The Coolness of being Uncool.

How many of our actions are driven by fear of appearing uncool? What immeasurable damage has been wrought on the unsuspecting populace by the insecurities of the powerful few? Our collective quest for coolness, for the perfect at the expense of the good, for victory drives many into unmanageable situations. It’s hard to quantify, but we should at least attempt to examine the dynamic behind it.

What is cool according to current popular culture? It is the ability to win battles and arguments, to demonstrate your professional prowess with ease, to make money, to accumulate followers and admirers, to be full of potential. In our competition obsessed society the greatest sin one can commit is to be considered a loser.  And what is lame, what is loserville? It is to be average, to be comfortable with what one has, to be static, to not seek the levers of power.

It is a sad paradox that the most ambitious and driven among us reach the positions of power in politics, finance, academia – industries that require the best and the brightest – and then something happens to them once they are there: they turn into insecure narcissists. Those that spent a lot of energy getting to the top, once there, spend a lot of energy on maintaining the image of success. It’s a draining, tiresome task. Daily focus is shifted from concentrating on task at hand to watching others watch you. One begins to develop delusions of threat around every corner and assumes a defensive posture as a default attitude. Every human encounter is seen as a potential minefield, every incoming query is interpreted not as a bid for information but as a test of competency, a personal attack, a scheme to undermine. “Why are you adding on your position?” – an uninitiated intern might innocuously and not without a reason ask  a trader whose position is losing money. “He’s questioning my expertise!” – an insecure trader will think to himself. “It’s a dynamic hedge, kid, go get me some coffee” – the trader will say aloud with the hope of putting the matter to rest by way of using industry jargon. With such entrenched mindset any retreat in any argument or discussion is out of the question, because that would require an acknowledgement of a flaw in one’s skillset or premise, and thus be damaging to the image of success. Search for rationalizations, excuses, assigning blame consume even more time and resources that could be spent productively.

When one has achieved some level of expertise and power, the same amount of effort as before fails to bring about the same results; the career trajectory that has been steep in the early years begins to flatten. Daily routine becomes an exercise of pushing against the ceiling: your success will fail to impress, and if you fail – all hell will break lose. To use industry lingo, their situation is becoming negatively convex, a limited upside/unlimited downside kind of scenario. Just look at Rogoff/Reinhart fiasco: if they haven’t made a mistake no one would have heard of them outside their skull and bones society (academia and a few politicians); one mistake – and that’s what they will be remembered for by the entire world for the rest of their careers. But for a driven and ambitious personality it’s tough to switch gears: he keeps doing what he’s always been doing but with no result, and unable to sense a shift in balance. That’s when apathy and resignation kick in; and bad but manageable position/situation deteriorates into a disaster.

But let’s now examine pockets of society where there are secure enough personalities. Those would include people capable of projecting realistic expectations for themselves: Lower class, illegal immigrants, athletes, most of retirees, sport handicappers. Good poker players are another subgroup of those with secure egos, “good” being a key word. The paragons of security are the ones who are not a part of a professional or academic group, everyone who is not employed in a high-pressure, high-pay (or both) environment. Those who do not belong to any exclusive club, any skull and bones society, those uninitiated are not burdened with the constant struggle to maintain good standing of membership, to prove one’s worth, to impress. The only person they have to impress is themselves.

Sir Richard Branson recently gave us all a demonstration of a cool secure personality: dressing in drag and serving passengers of a rival airline after losing a bet. Such ability to acknowledge and accept defeat and to move on is the foundation of a correct play. To harness such skill requires complete negation of self-importance. A guy at the poker table mindful of his appearance and protective of his image, constantly excusing and justifying his strategy to his table neighbors is a bad player. But beware of a 400-pound guy with body odors, receding hairline and a pony tail – he has long given up caring about what you think about him. Guys like him have nothing to prove and no one to impress. Those guys are paragons of security, of mental fortitude. They are there for the game and for the game only. Their only display of vanity is the size of the stack in front of them. By virtue of not giving a damn they free themselves from having to worry about what others think of their game. That’s coolness.

Perfect Chance for Democrats to blow a Congressional Seat.

For a long time I have been nursing a theory that that the political spectrum is not a straight line but a circle where extreme left and extreme right converge at some point. Imagine a circle where moderate center is at the top, traditional left is at -1 and traditional right is at +1 (or at 9:00 and 3:00 respectively) and then the extreme left and right converge at the bottom. What is the most common unifying issue that brings both extreme left and extreme right together? Alas, nothing original, anti-Semitism.

