you really want to hear from Edward Liddy, the CEO at AIG, is this:

    "I am between a rock and a hard place with these bonuses right now. The guys who concocted these derivatives have me and the company over a barrel, because we really don't know how these things work either.

    I am forced to pay some of my people 6 million dollars to keep from losing 600 million dollars because a wet behind the ears rookie doesn't know how to bend or ignore marketplace trading rules the way my guys can without getting caught.

    We call these payments we made last week "bonuses", but they don't mean the same thing in our world that they do in the rest of corporate America. A "bonus" can be commissions, or a pat on the back for our staffers who work hard but don't actually sell stuff, or whatever the hell we want it to be for. It is the tool we use to own our employees lives lock, stock and barrel. I'd really, really hate to give that kind of power up.

    I have no idea how to renegotiate these contracts, the way they do in the sports world, or many other areas of business when the financial climate changes, because I never really had to even think about this before - and besides, it's never been my money that I was giving away.

    I would leave myself - not because I've got a better offer from somewhere else, but because I am tired of the people with the microphones and the cameras who always want me to say something, even though they've already got the written statement I've memorized word for word, because a part of their job is to try to put a face on this mess. Most of us in this business, even at the top, are in the same boat - we are all running out of ready cash, and our investments, believe it or not, are down further than yours. But I can still turn a lot of those zeros in my investment accounts back into millions if I can keep enough cash coming in to live off of until the market comes back. You could call it a "personal bailout."

    I really don't know how to tell you this, but I'm really not that concerned about a 150 or 160 million in bonuses right now, probably because we're working really hard, as I speak, to try to figure out how many more billions we're going to need from the government next month to keep the company operating. Well, that and the contingency proposal my assistant is cooking up that will hand me, ahem, I meant "that will permit me" to take a larger stake in a reorganized AIG without having to come up with a dime. The only reason this whole bonus brouhaha is even still on my personal radar is because of the bad publicity that erupted this weekend.

    But that's the kind of thing we CEO's have to deal with, when a sneaky president and his administration can give billions to you with one hand and then pull the rug out from under you with the other."

But our business and government leaders have become so allergic to the truth in this country that they would probably go into anaphylactic shock if they even thought about doing something like this.

15 March 2009

Dip, Baby Dip!

When I read the other day that Michael Steele was the person credited with inventing the phrase "Drill, Baby, Drill", something in the article about hip hop made a connection somewhere deep in my memory banks.

"Drill, Baby, Drill", the phrase so enthusiastically chanted at Republican gatherings after Sarah Palin came on the scene, was an adaptation of "dip, baby dip", a constant refrain in the song Tootsee Roll by the rap group 69 Boyz. There is no anthropological proof to back up my claim - the many Wicked Wednesdays I whiled away in nightclubs years ago are all the evidence I need to satisfy me about my hypothesis.

I guess Michael Steele wasn't kidding about liking hip hop after all. Now that I think about it, he looks like the kind of dude who fell through the club after a political rally, his tie still around his neck, bobbing his head as he tried to fit in with the Downtown Browns back in the day who were sporting their after work uniform - multicolored Jhane Barnes shirts and designer cologne.

The good thing about Wicked Wednesdays, at least in the places I hung out, was the way a guy from the Urban League could hang out with the guy from DA's office, the way the doctors could hang out with the funeral home owners, the way the teachers and principals could hang out with the TV and record producers, the way the Democrats could hang out with the Republicans, because no matter what niche any of us came from, we all had to go to the same place if we were interested in shaking our behinds for a little while.

It was the two images the Republican chant evoked - square jawed, tow headed white men chanting about domestic oil drilling to the same tempo that square jawed, freshly barbered black men used to chant at nightclubs across the country years ago as they two stepped in time to the tempo of their dance partner's rear end - these two images, twining themselves around each other, have amused me to no end the last few days.

"Dip, baby, dip!"

"Drill, baby, drill!"

