Happy New Year!

I want to wish everyone who reads this blog a very Happy New Year!

Also, I’d like to speculate about what the new year might bring in areas that I follow closely: politics and economics.

If the fiscal deal is not reached tonight (and it increasingly looks like it won’t be), we will begin the 2013 with Democrats in congress and Obama pushing for the middle-class tax cut. Republicans will grudgingly, and after some mandatory posturing and howling, accept it. The bigger wave on the horizon is the impending debt ceiling which will have to be raised somewhere in February. Unless debt ceiling is somehow dealt with during the tax cuts negotiations that will happen in January, we can have a repeat of August 2011 debacle. And Republicans will have the upper hand again, because as they have demonstrated earlier, nothing indicates their love of the country better than the willingness to hold it hostage to placate the far-right constituents in their home districts. If I were Obama I would deal with it now, while I have a better hand and can force some consessions. But there’s a silver lining here too – those who are looking to buy some stocks will be well advised to wait till Feb or March when the markets will dip during the certain debt ceiling debacle.

Here, I must say that I have been 70-80% long stocks for the last 3 years. It’s been a rollercoaster, but I held on during the 2010 flash crash and 2011 debt ceiling sell-off, notwithstanding several other, smaller dips. My strategy is not fancy, but rather straightforward,  and it worked for me during the past years and it will work for me again in 2013. In a nutshell, the reason why I’m long stocks is because of the deleveraging (a process where everyone pays off their debts and stores cash on their balance sheets) and low yields in pretty much all asset classes out there. In plain English that means financial institutions are sitting on  hundreds of billions of cash and have nowhere to put it. Bonds across the board (corporate, mortgage, Treasuries) have rallied so much that they earn zilch now. So stocks look more and more attractive to invest in. It’s riskier than bonds, but at some point (especially when the market dips again during the inevitable debt ceiling clusterfuck) many fund managers, pressed by their clients to deliver yield, will be forced to buy equities. Another powerful force that is behind my back on this strategy is Ben Bernanke who will stay as Fed Chairman through 2014 and will keep the rates low as he has been doing for years. Low rates are bullish for stocks.

I hope Wall Street will stop fighting the Obama administration and will come to terms with the new normal. The business model and the payoffs of the 2003-2007 era was an aberration and Wall Street handicappers, if they are as smart as they claim, should come to this realization.  

And as always, I wish Obama and the Democrats would learn to play the hand they’ve been dealt forcefully. Here’s a great poker parallel about the way Obama plays his hand now: “The negotiating style Obama has displayed in these instances is what poker players call “tight-weak.” A tight-strong player avoids throwing in his chips, saving them for a big hand, which he plays aggressively in hopes of a huge win. A loose-weak player plays lots of hands, bluffing frequently. Tight-weak is the worst of all worlds — when you have a weak hand, you lose, and when you have a strong hand, you fail to maximize your position.

Happy New Year!

Conservatism reduction to the absurd.

One can feel sorry for Boehner: he tried to strengthen, if only from the PR perspective, the Republican position pre-fiscal cliff, only to be humiliated by his own crazies.

Boehner introduced a Plan B to Congress that included tax cuts for those making under $1mln a year. The plan was simple – to pass it with the partisan vote of 218 Republicans, so that bill would act as a fallback position/some leverage to present to the public when the fiscal cliff happens on January 1st. Of course, everyone, including Boehner, knew that this bill has no chance of passing Senate and being signed by Obama; the whole purpose of this bill was to show the public: “See? We also have a plan! That cuts taxes for 99.8%! But Democrats refuse to cooperate!”  The passage would at least somehow give the Republicans a piece of legislation to wave in front of critics and to give the public, who doesn’t have time for details, the impression that something is being done. Well, they failed even at that due to the crazy wing, for whom to raise taxes on millionaires is anathema and for whom having even slightly better PR position is worse than maintaining their ideological purity. Plan B failed to pass the House.

Which only clears the way for Obama to let the “cliff” proceed. Come January and accompanying spending cuts and increased taxes, both sides will be ready to do something about it for real. Obama will introduce a tax cutting bill, goes across the country to promote “tax cuts and recovery” theme, dares Republicans not to pass it, they grudgingly acquiesce, and Obama and the Democrats will become known as tax cutters and the promoters of economic growth.

Obama has already chipped away at the traditionally Republican domain of  strong foreigh policy by killing Bin Laden. Now he’s trespassing into the holiest of the holy of the Conservatism – fiscal responsibility. He leaves them no ground to stand on. What do they have left? What do current conservatives stand for? Obama smartly touches everything that they hold dear and they begin to despise the very positions that they previously held simply because they view them as contaminated. But all Obama does is govern as a center-right politician and that drives them nuts, because Obama is not supposed to be that. He’s supposed to be a caricature that they have internalized.

