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Simple ideas: Flat or Fair Taxes

It’s funny that while the ‘right’ claims to believe in a “Flat Tax” or a “Fair Tax” … they don’t fully participate in the existing flat and fair tax. Once their income reaches some ceiling ($110,000 ?) they’re exempted. How fair is that?

I’m feeling more and more ambivalent about the issue of a general tax on the rich. And more and more committed to completely removing the cap on Social Security Payroll taxes. In fact – Extending the Social Security tax to ALL income (including but not limited to investment income) … My problem with making the Rich contribute more to the General Fund is that these days it goes mostly to Military expenditures and our ever expanding war — and NOT to the stuff that could make our lives easier here in the good old USA. Which is exactly what we get with Social Security and Medicare.

With all the exemptions built into, that Buffet thing leaves me cold.

Nice guy(s)

Clinton, surrounded and forced to give up her delegates on the floor of the Democratic Convention 2008.

If you’re wondering if the reports of bitterness between the Obama and Clinton camps are real or not, consider the fundraiser that Obama held with his donors a couple of days ago to help retire Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign debt:

Four years ago, the Obama fund-raising machine worked to bury Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now his contributors are opening their wallets for her.

Obama campaign officials have asked the president’s elite donors and fund-raisers to donate to Mrs. Clinton’s defunct presidential campaign committee, with the goal of retiring $245,000 in debt left over from her 2008 White House bid. As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton is barred from engaging in political activity or actively fund-raising for herself.

People familiar with the effort said the campaign’s outreach grew out of discussions with Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, who has agreed to headline a series of major fund-raisers for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, including one this Sunday at the Virginia home of Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Clinton has also been approached to help raise money for Priorities USA Action, a “super PAC” founded by former Obama aides that has had difficulty attracting donors.

But wait, you say, wasn’t there a deal struck back in 2008 that Obama donors would help Hillary retire her debt?  That’s why the campaign was only suspended, not ended and that it’s a common practice and courtesy and good for unity?  And anyway, Hillary hit the campaign trail with Bill and worked her heart out to help get Obama elected.  Surely, that was worth helping her retire her debt.

Apparently not:

It is not unusual for victors to help their former opponents pay down campaign debts: Mitt Romney and his family made contributions this year to the campaign committee of Tim Pawlenty, for example, after Mr. Pawlenty dropped out and endorsed Mr. Romney.

But Mrs. Clinton’s debt has in the past been a point of contention between her supporters and those of Mr. Obama. She ended her White House bid in 2008 with $20 million in debt and loans, and while Mr. Obama asked his top donors at the time to help defray it, many of them — still fuming after the contentious primary fight between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton — refused to do so.

Ahhhh, it’s all coming together now.  So, back in 2008 when Clinton donors had maxxed out their contributions to Hillary, they expected that Obama donors would step up and do the right thing.  But the Obama assholes from Wall Street and the “creative class” donors weren’t satisfied with the ritual humiliation of Clinton on the convention floor where they staged a phony roll call vote and forced her to fork over her delegates on live TV.  Nope, they threw all of that loyalty stuff out the window and had a little tantrum because she had the nerve to continue winning after they told her to stop running in February of 2008.  18,000,000 voters and winning all of the major primaries meant nothing to them.  They did not feel obligated to honor their promises, because that just the kind of Democrats they are.  Nice.

That $20,000,000 debt, by the way, was on top of her own money.  They were loans that she had to take out to fund her campaign because the party juggernaut wanted her out even as the voters still wanted her in.  For the last four years, she’s been dragging this giant debt around, unable to do her own fundraising to retire it while the Obama donors watched.  It has taken them four years while she’s been working her ass off to do what was expected of them.  What is wrong with these people?

So, now, the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  The Clinton donors hold the cards.  They don’t have to give a penny to Obama for his run in 2012, that is, not until Obama’s donors pay up.  I’d say the split is very real and could be a significant factor in this year’s election.  It goes beyond the donors.

No wonder why Hillary isn’t going to go to the Convention this year.  Besides the fact that she works round the clock as Secretary of State, why the hell would she want to return to the scene of the crime?

Obama and his donors are definitely not scoring points this year.  Loathsome isn’t descriptive enough.

Update: The AP has a new article on the detente between the Clinton and Obama camps.  As is the norm these days, it is trying to make the completely unrealistic expectation that Hillary will run in 2016 look believable.  But anyway, just ignore all that stuff about them being frenemies.  They’re all kissy-kissy now and meeting at Terry McAuliffe’s house tonight to swap checks.

I almost thought this was lifted straight from the Obama campaign spin office until I got to this nugget:

When Obama’s health care bill was in trouble, he and his staff, which included several veterans of the Clinton White House, called on the former president for help. In late 2009 and early 2010, Bill Clinton went to Capitol Hill to rally support and worked the phones with wary Democratic lawmakers.

After the Democratic party was battered in the 2010 elections, Obama called in Clinton for an Oval Office meeting. Afterward, the two made an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room to talk to reporters. When Obama had to leave for a holiday party, Clinton stuck around, relishing in the attention and the give-and-take with the press.

That day in the briefing room underscored what some Democrats see as their one major worry in pairing Obama with Clinton too often. The ease with which Clinton connects with a range of audiences can call attention to the challenge Obama sometimes faces in doing the same thing.

But that certainly hasn’t stopped the Obama campaign from seeking Clinton’s help in winning a second term, and Clinton has made it clear he is ready and willing.

