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    • The Well Meaning American Oligarchy Are SO Misunderstood
      Just saw a case of the argument that “the people who have been enriching themselves by fucking everyone else for four decades are misunderstood, they’re just following the incentives, and suggesting that the people killing and impoverishing you are bad is polarizing.” Lovely. Everyone is well-meaning, and it’s all just a misunderstanding. They don’t mean […] […]
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Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi say that Obama is one of the 1%

We’ve been trying to tell the world that since 2008.  “He is one of them.” (about minute mark 40:50)

Check out this interview Freeland and Taibbi do with Bill Moyers.  It’s unsettling.  Freeland points out that progressives have to get the band back together and do something.  The problem is that Obama was the guy who broke us up in the first place and during the last year, progressives did NOTHING to scare him.

The Ring of Gyges or Why Study the Classics at UVA or Why anti-Regulators are full of $#*!

About 2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato told a story that even the most dedicated Fox News viewer can understand.  Here it is in text form:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result–when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

The Greeks go on to say that King Croesus, you know, the guy who had more money than God, was a descendent of Gyges.

Now, the more zealous whip kissers out there will ask why even bring up this stupid story.  I mean, it’s not even in the Bible, right?  I have no way of knowing for sure but I suspect that Jesus would have gotten around to it eventually but his career was cut short by the anti-Occupy forces of the Roman Empire.  You know how it goes, some rowdy bunch of activists for social justice and equality who sleep outdoors and make noisy spectacles of themselves in public places and carry out unpermitted marches into Jerusalem are reported to the authorities for disrupting the peace, keeping everyone up at night, and making everyone uncomfortable and, before you know it, someone gets crucified and the whole group scatters.  So many parables, so little time.  Still, Jesus was totally into shepherds so I think he was leading up to it.

The Ring of Gyges story is pretty easy to understand and there is a reason why we call stuff like this “the classics”.  The classics never go out of style and say something that is universally true.  So, let me give you my spin on this and why the Ring of Gyges should be invoked whenever some politician starts using the evils of “regulation” to persuade others to vote for him.

The power that the ring gives the user is the ability to do what he wants without accountability.  Gyges gets away with murder and seduction and theft because no one can see him.  In other words, shit just happens. Mistakes are made.  We don’t know who.  Maybe Gyges did it, maybe someone else did it.  We can’t hold anyone responsible because no one is able to see or use indirect methods of seeing who did what.  That is, there is no way to measure who went in and out of the palace that doesn’t rely on our own eyes.  There’s no safeguarding person watching over the treasury who has the power to see through the ring’s power and detect Gyges robbing the bank.

The moral of the story is if there’s nobody watching, no justice system in place that is able to hold you accountable, and even the most honest and ethical person can become corrupted.  It is human nature to desire things and if there is no way to hold you accountable for taking what you desire, then you might as well take it.  In fact, you’re going to look like a fool if you have access to unlimited power and the things you desire and don’t take full advantage of it and the power you have over others.  If you don’t have access to the ring, well, you’re just a fricking loser.  Keep that in mind when you listen to this act from a This American Life episode called “Crybabies” about Happy Hour on Wall Street. Try to ignore the fact that Adam Davidson is reporting. The piece is actually quite good and illustrates the power of the ring of Gyges perfectly:

Wall Street: Money Never Weeps

Plato couldn’t have written that act any better.  Isn’t your blood boiling?  Don’t you want to hurt those bankers?  I know I do.  I think, who the f^*$ do those assholes think they are?  Oh, yeah, they’re the guys (and they’re almost always guys.  Women rarely get away with behaving badly.) who think they don’t have to answer to anyone.  They can do pretty much whatever the hell they want because no one can do a thing about it.  And they attribute their success to their smartness.  They’re just smarter than you losers who work at a regular job.  But that’s not why they’re so amazingly successful.  No.  They’re so successful because we have removed just about all the regulation from the financial industry.  There’s no oversight.

Oversight-1.a : watchful and responsible care b : regulatory supervision <congressional oversight>

In other words, those bankers are invisible to the justice system.  They can do what they want because no one can see what they’re doing.  No one can see what they’re doing because they keep telling everyone that regulation is bad.  They convince voters that regulation is bad by focusing the voters’ attention on the plight of small business owners.  And it probably is bad for small business owners.  But the effect of deregulation virtually never benefits small business owners.  It almost always benefits the guys at the top with the ring.  And the more money they get with their rings, like Croesus, the more money they can spend on advertising and Fox News and bribing politicians to make sure that no oversight is ever imposed on them.  Remember Elizabeth Warren?  She was supposed to head up a new oversight commission for the consumer financial products.  But the bankers wouldn’t have any oversight so Obama never appointed her.  Therefore, they can do whatever they want to consumers without oversight.

This is the real story of Elizabeth Warren and what she stands for.  She should be using that against Scott Brown.

And here is the most recent manifestation of the power of the ring of Gyges as explained by Matt Taibbi and Eliot Spitzer with regard to the fraud that Goldman-Sachs perpetrated on unsuspecting pension fund managers.  Goldman-Sachs is negotiating its way out of prosecution with the consent of our US attorney generals.  Matt says:

I was trying not to be too obvious in making the point that Spitzer is an example of the kind of guy you would want looking at that Goldman case. Not only did I not want to look like a suck-up, but I wasn’t sure how, “As you know, Eliot, a prosecutor is supposed to be kind of a dick!” would go over. Because I would have meant it in the most complimentary way possible. And it has nothing to do with politics. If you read James Stewart’s Den of Thieves you can see that Rudy Giuliani had some of the same key qualities. A good prosecutor should look down the barrel of a bunch of millionaire lawyers at Davis Polk or White and Case and feel turned on by the challenge of combat. Making a deal with any devil should burn him at the core, keep him awake at night.

But that’s exactly who Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer haven’t been, exactly who Bob Khuzami at the SEC hasn’t been. Instead of being fighters, they’ve been dealmakers and plea-bargainers. They’ve dealt out every major financial scandal, from Abacus to the Muni-bid-rigging cases (they prosecuted a few low-level guys at GE but let the big players at the big banks skate) to the Citigroup fraud settlement that was so bad a judge threw it back at the govenment’s face. In that latter case, amazingly, the govenment is now fighting not for its constituents, but for its right to give out crappy deals to repeat-offender banks without judicial review.

I’m not surprised that the Obama administration’s justice department has been reluctant to use regulation to its benefit and prosecute the criminals with the full force of the law.  It was evident early on (April 2009, to be exact) that this was the approach that Obama would use when it came to Wall Street.  All of the “oversight” would come in the way of ad hoc deals, each company getting a custom made solution that allowed them to skirt the law and get away with a slap on the wrist.  That’s because Obama doesn’t have any principles that he isn’t willing to bargain away on the negotiating table and he always starts his bidding on terms that are heavily favorable to the other side.  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

It goes without saying that you don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to be incensed that the banking industry is getting away with murder and theft without any oversight.  It goes without saying but for some reason, I feel compelled to say it anyway.

Just because people on the left are the most vocal and angry and disappointed and irate about the fact that the financial industry is going unpunished doesn’t mean they are wrong.  Just because a bunch of Occupiers are calling attention to the financial industry and how the fact that it is not accountable screws all of us doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.