I do feel sorry for conservatives. Traditional conservatives used to have very good ideas that I find compelling: fiscal responsibility; personal responsibility; foreign policy restraint; right to privacy; respect for social contract and social cohesion, patriotism. But now they seem to have been reduced to the absurd with their unyielding zeal: fiscal responsibility means holding the country they allegedly love hostage; personal responisbility means you’re on your own even if you did everything right; foreign policy means calling for sending troops to every conflict worldwide; right to privacy does not include the right to reproductive privacy; social contract means worshipping the rich as “job creators”, and patriotism took a form of jingoism.

Current political disagreements are not between left and right, not between liberal and conservative. It’s between practical and ideological, reasonable and absurd. If it is Obama who will save the conservatism from its impostors, so be it.

Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

A great long read here about what’s going on between Obama and Republicans in Congress during fiscal cliff negotiations. Here’s my summary:

Obama slammed his offer on the table and he wasn’t shy about it: $1.6trln of tax increases and $400bn of entitlement cuts. Considering that during debt ceiling talks in the summer of 2011 he almost had to beg Boehner for $800bn of tax increases and still didn’t get it, it’s a rather bold but totally justified move. The interesting part here, however, is the way Republicans approach that $400bn cuts in entitlements – which I have to remind you is what they badly wanted: they insist on Obama giving them details on specific programs to be cut. This is hilarious! The dialogue would go somewhat like this:

Republicans (badly wanting those cuts) to Obama: “So, show us what you would cut.”

Obama (incredulously): “Guys, you wanted it – you pick what to cut.”

Republicans: “No, you first”

Obama: “Wtf, you guys? Have you never bought a car before? Why should I negotiate with myself? You want it – you show me a bid.”

The reason that Republicans are unable to come up with specifics about what programs they want to cut is that those programs directly benefit middle class taxpayers: they include employer sponsored health insurance, 401(K) and pension plans, earned income tax credit and mortgage interest deduction. That’s why they want Obama to make the first move. And these are the guys who wanted to show us all how to run a country?!

Btw, here’s the CBO chart of the contributing factors for  US national debt just to give you a perspective:

contributors to public debt

Nate Silver should be named Time’s person of the year.

Are you surprised that Republicans are surprised they lost? If you were following the polls guru Nate Silver’s blog fivethirtyeight.com you would be.

It’s not that I was certain Obama would win. But reading Nate Silver’s estimates before the elections gave me odds to be cautiosly optimistic. The day before the election I estimated the chance of Obama winning (based on Nate’s 91%) like being all in with pocket kings pre flop. You’re in good shape and this is the position you want to be against a single opponent, but that doesn’t mean Romney can’t flop an ace. So Romney’s entire electoral calcualtion was based on flopping that ace, but they acted as if they have already won. I find such baseless certitude stunning.

But it’s not like they didn’t have their own models. Because reality has a well-known liberal bias, Republicans have retreated into their own world where their polls showed that they were leading Obama by 6-7 point margins. They called it “unskewed polls”.

“Unskewed polls” is an entirely new phenomenon that didn’t exist during any of the previous elections. 4 years of Obama presidency really did something to the minds of the right-wing bubble occupants that they have severed any and all connections to reality that they still possessed in some form prior to 2008. Unskewed polls is a way one conservative blogger (www.unskewedpolls.com) dissected the “biased”, in his opinion, national and battleground polls conducted by professional polling firms. What he did in his “unskewing” is even out the proportion of Republicans and Democrats in the polls to bring it to more “fair” ratio. For instance, most of the polls had more registered Democrats than Republicans, simply due to the fact that there are more registered Ds than Rs, it’s a reflection of the population as a whole. He wasn’t satisfied with this weighing as he considered it biased against the Republicans. So in his unskewing he brought the ratio to about even. Of course, if Romney and Obama were tied in official national polls and the sample in question had 44% Ds and 37% Rs, then, after he brings it to 37/37 in his own recalibration, Romney would lead Obama by 6 or 7 points. These are the polls that had Republicans believing, nay, knowing, that they were going to win. How else would you explain the fact that the fireworks were on stand-by near Romney headquarters in Boston and that Romney didn’t even write a version of a concession speech? He knew he was winning! It’s stunning that no one, NO ONE in his campaign had raised any doubts about the overly positive numbers. Looks like the entire campaign was only pleased to be blissfully unaware about the true state of the race, and incapable of dealing with bad news or with reality. That pre-election certitude based on make belief numbers explains the state of shock both in conservative media world and Romney’s campaign headquarters when results rolled in.

By contrast, Obama campaign has always, even when they were ahead in the polls, assumed that they were 10 points behind. I heard it from many folks in the Obama headquarters.

But back to Nate Silver.

It is rare that in our lives, and especially in our politics, one side admits to being wrong. It just never happens, because when you’re not dealing with hard sciences like math and physics, there are always ways to spin the results. Not now. Nate Silver got the Electoral Vote count 100% correct! What’s more he got his detractors to apologize and to admit that they were wrong. They even apoligized for calling Nate Silver names. This is the ultimate revenge of the nerd!