Next Tuesday Democrats in Brooklyn will vote in the primaries for one of the two candidates: Hakeem Jeffries and Charles Barron. Charles Barron is former Black Panther, a friend of Moammar Quaddafi and Robert Mugabe, who called Thomas Jefferson a “pedophile”, and who thinks that Israel is a “terrorist state”. Somehow he managed to get endorsement of the congressman whose seat is at play, Ed Towns. In addition to that endorsement he also received support from none other than David Duke, the Grand Wizard of Ku Klux Klan. My theory is being confirmed.

“In a race for Congress between an anti-Zionist black activist and a black activist who is a bought and paid for Zionist Uncle Tom, I’ll take the anti-Zionist any day,” Duke explains — the “Zionist Uncle Tom” being Barron’s opponent Hakeem Jeffries, the establishment favorite.

I am a progressive, a lefty, yes, but nothing pisses me off more than the liberal community’s unwarranted tendency to tolerate all sorts of fringe elements. How the hell can an anti-Semite pose a serious challenge to a mainstream candidate, in Brooklyn, of all places?
The right, of course, has been entirely consumed by the fringe elements, which can serve as an Exhibit A of what not to do. But we’re talking about the left now. Have you heard the ubiquitous joke about a liberal at a gun point, who’s trying to figure out why the thug is pointing a gun at him rather than shooting him back? Left with Balls would not bother with such rituals. And did I mention that Left with Balls supports gun rights? You fight force with force – there’s no other way, not today. Not a time to be a Gandhi. And that’s that.

Btw, it’s a safe bet that if Charles Barron wins, the seat will go Republican in November.

Macro View on Emerging Election Dynamics

Romney seems to have settled on the emerging theme of Obama being a “nice guy generally” but who is “in over his head”. This kind of positioning is supposedly meant to attract voters who like Obama personally but are unsure about his managerial abilities to run the country. What I think is really happening is that various conservative operatives have resigned to the idea that Romney is not going to excite new voters into voting. The scenario that they have assumed in their models is that Romney is a stiff, uninspiring, polenta candidate that simply has to appear on stage, wear a suit and say dull things. That’s all that is required of Romney now. The real job of winning an election will fall onto Right-leaning Super PACs, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and various political-minded billionaires.  And can we really expect them to spend their hundreds of millions of dollars on a lukewarm message that Obama is a nice guy who’s just not up to the task? I doubt it. There will be a tsunami of crazy shit coming Obama’s way the closer we get to the election.

I, of course, do not underestimate the power of slime. Just recall what happened to John Kerry in 2004. We have to expect more of the “Secret Muslim” and “Where’s the real Birth Certificate” lines of attacks to resurface again among other things. These ads, to be clear, will not be designed to make any new converts, they will be designed to rile up the paranoids to come and vote in droves. So for Republicans these sorts of ops are more of a Get out the Vote (GOTV) exercise rather than converting the undecideds.

I’m not entirely crazy about Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” message because this message is directed at the obstructionist Congress, not at Romney. Something along the lines “A fight for the Middle Class” would be more effective. Obama has to give equally compelling reasons for people to show up at the polling station. “Republican War on Workers” is a more gripping message. First, Obama is already accused of waging a class warfare, so he might as well reap the benefits by talking about decades of stagnating wages and growing inequality gap. Maybe that will bring him some votes from the white working class. Remember when was the last time a presidential candidate talked about growing inequality? Neither do I. And then we’re surprised that white working class is voting Republican every time! I think Republicans are really afraid of this kind of talk, because they have nothing to say against it but the re-recycled and tired message of “trickle-down economics”.

Obama is being accused of so many outlandish things right now that his hands are essentially untied. “If that’s what you think I am” – his campaign thinking should go – “then this is what I shall become”. It’s like buying a cheap bond that cashflows: the downside of the trade has already happened, there’s only the upside left. For instance, those who think that he will take their guns away will not change their minds when shown the facts: they will just think it’s some kind of conspiracy. How much more apoplectic and enraged can they become if Obama really does come and take their guns away?! (I do not advocate it, I merely illustrate the point). Right now those who think he’s not tough enough do not have a compelling reason to walk over to the voting booth, while the Ted Nugent crowd will crawl on broken glass to cast a vote against Obama. Pointing out that Republicans are crazy is useless – everybody knows that. Talking about what is Obama going to do about it – is what people want to hear. And this would involve saying things that will drive Republicans off their rails. This would involve some bare knuckle politics and some strong language. Politically speaking, the coming negative onslaught is a golden opportunity for Obama, a carte blanche; he should be seeking such a battle not avoiding it.

