Democrats with Balls.

I see a pattern emerging. The only Democrats who have the balls to stand up to the toxic right-wing onslaught are black! Both Kamala Harris, a senator from CA, and Cory Booker from NJ, both African Americans, had the balls to question SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh in an unconventional, rule-breaking manner. Cory Booker released the documents that, under the current Senate rules, were forbidden to become public, and when confronted about it by a GOP Senator he simply said: “Bring it!” This is a much-needed adrenaline shot in the arm for Democrats starved for a combative and forceful representation. GOP have been flouting accepted rules and norms for decades, most recently by refusing a hearing for Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland. But neither Schumer, not other old time Dems in the Senate could bring themselves to play the same hardball as McConnell and the GOP have been playing. Not until now.

But, yes, once again it falls on the black shoulders to save our white asses and democracy, just like the church-going black ladies in Alabama (Alabama!) that have delivered a Democrat to the Senate a year ago. I thought about the reasons for that and again I see a pattern at work.

Blacks have a well-developed bullshit radar. They don’t buy gold coins and healing crystals. Can you think of any blacks participating in any sort of New Age movements or picture them buying Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina eggs? Furthermore, there are no black serial killers and mass shooters, which demonstrates their maturity in dealing with personal frustrations, even though they have many reasons to be bitter about life. A black man learns very early not to give a benefit of the doubt to a landlord, or a police officer, or a judge and that healthy skepticism guides his reality-based worldview. This well-developed bullshit detector and a mature disposition to daily slights are the conditions that precipitate the growth and hardening of a spine.

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This tough, grounded in reality mental foundation, a result of hardship and endless experience of injustice, helped blacks develop or intuit the definition of right and wrong. Where whites have learned to equivocate, to argue both sides of an issue, so as to ingratiate themselves with the power, a black, like Eddie Murphy in ‘Trading Places’, will discern the fact of the matter, pompously delivered by a white guy, in a snap, distilling it to a simple truth: “Oh, you guys are a couple of bookies.” It takes a black guy to state that there’s no elaborate conspiracy or a convoluted scheme behind a simple human greed. (Which also might explain the blacks’ immunity to conspiracy theories. The whites have been fleecing blacks in broad daylight for generations. What’s conspiratorial about it?) It takes a Cory Booker to release crucial documents of a SCOTUS nominee to the public, despite the abstruse procedural hurdles quickly conjured up by the GOP. It takes a Kamala Harris to ask the nominee pointed questions that would be seen as too, uh, unbefitting and ungentlemanly, by the procedural Schumer.

Hope at least one of them will end up on the 2020 ticket.

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My 2008 Trading Journal.

Trading journal 2008

I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since Lehman collapse. The one thing that is usually lost in the conversation about 2008 is that it was all over before 2008. The time to be short was 2007, before the term ‘subprime’ made it into the mainstream conversation.

Looking back it’s easy to say we saw what was coming. Our desk was mainly short throughout the entire 2007 and parts of 2008, and even though we were overall bearish, none of us could have estimated the scale of what’s to come. No bear, no matter how prescient, could have foreseen the magnitude of the carnage. We thought that no matter how bad it is, it was going to be contained within our market. What lack of imagination! One can have the wrong trade on; one can have the right trade on; and then one can have the right trade on without even knowing why he’s right. I thought I was right because I saw shitty collateral and overleverage. Turns out I was right because I underestimated the indolence and infantilism and cynicism of people at the top. I thought they were buying residual pieces for yield. Turns out they were buying those pieces to squeeze a few remaining points from the already dying beast, to keep the game rolling on fumes just for a few more months.

To build the logical chain of events that could unfold, the upcoming avalanche from layers upon layers of leverage and stupidity and short-term self-interest, that would require more than a Math PhD or an MBA. In fact, the logic itself was a flawed tool of assessment under those circumstances. A student of human frailty and irrationality, a philosopher was needed then. But philosophy was in short supply on the trading floors.

But back then I, and everybody else were immersed in the minutia of hourly quotes and moves on Bloomberg screen. That was my world and nothing existed outside of it. Check out a few pages of my  journal. You’ll see daily, hourly oscillations between feeling important and useless. You’ll find glee interchanged with despair; exhilaration followed by frustration and self-hatred. I was killed and resurrected several times over the course of the day. Surviving the vicious vagaries of market mistakenly lead you to award yourself some super powers, some kind of Heart of Darkness-style battle weariness – a mental compensation for a pathetic indoor life of spreadsheets and numbers and fluorescent air-conditioned offices.