Wait! Wait!  I thought Obama’s angelic rhetoric inspired swooning in some of his audience members.  Wasn’t he supposed to be so extraordinarily politically gifted that potential enemies would melt on their first encounter?   

{{snort!}} Too funny.

I can just imagine what that fundraiser is going to be like tonight.  Kissy-kissy may very well turn into kissing asses.  Oh, to be a fly on those walls.

**************************

More details about John Edwards’ campaign life came out this past week.  He is on trial for illegally using campaign funds to pay off his girlfriend, Rielle Hunter, during the 2008 campaign season.

I was an Edwards fan until I actually saw him in action in 2007 at the YearlyKos meeting in Chicago and had a Malcolm Gladwell Blink! moment.  I had a similar reaction to George Bush Sr. when he made an appearance at Pitt a long time ago.  They both made my skin crawl.

Anyways, his one time campaign aide, Andrew Young, went above and beyond the call of duty to protect Edwards going as far as claiming paternity for Rielle and Edwards’ daughter, Quinn.  But there are other unsavory details as well.  Young’s nickname for Elizabeth Edwards was Ursula after the evil sea witch from The Little Mermaid.  I have mixed feelings about Elizabeth Edwards.  She seemed like the Lady McBeth type, extremely ambitious but projecting all of that onto her smarmy husband.  But she was also a human being with her own tragedies and triumphs and she didn’t deserve to have all the crap she went through in her last four years dumped on her while she was undergoing treatment for a terminal disease.  A little kindness and attention towards her might have gone a long way.

Anyway, John Edwards is still a louse and a narcissistic PT Barnum of a politician and all of us who thought he could have sincerely done something about The Two Americas should seriously get over it like a bad high school crush.

The Strategy of No Strategy: Putting it together

N17 on Wall Street

This is the final part of my take on Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street. I can’t do the book justice in a single blog post (it’s going to take at least four), I’m going to try to summarize some of what she is describing as the culture of Wall Street and how it is infiltrating our lives. I’m going to touch on four major themes in her book: “smartness”, “flexibility”, “shareholder value” and “the strategy of no strategy”. Check here Part1 on Smartness , Part2 on Flexibility and Part3 on Shareholder Value. I am going to try to tie Karen’s analysis of the culture of Wall Street to the pharmaceutical industry because having had a first person perspective, it is my belief that Big Pharma has felt the worst effects of Wall Street on its core business- discovering drugs.

This week, Bruce Booth of Forbes wrote an article about the culture of pharmaceutical R&D and how it has definitely taken a turn for the worse. Let me just say for the record that this is a culture that has developed over time and was forced on the labrats. We didn’t invent it in the lab because we know it would never work. (For more feedback and analysis from the labrats on this article, see this comment thread at In the Pipeline.) Over the years, I definitely got the feeling that our overlords thought of us as 1.)socially awkward nerds who 2.) didn’t know the value of a dollar and 3.) were completely unproductive if left to our own devices. But Booth sets the record straight in some respects. He takes on the ‘tyranny of the committee’ and risk aversion, which are related to one another and further exacerbated by, emphasis on shareholder value, FDA failure rate and class action lawsuits. Then he takes on what many first person labrats would say is the biggest problem with pharma today:

Organizational entropy’s negative impact. [entropy in this context means disorder] For most of Big Pharma, at least a few mega-mergers and their integrations have happened in the past decade. And for all of Big Pharma, there’s been the semi-annual reorganization around the latest fad in corporate design: matrix management, proliferating centers of excellence, end-to-end therapeutic area groups vs functional lines, disease area strategies rather than site strategies, etc… These cause constant organizational upheaval with levels of distraction that can’t be measured. Resumes fly through cyberspace as soon as a deal is announced. Organizations are frozen as these changes happen, fear of the unknown paralyzes entire project teams, and closures/layoffs happen without much regard to upgrading the talent and weeding out the deadwood. Drug R&D takes typically 10-15 years from start to approval; how can it stay on track with a cadence of change this fast? As I noted last summer, most new drugs approved today were discovered in the 1990s. Do you think those approvals would have happened faster if there weren’t so many mega-mergers and reorganizations in the meantime?

The answer to the last question is “yes, probably”. There’s no way to tell, really, but having survived multiple mergers over the past 2 decades, I can tell you that we vamped and put everything on hold for months and years on end while the executives had pissing matches and more local management engaged in political backstabbing. It was a horror show. Much valuable experimental time, money and talent was wasted in the aftermath of Wall Street engineered deals.

But Booth also makes the common mistake that presumes that if all of us just worked at smaller companies, we’ll be more innovative and save oodles of money! If that happens it would be the equivalent of putting a few dozen labrats on a desert island and telling them to build their own labs with the tools available. Yep, there will be some geniuses and amazingly well coordinated teams that will fashion robotics and gel electrophoresis devices from sand and seashells but it won’t necessarily be efficient nor will those labrats be able to purchase stuff they can’t find on the island. There’s a reason why medium sized corporate labs discovered all those drugs back in the 90s.

Nevertheless, this is the new model of drug discovery. You, the scientist are chucked out on your ass and some cocky asshole business class people just assume that you’re going to whip up the next Lipitor with some sleight of hand. We’re encouraged to become entrepreneurs but they seem to have forgotten that our severance packages didn’t consist of millions of dollars in stock options. For the most part, we have a lot of poor scientists with no place to practice their craft and a mountain of extremely hard work and expenses before a vulture capitalist signs on.

