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May
13

O Rotten Gotham

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The court ruling in Manhattan Monday against Nomura and the Royal Bank of Scotland over mortgage losses may be the tip of an iceberg we never see the bottom of. The firms knew they were “packaging and selling bad loans to unwitting victims, but did it anyway, because the money was good,” writes Matt Levin for Bloomberg. Wall Street long argued that “the banks did not generally break the law.” Finally, a court has found otherwise.

Levin writes:

There’s some good anecdotal history of how hard everyone was working to churn out mortgage securitizations. I liked this bit about the real estate appraisers who testified at trial (page 167):

They performed hundreds of appraisals apiece each year during the housing boom, but assured the Court that they never took shortcuts and in fact spent many hours on each and every appraisal. Clagett reported that he performed more than 700 appraisals each year in the period of 2005 to 2008, and took about five to six hours on each of them. Platt performed about 300 to 400 appraisals each year in 2005 and 2006, taking a minimum of four to five hours to perform each one despite the fact that he was also working fulltime as a fireman. For the period of 2004 through 2008, Morris conducted approximately 600 appraisals per year, which is about 12 per week. To justify those numbers, Morris claimed to have worked long hours seven days a week.

Apparently appraisers needed to appraise 70-80 hours a week, every week, for four years, to feed the mortgage securitization beast.

Speaking yesterday of culture, and of culture, and of culture, yet again no one will go to jail for the massive Nomura/RBS bank fraud. That too is cultural, filtering from Wall Street down to fireman/appraisers in Maryland. As they say, the fish rots from the head.

It seems people still reference Tom Wolfe’s essay, “O Rotten Gotham—Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink,” published as the last chapter of “The Pump House Gang” in 1968. Touring the city with anthropologist Edward T. Hall of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Wolfe examined how New York affects people, referencing the work of ethologist John B. Calhoun. From Wikipedia:

The ethologist John B. Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink” to describe the collapse in behavior which resulted from overcrowding. Over a number of years, Calhoun conducted over-population experiments on rats which culminated in 1962 with the publication of an article in the Scientific American of a study of behavior under conditions of overcrowding. In it, Calhoun coined the term “behavioral sink”. Calhoun’s work became used, rightly or wrongly, as an animal model of societal collapse, and his study has become a touchstone of urban sociology and psychology in general.

A friend from South Carolina got a masters at NYU in the 1980s, commuting in each day from Brooklyn. She said, “I learned to navigate the city. Where to go. Where not to go. But when I got on the subway every morning, packed in with a thousand people, I knew I was different. I knew I didn’t have to live this way.” Or as Wolfe put it:

In everyday life in New York– just the usual, getting to work, working in massively congested areas like 42nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Lexington, especially now that the Pan-Am Building is set there, working in cubicles such as those in the editorial offices at Time-Life, Inc., which Dr. Hall cites as typical of New York’s poor handling of space, working in cubicles with low ceilings and, often, no access to a window, while construction crews all over Manhattan drive everybody up the Masonite wall with air-pressure generators with noises up to the boil-a-brain decibel levels, then rushing to get home, piling into subways and trains, fighting for time and space, the usual day in New York– the whole now-normal thing keeps shooting jolts of adrenaline into the body, breaking down the body’s defenses and winding up with the work-a-daddy human animal stroked out at the breakfast table with his head apoplexed like a cauliflower out of his $6.95 semispread Pima-cotton shirt and nosed over into a plate of No-Kloresto egg substitute, signing off with the black thrombosis, cancer, kidney, liver, or stomach failure, and the adrenals ooze to a halt, the size of eggplants in July.

I mean, really. The poor dears on the Street can’t help acting like criminals, all nervous and agitated (and medicated), shuttered up for long hours staring at computer screens, slaving away for their bonuses. We should just thank them for what they add to the Potemkin economy and ask them not to do it again, again.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Public Domain image.