I was reading a post on the blog Average Bro the other day about how Average Bro was rethinking his attitude to Michael Steele when I understood this feeling of lost kinship I'd been having lately, because I am tired of laughing at the brother. This is no longer funny. At the end of the day, Steele is still black, just like Clarence Thomas and Condoleeza Rice are still black.

Right now, I feel the same way about Mr. Steele that I do about a football team that gets behind three touchdowns in the first quarter. Even if the losing team is playing the Falcons, my home team, I have to pull for their opponent when the score is that bad – otherwise the game is no longer interesting.

So Michael Steele, while your fellow Republicans are hemming, hawing, twitching and resorting to doublespeak in order to accept and reject you in the same breath during all the political gabfest shows this morning, I will start cheering for you whole heartedly – not for your policies, or any reverence for the office that you hold within the GOP, but because I hate to see black men of any political stripe (other than Alan Keyes) get humiliated day after day on national TV.

13 March 2009

We Deserve Exactly What We Are Getting

The common refrain you are starting to hear from financial professionals, news reporters and journalists is "we would have talked more about these things, but nobody wanted to watch/read/listen to me explain the arcane products and obscure rules changes."

They are absolutely right.

But if we don't want to know anything about SEC regulations, or how the fees on our mutual funds are calculated, or what it says on page 38 of the loan documents we had to sign to purchase our homes, what is it that we actually want to know?

  • How old Chris Brown was when he started sleeping with his manager.

  • How much Octo-Mom spent on her house.

  • What happened to Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin's wedding plans.

  • I guess the real question is, would the United States function more efficiently as a nation if say, three quarters of the people in this country were serious about understanding the intricacies behind the lives we lead?

    Or is it at its optimum level of existence when one tenth of the population is willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to understand the details of the machinations that drive our society, and the rest of the country simply exists to carry out their directives?

    Would our government suffer from "analysis paralysis" if the vast majority of the populace was so well versed in the particulars of the issues facing the public sector that they could spot the inconsistencies and gaps in government programs before they were enacted into law?

    We're too busy with our entertainment schedules to even waste precious moments contemplating these kinds things, because we've got to watch TV or go the movies or play video games or compete at fantasy baseball. We have grown men scouting the collegiate potential of 6th grade basketball players as if they are charting the discovery of a new chemical compound, but understanding the fundamentals behind the financial products and services we use everyday - now that's just asking too much.

    Many of the people we see on TV - people in the White House, in Congress, and in the news media - are as fond of entertaining themselves as we are, because they really like playing the game of politics more than representing the interests of their constituents. And in good times, those times when we the public only worry about pleasing ourselves or indulging our passions, they get to play at this game without a lot of interference from us. We become "the base", or "values voters", or "the black vote" or "the latino vote", or when it's just too much trouble to subdivide us, "voters".

    I normally try to end these run-on rants with something positive, but right now, I've got nothing to tell you but this - if we can't be bothered to dedicate any more time or energy to understanding the details of how the important parts of our government and our economy work than what we are showing right now, we deserve exactly what we are getting.

    10 March 2009

    "Juggling Major National Issues Should Only Be Attempted By A Professional"

    The warning on fire juggling equipment websites read "fire juggling should only be attempted by a professional juggler."

    If you've ever watched a juggler in action, you’ve probably done what I've done - wonder what it is that makes something that looks so simple so hard for the average person to do.

    I've seen professional jugglers at the circus as a child and on TV as an adult. They all pretty much start off the same way - by standing next to a row of items they intend to juggle and picking the items off of the row one by one. The first two items they toss into the air to get their rhythm going make the action look deceptively simple. And while you're watching, they smoothly snatch another item from the pile and add it to the ones they are already circulating from hand to hand and into the air.

    The next thing you know, they've got four items in the circuit - two in the air, with the other two in their hands. This, you figure, you could probably do as well, if you had time to practice a bit. It isn't until they begin juggling five or six items that you have to admit that this guy knows what he is doing.