The Wall Street smarties never thought about any of this stuff when they made the M&A deals. Nor did they stop to reason out why so many labs were failing to produce new drugs in the wake of those deals. For the last decade, all we’ve heard is that it’s OUR fault. We’re lousy scientists or lazy or spendthrifts. And they probably won’t figure out that the small little islands they set us adrift on aren’t going to be as profitable as they had hoped. But it doesn’t really matter because as soon as they’ve extracted the last bit of wealth from the big pharmas for the shareholders, they’ll just abandon the industry and the American scientific infrastructure to its own fate and move on to some other industry where wealth can be extracted. That’s what they’re paid to do.

Likewise, they will continue to pressure governments to hand over every bit of wealth from their citizens, to adopt austerity measures and cause untold suffering because they are in the business of finance and making money and if you as a country took the loan, they will expect payment. They don’t need to reason out that they’d be better off structuring things so that economies would grow and so they would get a more reliable but unspectacular return over time. That’s your problem. Their problem is to make the biggest, fattest deals they can in the shortest amount of time with the maximum amount of profit. It’s an optimization problem, a Traveling Salesman problem, a Metropolis algorithm on a global scale with one optimization endpoint. How much money can you make? They are in it for the deals, making their numbers and retrieving the wealth and private property of the shareholders. They don’t have time or patience for whiners and losers. They don’t even have the time to worry about another Depression. All they care about is the deal.

Karen Ho describes the culmination of “smartness”, flexibility and shareholder value as a thing called The Strategy of No Strategy. This is where the normal world meets the weirdness of quantum finance. Regular people assume that there is a small evil group directing things for some specific purpose, some grand scheme, some particular worldview. But all that is mere icing on the cake if it happens. What the 1% are really into is how this moment in time is going to affect their bonuses. Their plot to take over the world doesn’t extend much further than that. That is the only cause and effect relationship that matters because other than the expectation of money at the end of the year, they have no other rights or expectations as employees. They’re valued only for their ability to make connections and extract money from other people, they expect to be laid off at any time and the working conditions are brutal. And all of the authoritarian, political crap that gets thrown in to the mix is simply to protect their right to that money. As a result, you, the target of their financial machinations, are expected to conform to their deals. You are expected to give up your job at a moment’s notice to satisfy shareholder value or work in less than optimal conditions because to complain is to be a loser. It even helps them if they don’t have too much contact with you because personal feelings might get in the way of doing what they need to do. If you get in the way of their bonuses, they will have a problem with you, nothing personal. If it ends up feeling very callous and cruel, well, better to decrease the surplus population.

Karen Ho describes how the Strategy of No Strategy drives and changes the world:

Given that the identities of investment banks are wrapped up in their ability to immediately induce change in their people via job insecurity and flexible compensation, it is not surprising that one of their primary strategies-their plans for the future based on their imaginings of “the world and the firm’s position in it”-is, simply, to have no long-term plans (Schoenberger 1997, 122). To actualize their central identity as being immediately responsive to their own changing relationships with the market (including employees, products, and so on), their strategy is, in a sense, to have no strategy. Ironically, having no long-term strategy is contradictory and potentially self-defeating in that investment banks often find themselves making drastic changes only to realize months or weeks later that those changes were unnecessary, premature, and extremely costly. For example, in chapter 5, I described how investment bankers, in part because of their access to “sensitive, proprietary information,” are not only fired in an instant, but must also leave the physical premises of the building within fifteen to thirty minutes. Given how crucial the control of knowledge and the protection of inside information are for Wall Street investment banks, it seems self-defeating that they do not place any premium on loyalty. Despite the fact that firms try above all to enforce secrecy, they accept and maintain this volatility and revolving-door policy.

At first glance, it seems not only improbable, but also “irrational” for investment banks to engage in such practices, for why would a business so focused on profitability and knowledge not engage in practices that always improve its bottom line and its control of information? As many anthropologists have demonstrated, capitalist organizations are not simply motivated by purely instrumentalist quests for profit or governed by perfect rational actors; they are sociocultural organizations with complex, contradictory worldviews and particular organizational practices (Yanagisako 1999, 2002). Profits may be claimed as one of investment banks’ primary ideals, but it is mediated, situated, and enacted-along with other values-through the social and cultural lenses of particular organizations, groups, and bankers. How profits are made, what constitute profits, and what amounts are considered “profitable” enough are also culturally, organizationally, and historically variable.

John Carlton, the seasoned investment banker and managing director from BT, described how Wall Street’s strategy is to operate without a long-term strategy:

“Again, it is a business where there is no tenure. There is no union protection. Basically, if things change, you could be out. That’s one reason why people are very flexible. So you need flexible people, and people who can deal with it every day. Some people would hate that. I don’t mind that. Some people can’t stand it. They can’t last. They say, “I like to know where I am going to be five years from now.” They like the idea of stability. It is not very stable. I think that is a characteristic. Probably most people you talk to would say that it is not a very stable environment. Most businesses have five-year plans-What are we going to be producing?-and have long product life cycles. [We] have very short product life cycles. How do you plan when you never know what the market is going to do?”

Although Carlton attributed the rationale for not having a plan to market unpredictability, my point is that not having a plan is central to the strategy and cultural identity of investment banks.