Privacy advocates on the left and right find common cause in Congress these days as provisions of the PATRIOT Act expire. Politico reports this morning on a bipartisan lunch meeting held last week:

With key provisions of the controversial post-9/11 law set to expire at the end of the month, including authority for the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, critics in both parties are preparing to strike. Among those on hand for the meeting were Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, a card-carrying ACLU member from the liberal mecca of Madison, Wisconsin, and GOP Rep. Thomas Massie, a tea party adherent from Kentucky.

“The collection of data is still way too wide and can still be too easily abused,” Pocan said of the NSA program exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago.

Along with Pocan and Massie, the Thursday gathering drew Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). The lawmakers, many of them privacy zealots with libertarian leanings, discussed the USA Freedom Act, bipartisan legislation that would rein in the bulk collection of telephone records and reauthorize expiring anti-terror surveillance provisions in the PATRIOT Act.

Last week the House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly passed the bill that that would curtail bulk collection of data by government spies: the USA Freedom Act. (Can we please have an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Freedom” bill next?)

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Apr
13

Reason Number 6

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Jonathan Chait offers five reasons why Hillary Clinton will win the presidency in 2016. But in the end, his sixth reason may be the only one that matters:

The argument for Clinton in 2016 is that she is the candidate of the only major American political party not run by lunatics.

That sums it up for me.”

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Mar
31

Indiana In Damage Control Mode

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Watch the guy from the Heritage Foundation. Just watch.

Gov. Mike Pence and Indiana are in full damage control mode. The Indianapolis Star this morning calls for Pence and the legislature to pass clear, unambiguous anti-discrimination legislation and/or to scrap its Religious Freedom Restoration Act:

Why not simply repeal RFRA? First, it appears to be politically unacceptable for the governor and many Republican lawmakers.

Second, there are Hoosiers who support RFRA out of a genuine desire to protect religious freedom. To safeguard that essential freedom, 19 states and the federal government have adopted RFRA laws, largely without controversy. But states like Illinois not only protect religious freedom through RFRA but also provide gay and lesbian residents with protected legal status.

Third, repeal might get rid of the heat but it would not do what is most important – to move the state forward.

They might have thought of that beforehand. Think Progress explains what makes Indiana’s law different from other states’ laws.

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Mar
30

Treachery with a smile on its face

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The Bush administration’s infamous torture memos were not the first legal documents to use the color of law to whitewash moral obscenities. Jim Crow had etched that tradition deep into the national culture over a century earlier.

Jim Crow may be gone, but the tradition persists in the branding of legal initiatives that purport to do one thing but in fact do the opposite. And in laws advertised as defending one American principle while violating others. And in using the color of law, as Bush and Cheney did, to justify the illegal and the immoral. Whether it is “election integrity” measures meant to limit ballot access or “religious freedom” as justification for discrimination, treachery with a smile on its face has become standard operating procedure where many of this country’s laws are made.

Like a wicked, little boy who stomps a cat’s tail then smiles sweetly — Who, me? — lawmakers figure you can fool some of the people some of the time with such legislation. Then they dare us to stop them.

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act isn’t the first of the new, flag-draped attempts at putting “those people,” however defined, back in their places. But it is egregious enough that prominent people are calling bullshit.

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Mar
21

Fear itself

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Restraining myself from posting one of Stephen Colbert’s “ThreatDown” bits (maybe the All-Bear Edition). The numbers are in:

Washington (CNN)Americans have grown increasingly wary of ISIS over the past six months, but their confidence in the U.S.’ ability to combat the extremist group is waning, according to a new CNN/ORC poll.

The poll finds fully 80% of Americans say ISIS poses a serious threat to the United States — a steady increase from September, when 63% said the same.

Only 6 percent think ISIS is not a serious threat. The latest suicide attacks in Yemen and the museum attack in Tunisia will probably shave that number down some more. But how real are those perceptions? (Stupid question.) Paul Waldman examines that at Plum Line:

It isn’t hard to figure out why so many people think the Islamic State threatens the United States. When you see horrifying descriptions and pictures of beheadings, your emotional response can overwhelm any kind of rational reaction. To many people, there’s a large undifferentiated mass of scary foreigners out there, and any news related to terrorism or war anywhere means that we’re more endangered than we were. And then, of course, we have politicians who go around telling any camera they can that we’re all about to die; give props to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for telling a three-year-old girl, “Your world is on fire.”

