Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Night Before Christmas

'Twas the night before Christmas, and in his cold bed
Alan Greenspan was groaning and shaking his head
For a ghost was abroad on that cold winter's night --
I was John Maynard Keynes, howling, "See" I was right!
"I was right! I was right! I was right all along!
"You believed Milton Friedman, but Friedman was wrong!"

"Enough," shouted Greenspan, "why can't you have pity?
"I admitted my fault to a Senate committee
"But old Milton Friedman died happy and smug
"Before unbounded greediness pulled out the rug.
"They had plenty of pork, but they took the whole hog, oh
"A curse be upon that damned U. of Chicago!"

So Keynes went to the Senate to try some soul saving
But Corker and Chambliss were ranting and raving,
And Bunning and Enzi and Cornyn and Thune
And Ensign and Inhofe all sang the same tune,
And Keynes said, oh Lord, I just can't take the drama,
Forget all these fools, I'll just talk to Obama.

And Obama sat silently, listening to Keynes,
Looking down at the hands that would soon hold the reins.
Keynes said, "Time to ignore what the financiers like,
"Time to get rid of Rubin and listen to Reich,
"Yes, it's time for a change, but a change that is real,
"Yes, the time has arrived for a new New Deal."

And Obama sat silently, cards to his chest,
Then said, "I'll endeavor to do what is best."
"Spend money," said Keynes, "spend a trillion! Spend two!
"They'll just call you a socialist whatever you do!"
Keynes had one more remark as he faded from sight,
"The whole world is praying that you get it right."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A failure of tribalism

Bernie, Bernie, Bernie... we thought you were a mensch.

And that, of course, was at the heart of the problem. In it's final days, Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme had gone worldwide, but it was built on a solid foundation of "investments" by his fellow Jews. All of them were successful, and most of them were pretty sharp. So why did they trust a goniff like Bernie?

Yes, he had a good reputation. He was a bright young man back in the sixties, when he founded BMIS, and in the seventies, when he was a leader in the creation of NASDAQ. Mostly, though, he was a lantzman, a guy you trust because he's, well, like you -- provided you're a wealthy Jew.

Anthropologists Karen Cook, Russell Hardin, and Mary Levi put it like this:
In general, we are likely to deal more with those whom we trust. Hence, we tend to narrow our associations to certain networks, such as a neighborhood group or an ethnic group. If others in the same context do the same, we have effectively defined a group from which others are de facto largely excluded from many of our relationships. They may soon enough become excluded deliberately and not merely de facto, so that we begin to define them as actively foreign. In a sense, then, distrust defines the boundaries of our group. (Cooperation Without Distrust; Russell Sage, 2005; p. 67)
Bernie targeted Jews for one important reason -- it was easier than targeting goyim. Reading between the lines of the news coverage, it looks like he might have actively rejected non-Jews back when the scheme was new, perhaps concerned that they might be more inclined to entertain the occasional doubt. Ponzi schemes being Ponzi schemes, however, the supply of rich Jews eventually was exhausted. Hello, Banco Santander. Hello, Royal Bank of Scotland.

(It didn't hurt at all that Jews have been marrying out with increasing frequency in recent decades. Kinship networks facilitated the move into Europe, and from there to the Middle East and Asia.)

Some of my non-readers (does anybody read this blog?) may think I'm singling out Jews. I'm not. Exactly the same thing probably is happening among Lebanese Christians, Pashtuns, Tutsi, Mormons, and an host of other tribalized entities in this diverse, competitive world. We'll probably see more of the same kind of Ponzi scheme falling apart, although probably not nearly so extensive as Bernie's. He's not your average goniff, by a long shot.

Just the same, I think a lot of people wish he'd listened to his mother, and become a doctor.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Blagojevich and the law

Strange as it may seem, I'm beginning to feel a little sympathy for Rod Blagojevich. Granted, he's not the kind of person I ever could imagine getting to like. Apparently he's a foul-mouthed bully who abuses his staff, so inflated with hubris it's a wonder he can fit through the courthouse doors.

It's easy enough to mock the hairstyle that looks like it was copied from a Japanese cartoon, and there's been some snickering at his ethnic name even in the most PC of media. Topping it all off, he's enough of an asshole to say potentially incriminating things on his office phone when he already knows he's under investigation.

But what, exactly, has he done? What, for that matter, has he tried to do, or suggested he might like to do?

Oh, that's right. We're all supposed to be terribly offended because he may have offered political favors and appointments -- including Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat -- for sale.

Well, face it, America -- our government has always been for sale, starting from when the founders instituted property requirements for voting. In the 19th century, Mark Twain observed, "We have the best Congress money can buy." If anybody thinks the reforms of the Progressive Era put an end to that, that person has no grasp of either history or politics.

How do you suppose somebody gets to become Ambassador to Lichtenstein? It's certainly not based on diplomatic skills or comprehensive knowledge of Lichtensteinian culture. How did lobbyists for major corporate interests wind up in charge of the federal agencies responsible for regulating those same corporate interests? What really is the difference between a large political contribution and a bribe?

Okay, I'll answer my own question. It is a difference of style, not of intent. Rod Blagojevich, as I'm sure you've noticed, is sorely lacking in style. His idea of a wink is a smack across the side of the head, and his idea of a nudge is a flying tackle. His is not the world of subtle, unspoken understandings. He likes his understandings clear and straightforward, clean and honest.