[…]

Underpinning the continual (re)creation of “instant” teams or product expertise is a corporate culture that values eagerness for change and expediency. The “build a new dam strategy” while the old dam overflows also prefigures waste and even decline. As I learned from informants throughout my fieldwork, these star hires and seven-figure offers are often abysmal failures: stories abound of senior bankers simply pocketing the cash and producing no results, of formerly successful teams that were separated and dislodged from the environments in which they had thrived.

In other words, reflection is not Wall Street’s strong suit.

This is the part of the book that kept me up at night. Here we have a bunch of “smart” people with no job security, driven by their own conditioning and the banks they work for, that see *themselves* as The Market. They are the ultimate precariats. They are no better than miners whose goal it is to take the top off the mountain. And they have asked and gotten more and more leeway to act as they please, without regard to rational expectations for the future of the things they act upon.

The pharmaceutical industry has been destroyed by Wall Street and now, it knows it. There won’t be a recovery for the gigantic monstrosities like Pfizer that merged so fast and furiously that it didn’t have time to structure its most valuable asset- its database of compound and assay information. They’ve jettisoned the most valuable parts of their organizations in order to feed the Wall Street beast and its spawn of corporate CEOs whose job tenure can be measured in less than a handful of years. It does not matter that there is a generation of scientists laid off who will never make the salaries they once had or can pay their taxes. It doesn’t matter that communities and states will feel the effects of hundreds of thousands of terminations. It doesn’t matter that millions of patients will now be left vulnerable to bacterial infections that can’t be stopped or cancer or schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter that once the labs have been dismantled and equipment sold off, there will be no one who will be ready to reconstitute the labs when or if our society wants to discover drugs again. It will not matter that they have retained the scientists who are the best salesmen- of themselves- and not necessarily the best experimentalists. All that mattered was the deal at the time it was made. And now, all that matters is getting in on the get-rich-quick deals that can be made from academic basic science and discoveries that are not quite ready for primetime and will be abandoned as soon as they do not generate the expected profits.

For society at large, the strategy of no strategy is behind the austerity measures pushed on all of us. For countries that took out loans, that money must be paid back regardless of the havoc it plays on the citizens or that more austerity makes recovery of that money even less likely. What matters is that the recovering the money is as optimal an exercise as possible as quickly as possible, to get the highest return in the shortest amount of time. It’s sort of like harvesting organs before the body can’t be kept alive any longer. Go read Never Let Me Go and you’ll know what I mean. So, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Great Britain and the US will continue to pay and pay and pay until no further profits can be extracted. Then, they will move on to a different hemisphere. What is surprising it how passive many countries have been in accepting this fate. How long will it take for western countries to rebel like the middle east has? Decades? Will we have to live with decades of austerity and growing authoritarianism?

And now we can see why our governments act the way they do. Back in 2007, when Hillary Clinton was the front runner. I remember talking to a colleague who had a friend who was once an investment banker on Wall Street who had insights into how the bankers were thinking in 2007. They knew there was trouble coming and were trying to thread the needle. A Republican candidate might cause another Depression with the wrong policies. No, they didn’t want the patient dead, well, not until they could recover themselves. Maybe a Democrat. But Hillary Clinton had a strong responsibility streak in her. Besides, she came from Yale and we know that the culture of smartness distrusts Yalies as being too liberal. Another New Deal might have been too much like rehab. So, they threw their weight behind the Harvard guy whose unchecked ambition and cool demeanor was more like the cut of their own jibs. Just like the undergrads they hire from Princeton and Harvard, it didn’t matter to them if he knew nothing about finance. They would teach him.

If you’ve ever wondered, like I have, why Obama careens from saving one institution  to another in negotiations behind closed doors and apparently without any guiding principles, like he was making it up as he goes along, now you know why. He is governing on a deal by deal basis, without a worldview and without a strategy. It’s his modus operandi and he does it with equal fluidity with the bankers, the auto industry, congress, health insurance companies and voters themselves. He’s playing Let’s Make a Deal with each individual entity and with everything on the table.  Flexibilty and the “culture of smartness” is important to him, which is why Geithner and Summers got so much face time with him.  Loyalty and planning not so much, which is why Christina Romer got the shaft.  All of the reports on the way the White House operates with the fast paced credit stealing and high profile tasks going to smart young men and the golf outings with “front office” guys, sounds a lot like Wall Street.  If it turns out that his team hadn’t thought about how Republicans would game the debt ceiling business or how the individual mandate without a public option would make employees *more* vulnerable to layoffs and loss of health benefits, well, this is what you have signed onto with Obama.  He doesn’t see his role as a long term policy maker or seasoned politician and it shows.  If you’ve never worked in a corporate environment, you might be forgiven for not recognizing how the schmoozer works the system but there’s no excuse the second time around.

All around the world, bankers had their way with government leaders, well, except for Iceland, whose decendents of marauding Vikings and new female prime minister told them to f&*( off.  I guess it takes pirates to know pirates.  But the rest of the world bowed quickly to the notion that recovery of the banking system was The. Most. Important. Thing. Everything else, their sovereignty, public welfare and future growth, was made secondary to the immediacy of keeping the paper flowing between the banks. The fear of a global meltdown made them cower. But there is no strategy to ever get out from under these conditions. There was no effort to reign in the bankers either. And they have a well oiled propaganda machine and know that when a population is under stress, it circles the wagons and becomes more conservative and nationalistic. Liberal policies look too risky and threatening. In next week’s vote in France, I would not be at all surprised if Nicolas Sarkozy managed to hang onto power, despite his unpopularity. The rational people of France may look to the right at Marine Le Pen’s crazy nationalists and fear that Le Pen’s faction will get enough votes to form a coalition with Sarkozy’s. Voting for the socialist candidate may look too risky. I hope I am surprised.