    If you watch him while he's juggling, you will see, even if he is plying his audience with a steady line of patter, that his eyes are intent on the trajectory and the height of the balls in the air.

    Imagine these items are torches, the kind you set on fire.

    When you see a juggler begin to light his juggling torches, any idea you may have had of your prowess matching the juggler's skills one day vanishes. At that point, you figure the juggler has lost his mind – he cannot possibly be planning to juggle torches that are actually flaming.

    The most amazing act I've ever seen involved juggling lit torches.

    President Obama is a fire juggler.

    In some ways, he is making the balancing act he's maintaining as his administration juggles decision making on the economy, healthcare, the banking bailout, the environment, education and America’s infrastructure look too easy. Most of us, aware of our own limitations, figure we would be sweating bullets if we tried to take on any three of these at once.

    The critics, who are legion, are not professional jugglers. They are a lot like you and me - the kind of people who would be afraid of even tossing lit torches into the air. President Obama may not be one yet either, but he seems to be willing, like has has in all the other endeavors he's committed to accomplishing in his life, to be giving it his undivided attention.

    09 March 2009

    Sunday Talk Shows Like Weekly Wine Tasting

    I considered watching Sunday’s political talk shows yesterday, before a thought hit me. I imagined multiple groups of soberly dressed men and women surrounding various tables in the Meet The Press, This Week, and Face The Nation television studios - the image of a gigantic yellow funnel popped into my head, with all the problems of last week pouring in the wide top end alongside a steady stream of stimulus programs, and a thin stream pouring out of the narrow end, a thin stream that these people around these tables were going to sip from as if they were at a wine tasting, puckering their lips and looking skyward before making their pronouncements on the characteristics of the distillate as they searched for a vintage economic recovery solution rich in its complexity, with a perfect nose, body, and balance.

    I didn't really have to watch any of these shows yesterday, because I already knew, like you do, that we were likely to hear the same old chatter. Some of them declared that the stimulus program the Obama administration has pushed through Congress is no better than the famous "Ripple" wine Fred Sanford was so fond of on Sanford and Son. Some insisted that even though the Obama stimulus package has its shortcomings, it is a good value for the money. And some, who had already made up their minds before the beverage even touched their lips, claimed, with a sincerity bordering on the maniacal, that it wasn't fit to be considered good shoe polish.

    What does all of this taste testing every week do for the rest of us, when our cups are empty?

    Most of us don't care right now what kind of stimulus the economy needs – whether its bottom shelf, bargain basement, or comes in a box – we'll even take a shot of white lightning if it gets things moving again.

    06 March 2009

    Is There Anything Good Going On These Days?

    Yesterday, I was feeling a little rundown after a long week, so instead of getting online, or reading something, I sat down in the den and pushed back on the arms of the recliner to raise my legs. The TV was already on, so I figured I'd watch it for a few minutes until I nodded off. The show turned out to be Ugly Betty, a satire aimed at the fashion magazine publishing industry.

    I’d forgotten Vanessa Williams was on the show - just when I thought I was going to fade out, she hit the screen. You can never go wrong watching Vanessa. But the program itself became more compelling than Ms. Williams blue green eyes as I realized that the program was incorporating current events into its storyline. When they showed the editor and publisher of Mode magazine, the fictional publication the show revolves around, in front of a New York legislative body, it made me think of all the recent congressional hearings where Wall Street and Detroit executives had recently been grilled.

    Mode magazine was struggling, like many companies in the real world, and its executives were making a personal plea for $75 million in bailout funds. The company's executives emphasized that they'd come in on the subway to the hearings. The show segued to the title character, Betty Suarez, who was trying to figure out how to save the family home.

    It wasn't until the second or third set of commercials came on that I realized how out of touch I was with the world of broadcast TV. The ads were all keying on the economy, layoffs, cutbacks, downsizing, and the corresponding change in spending habits of the buying public.

    I don't know if this is typical of all the prime time shows and advertising these days, but with the constant barrage of negative images, I was more awake and more concerned about the economy by the end of the show than I'd been when I sat down.