But guess what: Our world isn’t on fire. Yet it’s almost impossible to say in our contemporary debates that a hostile country or terrorist group isn’t a threat, especially if you’re a politician. Claim that the Islamic State — horrible though it may be — isn’t much of a threat to us, and you’ll be branded naïve at best, a terrorist sympathizer at worst.

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Mar
08

Just A Woman On A Couch

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(h/t Digby)

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Mar
01

See PAC run scared

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It’s important to be a victim these days and, boy howdy, they do it right at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, MD.

Raw Story’s Tony Ortega reports on a panel titled, “Religious Freedom in America: Would the Pilgrims Still Be Welcome Here?” Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins seemed to agree with talk radio host Dana Loesch that it’s “a badge of honor to be persecuted” and that Christians in this country should be a protected class:

“And since we have the victim competition in the United States,” Loesch added, “I think we win.”

And thus a religious super majority in America transubstantiates itself into a persecuted minority. Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect, as Tom Lehrer sings.

But it’s men, really, who are most persecuted. Why, “feminist ideologues and gay marriage supporters” want to make men irrelevant:

It’s going to be hard to argue that “fathers are essential” if gay-marriage laws say “they are optional,” said Jennifer A. Marshall, vice president for the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation.

At “The Future of Marriage” panel, the Washington Times reports, Marshall called gay marriage the “final nail in the coffin” in the fight against fatherless homes. (Presumably, two-father homes violate code.) And just yesterday, I thought “being picked last in gym class” was their biggest motivating fear.

The Guardian’s Jeb Lund offers a more satirical take on the marriage panel, observing that political movements can seem “nonsensical to outsiders because groupthink elides the needs for certain connective thoughts to be voiced aloud.” We know who the good guys are and that the bad guys are bad. It goes without saying (and does) that effects have causes. There’s no point wasting time demonstrating what they are.

Yet, even thorny conservative social issues ultimately come down to money. It was just a matter of time. Lund writes:

… Wade Horn, former assistant secretary for children and families, weighed in with the observation that marriages save money and diversify productivity because “marriages allow for economies of scale and specialization” within the household. (For those scoring economies of scale at home, presumably because specialization has made one of you an actuary: economies of scale good when you are married to someone; bad when buying prescription drugs for nations.) When your bridesmaids give you bewildered looks at the altar, point at your groom and cross their eyes while miming throwing up, just hold your hands apart to show how much he scales your economy.

To a cynic, that might read like a heartless thought. But do you know what’s really heartless? Government. “Children need their mothers and fathers. There is no government program that can possibly substitute for the love and guidance and sense of place in the world that parents provide,” MacDonald explained. “What we’re seeing now in the inner city is catastrophic. Marriage has all but disappeared. When young boys are growing up, they grow up without any expectation that they will marry the mothers of their children.” And she’s right; people who think government will love you or your abandoned children are idiots. The Department of Love has been a failure since 1967, and large faceless institutions will never care for human beings no matter how well they claim to mean. Those “inner city” people shouldn’t have been trying to hug America. They should have hugged something more practical like each other and that smiley face from Wal-Mart.

If only those people were less urban. So it goes.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Feb
24

Anatomy 1-O-MG

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Feb
15

Crashing The War at Their House

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Obama has requested that Congress give him permission to wage official war on ISIS/ISIL without regard to geographic constraints.

ISIS/ISIL claims to be a Caliphate and the official state of all muslims everywhere, so they are also anxious to take the fight wherever it may go. Paris, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, whatever.

The American Media machinery busily promotes the alienation and vilification of all things Mohammedan, while at the same time pretending to be surprised and shocked that individual Americans are out in the hinterlands performing violence against perceived enemies in the Homeland.

(Last week, a man in Chapel Hill shot three young Muslim students to death in what has been described as both a hate crime and an argument over parking. A Muslim school in Houston was burned. A Muslim American man was attacked at a Kroger store in Dearborn, MI. Etc.)

ISIS and the American Government are both playing the same game. They both want this conflict to rise above all others. They both want “the war”. And all we get to do is play along, and let our sons and daughters be killed in the process.