And what does it mean for this country? Well, I am not at all surprised that expectations have been set for Hillary in 2016. The press only sounds beneficent and contrite this time around, acknowledging that maybe they have regrets about what they and the party did to her in 2008. Bullshit. They know damn well that her chances of getting elected in 2016 are nearly zero. But pushing the timeline for her forward is an attempt to pacify the restless elements of the populace who see her as the only legitimate alternative to either Romney or Obama. At this point, it doesn’t even matter who wins the White House. Wall Street doesn’t see either of them as a threat.

In the meantime, they have just scored another victory in the JOBS bill where they can be less than transparent to investors who they hope to make new deals with. I think the idea behind this was to help small companies, like small biotechs, get investment capital. Small biotechs don’t really have a product to sell. They have ideas and beginnings of products. But development takes a lot of time and money and as the big pharmas have already found, you can sink billions of dollars into an idea and have it shot down by the FDA or siphoned off by a side effect that no one anticipated. So the risks are high. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the deal and in innovative industries like biotech, there are a lot of potential deals to be made.

And then there is correlation between bonuses and crashes. Ho says that record high bonuses on Wall Street frequently precede crashes. That’s not really surprising. It means that there is a frenzy of unchecked deal making and risk taking with large sums of money in some corner of the market where all of the investment bankers have been attracted like magpies to shiny things. All of the money has poured into this sector and bets have been placed for and against. Maybe the new rules will prevent overleveraging. Maybe they won’t. But there is one thing the bankers can count on- a steady stream of new funds from your 401K accounts to their hands that they can bet in a global casino. Pensions are so passe. 401Ks are the new black and you can be sure that there will be an even bigger push for the banks to get their hands on even more piles of money that are sitting around that no one seems to be using.

There is no goal. There is no plan. There is no strategy. It’s all, “What have you done for me since lunch?”.

The system is broken. Its entropic, unsustainable, moving at speed of fiber optic cables and out of control. The best thing we average Joe’s can do is to limit our own losses, get out while we can and sleep with the lights on.

Save the Post Office: Make up for the drop in physical volume with digital services

Among the various depressing activities going on in Washington, DC this year, one of the most immediate is the plan to start the dismantling of United States Postal Service. I’ve followed this story mainly through updates from Senator Bernie Sanders:

Postal Service: Pressure mounted on the House to act on a Senate-passed bill to keep hundreds of postal facilities from closing and, at Sen. Bernard Sanders’ suggestion, find ways to make up for a drop in mail volume due to e-mail, the Vermont Press Bureau reported.

Sanders’ Role Credited: “The postal reform bill passed by the Senate this week averts the decimation of the Postal Service that had been proposed as a way to save it. Sen. Sanders took an active role in the Postal Service issue, and in Vermont the benefits will be real,” the Rutland Herald editorialized.

Well, I’ve got a suggestion for how to make up for “drop in mail volume due to e-mail” :

  1. I would like it if the US Post Office could set up an email server with the same privacy guarantees that we have with the US Mail.
  2. Require warrants to open and access messages, attachments and contact lists (for starters).
  3. Forbid harvesting messages, attachments and contact lists (for starters) for marketing research.
  4. I would pay a reasonable price for this service.

And this is just the start. They could provide VoIP, video & instant messaging. The Post Office could be the department that manages and maintains a high grade Public Internet. They could provide cell phone service.   They could provide printing and delivery services — messages or attachments could be printed on postcards or some kind of security stationary at the Post Office closest to destination and then delivered in hard copy to the recipient — bridging the distance between traditional mail and email.  And, hey! They already have the delivery part covered, don’t they?

The key element to all of these services is that just as with the physical documents delivered by the Post Office our digital documents would be protected by the sort of privacy we grew up expecting — and have been denied until now with our digital communication.

I never understood why public Internet services had to be delivered and controlled by private corporations — ESPECIALLY email. Now is the perfect time to start making our United States Postal Service relevant, useful AND profitable.

 

Opposite Day on Rushbo

Hillary Clinton and Harvey Weinstein at Time's 100 Most Influential People Awards

Hey, according to Rush Limbaugh, Hillary Clinton is just a secretary!  And he calls us “libs” like it’s a bad thing!  {{snort!}}

If Rush is going out of his way to make Hillary look like nothing more than a typist, she must be having a pretty good week.  You can listen to her speech from last night’s 100 Most Influential People Awards here.  Heck, she’s having a pretty good month. Was it the badass Hillary texting or was it the chill Hillary chugging beer straight out of the bottle?  Or was it her phenomenal approval rating?  Gosh, who knows but we haven’t seen the right this bent out of shape about Hillary since 2008.  Relax, Rush, Nancy Pelosi says if we’re well behaved girls and boys, we can vote for her in 2016.  And Nancy has a bridge to sell us in San Franciso.

It’s delightful.  Hillary can handle Rush, I’m sure, but before long, maybe we can listen to Rush from his new home on blogtalkradio.  A girl can dream.