    Is there anything good going on these days?

    As bad as this economic downturn is, I think there are several positive things that are taking place right now.

    We are connecting to other people in intimate, heartfelt ways that some of us have frankly ignored in times of plenty. The need to contact everybody in your network if you’ve been laid off or downsized oftentimes reopens lines of communication with people you may not have spoken to in years.

    We are leaning on each other emotional, spiritually and financially, which has altered how we make decisions about things. This group input is resulting in less rash or unnecessary purchases that we have often rationalized are "essential" items when left to our own devices in times of plenty.

    We are all learning to really appreciate what we have, rather than covet the things we don't have.

    At the end of this episode of Ugly Betty, the Suarez family got the money they needed to save their home. The owner of the publishing company, after being turned down for a bailout, decided to put up his own assets (a novel concept!) to try to save the business his father founded.

    Hell, even Vanessa Williams' character decided to kick in what she could.

    We’re all in this together. Even our fictitious TV personalities are joining in.

    We in real life aren’t going to get a fairy tale ending, but the outcome of all of this, down the road, will be a positive one.

    05 March 2009

    Homeowners Of America, Incorporate!

    Joe King, who is the author of the piece below, also goes by the online moniker Great Midwest at the progressive political website DailyKos, where we are both active members of its online community. Mr. King has given me permission to publish his comments in their entirety here.


    I need a lawyer, stat! Not just any lawyer,but some hotshot who can draw up incorporation papers pronto. I think we can make this homeowner protection idea palatable to conservatives, but first we need to get all of America's troubled homeowners to incorporate into one $1.8 trillion corporation.

    We all know how offended conservatives are at the notion of helping average Americans avoid foreclosure, but they can't wait to throw money at big corporations. So the solution is obvious -- Homeowners of America, Incorporate! We will call ourselves Homeowners in Crisis, or HIC.

    And what a corporation HIC would be, take a look at the numbers.

    The president estimates his program could help 9 million homeowners, so let's start there.

    A bit of Googling reveals that the average home price in America is, to use a nice round number, about $200,000. Multiply that by 9 million and you discover that HIC would have assets worth about $1.8 TRILLION. Not bad.

    Of course, that is only part of the story, because that figure takes into account only factories...I mean homes. It doesn't even begin to include the equipment (refrigerators, stoves, washers, dryers, etc) that it would take to keep all those HIC facilities scattered across the nation humming. That spending would add up billions a month, I suspect. Talk about you economic engine! Why HIC would be the largest buyer of consumer products in the nation!

    Then there are the employees, I mean residents, of those homes. According to 2000 census data, the average household in America is 3.1 people -- but that includes a lot of apartment dwellers who are not as prolific at producing product (I mean kids)as HIC employees. So, let's round that up a bit to 3.5 per factory (which is probably a bit conservative) and you get 31.5 million employees, which would make HIC the largest employer in America.

    Furthermore, unlike most other corporations, HIC pays taxes. Lots and lots of taxes. In fact, HIC would pay more taxes than any other corporation in America. I'm no economist, but I would be willing to wager that HIC probably would pay more taxes than all of the other corporations in America combined. Billions and billions a year to local, state and federal coffers.

    Taken as a whole, it's a pretty impressive package (and this just scratches the surface.

    HIC would be so huge that I'm sure conservatives would rush to its rescue! They would much rather fall all over themselves to save a single such corporation of this magnitude than pay any attention to 9 million "deadbeat homeowners who should have known better and deserve whatever they get."

    So get me a lawyer ASAP. It's time to draw up some papers.

    P.S. Because this is my idea I get to be CEO and take home a HUGE tax payer funded bonus, regardless of how well HIC performs. Be nice to me and I will get you one too.

    04 March 2009

    Rush The Magic Ego

    My buddy called me Tuesday afternoon. There was a little anger in his voice.

    "Who are these people who listen to Rush Limbaugh? Aren't they the same people who have retirement accounts and stocks and bonds that are way down right now?"