If the pattern seems familiar, it is, and it did not start with Bush I or Bush II. This has been the pattern of American foreign policy with only minor shifts in our level of engagement since the middle of the 19th century.

American thinking at its genesis included a healthy amount of isolationism. Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many others held the notion that the new American states should regard the world as a place to join in commerce, but not in alliance or politics. We were to lead by example and make a profit, not push with a sword tip and make colonies.

Trouble is, commerce soon became the only thing that mattered politically. Our modern foreign policy looks and operates like a business, whereby war is waged for economic leverage. Which is why American involvement in the Middle East, especially as pertains to ISIS/ISIL, is a cluster fuck of epic proportions.

About a hundred years after we gave Britain the finger and established a more perfect union in the former colonies, the occasion presented itself for America to decide whether it wanted to take on the burden and responsibility of managing an empire abroad. In a move that permanently changed our trajectory in the world, the US found itself unable to resist the temptation to play absentee landlord over the Philippine Islands, a prize given to us at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war.

There is no substitute for the awakening of a people to the possibility of a better way of organizing society and governance. In the Philippines at that time there was a nascent move towards self-governance. They wrote a Constitution, and Emilio Aguinaldo issued a proclamation declaring the Philippines a free people. It should have resonated.

But the United States had just won the place in a war disguised as a poker game, or a poker game disguised as a war, and that just would not do.

The heady days of the American experiment in the Philippines in the first decade of the twentieth century created the blueprint for American intervention, and we have been doing it pretty much the same way ever since that first foray into empire abroad. The first phase is a brutal conquest against an inferior and badly managed alien force that tries to fight in conventional ways but is forced by circumstance to adopt a guerrilla style engagement. This is met with an unheralded brutality, adjusted for the inflation of brutality over time and with special incentives for technological advances.

This period is then followed by a social and psychological offensive, in every sense of the word, in which the American presence tries to present itself as the only logical protection from the barbarianism of the local revolutionaries. If you want a good laugh, you should look up the American Insular Government and the “Policy of Attraction”. It will be familiar to most. It is the first look America got of the future President Taft as well.

It was the birth of American adventurism. After several domestic trial runs in the western sections of North America, the US made the decision that we would play the same game other empire nations before us had so gloriously pursued. So much for a more perfect union, I guess.

The Philippine experiment was eventually a great success, as those things are measured, mostly premised on the lucky happenstance of an invasion by Japan in the second world war. The philippine state still has a GDP roughly the size of Atlanta, Georgia, but hey, that’s not so bad considering they spent fifty plus years working America off it’s back.

But what would happen if we broke the cycle of  the last hundred-plus years of foreign adventurism, and we instead let the Middle East evolve without the interference of our petro-political and quasi-religious free-market fanaticism? We might find that offering a better vision from afar does much more to inspire a wave of self-rule along democratic lines than does our constant self-serving economic and political meddling.

Instead of asking for a declaration of war, Obama should be asking for a flotilla of ships to receive refugees, an army of planes to fly families to safety, food assistance for the entire subcontinent, and a Congressional permission to label the area completely off-limits to American corporate shenanigans, and thereby divest America permanently from its compulsion to desert adventure, which has robbed us of fortune, integrity and blood for twenty-five years (if you only count the current mess from Gulf I, which is a highly charitable accounting).

Can you even imagine the outcry? I’m obviously holding my breath on this.

It is possible to affect with great prejudice while abstaining from the position of active combatant. It was an opportunity lost in 1899, it was an option ignored in 1956 in Vietnam. It is absent in current American policy in the Middle East, and it will continue to cost us lives, treasure and integrity until we learn the fucking lesson the architects of our democracy saw fit to warn us about. Or until the art of diplomacy somehow makes a comeback.

If we do not allow the Middle East to evolve on its own terms in its own way as a Domestic struggle – no less real than our own genesis – and the Japanese don’t conveniently invade, we will be fighting this war for another hundred years. As long as we HAVE to be there, because we imagine ourselves crucial to everything, we won’t afford it a logical end.

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