Ultimately the election will come down to GOTV, not converting the swing voters. Romney doesn’t have the skills and personality to do it, so the shadow political groups will do it for him by bringing their voters to the polls. Obama should do the same. The time to reason have passed a long time ago. The opposition is sufficiently nuts.  Now is the time to give people a reason to show up at the polls and vote for Obama. And if he does not fight back he deserves to lose.

The Guy Who Left Goldman Sachs

I don’t know much about Goldman personally, other than that article by Matt Taibbi and now the letter. All I know is when I was trying to short ABX (a mortgage-backed index) in early 2007 Goldman had absolutely the worst bids, meaning they didn’t want to take the other side of the trade. That spoke volumes. They had the same axe I did! More recently, at a party, a person who didn’t know that I knew he worked at Goldman said that he worked at “a hedge fund”. And it’s not like I asked.

But a few thoughts on the letter and on the reaction. Reading the reaction the first thing I thought was that even while on the buy side I didn’t have enough time to read anything unrelated to work, let alone comment on it. At Goldman, by nature of it being the sell side, I assume, people work even harder thus having no time for and no access to social sites. Which, using further deduction, means that people posting derogatory comments about the guy do not and have never worked at Goldman. And if they do now they are not Goldman material and should be fired.

Furthermore, some commenters are upset that he slammed the door on the company that nurtured him, others are upset that his epiphany came a little too late. Some say that he was a nobody, a low-level employee, but the others say that it’s nice to slam the door when you’ve got enough money to never have to work again. So which is it? He cannot be all of the above. Frankly, I don’t think that a VP, even at Goldman, even after 12 years has enough to retire. So kudos to him there.

On the other hand it’s hard to ignore the nature of his disappointment. Goldman is in the business of making money, not saving the world. The daily routine for an average Wall Street worker is dull and unrewarding but it pays well. Perhaps, with his skills he would be better suited working for World Bank or the UN. To be well paid and receive satisfaction from your job – well, that’s too much to ask for these days. It’s either or. But he wanted both.

I saw some of those “Muppets” at the industry conferences – guys from pension funds and German banks. It’s not an inaccurate description at all. They wanted yield and they didn’t care how they got it. So Goldman and other banks provided. KYC (know you client) they did. If they didn’t give the client what he wanted he would have gone to another dealer – an anathema to any banker worth his keep! And it wasn’t illegal, and those were qualified institutional investors! And if they weren’t – it wasn’t Goldman’s fault. I’m not defending Goldman at all, I’m just describing a part of the larger environment that got the snowball rolling. Inept investors with billions to invest, smart Goldman bankers – it’s like two naked people in bed – what do you think was gonna happen?

Wall Street, as described in detail in many of my earlier posts, is a close-knit community with us vs. them mentality. Even more pronounced at Goldman I would think. Everybody outside is a loser, a non-entity. Greg Smith is outside now. I understand that Goldman as a company is not pleased with whistleblower like him. But I don’t understand why laymen are angry at the guy. I think what he did is a good exercise of free will – leaving Goldman with a slam of the door. He may be mistaken about some things but he’s not without balls.

New Year Resolutions

“The way I learned it, the kid in the school yard who doesn’t want to fight always leaves with a black eye. If you indicate you’ll do anything to avoid trouble, that’s when you get trouble.” 50 Cent

As a rule, New Year’s resolutions are not directed at others but projected onto ourselves in an attempt to become better in the coming year.  Thus, I will indulge myself in some inward-looking (in a collective sense) narrative.

Perhaps you are already familiar with the idea that the Left in general, while having the best argument, is weak to defend it. In an attempt to find a cure to this ailment, I first had to identify the source of the disease, and I can’t find a better explanation than the desire of liberals to “be nice”. This image of the Left, as going to great lengths to “be nice” and not to offend anybody, morphs into justifiable belief that liberals can’t fight for their values.  “Being nice” manifests itself in many ways, including using reason when a show of force would be more effective, fighting for minor issues, like bike lane rights, when voting rights are being undermined in broad daylight, and taking offense at being called names while democracy is being undercut by unfair redistricting. Continue reading

Obama has to use the 14th Amendment.

Obama should invoke the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that states the following: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

 First of all it will force the party of “personal responsibility” to pay their debts. Let me remind you that the debt ceiling needs to be raised not to expand government spending in the future as our far right folks think, but to pay for bills that already have been incurred in the past, mostly by the same personally responsible, fiscally conservative party, like paying for wars, Bush’s tax cuts, and interest on the existing debt. (Obamacare has not kicked in yet, just so you know).