    "Dude, the niche market that Limbaugh talks to everyday figure you are the reason why their stocks are down."


    "You think I'm kidding - how many times have you heard the cause of the mortgage crisis was Community Reinvestment Act lending? 'Weakness in the moral fiber of minority communities caused stock market collapse' is the kind of shit you might be hearing soon."

    My buddy paused for a minute, sighed, then asked, "have you been following this thing with Rush Limbaugh?"

    "Which thing?"

    "You know,” he continued, "the thing with the brother who is the RNC chairman - Michael Steele. What the hell is this?" It bothered him to no end that Limbaugh had the last word in this sparring through the media "If Steele is supposed to be the head of the RNC, then isn't he the head of the party? And if he’s the head of the party, then why is he apologizing to Limbaugh? A man doesn't do that."

    And just like that, he had come to the crux of the matter. My buddy, who normally could care less about what was going on with the Republican Party, was steaming mad because Steele was not acting the way he thought a real man should, especially when Limbaugh wasn’t officially anything but a radio host.

    "Dude," I said, "you’ve lived down here in the South for a long time, but you don't get it yet. You, you look at the president, and you see a well educated, intelligent, thoughtful, organized, motivated black man who has just as much right as anybody else to sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.

    But there are quite a few people in this country who see Buckwheat.

    A Buckwheat who outsmarted their all-time favorite enemy, the Wicked Witch form Arkansas. To them, Obama is Buckwheat with a haircut and a blue suit on. Do you remember the Little Rascals? Buckwheat was cool with Spanky and the gang so long as they could laugh at him. Could you imagine him trying to take Spanky's place?"

    "Then what the hell is Steele there for? Why would he stay in a job like that when he has no power? That brother needs to resign. Just quit."

    "The kind of brother you want him to be doesn't get to be the head of the RNC. Although as you were talking, I was wondering how old J.C. Watts would have handled this if he had been in the same position."

    For all the square jawed, resolute eyed men you normally associate with the Republican Party, these last two national minority representatives of the GOP do not fit the mold. Steele and Jindal do not have the "take no prisoners", "bulldozer" type of mentality that we often identify with Republican Party leaders. They do not look like the kind of men who are willing to take as much punishment as they dish out.

    For that matter, Limbaugh doesn't either, but then again, he's never had to be elected to anything. His value isn't just followers - it is his ability to get people to send millions of dollars to a candidate or a cause, millions that Steele and Jindal can't generate, that comprises the real throne Limbaugh sits on.

    "Dude," I continued, "you know how I am about this kind of stuff, since my father is a Republican. I don't take railing against Republicans lightly. But I don't think this is really about the Republican Party. Limbaugh might have dropped out of college, but even he can count – a 131 million people voted in the last election. It was a big turnout - there probably will be a whole lot less people voting in 2012 - but the 13 million or 14 million listeners he has have a problem.

    They don't multiply well."

    The kind of person who is a true believer in the stuff Limbaugh says are the kind of people who turn others off with their fanatical ideological rigidity. What the Republicans need right now are the kind of people who can turn people on."

    Rush Limbaugh is well on his way to becoming another in a long line of men, like George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, or Eugene McCarthy, who reach an apogee as a social change agent and then harden in place, their stances becoming more anachronistic by the day as the winds of change inevitably blow society in another direction until they turned into caricatures of their former selves.

    It hit me later, when I was reading an interview Mr. Limbaugh did last year for the London Telegraph at his radio studio in Florida, that he is to politics what Richard Pryor was to comedy – an entertainer on the edge who is willing go into the political unknown. "That Cracker's Crazy", a play on Pryor's famous comedy album "That Nigger's Crazy" leaped into my head. If you watch Limbaugh's facial expressions while he's speaking, you quickly see that he has the comedian's instinct for satirical irony, a distinction that some of his listening audience is not always so quick to recognize.