What I wonder is why it is that so many people on the right are focusing all of their attention on abortion and gay rights and how unemployed and poor people are unconscionable deadbeats but giving the real parasites in the finance industry a pass.  And I can only come to two possible conclusions: 1. The people on the right are easily lead and gullible and respond well to authoritarian messaging because it is all over the place or 2. It’s because they hope to *be* part of that privileged group of power ring owners in the future so that they can have all of their desires met without accountability.

Now, I will be the first one to mock the left for their crazy ass beliefs about GMO crops and homeopathy and nuclear energy and that the pharma industry is trying to poison them (because they’re not and anyway, it’s just another way for the trial lawyers to sink their fangs into the money stream. The left has its own unaccountability problem.)  But if you’re on the right or leaning right, or used to be a Democrat but are so pissed off about what Obama and the DNC did in 2008 that you’re letting your anger blind you to what these criminals on Wall Street are doing now, then you need to do some soul searching and get to the bottom of your orneriness because it’s really not helping.

It’s the right that relies on religion to keep everyone in line with threats of hellfire if you’re sexually active and not married.  You can always count on the religious to condemn everyone who doesn’t believe strictly in the Judeo-Christian version of the ten commandments.  They have a holy fit if you’re an atheist.  But they seem to be perfectly Ok with giving Wall Street a pass.  It’s like, “there’s nothing we can do.  They’re evil and we’re scared of them because they have all the power to make our lives miserable.”  Bullshit, of course there’s something you can do.  Stop voting for the politicians who keep asking for fewer regulations.  It doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Unfortunately, they’re also the politicians who hide behind religion or pander to religious people.  Show me a religious politician and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t believe in regulation.  That’s all there is to it.  They want to let the criminals operate without boundaries.

If these wealthy, unaccountable assholes continue to do what they’re doing without oversight, they’re going to bring the entire world’s financial system down.  That’s what happens when you can’t stop yourself from taking whatever you want and no one else has to power to interfere.

It doesn’t matter if you are on the right or the left, everything you own, everything you planned, your health, your retirement, your entire future, is at risk.

Forget Romney’s taxes, what will Obama do about unemployment??

Sorry Matt Taibbi, This tax return issue is one gigantic distraction:

The Obama administration, if it wanted to, could make a lot of hay over this. It could say, “Mitt Romney doesn’t want to release his tax returns for years and years during the last decade. But the years for which he did release returns, he paid a rate that’s less than half of what most ordinary American professionals make – and he thinks that’s ‘fair.'”

Now, Obama has gone after Mitt’s tax returns – a little. He’s released a few ads here and there, including one called “Makes You Wonder” that called Mitt’s use of carried interest in his tax return a “trick,” a semantic move for which Obama was criticized, since it was actually nothing of the sort. Mitt Romney’s ability to pay a top rate of 15% for his work was no trick at all but a fully-legal expression of the values of our current political system, a system, again, that Mitt Romney is “proud of” and thinks is “fair.”

I can’t blame Matt for doing what all the other journalists do during an election year.  Jay Rosen has written extensively on the “horse race” reporting of election year journalism.  Journalists write stories only other journalists would love.  It’s all about petty tit-for-tat and gossip and gaffes.  But this is not like other election years.  In a way, you would have thought that the politicians with their slick psychological manipulators on the payroll would have figured out that the voters want to talk about serious things this year.  They should be on the cutting edge.  But I’m beginning to think that the parties are not as modern and hipster as they’d like to think.  Maybe that’s because both *presumptive* nominees are representing old, establishment money and power.  Old guys think the world revolves around their interests and that they can still mold the culture to suit them.  But it is social distancing that prevents them from seeing the American landscape as it truly is.

Jonathan Chait recently encapsulated this mindset in his recent piece, Why Washington Accepts Mass Unemployment. Chait is critical of the Washington establishment that thinks that bad things happen to other people.  But the weird thing is that he doesn’t even know how vulnerable he is:

It’s important to respond to arguments on intellectual terms and not merely to analyze their motives. Yet it is impossible to understand these positions without putting them in socioeconomic context. Here are a few salient facts: The political scientist Larry Bartels has found (and measured) that members of Congress respond much more strongly to the preferences of their affluent constituents than their poor ones. And for affluent people, there is essentially no recession. Unemployment for workers with a bachelors degree is 4 percent — boom times. Unemployment is also unusually low in the Washington, D.C., area, owing to our economy’s reliance on federal spending, which has not had to impose the punishing austerity of so many state and local governments.

I live in a Washington neighborhood almost entirely filled with college-educated professionals, and it occurred to me not long ago that, when my children grow up, they’ll have no personal memory of having lived through the greatest economic crisis in eighty years. It is more akin to a famine in Africa. For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.

Maybe in the plush Washington suburbs 4% unemployment among college graduates is the norm.  But I’m sitting here in NJ with the dead corpses of the careers of PhD’s in Chemistry and Pharmacology all around me and it is most decidedly not all sunshine and roses.  We are also part of the “elite” and we’re dying out here. All we hear is myths about how there aren’t enough of us while vast numbers of us can’t get jobs or keep the ones we relocate our families to take.  Jonathan Chait joins Bill Keller in the same clueless club.  Who exactly do they think they are talking about?  Are journalists and poli sci graduates guaranteed gold watches and pensions these days?  A couple of years ago, the kids around here also would have looked on the recession as “a sad and distant tragedy”.  These days, those same kids are the ragged refugees of the middle class.  Their childhoods will be permanently marked by the changes their parents are going through.

The tax distraction serves both parties.  Neither one of them wants to talk about unemployment.

Here we are, 3 months from the election and no one is talking about unemployment.

How is Obama going to put people back to work?  If I don’t hear some concrete policies, then I am going to assume he has no plans.  I am going to assume he doesn’t care.  I’m not going to be the only one.

Yes, yes, it’s really crappy that rich people do not pay enough in taxes.  If politicians are really concerned with this, the first thing they could do to help level the playing field is eliminate the cruel excise tax for people who are chronically unemployed who have to liquidate their 401Ks in order to keep their kids in the same high school.  That’s where I would start.  No, do not lecture them about saving their money for retirement.  If they needed a lecture, they wouldn’t have a stash in their 401Ks to begin with.  You want to lecture people about saving for retirement? Go talk to a 30 year old who hasn’t saved a dime.

You know, I have no intention of helping Republicans achieve a damn thing.  I’m not harping on Democrats because I want Republicans to win.  I’m harping on Democrats because I want them to do something.

It gives me no pleasure to have to be a Democrat in Exile looking forward to a long hard slog and decades of being in the wilderness while we build another party.  But that’s where we’re headed.  And I’d like to remind the party who wants to make it sound like resistance is useless that that’s probably they way the Liberal party treated the New Democratic Party of Canada about 10 years ago.  Times change, people change, and it happens at a much quicker  pace these days.  The Democrats might not feel so smug in a few months when 5-6% of us decide to tough it out and turn to replacing one of the two parties with something different.

The unemployed will have plenty of work to do to get rid of the party that wanted to waste our time with a pointless exercise of distraction while we were losing everything.  That will motivate us to get up in the morning and work for a shake-up of the two party system.

