Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Good 'Pub, Bad 'Pub

Before launching into this blog's subject, the always fascinating Republican ("Pub") Party, let's throw out a shout first uttered 59 years and 3,000 miles ago - "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" I won't bother with the historical context. Let's just say that this year's outfit seems to win just one way - with gritty pitching and an offense described as "torture". The World Series begins tomorrow.

Just because I sneer at Republicans from time to time doesn't mean I can't have respect for individuals in the GOP. Lately I've been reading the book by Henry Paulson, Bush 43's Secretary of the Treasury, which describes the events of his tenure, especially the near total Wall Street meltdown two years ago which required drastic government response.
What surprises me is that Paulson himself seems to be a fairly likable fellow. Of course, I know that no one is going to look like a villain in their own book, but Paulson has good things to say about some members of Congress who usually get only the back of Republican hands. Can you imagine Karl Rove saying nice things about about Barney Frank or Barack Obama? I can't, but that's exactly what Paulson does. Maybe I'm guilty of stereotyping, but Paulson's background makes it even more surprising that he would seem so bipartisan. We're talking about a guy who had been CEO of Goldman Sachs before taking the Treasury position. Heck, I'd be scared to shake hands with those guys for fear of pulling back nothing but a bloody stump.
I'm not through with the book, but I'm finding it easier to sympathize with the guy, given the nature and speed of that crisis. It's almost enough to make you feel some sympathy for Bush - but not quite.

So if Henry Paulson is this week's "good 'Pub", who does that leave as the bad one? There's plenty of fertile ground among candidates making wild last minute accusations, but pointing at those is like shooting fish in a barrel, not to mention that Democrats don't all have clean hands in this area either.
No, but let's point to, as our legal system has, one of the villains from a few years back. Remember Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, once the #2 ranking 'Pub in the House? The man was a cash collecting wonder in the Bush days, and he wasn't afraid to move it around to the pocket from which he thought it would do the most "good". But now, at long last, a full five years after being indicted for money laundering in an effort to make Texas safe for the GOP forever, DeLay's trial is about to begin.
I can't say how the trial will be resolved, but DeLay himself is an easy person to dislike. He's a small person, once self-employed in the pest control business in the Houston area. He seems to want things both ways, claiming the white evangelicals as his kind of folks while using money that had once belonged to native American tribes, which came his way through the notorious Jack Abramoff, to travel the world doing research on the world's best golf courses. He was constantly a guest on FOX News, who conveniently forgot to mention he was under indictment. He even took a spin on Dancing With the Stars before hobbling off with what was no doubt NOT a war wound. He's what the Tea Party folks should have nothing but hate for, except for the fact that he's a 'Pub. I hope he rots in jail.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

You Heard it Here First

Several months ago, someone added "How to Train Your Dragon" to our Netflix list. This represented a new release of the animated feature and, sure enough, it arrived right on the day it was supposed to.
I think I would lose my worldwide readership if I tried to review all the movies I see. As for this one, it had its moments, though it also borrowed freely from "Avatar","Dances With Wolves", "Little Big Man" and some others. One thing kind of puzzled me. The human race in the movie was represented by a group of big, tough-looking Vikings, complete with the usual red beards, horned helmets and hefty weaponry. So far, so good, but weren't the Vikings from Scandinavia? Norway? Sweden? If that's the case, why did all the adult Vikings speak with Scottish brogues? The kids, of course, were as American as Beaver Cleaver.

Election Day is in two weeks, and if the polls are to be believed, the Democrats' turn running Congress could be cut short by a combined assault of GOP regulars and Tea Party flame throwers doing what they do best - rip down the other guy with a collection of right wing code words that come just short of saying "Mah 'ponent is nuttin' but a dang turrist dressed up in a suit soes he can fool you inta thinkin' he's Amurkin lahk me." Of course, with two weeks left, I could be giving the TPers too much credit.
What they've found, to no one's surprise, is that the more often these lines gets repeated, the more reasonable they seem. That being the case, you might have heard that the Right has increased its spending in certain races exponentially, forcing the Democrats to abandon certain candidates in some races in order to save incumbents in others.
Not to brag, but I predicted the money part of this little conundrum back in January when the Supreme Court issued the "Citizens United" decision. Remember it? The one that says since corporations are, from a certain perspective, regarded as "people", that meant that one hundred years of precedents restricting direct advertising in political races would be out the window? Sure enough, there's money popping up from all sorts of new sources, many of whom don't even have to be identified. The Right likes to say that since labor unions could throw their financial muscle towards Democrats, that it all "evens out". That's downright comical when you see that Goldman Sachs managed to clear something close to $2 billion in just the last quarter. That amount alone would enable GS to buy most unions outright and operated them as loss leaders.
As for me, I'll believe that corporations are legally "people" when I see one sent to jail for breaking the law, or witness one erased from the earth by corporate capital punishment enabled by the criminal, not the financial, courts.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mid Season

This week's title derives not just from the calendar, but also from the fact that, by now, your team should have all the early kinks worked out and, barring injury, should be playing as well as they can. And it's not just football teams, either. Volleyball teams and soccer sides should all be hitting their stride unless they're hopelessly overmatched. My guys still have a shot at the Rose Bowl, but the road is full of peril.