Thursday: Curiouser

I’m a bit busy this morning, trying to beat a Cinderella deadline of sorts but I’ll be back later to finish up The Strategy of No Strategy (TSONS).  There’s loads of examples of TSONS all over the place in the past couple of days from M.F. Global to Big Pharma to the White House.  With any luck, it will all come together.

In the meantime, are cooler minds finally prevailing after getting kicked in the head? For example, what does it mean when a former president and rah-rah supporter of Barack Obama says he wouldn’t be devastated if the Republican nominee wins the White House this year?  Found at Corrente, Lambert highlights Jimmy Carter’s puzzling comments:

USA Today:

“Former President Jimmy Carter believes Barack Obama will win a second term, but says he’d be “comfortable” with Mitt Romney in the White House because of the Republican’s past history as a “moderate.””

Of course, by “moderate” we mean “neo-liberal crypto-fascist in hock to the banks and insane with blood lust,” but never mind that. Sigh. Remember Nixon, anyone?

It’s so hard to tell the candidates apart with that description.  In the meantime, I smell a performance review with a 2 rating for PBO.  Six months to shape up and he’s out of there or will management speed up that timeline?

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And now for a bit of levity, breakfast for the brutal (h/t Brooke):

 

Hitchens and New Atheism

The Four Horsemen

I followed a link from Susie’s page to this post by Steve Volk about the deification of Christopher Hitchens and how new atheism gets so many things wrong.  {{rolling eyes}}

I have to agree in one respect about the deification of Hitchens.  I don’t get it either.  Hitchens was in many respects as irrational as the religious right when it came to war in Iraq.  He was a founder of Clinton Derangement Syndrome.  And I’ll never forget George Galloway calling him a “drink soaked former Trotskyite popinjay”.  That’s not an insult people hear everyday (at least since the 19th century), but, oddly, it seemed to fit.

So, no, Hitchens is not my favorite guy.  He seemed a bit too “queen bee” for me. If you were on his sY*( list, he and his little band of followers would devote years to taunting and ridicule in a manner reminiscent of middle school lunch period.

But I do understand why so many people in the New Atheist community have adopted him as their Joan of Arc.  For one thing, Hitchens was not afraid to say he was an atheist and he was one of the few people who had a platform and a megaphone to wear the atheists’ colors and do battle.  Yeah, he was sometimes arrogant and militant about it but if you’ve had religion shoved down your throat involuntarily for decades and you’re not getting anywhere, you need a crusader (so to speak) on your side.  Plus, he had a wicked way with words, so there’s that.

The other thing I think they admire him for is the way he handled his terminal illness.  He looked death in the face and did not go screaming to Jesus.  They liked that about him.  It’s sort of like being a prisoner undergoing torture and not cracking or turning on his friends.  Death got his name, rank and serial number and nothing else.  He might have been a royal pain in the ass to his adversaries but he was courageous to the end.

There is somewhat of a legendary status about the Four Horsemen, ie the four atheist leaders and philosophers who met one day a few years ago and hashed out what New Atheism means.  Those four are Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris.  Four guys.  Yep, we have a problem here but hopefully, women like Cristina Rad and Greta Christina will start to get more attention.  Anyway, the Four Horsemen videos have achieved something of a cult status on YouTube.  Occasionally, they look like they’re taking themselves much too seriously in this video. Hitchens lounges on his chair like some decadent Byronic antihero and sips his drink while the four of them try to figure out what they’re going to do about this responsibility they have had thrust upon them.  What I get out of the videos is that I would much rather have dinner with Dawkins than any of the others.  He seems positive, friendly and youthfully optimistic in these videos. We could talk about evolutionary traces and form and function of protein domains and stuff like that…

Where was I?  Offtrack again, right?

Anyway, enough of Hitch.  If some people want to admire him, so what?  I won’t be one of them but that just goes to show that even among outsiders, er, I’m a bit of an outsider.  I understand that he was a good friend and if some of his friends want to remember him with a statue, well, it’s better than one of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush so why not?

But I do have problems with the Steve Volk’s defense of religion and dismissal of the New Atheists.  For one thing, he doesn’t seem to understand why it is that a lot of kids from religious households don’t get into trouble as teens.  It’s because they aren’t allowed to do anything.  Trust me on this, I’ve been there.  They’re watched all. the. time.  But when they move away from home, they tend to go overboard so there is a conservation of outrageous behavior in the universe after all and probably a nasty equation to go with it.

The idea that atheists’ concept of god as an old bearded man is probably accurate.  Many atheists reject the irrational, jealous, vengeful god as described in the bible.  But they have a much more advanced concept of the universe and the natural world and that is more interesting than any abstract concept of a light filled being to them.  It’s also easier to prove that the universe exists than an abstract omniscient, omnipotent light filled being who also tends to be jealous, vengeful and irrational.  I’m still open to God 2.0, the major revision, but I’m waiting for proof.  No more Vaporware. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But here are the paragraphs that I really have a problem with:

I could go on. But my point here is simply that grievous inaccuracy is never a good strategy in debate or as a matter of persuasion. So I think the new atheists have often hampered their own cause just by being wrong. Tell someone who is receiving these benefits of religion that it “poisons everything” and they are likely to believe you—and the movement you represent—don’t know what you’re talking about.  And beyond that, it seems to me, they’d be right. So yeah, the new atheist movement would be better off acknowledging the nuances of the debate. But nuance, with rare exception, doesn’t seem to be part of the basic new atheism skill set.