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

Updating Shakespeare: “First thing we do, kill all the marketers.”  Grocery stores are now using loyalty card information so that food manufacturers can reward some of their customers more than others.  There are a zillion reasons why this is a bad idea.  It’s unfair.  It’s like putting your thumb on the scales for some customers while others still generate a hefty profit margin thinking they’re getting a break.  As one commenter noted in this NYTimes piece, if you’re poor, you don’t look loyal enough to the companies who might offer you a lower price so you end up footing the bill for the upper middle class suburbanites.

If there isn’t a law, there oughtta be.  For one thing, it feels like someone is always looking over your shoulder and invading your privacy.  For another, it seems like the whole world is manipulating prices with a giant optimization algorithm in just one more way to pick every penny of disposable income as it can from our pockets.  I don’t feel like a consumer anymore.  I feel like a crop that is being harvested.

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

More dance loveliness.  Afternoon of a Faun combines two of my favorite things: Debussy and Dance.  The original was choreographed by Nijinsky and was scandalous.  In the end, a faun that has been stalking a nymph throws himself on her discarded scarf and lustily pelvic thrusts into it.

But when I was a kid, I searched the NYCB schedule at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for the Jerome Robbins version.  The music is the same but the setting is different.  In this ballet, two dancers are in a studio and dance alone and together, seemingly unaware of each other as they stare into an imaginary mirror.  It’s playful, romantic and clever.  And no scarfs get messy.

I’m pretty sure the version I saw was danced by Allegra Kent.  The name sticks out.  Allegra.  Only ballerinas have names like that.  Allegra, Darcy, Gelsey, Paloma.  Even their names are in arabesque.

In the case of the Robbins’ updated version, the original dancer was the ethereal Tanaquil LeClercq.  Tanaquil was the name of an ancient Etruscan queen.  Tanaquil’s career did not last very long.  She was married to George Balanchine at the peak of her ballet career when she was struck down with polio while she was on tour.  She never danced again and spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.  But we have this video of a substantial portion of this short ballet where Tanaquil and Jacques D’Amboise  dance as “nymph” and “faun” in a studio in an afternoon.  You can watch it here if the request is disabled.

Enjoy.

Banks on Jello

Does anyone else get the sense that the financial system is so royally screwed up that it’s one butterfly’s wing flap away from collapsing?

Wall Street shut down this morning because of a number of unusual high volume trades, the LIBOR scandal keeps building, the former CEO of Citigroup says merging with Travellers was probably not such a good idea, while Steve Rattner says don’t break up the banks, write a better Dodd-Frank.  Here’s the money quote from Rattner’s piece today:

Because of pressure from Sheila C. Bair, then the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the primary responsibility for winding down failing institutions was given to the F.D.I.C., an agency woefully ill equipped to deal with complex global entities. The Federal Reserve Board would have been a far superior choice.

In April 2011, the F.D.I.C. published a hypothetical plan suggesting that it could wind down a global octopus like Lehman in a manner similar to the way in which it routinely takes over small community banks. The report was widely derided.

We need a Dodd-Frank do-over to create the right oversight apparatus for huge banks. Regulators will always be outnumbered by bankers, and they will never find every problem. But, like prison guards, regulators are essential, even if they are outnumbered. In a world of behemoth banks, it is wrong to think we can shrink ours to a size that eliminates the “too big to fail” problem without emasculating one of our most successful industries.

You know who else didn’t like the idea of Sheila Bair taking over the banks?  Tim Geithner.  But he pressured Bair to back them anyway, guaranteeing shareholders a lot of money Bair didn’t think they deserved.  She would have made shareholders take substantial haircuts.  I’m betting that Rattner and his friends wouldn’t have liked that very much which is why it was off the table almost from the beginning.

I’m not sure I like Rattner’s tone.  Is he saying that the FDIC, which has something like 80 years of experience taking over failing banks is incapable of dismantling these behemoths or is he just dissing Sheila Bair?  Maybe it was just bad timing to have a woman as head of the FDIC when a man would have been able to do his job without meddling and disrespect.  Or maybe the world of the political elite should be held accountable for the fact that its ingrained sexism appears to be behind some phenomenally bad decisions in the past 13 years.  There’s more than one account of Bair being called “hard to work with” and “not a team player”.  Those are code words, baby, for we don’t want to listen to her and we’re going to pull out the old sexist staples to knock her status down.  Well, it worked so well against Bair and Brooksley Born, Elizabeth Warren, Christina Roemer and Hillary Clinton.  The pattern is obvious.  They don’t even pretend to hide it anymore.

I don’t know but I’m getting really pissed that so many sensible women are ignored and trampled so that the big boys can keep playing their games uninterrupted.  That shit’s gotta stop or why bother appointing women at all??  Again, this is Obama’s responsibility.  He hired these guys. And it’s not like his female White House staff didn’t warn him about the disrespect shown them.  What has Obama done about it?

Then there’s Rattner’s statement that even if we regulate the banks, they’ll just find a way around the regulations.  I’m not sure what point he is trying to make here.  If he’s trying to put us at ease, it’s not working.  It’s probably time to stop treating banks as a blessed industry while everyone else is getting damned.

And then there are the uber wealthy who are starting to worry that the Sans Culottes are going to turn the country into some dystopian state.  Maybe we shouldn’t have taken so much, they muse while they take in the scenery from their mansions.

Yeah, maybe.  Only time will tell.

And then there is Tim Geithner.  It looks like we were right about him.  He knew all about the LIBOR interest rate fix.  According to Taibbi, it was a well known secret on Wall Street.  Everybody knew it but the American people, who put their faith in Obama and his treasury secretary.

All I can think about is the stress tests and the way that Geithner assured everyone that the banks were solvent.  Who knows what the truth is but all of the Obama administration’s policies were built around the fiction of the condition of the banking industry.  Maybe the regular American citizen didn’t know about the LIBOR interest rate fixes but it’s hard for me to believe that Obama didn’t know.  You have to ask yourself what Obama was thinking when the stimulus turned out to be too small, bankers’ asses were saved and not homeowners, and he treated every bank crisis with an ad hoc solution instead of regulation.  Without regulation, it could happen again.

It’s all very, very shaky.

LI(E)BOR

We have used the word “evil” to apply to bankers so often in the last four years that it’s become trite.  Nevertheless, the level of austerity imposed on us by the financial establishment in order for them to continue to seize money and power without accountability is so destructive that there’s really no other word that applies.  Once again, we have to go back to Hannah Arendt’s comment about the “banality of evil” to understand what we’re talking about here. It is the normalization of the unthinkable.  It’s not that these financiers are people who beat their wives or sell their children into sexual slavery.  I’m sure that some of these people are perfectly fine to socialize with.  You can play a few rounds of golf, have dinner, go sailing with them.  They seem like such nice, intelligent, clean-cut people, if a bit more ambitious than the average Joe.  OK, insanely more ambitious, but you know what I mean.  They don’t look like gun toting SS droogs in jackboots who will conduct you to the edge of the pit where they will shoot you in the back of the head for inconveniently living on land they had their eyes on.