I believe Blagojevich sincerely believes he's done nothing wrong, and that is why he was so careless in his telephone conversations, and why he refuses to resign. He was just doing what American politicians have done for well over two hundred years -- so how could that possibly be unethical, much less criminal?

Ah, you poor sucker -- too open, too innocent, too honest!

Too bad.

Friday, December 5, 2008

On Piracy

I don't get it.

No competent business owner sends a payroll, or a day's receipts, or anything else of significant value across midtown Manhattan without protection. Armed guards watch while the cashbox is transferred to the armored car, ride along with it for the eight or nine blocks, and supervise its transfer to its destination. It's just common sense.

Other businesses, though, send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shipping through the Gulf of Aden or the Malacca Straight with no protection at all. Okay, maybe the captain has a revolver, but so what? If you're going to send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ships and cargo through areas that appear to be quite a bit more dangerous than midtown Manhattan, wouldn't it make sense to hire a private security company to protect them?

Picture this: a cargo ship, say, 600 feet long, is happily chugging along when two motorized rubber rafts, each holding half a dozen illiterate Somali fishermen with AK-47s and, perhaps, grenade launchers appear in the distance. What will the captain do?

Currently, he'll try to outrun them. Maybe he'll make his getaway, maybe not. But what if he has a team of three or four private security contractors aboard -- say, from Triple Canopy or Blackwater -- and suppose they came equipped with a rocket launcher? Pirates, kiss your asses goodbye.

According to Douglas R. Burgess, Jr. in today's Times, the naval vessels from various countries now patrolling off the coast of Somalia may be ineffective because they're caught in a kind of legal limbo, forced to decide whether pirates are "ordinary criminals, or a quasi-military force." Actually, a more significant problem is that there's a lot of open water out there, and navy ships can't be everywhere at once. The establishment of a protected shipping corridor off the coast of Somalia has offered good protection for the ships that use it, but one wonders to what extent, if any, the private shippers who use the corridor compensate the US and European countries which maintain it. Saudi Aramco, for one, certainly can afford to do so.

Anyway, pirates are likely to see a strong risk of being blown out of the water by any target ship they might attack as a bit more discouraging than the difficulty of finding prey outside the protected corridor.

As far as I know, the legal principle of self-defense applies across all state boundaries, worldwide, and that certainly is the case in international waters. It's time for shipping companies to start looking out for their own interests. There is no shortage of mercenary forces in the world, and no shortage of armaments. If a ship and its cargo are important enough to be sent through dangerous waters, the ship's owners should be willing to pay for protection.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Grab your shovels -- it's bullshit time

Everybody, it seems, has advice for Barack Obama. A lot of that advice suggests that he either delay or reconsider commitments he made during the campaign -- usually citing the current economic crisis as justification. Most of it is bullshit.

  • Bullshit premise #1: The Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, would slow the growth of new jobs and keep unemployment high.

    The argument is based on the notion that since unions would negotiate higher wages for members, employers could not afford to create as many jobs. That's total nonsense. Excluding nepotism, businesses never create unnecessary jobs -- and if a job needs to be done, somebody will be hired to do it.

    Also, anybody who ever has negotiated a union contract knows that you can't get blood out of a stone. If a company can't afford to pay higher wages, there is no way a union can force it to do so -- and if a business really is in danger of failure due to union contracts, unions (like UAW) will renegotiate. A union contract is worth nothing if a company is forced to go bankrupt.

  • Bullshit premise #2: Raising taxes on the rich must be postponed to prevent worsening the economic slowdown.

    Yes, Keynesian economics teaches us that recessions require tax cuts, but that doesn't mean everybody's taxes have to be cut. The spending of those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $250,000 a year will scarcely be affected by increasing their marginal tax rate from 35% to 39.6%, which was the top rate during the Clinton years. To increase consumption and stimulate the economy, tax cuts should be heavily tilted towards the poor, who spend every cent they have available.

    Now is not the time to forget that the immense shift in wealth from the poor and middle classes to the very rich was at the heart of the current crisis. Immense wealth looking for a place to go fueled the growth of mortgage backed securities, gambling on credit default swaps, and the drive to create all the other unregulated derivatives that continue to threaten our banking system. A downward redistribution, to undo some of the effects of the Bush upward redistribution, will do far more good than harm.

  • Bullshit premise #3: Health care reform must be delayed until the recession is over.

    Health care is not a good deployment of federal money now, say the critics of reform. Health care is too complicated and too expensive to address under current circumstances. If employers are forced to provide health care or, as in the Obama plan, pay into a fund to offset the cost of health care for the uninsured, businesses will not have the cash they need to survive and grow strong again.

    It's true that the Obama plan might not be optimal at the moment. It wasn't designed for a period of economic crisis. A far better approach right now would be national, single-payer health insurance. It would allow government to effectively negotiate cost reductions with health care providers and big Pharma. It would relieve smokestack industries, like the Big Three automakers, of their legacy health insurance costs, making them far more competitive with foreign companies like Toyota and Honda.

So, we are left to wonder what Obama will do when he takes office. Will he play it safe and "centrist," or will he follow through on his promises to the people who elected him? Judging by his cabinet appointments to date, one suspects it may be the former -- but who knows? He's played his cards pretty close to the chest so far. Maybe he'll surprise us all.