 Second, if someone will still question the legality of the move, he or she can take it to court. I can’t wait to see what sort of personal injury or loss of property they will claim to suffer from the event of NON-default. Well, I can imagine PIMCO folks or others who shorted Treasuries counting on default to have a monetary loss, but just picture them in front of US Supreme Court with this!

 Third, I don’t think the Tea Partiers in Congress understand the whole seriousness of the situation. They are looking at the default as if it’s a tool to use against Obama and not something that will hurt them or their constituents in the end. Politicians who engage in political posturing to placate their caucus is one thing, everyone does it, but Tea Party block are true believers – they really do want US to default, all be damned. “That’ll show’em!” – they think. They need to get some education from some wily lawyers who used to run the show in Congress, but who also know what a compromise is. When grandma or some average Joe investor or some contractor doesn’t get paid – who cares! But when Wall Street gets nervous and when Tea Party financial spigots are scratching their heads at a bunch of hillbillies they sent to Congress – that’s a wake-up call. When Wall Street feels like it won’t get paid – they will make sure their message gets through. And that’s where, with all my antipathy towards lawmakers, I would prefer crafty lawyers to uneducated hacks. The hacks that love the Constitution so much they want to amend it. The same hacks that love America so much they want her to default.

 And lastly, Bill Clinton says he would use this amendment “without hesitation” and “let them challenge me in court”. This alone would be enough for me!

Adults in the room

I always wondered at the ability of some, mostly on the right, to twist the meaning of words. Today the word is seriousness. John Boehner while abandoning the debt ceiling talks last night issued the following statement: “The White House is simply not serious about ending the spending binge that is destroying jobs and endangering our children’s future.”  Of course! Destroying jobs and endangering children. When you’re painted into a corner and ran out of meaningful words to say you resort to “The American people”, “Our childrens future”, “Taxing the job creators” and other platitudes. All that in addition to not returning President’s phone calls! Contrast that with what Obama said last night: The deal is extraordinarily fair, I’m taking heat from my own party for this, I have been left at the altar a couple of times, Can they say yes to anything? Obama is like a superintendent in a crumbling apartment complex, who is figuring out how to fix the plumbing, repair leaking roof, get new washer/dryer while Boehner spends his time spreading rumors that increasing the maintenance fee will hurt those living in the penthouse. He doesn’t tell them, however, that when the roof collapses there will be no penthouse! So who’s serious here?

I’m also a little puzzled by those who see what’s unraveling and take the position of “the pox on both of your houses”. Both of your houses?! Obama, in his attempt to make a deal has moved so far to the right that pissed of his base and even prompted calls from senator Bernie Sanders to “primary” him. That’s leadership! That’s putting country before politics. He knows that this might make him a one-term president, but he’s doing what’s right. And what did Boehner do? He can’t deliver his caucus to do anything, thus to save face, he shows us some theatrics by walking out. I cut him some slack and will not accuse him for genuinely NOT wanting to make a deal, it is possible he really might want to make it, I accuse him for not having a hold on his own people. (Funny, how this used to be a problem on the left, liberals are notorious for being difficult to take marching orders). Why would Obama want to negotiate with the leader who does not lead? It’s like playing poker with the guy who doesn’t have the cash to pay up at the end of the day. Boehner ultimately can not make a deal even if he wants to. Serious people come to the negotiations with the readiness to back up their words with actions. Unserious people just have a lot of things to say and a lot of excuses to give. Like children who get caught stealing a cookie. They’re sending a boy to do a man’s job. Unfortunately that’s what Republican party has become now – a party of capricious little boys, not serious adults.

Tea Partiers and the Constitution

Tea Parties have a strange love-hate relationship with the Constitution.

I think they have some sort of their own version of the Constitution, just like Conservatives have their own idealized version of the 1950s or Reagan or like any of us have our own idealized memories of childhood. Sober analysis would conclude that it’s not like times were better, but perhaps it was just that we were younger.

So I downloaded the full text of the Constitution in an attempt to see where do they get their talking points. To begin, I searched for the word “religion” in the text, given the recent demand by Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell, delivered with an air of knowing superiority during her debate, to know where in the Constitution there’s a separation of church and state. The word “religion” did come up once in the text. In the context of “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States”. Further, in the First Amendment, is the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”. I have to give her that – she really did believe that there’s a mention of God or Jesus in the Constitution, because she looked like a child who just found out that there’s no Santa Claus. When her opponent quoted the First amendment it was like an unpleasant revelation to her. I hope that the first thing she did after the debate is to go and check the text to see it with her own eyes.