And yet, isn’t that what they’re doing, in a so far non-violent way?  They’re leading hundreds of millions of people to the edge of the pit of financial instability and a lifetime of precarious existence and pushing them over with a swift kick to the back.  When you lose your job, your house, your marriage, everything but the clothes on your back and the student loans you will be paying off forever, and it’s all because some wealthy bankers need to preserve their bonuses, isn’t that evil?

Check out this unbelievable interview about LIBOR from the BBC with Harvard professor Niall Ferguson.  The second part is particularly outrageous.  Essentially, we are being pressured to turn generation against generation and Ferguson implies that Obama will sell us out at the end of this year:

Part 1:

Part 2:

(Roberto Unger’s call for the left to defeat Obama makes a lot more sense now.  Ahh, I see that Ferguson is one of the original Confidence Fairies that Krugman is always referring to.  What’s more, he’s married to Aayan Hirsi Ali, the Somali born former Dutch MP who works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.  She has taken Christopher Hitchens’ place in the Four Horseman dialogues.  Man-o-man, no one is safe from the creepy thoughts of extreme right wing philosophy.  I can’t take the Four Horseman dialogues seriously now.  Not until she’s replaced.  She jumped from ultra religious conservatism to ultra right wing conservatism and is not a good ambassador for the New Atheist movement.  Sorry, Richard.  She’s going to damage your credibility.  You’ve got to be very careful about these people because in this country, the political right wing is inextricably tied to the religious right wing.)

The LIBOR scandal took me back to the fall of 2008 when Planet Money popped up on NPR.  At first, Planet Money was a good resource for non-financiers to get a grip on Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations.  A few months later, that began to change subtly as the hosts of Planet Money got pulled into the realm of the serious people.  But in October 2008, they were on top of LIBOR.  I remember them talking about the TED spread and LIBOR and getting the sense that the LIBOR number, the interbank interest rate showing how willing banks were to lend to one another was an indicator of the global scale of the catastrophe.  No joke.  The higher the LIBOR number creeped, the more likely we were to spin off to a Depression that was bigger than the world had ever seen.  The thing is, according to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the banks were manipulating LIBOR starting in 2005, affecting rates on adjustable rate mortgages.  And the downstream effect of LIBOR was felt in just about every interest rate on every act of borrowing by every individual in the world.  We are talking about hundreds of trillions of dollars.  In this Planet Money snippet, Adam Davidson discusses the effect of LIBOR and the TED spread and what it means for global markets around the world.  Throughout October, Planet Money followed TED and LIBOR and the effect of the bailout money.  For some reason, LIBOR numbers should have gone down a bit after the infusion of money but they didn’t, probably because the LIBOR rate, as high as it was, wasn’t real and wasn’t high enough to reflect reality.

But reality might have set off a global panic, triggering much more severe regulation of the finance industry so it had to stay hidden.  In the meantime, we’ve been carrying the weight of these behemoth zombies for four years and if we don’t do something now, we will be carrying them for years to come- at our expense.  And they’ve gotten off with minor slaps on the wrist.  The CFTC fined British banks a paltry $450 million for their manipulations.  That’s an insult to American taxpayers and totally inadequate.  Democratic lawmakers should be outraged and demanding accountability.  Where are they??

In another Planet Money episode from October 2008, we find out what LIBOR meant to the little people:

Justin asks us today:

“I saw you mentioned student loan availability, but what about existing loans? Since many student loans have their interest rates tied to LIBOR or Prime, what does LIBOR hitting all-time highs this week mean for students? And, perhaps more ominously, graduates who are in repayment? How long can this go on before they start to see some effect on their loans?”

Even if Congress passes the bailout, many students across the nation will begin to see higher costs for loans in the coming months or could be turned away by banks altogether as the credit crisis intensifies.

The goes the same for graduates. The big issue is what kind of loans you have.

Most direct government-backed loans such as Federal Stafford and PLUS loans have fixed interest rates. This means the interest rate will remain constant for the life of the loan.

If you took out private loans, which have become increasingly common as students look for new sources to finance the soaring costs of college, they typically have variable rates and are projected to jump this year. Sorry.

Sorry, student.  Sucks to be you.  In the light of the LIBOR manipulation details, that seems particularly callous, along with Davidson’s subsequent attack on Elizabeth Warren for caring about homeowners and consumers and not being “serious”.  It was the influence of the serious people on Davidson (by the way, who was he referring to as his serious sources anyway?  Her colleague Niall Ferguson at Harvard, perhaps? And do “penis years” have something to do with why his word may have carried more weight than hers?) and on our elected officials that lead to the gouging of the taxpayers to pay the bankers’ unconscionable debts on bad bets.  We are talking about trillions of dollars of OUR money, OUR retirements, so that the weekend sailors and golf buddies would not feel inconvenienced.

I used to think my outrage meter was pegged but I have never seen such corruption go unchecked in my lifetime.  What we have here is a bunch of extremely irresponsible and unethical people playing with people’s livelihoods like it wasn’t real money to them.  And it isn’t real money to them.  The tens of thousands of dollars we’ll be collecting each year in measly pensions and social security, that’s nothing.  They can burn through that in a matter of minutes.  If it were several million dollars in Social Security payouts affecting their retirement packages, that might get their attention and they’d be furiously lobbying Congress to save Social Security at all costs.  Social Security and pensions would become holy sacraments. But because we are talking about such piddling amounts that amount to pocket change to the wealthy, it has no real meaning to them.  We might as well be flood victims in Bangladesh, clinging to a few square meters of dry land while the water rises all about us.  Those poor people.  Well, that’ll learn them to farm in a flood zone.

The careers we have lost? Not their problem.  Our children’s college funds, the roofs they have over their heads, the food we put in their mouths, barely registers.  On an individual basis, none of us make enough money to get their attention.  The significance of the figures of our incomes does not arouse their concern.  They are so caught up and preoccupied with making their numbers that they don’t have the time to care about your little problems.  They have jumped to a new level in the game where the sheer volume of money being swapped is intoxicating.  They’re not playing in the real world anymore.

It’s got to stop.  The manipulation of LIBOR was uncovered by the US CFTC.  That means, we’ve been aware of it for some time.  We probably knew about it when Occupy Wall Street was protesting last fall and we probably knew about it when their camps were broken up and they were hauled off to jail and when the DHS sent in their riot troops.  Yep, the Obama administration has known.  And so far, not one banker has been hauled off to jail.  No one has been penalized.

Think about that.  The scope of the LIBOR scandal affects every person who has ever dealt with a bank in the past 7 years.  It’s so outrageously immoral and has caused so much destruction and continues to wreck havoc in Spain, Ireland, Britain, the US, everywhere that if it isn’t prosecuted as a the criminal enterprise that it is, then I can only conclude that our elected officials are complicit.  They had to have known that the banks that are now too big to fail were in fact failing and were disguising the scale of the catastrophe from the public.  Those banks are still in business, thanks to our largess, and no one in the Obama administration, particularly Tim Geithner, has dared to declare them insolvent and break them up as Sheila Bair suggested in 2009. They are now bigger and more dangerous than ever and they are calling the shots about our jobs, retirements and money supply around the world.