The irony is that we thought we knew everything about the world. The idea was that those who can’t define what a CDS is should not render their opinion, simply because they don’t know what’s going on. That feeling of omniscience and superiority was borne out of proximity to and usage of obscure tools and familiarity with indecipherable terms that could have enormous impact on any aspect of a layman’s life. Stepping out from the office onto the busy New York street, I always looked at those unsuspecting pedestrians with pity and wondered how can they go about their business without knowing what was coming? If only they knew that bid-offers that were ticks apart yesterday were points apart today! Do you even know what that means?! We thought that in our exclusive corners, with mechanisms that set the whole world in motion we were modern day bond vigilantes. Bond vigilantes! We were weeks away from coming hat in hand to politicians who couldn’t even understand what the fuck we were talking about.

And in the end, we fucked it all up. And the little guy, as always, was left to foot the bill.

On Beauty, the Good, and the Value of Abstract Thought.

Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?

While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.

We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.

Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition.  We know it when we see it.

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Apollo

I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.

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Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?

This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.

The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.

One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.

This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.

Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.

We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’

A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?

Democrats Can’t Run on Immigration.

According to fivethirtyeight Trump’s biggest gap in approval/disapproval (-20 points) happened when GOP was trying to repeal Obamacare and when they were passing tax cut bill (July and Dec of 2017). His most narrow gap (under minus 10 points) happened during the whole immigration debacle. (I’m pretty sure it was a brainchild of a couple of guys named Steve). You see a pattern here? Immigration in the news plays into their hands; Healthcare and tax cuts going to 1% is what can bring people to the polls.

Add the issue of corruption to the mix, as it has been gaining traction with voters, and you have a winning formula.

 

Quiet Hardball vs Loud Weakball.

Here’s the news you won’t hear about, but the one that shapes our laws in discreet but powerful ways. The other day California legislature have ceded to Big Soda companies’ campaign to ban soda tax in the state until 2031. You might wonder how did it happen in California, of all places? This is how: because of CA ballot initiative system. A proponent of an idea, no matter how outlandish, can collect signatures to put any issue on the ballot in November. Many interests groups (especially conservative and business) use this tool to gain leverage over the local legislature by threatening to put an idea, tailored in such a way that it has a pretty good chance of passing, on the ballot and then use it as a cudgel to hammer concessions from the legislators.  They also have an option to then withdraw this initiative, if their demands were met in the legislature. Which is what happened with the soda tax: The beverage lobby ‘proposed’ to limit all new taxes and tax increases in the state to two-thirds, knowing full well that when people, even liberal Californians, see something like this on the ballot they will check ‘yes’ box. It’s the equivalent of Democrats in a red state, putting a ballot initiative that proposes to give everyone free Medicare coverage in that state – the implication being that it has such a high chance of passing that the local GOP legislature will be hard-pressed to cede to whatever Democrats demand. This is what happened in CA except it was the business lobby that forced the Democrats to bend to their will.

This is what Democrats lack: a killer instinct, the readiness to play dirty, to play hardball. And it doesn’t have to be illegal: all of the tools used by business lobby above are perfectly legal. They exploit local ballot dynamics to their advantage.

Also, if Democrats play this kind of hardball, it will be hard for the other side to accuse them of incivility (not that it matters at this point). This kind of hardball is played by men and women in suits in air-conditioned offices. It is not TV friendly, which is how they (and us, if we knew how to play it) want it. There’s no cinematic value in filing paperwork, but it delivers the results. Plus, nobody really knows about it. Quiet hardball.

I saw a meme today, a graph showing how many Democrats vs Republicans were either convicted or indicted while in office. In short, it’s not even close: GOP is a party of habitual criminals. I guess the point of the meme was to show how much more honest the Democrats are while in public service. But I read this meme in a different way: it shows how ruthless, how driven, and charged the GOP is, how they possess the sense of urgency when it comes to politics (not policy, politics!), that even if they cross a few lines it’s all worth it in the end. If so many of them are caught, think of how many of them were not and never will be. They are not deterred by the law, by the possibility of jail, where we, Democrats, still playing ‘civility’. Except Maxine Waters, she understands it.

SCOTUS Retirement and Its Implications.