    When you look at all of the facets of Limbaugh's life that he compresses into the energy powering his three hour radio show everyday – his hearing loss, his multiple marriages, his larger than life father and grandfather, the drug abuse, his fear of being labeled a "racist" – you realize, the same way you did with Richard Pryor, that this is what living on the edge looks like.

    'I don't have guests on my show because I don't care what other people think,' he tells me. 'Most guests are boring.' But it's not only others he is bored with, it is also, perhaps, himself. This may be what explains his recklessness, his bravado, his determination to say the unsayable. And perhaps it also explains why he never misses a beat, until you draw him out about himself — how he is difficult to live with, how he cried when his cat died, how, to his surprise, he found it helpful talking to a therapist. Only then does he hesitate.

    Excerpt from the Telegraph.co.uk

    Limbaugh seems to be the cat's meow right now, but he is as vulnerable as these men were. One of the worst things you can do is turn a friend into an enemy, because they know all your weak spots and all your intimate secrets. And when Limbaugh's political friends begin to realize that the Obama agenda is to actively continue to expand the electorate in the hopes of capturing even more congressional seats for the Democrats, while all they have is "1 X 1 = 1", the GOP hatchet men will be out for the frat boy with a vengeance as they try to keep the party from dying.

    If Steele goes, at least he can say he was there. But if he stays on, he can shelve the hip hop initiative. Cancel the urban outreach. Just quit throwing good money after bad. Because the image that is playing in the minds of many black American men right now is not a good one.

    03 March 2009

    IGov - Do We Really Want To Upgrade?

    I was talking to S. the other day, when the guys who argue on the Sunday morning political talk shows were going on about the budget President Obama has proposed, when I asked her a question.

    "You know what API's are, right? We need to have the information released as raw data, so we can manipulate it on our own – I'm tired of listening to these guys build entire arguments on slivers of information they’ve found, instead of giving it the context it deserves."

    S., who has done time as a lawyer at an internet security firm, looked at me as if I was crazy. "I don't know about that. It sounds like too much of a security risk."

    I was shocked.

    As much as S. and I have railed together about the television shows and newspaper articles that share such a limited amount of actual information about what's going on in the government, it never would have occurred to me that she could possibly want to limit electronic access to information that was already public anyway, albeit in a more unwieldy format.

    The "API" I mentioned stands for "application programming interface", which essentially means that you not only get the raw data, but a blueprint that tells you the parameters around which you can write programs to access the data. Facebook, Youtube, Paypal - some of the most popular internet destinations - all make their API's available to allow the software development community to create new ways of using their products.

    The skills it requires are beyond most of us, but there are plenty of software developers out there who will whip out a new program in a few days just to test themselves. And there are quite a few politically active ones, like my man Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight.com, who have already shown how well they can manipulate data with an off the shelf server and a little bit of know-how.

    So what was S.'s real reluctance all about? I don't know - we got on another subject and never came back to the idea of the public having free and open access to the data files that produced the information that is already public. I thought about the old saying "give the people what they ask for and they might find out they don’t want it." Who knows - I'll bring it back up at some point in our rolling political discussion.

    The irony of the whole scene, though, at least to me, was the fact that while we were talking, the Diva, our resident teenager, was sitting on the couch with her most favorite possession - her IPhone - in hand, thumbing through some game on the screen. I thought about how the success of Apple’s hottest product depended not only on its sleek design and 21st century touch screen mechanics, but the heavy interest from the programming community, which had taken the capabilities of this smart phone to new heights by coming up with programs the company’s designers had not even imagined that ran on the IPhone platform.

    Do we really have the interest in our political process that we say we do? Could we get as interested in the details of government spending and government program efficiency as we are in the minutia of our cell phone plans, if the raw information was presented in a more visually appealing way that it is now?

    This may not have as much emotional resonance as a good hot tempered rant about the evils being perpetrated on Wall Street, or the absolute inanity of the latest Rush Limbaugh imbroligo, but it is infinitely more important

    Or are we just interested in hearing ourselves complain about government, because its what you’re supposed to do?

    I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for IGov.