Our money went into their bottomless gullets and continues to go in, and yet, they and their political arms have the outrageous gall to insist that we, the hardworking taxpayers who paid in advance for our social security benefits, WE have to take a haircut.  That is what the so-called Grand Bargain is all about, ladies and gentlemen. That’s why we must lose our jobs.  We cost too much.  They think they can dump the blame on us for having to eat and getting old and needy.

We are living in a world that is run by criminals.  You may think that’s they way it’s always been but this is now institutionalized criminality.  No one can be trusted.  And when no one can be trusted, all hell breaks loose.

More on LIBOR:

Boston Globe- How a LIBOR scheme works and what it means to consumers

Joe Nocera- LIBOR’s Dirty Laundry

Yves Smith- Yes, Virginia, the real action in the LIBOR scanda was in the derivatives

Here’s an interesting take on LIBOR from 2007 when banks were manipulating the rate up: Why LIBOR won’t hurt that much.

Also, this Fresh Air interview with Paul Krugman in Oct 2008 is very revealing.  He was right about almost everything except the unemployment rate. (his prediction was too low).  But even more striking is the last 5 minutes of the interview when he talks about the two presidential candidates and why Ben Bernanke was struggling to get a handle on this.  Could it be that the measures were inadequate because the LIBOR rates had been artificially lowered?

Matt Taibbi’s most recent posts in the Rolling Stone:

A Huge Break in the LIBOR Banking Investigation (6/28/2012)

Another Domino Falls in the LIBOR Banking Scam: Royal Bank of Scotland (6/29)

Why is Nobody Freaking out about the LIBOR Banking Scandal? (7/3)

LIBOR Banking Scandal Deepens: Barclays releases damning email, Implicates    British Government (7/4)

Matt Taibbi discusses the LIBOR scandal with Eliot Spitzer:

The Occupy Handbook: The Great Recession

This econ dude from Princeton, his econ wife and some other people (including Matt Taibbi), wrote an economic field guide called The Occupy Handbook for the Occupy Movement and published it.  Salon has posted the first chapter called Economy Killers: Inequality and GOP Ignorance.  Go check it out.

The official publication date is tomorrow, April 17.  That it’s also Tax Day is probably no coincidence. I love stuff like this so I’ll spend a bit of my vanishing budget to by a Kindle edition.  My question is, will this book be read by the average Joe Bag O’Donuts?  Aren’t the writers preaching to the choir when they excerpt to Salon?  Does this book have the capacity to cut through the media filter to reach a broader audience?  Let’s hope so.

Wall Street + Stock Buy Backs => Cookies of the Apocalypse

Greed has consequences.  The definition of success also has consequences.  When people judge their success in life by how much money they are making instead of what they contribute to the well being of the society they live in, they can have unintended consequences for other people who they don’t even know in fields they couldn’t care less about.

Let’s follow this trail, shall we?

Matt Taibbi writes another scathing critique on the lack of character on Wall Street.  This is where the worldview is developed and the flawed value system starts.  In this little snippet about John Paulsen and his incredible haul of obscene gobs of cash, we are to feel sympathy for the pain he has suffered for all the gobs of cash he lost on bets that didn’t pan out last year:

Look, the financial services industry should be boring. It should be quaint. Let’s take the municipal debt business. For ages, it was a simple, dull, low-margin sort of industry, in which banks arranged municipal bond issues and made small but dependable profits as cities and towns financed improvements and construction projects.

That system worked seamlessly for decades, until people like Sherman’s interview subjects suddenly decided to make the business exciting. You know what happens when you make municipal debt exciting? Jefferson County, Alabama happens. Or, on a macro level, Greece happens.

When making a few points on mere bond issues stops being enough, and you have to cook up crazy swap schemes and indices to bet against those schemes, ingenious scams allowing politicians to borrow billions of dollars that they will never in a million years be able to pay back, you might end up getting a few parks, schools, and subways in New York.

But what you get everywhere else is a giant clusterfuck that costs the rest of us years and even more billions of tax dollars to remedy.

This is what the protests are all about – it’s anger that Wall Street has been profiting from an imaginary economy that leaves bankers overpaid, but creates damage everywhere else. Sherman doesn’t get this. He seems to subscribe to the well-worn straw-man position that protesters are simply upset that bankers and financiers make a lot of money. Take for example his view on John Paulson, the hedge fund titan who was involved in Goldman’s infamous Abacus deal:

In October, a thousand protesters stood outside John Paulson’s Upper East Side townhouse and offered the hedge-fund billionaire a mock $5 billion check, the amount he earned from his 2010 investments. Later that day, Paulson released a statement attacking the protesters and their movement …. The truth was, Paulson was furious that the protesters had singled him out. Last year, he lost billions of dollars on bad bets on gold and the banking sector. One of his funds posted a 52 percent loss. “The ironic thing is John lost a lot of money this year,” a person close to Paulson told me. “The fact that John got roped into this debate highlights their misunderstanding.”

Hey, asshole: nobody misunderstands anything about John Paulson. They’re not mad that he made billions the year before, and they’re not happy that he lost money this year. They’re mad that the way he made his money in previous years – which involved putting together a born-to-lose portfolio of toxic mortgage bonds and then using Goldman Sachs to dump them on a pair of European banks, who in turn had no idea that Paulson was betting against them.

Matt Taibbi is using harsh curse words.  How declasse.  The fundies react with shock and horror.  Is there no civility on the internet?  Paulsen is rich.  Surely this man deserves respect.

Moving on.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline wrote a rather longish post for him about the pharmaceutical companies buying back stock in what looks like a desperate attempt to push up the stock price and keep more for the executives.  Lovely.  And this is made easier by assuring investors that they have cracked down on research costs, by golly.  We’ll have none of that wasteful spending here:

He has some figures from our own industry: From 1997 to 2009 “Amgen did
repurchases equal to 99 percent of R&D expenditures, Pfizer 67 percent, Merck 62
percent, and Johnson & Johnson 57 percent.” It could be worse – companies in the IT sector have often managed to spend even more than their R&D budgets on repurchases, partly because they increased the number of shares outstanding so hugely during the dot-com boom years.

One complication with the market-manipulation view is that stock buybacks don’t correlate very well with total stock returns. If anything, the correlation is negative: companies (and sectors) that spend the most on repurchases have lower returns. Of course, there’s a correlation/causation problem here – perhaps those returns would have been even lower without the buybacks. But there’s clearly no slam-dunk financial case to be made for repurchases.

Except one: that they’re often the easiest and least controversial use of the money. Companies get criticized if they sit on cash reserves, and they get criticized for missing earnings-per-share numbers. Why not try to address both at the same time? And without having to actually think very hard about what to invest in? I think that Pfizer’s Ian Read is being truthful when he says things like this:

Pfizer declined to make an executive available to discuss its policy. But in a statement, the company said it “remains committed to returning capital to shareholders through share buybacks and dividend payments.”

As for the cut in research spending in February, Pfizer said it has “accelerated our research strategy and made important changes to concentrate our efforts to deliver the greatest medical and commercial impact.”

In a conference call with analysts this month, Pfizer’s chief executive, Ian C. Read, said his company would “continually look” for acquisitions that would increase revenue growth. But in deciding how to use the proceeds from recent asset sales, he said “the case to beat is share repurchase.”

And that, truly, is a shame.

