Quick Notes on Election and Post-Election

Even though the results trickle down slowly, it does turn out to be a wave. Democrats are on track to win more House seats than they did in the wave of 2006. In the Senate Democrats faced an extremely tough map, having to defend 26 seats (and Republicans defending only 9). That they only lost 2 seats in such an unfavorable setting is indicative of electoral strength, not weakness. Still, anything can happen with the remaining seats in FL and MS. Remember last year in Alabama?

Happy to say that both of the candidates for whom I canvassed (Mike Levin in CA-49 running for Darrell Issa’s seat, and Jacky Rosen running for Senate in Nevada) won.

Given the above numbers I’m really puzzled with the proliferation of post-election articles arguing about Democratic weakness going into 2020. More people voted in these midterms (estimated 113 mln) than did in any midterms in the last 50 years, signaling a strong public engagement and dissatisfaction with status quo. With 47 seats Dems will have to flip 4 seats (assuming Trump wins reelection) and only 3 seats if Trump loses. Republicans will be defending 22 seats, many of them in blue states. Primary targets will be ME (Susan Collins) and CO (Cory Gardner), plus possible pick ups in NC and IA. Totally doable.

A favorite of the ‘Dems in disarray’ genre is ‘Hillary is running again’ trope. I’d like to address this one specifically. Hillary is not going to run. People who write such articles are either acting on their own wishful thinking or simply getting paid to write it. Sure, it would be fun to have Hillary run again so that they can throw mud at her and talk about ‘locking her up.’ The problem with this is that Hillary is not that dumb and/or power-hungry and conniving as the right-wing would like her to be. Hillary haters spent decades making a caricature out of her with such zeal that they ended up believing their own bullshit. They pictured her as power-hungry, thus they concluded that it is impossible for her to let go. But the truth is, Hillary is not stupid and not as power hungry. She’s able to recognize what her name and presence entails in the modern political discourse. She knows that the only contingent out there that genuinely wants her to run is Breitbart and Infowars crowd. She won’t indulge them. Nice try though.

 

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The Grand Inquisitor, the Strong, and the Weak.

The dilemma raised in the Grand Inquisitor passage of Brothers Karamazov can be summed up as such: Can people come to ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ on their own, without being prodded either by whip or by carrot, or, in Dostoyevsky’s words, by authority or by bread? Can they be good without witnessing miracles or submitting to an authority?

This is a monumental ask. An average working man can barely take care of himself. We see weak, scared people around us everywhere. How can we ask of them to reject their simple, undemanding comforts to take care of a stranger or mind some higher ideals? Such a demand, Grand Inquisitor argues, should be made only of a strong person, the one who understands and can handle that understanding both physically and mentally. It’s not easy to do, even for the strong. Grand Inquisitor is a strong person but not in a sense that he can bend the weaker people to his will (although he can certainly do it through the authority vested in him). His strength rests in recognition that such weakness exists in most people (rather than pretending, like libertarians, that it doesn’t), reconciling with it and availing himself to do the dirty, ungrateful job himself: being a guide to the weak, depraved and scared of freedom masses, to provide them security and happiness in exchange for freedom.

Happiness in this context is different from the way we view happiness. In Grand Inquisitor’s world human happiness is an abdication of responsibility, of having to make tough decisions. It is a faculty that is better relegated to the figure of authority. And really, we know many people who have handed over that capacity (to be happy) to others.

In his own way, Grand Inquisitor is right: he views his job as a burden that he has to carry in order to relieve the unwashed masses from having to think and take responsibilities – attributes (or side effects) that come with freedom. He saves the weak from having to live in freedom, which they, as he demonstrated to Jesus, can’t handle on their own. But Jesus is also right: What good is ‘goodness’ if it is mandated or ordered by an authority? What if people only love their brother out of fear of a vengeful deity in the afterlife or a state/church authority in this life? Can people be good on their own free will? Jesus, by refusing to show miracles or wield authority, deliberately erred on the side of a free choice or free will of anyone to come to the conclusion that we’re all brothers and we have to love each other.