Religion contributes to division, the sort “us” versus “them” thinking that leads to war, goes the new atheist battle cry. It’s a clear, black and white argument, they make, visible in the pages of our history books. But that most secular of political movements, communism, produced copious bloodshed and misery and squashed the whole concept of individual liberty in the bargain. So clearly, the human condition, our penchant for selfishness and anger, catches us all—believers and nonbelievers alike. So…what exactly was their point about religion leading to violence, anyway? Because from the vantage point of history it seems abundantly clear that what leads to violence is being human.

Maybe Volk should have a talk with the women of Arizona or Texas or Mississippi whose bodily autonomy has been defined by the religious right.  Or maybe he should talk to the women of Wisconsin who just lost their legal protections for equal pay.  Or maybe he should talk to gays and women who have had their rights undermined by taxpayer funded “faith based initiatives”.  Rational people who value equality and justice have been undermined for decades by the religious who seem to think they have a right to divide the population into the privileged and blessed by god vs the disenfranchised, damned and unfit for society.  The religious lead a crusade to get us into a land war in Asia against muslims and they have a history of violent crusades and jihads.  When was the last time a bunch of atheists invaded a country and went all Clockwork Orange on it?

I don’t know if I would say the New Atheists are contributing to division so much as standing up and redrawing some firm boundaries between church and state that the rest of us have neglected.  Volk also seems to have forgotten that this country was penned into existence by secularists so, you know, maybe the problem with other failed secular political movements has as much to do with authoritarianism and the weaknesses of human nature and not so much to do with secularism, right, Steve?  Just reason it out.  It’s not that hard.

We’re entering a new period of inequality that is being aided and abetted by the religious and if the New Atheists are willing to fight back against that, count me in their corner.

The “Clinton Party”? Hmmmm…

Howard Fineman wrote in HuffPo today about a couple of victories yesterday in Pennsylvania.  The two candidates he wrote about got the benefit of the Big Dawg’s endorsement.  In Kathleen Kane’s case, the former president called the candidate for PA attorney general’s campaign and offered to do a fundraiser.  He pointedly did not offer to do one for her competition, Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was an early endorser of Barack Obama’s in 2008.

In another case, Rep. Jason Altmire, who stayed neutral during 2008, asked Bill for assistance and was turned down.  Altmire lost the primary last night to Clinton endorsed candidate Mark Critz, who used to work for John Murtha, an early supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Fineman says that there are actually three parties in PA, the Democrats, the Republicans and the Clintons.  The Clintons are still wildly popular there.  Then he goes on to discuss Hillary’s supposed run for the White House in 2016.  Suddenly, everyone in the media is just wild about Hillary- in four years.  But it makes me wonder, if so many people are non-plussed by Obama and can’t stand the thought of the Republicans taking over and seem to be voting for Clinton endorsed candidates, why exactly do we have to wait four years?  Just askin’, because Obama’s prospects at winning the White House are ny no means assured.    Can’t anyone in politics think out of the box anymore?

Anyway, there’s more idle speculation in the Fineman post.  Of course, it’s Fineman and the Village probably doesn’t deserve anymore recognition or propagation of its conventional wisdom.  And for all we know, the Village is just exaggerating the tense detente between the Clinton and Obama camps.  They’re bored and they’d rather stir up some animosity and watch what happens, no matter how it affects the lives of ordinary Americans.  “Let’s talk up Hillary to piss off the Obots and then, pull the rug out from all of the hopeful voters.  Won’t that be fun?”  Just another case of election year journalists trying to make the news instead of reporting on it.

Nevertheless, there is a chewy nugget of truth in yesterday’s victories and before the lefty progressive anti-Clintonites start taking credit for it, let’s pause and consider if the older generation of Pennsylvanians aren’t nostalgic for better times and whether their votes for Clinton endorsed candidates are a swipe against Barack Obama and the Democratic party pony he rode in on.

*************

Here’s another little bit from that Fineman post that had me in stitches:

Hillary’s almost stoic durability was on display recently at a State Department briefing in the Franklin Dining Room, a colossal expanse festooned with marble pillars, crystal chandeliers and oil paintings of dead diplomats.

A sensible minute past the appointed time, Hillary swept in, casually carrying a mug of tea and a sheaf of briefing papers. She wore a handsome black-and-white pantsuit, an extra-long strand of double pearls and the look of an envoy supremely confident in her role, her knowledge and her station in life. She took three questions and three questions only — they run a tight ship at State — and answered them with clipped authority. Then, with a thin, business-like smile, she turned and left the room.

“She’s not the one with the sweeping vision,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “That’s Obama’s role. But she’s pragmatic and sensible. I’d say that she has a solid, workmanlike record.”

LOLOLOLOLOL!  {{wiping eyes, catching breath, straightening clothes}}

In other words, she’s overqualified to be Secretary of State.

Ok, I’ll take stoic durability, supreme confidence, knowledge and authority over Obama’s “sweeping vision” any day.

Like it matters

Thou shall count to thrrrrree

I read Charles Pierce’s delightful evisceration of Ross Douthat’s new book yesterday.  Ross is pining for the old time religion, which is Catholic, and preferably the old Latin mass variety.  Gosh, remember the days when we all wore lace doilies on our heads and gloves, carried rosary beads everywhere and couldn’t understand a single word that Father Gentili said?