Oh, well, it’s not like the executives are going to stick around to see what a shame it is.  As the following animation suggests, they will be sitting on a beach in the Cayman Islands ideating and leaving the company to hobble toward some finish line on its own:

{{catching breath, wiping eyes, clearing throat}}  Ahem, geek humor and all that.  Too funny, or it would be if so many of us “ancient ones” weren’t out of work.

The fate of civilization is in the hands of air traffic controllers

There are some pretty good posts this morning that really should be read.

Avedon Carol writes about the wealthy and well connected and the centrists who deceive for them.  In “Did I say ‘overlords’?, I mean ‘protectors’ (Avedon is a Chiron Beta Prime fan), she writes :

The arch-conservatives believe that the rich – the aristocracy – should run everything, and the rest of us should be “losers” who are poor and miserable and have to live a hard-scrabble existence in which we literally have to beg them for jobs, alms, and mercy. They recognize that the world can be ordered differently, that there can be democracy and freedom and a decent living for everyone, they just think it shouldn’t be that way, it should be their way, because they are morally better than us and should be able to lord it over us. They have worked tirelessly (and effectively) for more than 30 years to undo democracy, and they knew just what they were doing.

The Centrists, by their statements and position papers, believe this choice no longer exists – that the “new rules” of “globalization” mean that democracy and a better life, decent wages, worker safety and all that jazz are just no longer possible. We will have to live according to the desires of the arch-conservatives – not because it is morally right, but because there is simply no other option. We are no longer in an aberrant situation where democracy can be a realistic hope and workers can be treated like human beings. We “have to” “compete” with China, and that’s that. Somehow, these centrists have all managed not to notice more than two centuries of American and European history and thousands of years of world history, not to mention many changes in their own lifetimes. They have failed to read any economic charts or to make any coherent conclusions about the direct and visible results of policy choices.

Avedon goes on to suggest that the Centrists in charge are being deliberately deceptive or they wouldn’t be doing this because it’s stupid.  I’m not so sure about that.  I think the problem is that the nation became stratified when we weren’t paying attention.  I noticed it when I visited the executive office building half a mile away from the labs.  The suits aren’t like you and me.  They have no idea what we do and how much they depend on us.  Well, they might get a clue if they are ever diagnosed with a cancer whose program was disrupted by multiple mergers and layoffs and stupid pet MBA tricks, but I digress.

There is a class system in the US.  It started with the financial overlords and is now filtering its way down to everyone.  I blame Jack Welch.  He started the ridiculous “rank and yank” performance system that major corporations and Enron have taken such a shine to.  That system supposedly rewards competitiveness and drive but what it really rewards is loyalty.  The more you suck up to the person who ranks you, the better the chances that you will keep your job.  And the people who rank you are more likely to reward people like themselves.  It’s human nature.  So, the corporate aristocracy tends to make corporate aristocrats.  When it gets to the labs, it gets really ugly because then people start to hoard resources.  Stabbing colleagues in the back to make them look bad so you can look good to the people who can reward you becomes a real art form in the lab.  The problem is that all this politicking doesn’t lead to any real work.  When your livelihood depends on where you went to school and what your pedigree is, it doesn’t matter so much what you do once you get a job.  It’s a self perpetuating caste system.  America did not become a great nation by using a caste system.  It became great by breaking it.  Some of our best innovators weren’t even college graduates.  Think Edison and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.  Today, those guys couldn’t even get an entry level position in their own companies.

So, the stratification and castification of American culture has been happening right in front of us but we haven’t seen it, mostly because we don’t come in contact with the classes very often.  I didn’t know that the executive building cafeteria served gourmet entrees and had a registered dietician on staff to customize your lunch.  I didn’t know that they could still send packages internationally at vastly reduced costs through the company mail system but that the lab rats couldn’t.  And I didn’t know how snippy and insulting the purchasing department could be until one of its members humiliated a PhD biologist for having the temerity to ask what SAP stood for during a presentation of the kludgy application during a NEW, new purchasing procedures rollout.

Those people up the road don’t know who you are.  You work with your hands or you deal with customers or you’re in a smelly lab with gross ecoli thingies, whatever those are, and they don’t see you, especially if they don’t have to.  And the centrists come from this class of people.  Things get done and chickens get shrinkwrapped into neat, sterile packages and drugs get synthesized but those people up the road have compartmentalized the process and do not associate *people* with the outcomes.  I recently met a former pharma advertising person working in an apple store.  He can’t find a job after his layoff (but I’ll bet his severance package was much more generous than mine) so he works at apple part time.  He says he was laid off because there was nothing in the company pipeline.  I will venture that he had never until that day ever met someone who had worked on that pipeline.  I was that person.  So, I asked him if maybe there was nothing in that pipeline because of all of the mergers and re-orgs and laying off people like me meant that research was broken?  Did he even know that 100,000 of us scientists were laid off right now, NOT working on the pipeline?  He got a funny look on his face.  I think he finally got it.  But it takes a guy losing his cube in the executive office building and who now works at an apple store for the classes to finally get to know one another.

The other two posts are by Matt Taibbi who I think might even come from the 1% but has a conscience in spite of it.  Well, he seems to have grown a conscience since 2008, for which we can be grateful but we are still stuck with Obama.  Anyway, he comes down hard on Obama and Tim Geithner in Government-Enron Style where he writes:

In other words, Geithner and Obama are behaving like Lehman executives before the crash of Lehman, not disclosing the full extent of the internal problem in order to keep investors from fleeing and creditors from calling in their chits. It’s worth noting that this kind of behavior – knowingly hiding the derogatory truth from the outside world in order to prevent a run on the bank – is, itself, fraud!

This is exactly the mindset that led Lehman to the abuses of the “Repo 105” accounting trick, in which loans were disguised as revenues in order to prevent the outside world from knowing the dire state of the bank’s balance sheet.

Now Obama and Geithner are engaged in the same sort of activity, only they’re trying to prevent a run not on an individual bank, but the entire American financial services sector. Geithner seems really to believe that if fraud were aggressively policed, and the world made aware of the incredible extent of the illegality in our markets, that international confidence in the American financial sector would plummet and our economy would suffer – and suffer, incidentally, on Barack Obama’s watch.

Better, apparently, the Band-Aid the problem now, and let the real mess happen later on, on someone else’s watch, or at least in a second term, when there’s no need to worry about re-election.

I’m particularly worried about this since so much of my savings is tied up in my 401K and as far as I can tell, the 401K system is a racket.  It’s the way middle class people can get a tax break, now, in exchange for putting their life savings, and all of the extra money they have, in the hands of sociopaths with a pathological gambling addiction.  Remember, they don’t know us because they never bother to meet us so all that money has no real meaning to them.  It’s just like the instant $200 Monopoly money given to them through our paycheck withdrawals.  It’s an automatic “Pass Go and Collect”.  It just shows up in the accounts.  The brokers don’t wonder how it got there.  They don’t think about what workers had to give up in real time to put away those hundreds of dollars a month for the future.  The future happens to other people.  Finance people live in the present.  They deny themselves nothing.

The other Matt Taibbi post is about the clueless plutocrats in A Christmas Message from America’s rich.  Some of these insults from the 1% have appeared elsewhere but Taibbi drills down to the real message the rich are sending us:

People like Dimon, and Schwarzman, and John Paulson, and all of the rest of them who think the “imbeciles” on the streets are simply full of reasonless class anger, they don’t get it. Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich.