In the meantime, it's political season, too. I had to laugh at a cartoon that showed Bill Clinton sitting with President Obama, offering a little remedial course in "poli-speak". "Repeat after me", said Clinton, "I.. feel.. your... pain." All Obama could muster in return was a mouthful of policy wonk-ese guaranteed to inspire no one. Personally, I still like the president, and look forward to good news.
And you don't have to look that far. Ask the average Tea Party guy why he signed up and he's probably going to mention the bank bail out (TARP) appropriation of two years ago. The amount was a pretty memorable number - $700 billion. It turns out, however, that only about half of that was actually spent, and that the NET cost of the whole deal may be no more than $50 billion. That's still a load of money, but I think it's better than 15 or 20% unemployment, don't you? By the way, don't look for these figures to get much play on FOX News.
I must admit these Tea Party candidates have (many of them) gotten further than I thought they would. Some are going to make it to Washington, though one wonders about their possible impact there. As individuals, they seem like people who dropped out of Reagan's old college, and they say the goofiest things!
Maybe, for instance, all Nevadans expect from Sharron Angle is to defeat the Senate Majority leader, then sit back and take orders from the local gaming industry lobbyists, but last week she cut loose with the oddest accusation I think I've heard in quite a while. In so many words she claimed that Dearborn, MI and Frankfurd, TX are governed by Islamic Sharia law - today! I heard the recording of her claim, which sounded as though she was listening with one ear, then speaking in a way that made me wonder if she'd even heard of either place.
For the record, there no longer is a Frankfurd, TX. It was annexed by Dallas - in 1975! Dearborn does have a large minority Muslim population, but there's been no change in their legal system, at least according to Mayor John O'Reilly. How many Irish-American Muslims can there be, after all? Angle must hope no one noticed all this, because she hasn't followed up with the names of other cities under Sharia, and also hasn't mentioned the first two again. At least she hasn't claimed to be able to see Iran from Vegas yet, though I suppose she could speculate on why Nevada has the same climate as Yemen. The TP'ers are waiting, Ma'am.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The SEC Whiffs

It's easy to get the impression that the pro golfers of the PGA are a bloodless group, comfortable playing under lots of pressure for lots of money week after week, almost indistinguishable from one another under their sponsor hats. But you would have had a different impression yesterday as the bi-annual matches of the Ryder Cup (the US vs. Europe) were finished and the US lost the Cup by the margin of a single match. Millionaire players clustered around one of their own to block the picture of Hunter Mahan crying while trying to explain what went wrong on the 17th hole. Several sought to take the blame from Mahan, pointing out how other team members, including themselves, simply came up short when they were needed most. There was no blood in evidence, but plenty, I'm guessing, of internal bleeding.

I contend that our news media often does its job poorly. For instance, how many people are familiar with the latest in the lives of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton but have no idea who Harry Markopolos is, or what he ever did to deserve any public attention?
Before echoing "Who?", let me back up a bit. Do you recall the financial meltdown suffered by some our best known institutions almost precisely two years ago? Does the name Bernie Madoff ("made off") sound familiar?
The Madoff story broke at about the same time as the meltdown. Mr. Madoff pled guilty, even though he was not even suspected at the time, of operating the largest Ponzi Scheme in history, losing something like $50 billion of investments in the monster fraud. A Ponzi Scheme, just to remind, uses funds from new investors to pay off old ones giving the false impression of superior investment performance. The name comes from a notorious Wall Street con man from the 1920's.
Markopolos never worked for, or even met Madoff. He worked in the middle management of a Boston-based investment firm as a self-described quant - someone concerned almost exclusively with the mathematical aspects of investing.As early as the late 1990's he became familiar with the Madoff organization and the returns he claimed to produce. The more Markopolos found out about the organization, the more doubtful he was of its legitimacy.
The trouble was, as Markopolo's recent book on the scandal is titled, No One Would Listen. Not other financial pros, some of whom Markopolos thinks must have been suspicious, not the financial press, who should have been anxious to break such a huge story, not investors from either the US or Europe, and especially not our own SEC, the agency specifically charged with protecting investors from fraud.
In fact, since Markopolos writes strictly from his own viewpoint in this book, it is the Bush 43 era SEC which comes in for the harshest rebukes. He was careful to document the almost 10-year effort he and a handful of colleagues spent trying to get the agency to act or at least, to investigate. Instead, he kept bumping into bureaucrats who served rather than oversaw the financial industry. It was typical for SEC employees to take employment applications from what were supposed to be auditing visits at Wall Street firms. The agency even installed a "hot line" for Street firms to call in and complain if they felt they were being pressured or bothered by investigations done in the name of the people of the United States!
Madoff turned himself in when he couldn't meet the redemption demands from his customers any longer, which is the way all Ponzi schemes finally end. The agency belatedly tried to take credit for catching him, but the truth finally came out when Markopolos testified before a Congressional committee. Madoff was sent to prison, sentenced for something over 100 years, and others will follow. The main silver lining to this dark cloud story is that a new administration with a new attitude seems to be reforming the SEC into something worthy of the expense taxpayers undertake for its existence. For myself, I believe that not only is Greed not good, but that it is such a common human temptation that Wall Street and all private business needs to be carefully overseen for the public's good.