Many Tea Parties, without fully knowing what the Constitution actually contains, nonetheless like to throw weighty words around, especially when asked a practical question, for example how to balance the budget. You will be hearing words like “tyranny”, “Founding Fathers”, “Constitution”, “God-given rights” without actually getting an answer to your question. In fact many conservatives like to mock liberals for deriving their rights from the Government. Liberals, those spineless fucks, you see, take the rights mercifully granted to them by the omnipotent Government while the steel-balled conservatives themselves insist that all rights are God-given. They conveniently forget that the enforcement of God-given rights is still the job of the dreadful Government. Rights have to be protected and even though I would love to carry a gun around all the time in case I need to dispute, say, a claim from my insurer, I hire a Government to do that for me. Sure, they mostly suck, they tax you, they grow corrupt with time, but the alternative is a do-it-yourself Wild West. Don’t get me wrong, I, of all people, would succeed in a kill-or-be-killed setting like this, but the point is why not hire somebody else to do the enforcement job for you, while you can engage in, say, some money making or world saving? Besides, every 2 or 4 years you have a recourse against the Government in form of election. It’s amusing to hear all those yells of “tyranny” and calls to “violent rebellion” from middle-aged middle class nearing retirement who, for way too long, had a boot of Socialism planted firmly on their necks! But no more! Down with Socialism!

Funny, how I always digress in my writings. I do like to rant though, if you haven’t noticed.

So anyway, a Tea Party rally would not be a Tea Party rally without some dude in a tricorner hat waving the copy of the Constitution. But now I wonder whether they just like the original document or all of those amendments that came afterwards. If they just like the original then they would have to admit that they would repeal the subsequent amendments, like giving women the right to vote or abolishing slavery or granting citizenship to persons who are born here. Some brave and honest tea parties, like Rand Paul, would repeal the 14th amendment, for example. At least he’s honest and I give him kudos for that. I only wish that he went all the way – calling for repeal of all of the amendments, instead of picking and choosing only the ones he likes. That’s where I have a problem with the tea partiers supposed love of the Constitution. They love it but they want it changed. They imagine things to be in the Constitution that are not actually there. They choose to ignore some inconvenient articles. This problem can be solved if they just write their own Tea Party version of the Constitution. Just to give you a few highlights: Abolish federal income tax (Sharon Angle); Establish the presence of Christian God in state affairs (Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin); Abolish Department of Education and a right to citizenship for those born here (Rand Paul). And wave this document instead – that will keep you honest.

After watching that Christine O’Donnell video I thought that it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. No matter how civil a society we’re bound to have citizens who have no idea what the Constitution is all about and have their own fantasies about what’s in it. But to have a public official who runs for office not to have a clue about one of the most important cornerstones of the current law, the establishment clause, is sad and even scary. It does not necessarily show her stupidity, although she’s pretty ignorant, unable to name even Roe v Wade – the mandatory pet peeve of any self-respecting conservative – as an example of Supreme Court decision she disagrees with (not because she agrees with it, but because she doesn’t know what the fuck that is!), it shows her inability to think. If she truly believed that government does not guarantee the separation of church and state, then what particular church does the government have in mind? And just to be on the safe side – to check with herself to make sure that she belongs to that particular brand of religion. Because, you know, she a Catholic after all, and Catholics used to be, shall we say, frowned upon, in the good ol’ days.

Don’t be a sucker

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

Sinclair Lewis

I’ve known this quote for quite a while but I always resisted using it in my blog, because I’d like to avoid using loaded words. But since the Right has bend the rules of the game so much that they have no shame comparing Obama to a Nazi – I had to come down from my high horse and get into dirty combat. I’m a small time crook. My profits are modest, my aspirations – laughable. Every day I have to coexist with a number of suckers and sometimes on a bad day when my guard is down I become a sucker myself. My poker winnings are in direct proportion to the number of fish at the table. My trading profits depend on the herd mentality of other players. I used to be upset when someone makes a stupid play and beat me with one-outer at the poker table or when everyone is buying when in my opinion they should be selling, but I got over it. Instead I learned to embrace it. Now I congratulate and cheer and encourage stupid behavior among my fellow players. I make sure to say ‘Nice hand’ or ‘Well done’ to a sucker to promote incorrect play. Why fight it if you can take advantage of it?

Continue reading