What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens.

Yes, that’s the problem.  The rich have stopped being citizens.  They see themselves as citizens of the world.  They can move their pawns around a global chessboard and so far, the nations of the world have been unable or unwilling to stop them.

That got me thinking about a proposal I have floated before.  If they’re not going to act like citizens, do we really have to let them live here?  I wouldn’t want to propose violent actions, because that would be wrong and no one wants another round of the French Terror.  Ok, some people do but not me.  No, in fact killin’s too good for some of them.  What I would prefer is if they had an extended vacation to some tropical destination, like, oh, I don’t know, the Cayman Islands, perhaps?  In fact, why don’t we let the union first screwed by the 1% and their bought and paid for president have the first crack at this?  When ever a 1%’ers private jet checks in for a landing, divert the plane to the Cayman Islands.  Let’s let the rich hobnob with their own class.  They can spend more time with their money.  And they don’t really need satellite or underwater cables to carry their internet traffic.  Just cut them off.  Let the predators play a game of real-life Survivor on Grand Cayman where they can fight each other for the best views and snorkel sites.  in fact, why not relocate the support staff?  It’s not their fault the rich have to go somewhere.  Then the bankers and brokers and investment class can clean their own toilets and administer their own antibiotics and mow their own golf courses and maintain the water treatment plants.

Well, it’s a start.  We still have to figure out a solution for the yachts, though those yachts ain’t going nowhere without a crew.  If I were a crew member, I would revel in my new found power.  While the rich dudes are asleep in their sleek, mahogany paneled staterooms, just cut the engines and abandon ship.  Yeah, take the only lifeboats with you and the keys to the helicopter.  Pull the fuses out of the electrical panels and consign them to the watery deep. Disable the GPS devices.  After you take the best wines and delicacies, dump all of the food overboard.  Let them float for a few days.

If they’re really as smart and successful and productive as they claim to be, they’ll figure out a way to get out their predicament.  But while they’re working on that, we’ll have time to blockade their way off the islands and bar their entrance to any port.

If they’re not going to be good citizens, they can’t have a country.  We’ll lease the Caymans to them for $500,000,000,000/year.  After a few years, they should be reduced to the economic status of Haitians.

Sunday: Make this the week you free yourself

Commuting to work in Copenhagen

Thursday, November 17: Shut Down Wall Street

If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, Matt Taibbi has a piece in the Rolling Stone where he confesses that he didn’t “get” Occupy Wall Street at first, but now he does:

What both sides missed is that OWS is tired of all of this. They don’t care what we think they’re about, or should be about. They just want something different.

We’re all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire. Everything from our pop culture to our economy to our politics feels oppressive and unresponsive. We see 10 million commercials a day, and every day is the same life-killing chase for money, money and more money; the only thing that changes from minute to minute is that every tick of the clock brings with it another space-age vendor dreaming up some new way to try to sell you something or reach into your pocket. The relentless sameness of the two-party political system is beginning to feel like a Jacob’s Ladder nightmare with no end; we’re entering another turn on the four-year merry-go-round, and the thought of having to try to get excited about yet another minor quadrennial shift in the direction of one or the other pole of alienating corporate full-of-shitness is enough to make anyone want to smash his own hand flat with a hammer.

If you think of it this way, Occupy Wall Street takes on another meaning. There’s no better symbol of the gloom and psychological repression of modern America than the banking system, a huge heartless machine that attaches itself to you at an early age, and from which there is no escape. You fail to receive a few past-due notices about a $19 payment you missed on that TV you bought at Circuit City, and next thing you know a collector has filed a judgment against you for $3,000 in fees and interest. Or maybe you wake up one morning and your car is gone, legally repossessed by Vulture Inc., the debt-buying firm that bought your loan on the Internet from Chase for two cents on the dollar. This is why people hate Wall Street. They hate it because the banks have made life for ordinary people a vicious tightrope act; you slip anywhere along the way, it’s 10,000 feet down into a vat of razor blades that you can never climb out of.

That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don’t know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.

Personally?  I want to live in a place like Denmark.  Your mileage may vary.  And I think that’s part of the point of Occupy Wall Street.  If you want to make millions producing something useful like green technology or a new drug or some personal gadget that we can’t live without, by all means, do it!  I would *love* to make a new drug that helps people but I know that the current corporate model for doing that is dead.  But starting a new biotech in this particular kind of capitalism is extremely risky because there are predators out there who see you as nothing but a money machine ready  yoke you to their plough.  They give you the money to get the work done, you hand over whatever they want.

But what if money is not your personal endpoint?  What if doing what you love is your goal but you want to earn a wage that doesn’t leave you destitute?  What if you’re ok riding a bike to work in an urban setting?  What if your starter house doesn’t have to be 3000 sq ft?  What if you are happy living somewhere between Ikea and Pottery Barn?  Does that mean you’re a loser if you don’t want to make millions but only want to discover the next drug?  This society is telling the real producers that they are losers and that the only true winners are the ones who eat what they kill in the free market savannah.

Six months ago on my last day of work, I wrote about what was happening to us.  We are locked into the Wall Street extraction mechanism almost from the first day on the job.  Our pensions are so small and the possibility of getting one is so remote because our careers are  unstable that we are forced to turn to the marketplace to build up our nest eggs.  We invest in 401K’s that are so heavily penalized by taxes that the money becomes hostage to the Wall Street movers and shakers.  And investing in the market makes us the very same shareholders who demand our terminations.  We are forced to put our savings into the global casino so that some assholes on Wall Street can play with making a killing by porting our jobs overseas.  And we’re supposed to be grateful to them for “producing” this great wealth that only they can accumulate and spend and pay for *their* kid’s college education.  Yes, they get a bonus, you get an excise tax bill, to be paid up-front, if you need to take that money out to pay for the hardships produced by putting that money in the market in the first place.  How crazy is that??  How did we let ourselves get talked into this bizarre arrangement? And it’s not real money to Wall Street.  It’s play money.  It’s not *their* money.  And if they lose some after they skim off their bonuses and cry and complain about how unappreciated they are, it’s no big deal.  With the next working guy’s paycheck, the coffers will be renewed from all of those contributions to the retirement account.  This game is set up so that the fund managers never have to feel accountable to anyone but themselves.

I’d rather be free to live modestly than live miserably and precariously with the vague and insincere promises of riches decades down the road.  I want out.

ooOOoo, the chemists are getting restless

Last Friday, Derek Lowe posted the latest rumors on Amgen.  The pointy haired bosses are saying euphemistically loaded code words for liberating the wage slaves:

Amgen is out today speaking the sort of language that we’ve all come to fear. It appears that the local Ventura County Star picked up some rumblings from inside the Thousand Oaks headquarters, and when they asked the company about it, they got this:

“We are currently evaluating some changes within our Research & Development organization to improve focus and to reallocate resources to key pipeline assets and activities. . .”