Well, we’re fucked. Now that I got it out of the way, I see three possible scenarios with regard to new SCOTUS and Roe vs Wade. One, unlikely, is that the new appointee will be a copy of Kennedy on social issues. It’s unlikely because Trump and those who will whisper SCOTUS candidates’ names to him take special pleasure in inflicting pain to liberals. They’ll make sure that what we get is going to be in the mold of Clarence Thomas, which is the second, more likely possibility. He (or she) could promptly vote to outright overturn Roe vs Wade (which will then throw the issue back to the states, many of which will immediately outlaw all abortions). But there’s a third possibility.  John Roberts is not stupid. He realizes that overturning this particular decision would, aside from breaking the previous precedents (namely Planned Parenthood vs Casey), would also cement his legacy. Is this the kind of case he wants to be remembered for? Does he want to be responsible for creating a winning issue for Democrats to run on for decades? So what is more likely to happen is that the court will continue to chip at reproductive rights by imposing all kinds of restrictions on women, doctors and facilities – a proverbial slow boil. RvW will stand, but will be hollowed out. I think this last possibility is the most likely. Still, I would not underestimate Trump’s and pro-life forces’ desire to stick it to the libs. And in some twisted way, I say, bring it on. Remember the circumstances under which California turned solid blue? Proposition 187 – a ballot initiative that got passed, but then proved unconstitutional. True, Trump administration is incapable of considering second order (let alone third order) effects of their actions. But SCOTUS, and John Roberts in particular can. Are they prepared to have their name on mobilizing Democrats for a generation?

And final observation. Trump voters are drunk with power, they’re agitated with possibilities. They are high on expectations. Evangelicals had to put up with a lot, and dog whistles won’t do anymore. They want red meat. The effete, urban tax cut crowd (the larry kudlows, the ivankas, the peter thiels, you know the type) thought that with Trump they were getting buffet-style, pick-and-choose policies that are good for business. They thought that no one was really serious about all that abortion stuff. Well, not this time, fuckers. This time you getting a full menu. FULL FUCKING MENU.

Lol, Nothing Matters.

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First Lady Melania, while visiting a refugee center in Texas today, wore a jacket with the message ‘I don’t really care. Do you?’ written on its back. This fashion statement is really the culmination of ‘Lol, nothing matters’ type of public discourse. Today, it’s uncool to care. It’s as if the punk culture made it into mainstream and has then been hijacked and wielded by public servants. Those of us who do care – about conduct and norms and just basic human decency – are routinely mocked. That is, attempts of public to be citizens (and not workers/consumers) are mocked and ridiculed. Culturally, the virtuous are those who just shut up and go shopping and do brunch and pretend to ‘stay above’ the mud-wrestling below. Well, only dust floats above the battlefield.

“Lol, nothing matters” is an especially widespread sentiment in Russian community. It’s this strain of cultivated nihilism that we all saw living there, now made its way across the ocean. It’s this attitude that there’s no right and wrong, good and bad, that everyone is corrupt and that you can’t trust anybody. And if this is the case, then why not simply resign from public life? Why not bury yourself in work or pleasure? Which Russian among us hasn’t heard a phrase: A tebe eto nado? (Do you really need this?) from a friend or a colleague, as if the next trip to Italy or to a Michelin restaurant or Bergdorf Goodman will somehow cure that nagging but ungraspable disquietude.

‘Is shopping, and eating, and traveling not life?’ someone would ask. Tolstoy, in his treatise ‘On Life’ called these activities ‘senseless agitation’ – distractions with which we try to fill our lives so as to avoid thinking, to avoid having to define right and wrong, good and bad, and as a result, to avoid caring.

“Tunnelling through mountains, voyaging round the world, electricity, the microscope, the telephone, war, parliament, philanthropy, the strife of parties, universities, learned societies, museums – are not all these life?

All the feverish complicated activity of men with their trade, their wars, their ways of communication, their science, their art, is for the greater part nothing more than the senseless agitation of the crowd struggling on the threshold of life.”

Caring about a matter, in this case a public matter, puts you into an unenviable position of having to defend it from people who refuse to take a stand, as if that refusal gives them some kind of ‘above-it-all’ wisdom. But ‘Lol, nothing matters’ position is a comfortable spot, sort of like a financial talking head who always has an opinion on market but doesn’t have, well, a position, in the market.

But then again, when did Trump or his entire cabinet, ever took a position or held an opinion that lasted for at least a few days? Or when was he ever held accountable by his base for doing a 180? Lol, nothing matters. Suck it libs!