Anyway, if we all just went back to mass and did what the Pope told us and stayed in the rigid little boxes that conservative religion creates for us and stopped searching the internet for answers to the questions that we all have about who wrote the bible and why Jesus didn’t leave explicit instructions about his succession and code of conduct, we’d all be a lot better off.  Don’t question anything and no one gets hurt.

Ross is also hung up over something called the Didache, which I’ve never heard of.  It turns out this mysterious tome has some proscriptions against abortion that Christians are supposed to follow.  Hallelujah for that one since the rest of the bible doesn’t seem to have an opinion on abortion or birth control.  There’s some stuff in the Old Testament about compensating a man for the loss of a fetus due to injury to the mother but it’s a bit tenuous when applied to abortions of fetuses where the paternal unit doesn’t really give a f^&*.

But whatever it is that Douthat is still yearning for is eclipsed by the fact that so many of us out here don’t care about his esoteric scribblings about which ancient 1st and 2nd century texts have the true religion.  If he wants to be the next Saint Augustine, great, but I don’t feel compelled to read his stuff as if it is saying something important to me.  I don’t know if Douthat knows this or not but the Roman Catholic church no longer rules the western world and hasn’t since Henry VIII chucked it out of England.

Former Pentacostal pastor turned atheist Jerry DeWitt says it best: we frequently feel compelled to invest more of our lives in a concept than in the people who most deserve our attention- our family members and friends.  I’d rather live in the present than bury myself in the musty, dusty texts of people who lived thousands of years ago when flush toilets hadn’t been invented and when a husband could direct his wife to expose girl babies to the elements. I’m not sure I want to be pulled back to the 1st century and I’d really appreciate it if people like Douthat would stop trying to take us there.

The thing that irritates me about some religious conservatives like Douthat is their insistence that as many people as possible think just like they do.  Divergence of opinion is simply unacceptable and they will not give up trying to convert you until you fit into their predertermined worldview.  They remind me of pathologically obsessive-compulsive people who have to touch doorknobs three times or must have vacuum tracks on their carpets that cannot be disturbed by children.  People like that need to get as many people as possible around them to comply so that they’re not driven crazy by imperfections and inconsistencies.  They need medication, not indulgence.

Besides, there is something that Douthat simply refuses to acknowledge (or is freaking out about).  Many of us don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god, bible and religion.  I don’t know where Douthat has been in the past several decades but there are a lot of people of different faiths here in the US of A and not all of them have a stick up their butt about the bible like Douthat has.  Not only that but there are some people who don’t believe in a god at all.  And as DeWitt says, once you don’t believe, you have only two choices.  You can admit that you don’t believe and be true to yourself, or you could pretend to believe.  Pretending to believe is called faith and a lot of people do it.  It is belief in something in the complete absence of evidence.  And, you know, if that’s what you want to do, knock yourself out.  Don’t let me or anyone else stand in your way.  Just don’t expect the rest of us to act like it matters.

Here’s a clip of DeWitt talking about free will, predestination, faith and why did God put that tree in the garden of Eden in the first place:

God needs a major upgrade and rewrite but let’s not give a project of that importance to a twit like Douthat.

Just Sayin’…

So, Hillary made an appearance at Syracuse University this morning. The line to get in was long and many people didn’t make the cut to get into the auditorium. It was filled to capacity. Mitt Romney should ask her how she does it. Among the waiting were people who wrote her name on the ballot in 2008 and still admired and respected her. She also managed to talk a lot of students into joining the foreign service.

Can anyone remember any other Secretary of State getting this much love? Because I don’t.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman writes that Obama’s political team seems to not know what it’s doing and it hasn’t gotten any better on the economy in the past three years. From Obama’s Missing Theme:

Let’s not get into the question of whether he could, in fact, have done considerably more. The point for now is that this is not the story the administration has been telling, at any point. First they insisted that the clearly inadequate stimulus was just right; then they have tried various anodyne slogans nobody remembers, all of which seem to imply that we’re doing just fine.

Presumably this reflects the judgment of the political team, which apparently believes that pointing out obstruction conveys an impression of weakness, and that happy talk is better than a Trumanesque campaign of hammering the do-nothing Republicans in Congress. But I have seen nothing these past three years suggesting that the political team has any idea how to play this game — and the happy talk leaves them completely flatfooted every time the economy underperforms.

For the past few months there has been an evident drift into complacency, a belief that a string of good jobs numbers will validate the happy talk. That’s a bet that can easily lose Obama the election.

Ah-ha! You guys thought we wanted Hillary because she had lady parts, didn’t you? Confess. Remember Tweety saying that the only reason she won her first term as senator was because people felt sorry for her being a cuckolded wife? I can almost hear him chatting up Sally Quinn about it over the bacon wrapped dates. Au contraire. Women who came of age during the 60s, 70s and 80s didn’t do it all so that we could coast to some high profile job on the slipstream of some guy.

Looks like she’s the real deal, dudes, and your guy is just another guy who counted on his suave demeanor and golf swing to get him to the top. I don’t think Obama has any idea what’s coming his way this campaign season. The media and the party made it so easy last time, he barely needed to campaign. People were falling all over each other just to bask in the light of his reflected glory. He has never had to deal with the right wing noise machine before. Karl Rove is a diabolically clever person and Obama still thinks he can coast on his cool.

Jeez, he even has an unearned Nobel peace prize.

{{rolling eyes}}

I’d almost feel sorry for him except that the rest of us are screwed no matter who claims the White House.