Been there, done that.  The whole day at Amgen was wasted with scared shitless labrats floating from cubicle to cubicle running down the options.  Those who weren’t constructing elaborate scenarios were furiously updating their CVs, searching for their publications and slapping together presentation slides.  Lots of networking going on.  “Heeeey, how are you doing?  Haven’t talked to you for, what is it now?  Five years?  Oh, I’m doing fine.  Working at Amgen.  Yep, great site.  How are the kids?  Really?  High school already?  Doesn’t time fly?  Is it true Satanaco just made you director of flarnjarn chemistry?  How’s that going these days?…”

Thinking back on it, there is a certain pattern to these announcements.  They occur roughly a year after the email about the multimillion dollar contract the company just signed with a consulting firm (located more frequently in Massachusetts, hmmm…).  So, be on your guard, guys.  Don’t wait until the big announcement to bug out.  Do it as soon as you hear the consulting firm is studying your discovery process.

For the past 10 years, chemists, who tend to be introverted types, watched as their work environment disappeared lab by lab.  At first, they were able to jump around locally.  Then all hell broke loose in 2008 and the layoffs came like a blitzkrieg.  There is absolutely no relief, no place to go and no security.  No sooner have you unpacked your new clean labcoats in the new company before there’s a merger announcement or a restructuring and, once again, you have to figure out if you can afford the house *and* the small apartment you’ll be forced to live in during the week in Massachusetts while your employed spouse works in your former state of residence.

The chemists grumbled but took it.  But now that so many of them are out of work, some of us permanently as far as we can tell, the labrats are getting mad.  Here’s a promising comment:

“The reality is that we have all gotten to the good old days when you could stay with the same company with job security. Those days are gone! Do not blame your management! Face the reality. For the chemists, why you think you would be entitled to a good job if the need is not there for your services?”

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that lately in light of the last nine months in the world. Sure, chemists may be smart and resourceful and maybe can deal with getting laid off a lot, but most humans aren’t. Most humans do expect relative job security and certainty for the future. A lot think they are entitled to it. Don’t believe me? Look at Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Greece, Spain, and now New York. It all sounds fine to say that we need to adjust to the new market, but I’m guessing that in the future the financial industry will have to throw billions at people to keep them in boring, steady jobs with a degree of future certainty just so they don’t tear out a banker’s throat. Much as Saudi Arabia is doing now by flooding Egypt and Yemen with billions in the futile hope that the hunger and unrest doesn’t spread.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think humans are evolved enough for today’s market. Maybe in a few thousand years… but the instability and uncertain future has obviously risen beyond what the human species as a whole can support with the current gene mix. Too many people want a certain stability on a primitive level. This whole business with the Euro collapsing and the Arab world imploding/exploding will lead to a lot more problems for Pharma (and not only them) in the future.

Sad but true.  Human beings have not sufficiently evolved to give up their food and housing addictions.  If we were, getting laid off repeatedly would be much more pleasant than it is.   I must say that the image of bankers’ throats being torn out by a crowd of angry labrats gave me a momentary feeling of delight, sort of like a lion that has finally downed its prey and is ripping the esophagus out of the neck, like bloody banker steak tartare…  Where was I?  {{catching breath, straightening clothes, wiping chin}} And this comment from an Amgen Oldtimer tells the story of Amgen’s demise.  Substitute any well known biomedical research company for Amgen, it’s happened to all of them:

Yes Amgen was a great company. Under George Rathman it was an awesome culture. For about 15 years, early 80’s to mid-nineties, almost no one left. Attrition ran less than half industry standard. It was a vibrant, scientist driven culture of innovation. Team culture was strong, people supported one another, careers were nurtured, ethics were everyday stuff, not laminated speaking points. As a young scientist there, I awoke each day early and got off to work because my head was full of anticipation for the day.

The middle period was run by Gordon Binder. A decent man, but he set the seeds for future failure. He ran a tight ship financially, growing the company perfectly to beat estimates steadily, quarter over quarter, year after year. A lot of people got rich, but also complacent and no risks were taken with the revenue other than to support internal research. While that was a good thing, the senior team had lost some steam, and was also stubbornly resistant to the McKinsey minded management movement that was threatening all research organizations. While I think this was wise, lack of performance and suggesting no alternatives other than to do what we’ve always done led to the next disastrous phase.

Kevin takes over. In comes GE based performance systems [Jack Welch’s “rank and yank” that nurtured Enron as well], in comes BCG (Boston Consulting Group) lead restructuring of R&D processes to generate “seamless alignment”, in comes an attitude that R(esearch) only costs money. Team culture evaporates, those that can manage up well shift around from function to function, with success claimed for new initiatives before any measure of impending failure. Scientists who have clarity about the folly, and speak up, are shown the door. New “superstars” are hired that have no track record of success (but amazingly are all friends!), and that is still true now after a decade at Amgen. ESAs are over-promoted, Hematocrit pushed to high and the fall begins.

Management structures bonuses based on revenue, so Amgen buys Immunex and enbrel, which produces a lot of revenue, less margin, pays too much, but pads bank accounts. Stock falls, so management changes incentive at low price to be aligned with shareholders, taking more money out of the company. In the end, company sheds something like 40-50B in market cap, lays off employees while the CEO buys 2 corporate jets and takes home about $250MM. Amazing pay for shedding that much company value. Amazing lack of concern for employees and patients. Amazingly different company than George Rathman led.

Great company, once.

The anger isn’t limited to Wall Street but Wall Street had a significant role to play in the demise of research in this country.  And now, as one commenter noted, the flood gates are about to open to admit more foreign STEM workers because companies are whining that they don’t have enough well-trained workers in the US.  That might be motivated by Wall Street’s pressure for profits but the ultimate responsibility for reducing STEM professionals to low wage jobs with no security will fall on the president and Congress who don’t prevent the H-1B visas from flooding the system with cheap, expendable labor that can be sent back to Asia when the season’s over, like migrant workers rotating from lab to lab.

Obama should think about that. Chemistry used to be a good career.  The work requires a lot of education, technical skills and experience.  The salaries were decent if not spectacular compared to the corporate office purchasing administrators and sales reps.  Chemists paid their fair share of taxes and had nice houses in the suburbs where they sent their children to local schools and attended school board meetings.  They did demonstrations for kids at Science Fair night.  They coached soccer.  These are not the people you want to alienate in an election year.

Because these are the same people who may show up at a OWS site in a nearby park carrying signs like this:

One more thing:

Over at Craig Crawford’s Trail Mix (nice blog), there is a video of Matt Taibbi talking to Don Imus about Occupy Wall Street. I’ll see if I can embed the video. One thing that annoys me is Don Imus asking Matt if he thinks any of the occupiers even understand the banking issues. Condescend much, Don?? A lot of us have read Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short and can tell you exactly how securitization of mortgages work, what a tranche is and the difference between a CDO and a CDS. Yep, and we know the people at ratings agencies are unreliable at best, looking for jobs with the people they rate at worst. AND that the SEC did nothing about the concerns that were raised by some hedge fund managers. And that derivatives are not regulated to make them transparent. And that fund managers love their status and money and have very little interest or incentive to protect their clients’ pension funds. Is that enough, Don, or do you want more?

Jeez, he hasn’t aged well. He’s younger than my mom and looks about 10 years older. Ahhh, I see. Prostate cancer. That’s not good. Too bad I don’t do cancer drugs anymore…