Why I think this is important, and why I think Nate Silver has to receive even more recognition is because I’d like our public, that has gotten used to base their decisions on “gut feeling” and on emotions, to reassess the nature of their decision making. We really need them to come back to reality and reason, rather than immerse in baseless hysteria cultivated by talking heads. Nate showed them how to do it – with numbers. It’s a simple skill that, for some reason, has been discarded, especially on the right, in favor of wishful thinking. In their opinion Obama simply could not win due to a number of unquantifiable factors, like energised conservative base and impossibility of a reelection of a Muslim Socialist! That was a big part of their model. The other part was cooked numbers – an especially delicious part of their delusion as they were only happy to fool themselves.

All of this makes Nate’s win unique. His is a clean victory, and the one that is acknowledged by both sides. It also is a win for a common sense over heated rhetoric. It must be brought back into our national discourse.

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.

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 – a star in conservative cartoons.

Many conservatives like to create a caricature of a liberal in their heads and blogs and then proceed to successfully assassinate that made up character. They imagine liberals as weak-minded hippies who don’t know math and want everyone to drive Prius and eat vegetables at best, and who’re lazy, unemployed parasites who demand handouts at worst. That’s why it’s so upsetting for the conservatives when the exemplary members of our society, self-made true capitalists like Warren Buffett as a recent example, come out and disprove their case. There was no shortage of right-wing hacks trying to point out to Buffett why being socially responsible is an abhorrent human trait! It is customary for one to ascribe negative qualities to a person he already doesn’t like, to project qualities that subject loathes and the object doesn’t possess. That’s the case between conservatives and Obama – they award him qualities he doesn’t have and then hate him for it.

The fact is that Obama is center, even center-right. But nothing can placate the right, even if Obama brings Reagan from the dead on national TV, cuts all the taxes and drowns the government in the tub. They see an untrustworthy black man, burdened, in their imagination, with centuries old generational grievances that he wants to redress at the expense of a white man, thus they look at him, watch his every move and find evidence that he is the man that they have drawn in their minds. It reminds me of deeply religious people seeing Jesus face or Virgin Mary in inanimate objects like toasts and rocks. They see it because they want to see it. Except in Obama they see a socialist dictator or a petty criminal depending on the depth of one’s imagination.

Many believe first and foremost that Obama is going to take their hard-earned money away from them by raising taxes. Jokes about being robbed by Obama as a thuggish black man are abound. Oh, how I wish sometimes that he was indeed from the ghetto! Here mine and the Right’s wishes converge at last. They would thus get confirmation of their theories and someone who fits their narrative; and I and the lefties would get someone who punches back at them.

He won as a liberal but governs as a moderate Republican, but to acknowledge that for the Conservatives is harder than to cut off their arm. Careers have been built on hating Obama. Even Reagan raised taxes at some point but Obama went out of his way not to, where does that put him – to the right of Reagan? It is offensive for conservative to even think such thoughts. He’s supposed to be tax and spend liberal, he has to be, otherwise the case that was carefully being built against him for the last 3 years should be tossed! So they pile on.

Obama is a human receptacle of some sorts, a blessing for conservatives on whom they can project their darkest human qualities. That’s why there’s no lack of conservatives rushing, elbowing each other to the microphone or the TV screen to insult Obama in the most innovative and creative ways and high-fiving each other for daring and originality. Bashing Obama has become a crowded trade, a bubble even, to use market terms. He is a gift, he’s that vagabond black man passing through the town on whom all the unsolved murders can be pinned by a local police chief. If only Obama’s coke dealer or an intern under the table were found to complete the picture – imagine such luck!

Republican Congressman Joe Wilson infamously cried “Liar” at Obama when the latter said that no illegal immigrants will be covered in the health bill. And the facts confirm it. But that would mean that Obama does not wantonly spend taxpayers’ dollars on illegal immigrants – a notion that belies the entire carefully built narrative around Obama’s personality. He stubbornly fails to be reckless and hasty with other people’s money. To once and for all quell the issue of what taxes Obama raised  here\’s Heritage foundation’s page (a right-wing enclave, so that there’s no accusations of liberal bias) with list of taxes that he did raise (the best they could find was cigarette tax and tanning salon tax, proceeds of which go to children’s health insurance programs. Clearly a path to socialism!). Obama never has raised any income taxes, which are the taxes conservatives have in mind every time they talk about them.

I fault Obama for not shifting the tax debate on our turf. We’re not demanding the conservatives to show how trickle-down economics and lower taxes benefit the economy. The income tax rate is the lowest in decades, but all this time it’s been a downhill for the middle class. The argument that lower taxes make businesses hire people doesn’t stand a simple test: the corporations are awash with cash right now and they continue to lay people off.

Having this discussion would be such a winning issue for the Democrats and yet they reduced themselves to placating the anti-tax Republicans and teapartiers by demonstrating that Obama is really a fiscal conservative. What do they expect conservatives faced with evidence to say – “Oh, ok then!”? We’re at the point where it is taboo to even talk about tax increases. Grover Norquist may not have succeeded yet in reducing the government to a bathtub size, but he succeeded in shaping the debate we’re having now. Obama is unable to govern as a Democrat. That’s his tragedy.