Is Jesus then the voice of the strong few and Grand Inquisitor – the voice of the weak many? This conclusion would flatter those who think of themselves as strong. Not only do they find themselves on top of the worldly hierarchy, they are also invited to think of themselves as doing God’s work.

But if you’re also a thinking person, the implications of the Grand Inquisitor/Jesus metaphor are so horrendous, so bone-chilling and so threatening to your daily way of life that, upon understanding the core of this argument (that if you choose to be free you essentially become an outcast), the only sensible course of action is to forget you ever read this and retreat back into the world of busyiness and daily errands. And that’s what billions of us do. Career, family, sports, TV shows, travel, weekend BBQ. Proving Dostoyevsky right yet again: that we’re the feeble-minded creatures of routine, that we’re indeed the weak who, when given a choice, prefer Grand Inquisitor’s world order to Jesus’s.

This sticky psychological residue, this constant cosmic and public directive to be ‘doing something’ haunts me from time to time to this day. It’s impossible to shed it completely, as I’m a product of my time and our contemporary values, which I’ve diligently internalized and excelled at for decades.

I remember how disdainful I was towards the what I considered ‘rabble’ during my subway commute to and from work. I understand now that my short tolerance for the riff-raff was borne out of my own misery, although I would deride anyone who would’ve pointed that out to me at the time. Of course, I considered myself strong, because of the shit I had to deal with on the trading desk, the kind of shit the unwashed couldn’t even come close to comprehending. My definition of ‘strength’ was itself faulty. I equated it with my social position and the efforts I undertook to get there.

But, in Jesus’s terms, strength is a mental preparedness for a life of obscurity and nothingness. This preparedness is what frees you from the toxic treadmill. It’s the ability to say ‘fuck it’ and disappear into the woods or into the desert. It’s very hard to do. Smart, driven but weak people, like for example hedge funders and tech bros, understand it, if only subconsciously, when they accumulate real estate in Vermont or in New Zealand, hoping to, one day, enjoy the serene beauty and solitude after years on the battlefield. Of course that day never comes because, according to our modern day ethos, abandonment of the game is an admission of defeat, an anathema. Fear to appear weak is a driving force behind ambition and is a definition of weakness. The entire Trump administration reeks of that fear.

The strong among us are those who are not afraid to be labeled losers. It’s those few who either abandoned the conventional rat race or were never part of it to begin with. It takes either balls or total insanity to do it. Jon Stewart, who left his successful and beloved show to tend a rescue animals farm. Crazy cat ladies. Priests – genuine kind, not the pedophiles and the pseudo pious (Pharisees). The social workers. The hermits. Artists who create art for art’s sake. Everyone who’s involved in an activity that would get a condescending giggle from a run-of-the-mill New York cocktail party crowd.

Is it possible to be strong and stay in the game? Yes, if you do it for others. This way you become a Grand Inquisitor.

 

On Canvassing.

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I’m an introvert and I like to be alone. I generally dislike talking to strangers. Canvassing the votes, which is really just going door to door in a neighborhood, seemed like a terrifying idea at first. What if they want to get into the intricacies of Obamacare? (I first started doing it in 2012). What if I don’t know enough about the candidate to answer their question? What if they think I’m a Jehovah’s witness? People are suspicious of any sort of unsolicited street enthusiasm, and expect to be sold a bag of goods. They open the door, cautiously, and there I stand, with my resting bitch face. They’re immediately intrigued!

That’s the good thing about canvassing – you’re not trying to sell people anything. On the contrary, you’re encouraging them to stop being a consumer and actually become a citizen, and you’re showing them an available avenue to do so. Generally they will be responsive to you even if you don’t have a ready answer for them. “We’re trying to gain/hold the control of the Senate/Congress” is a good enough answer.

As a canvasser, you will be given a list of voters that are already registered Democrats. You won’t be asked to knock on doors of Republicans and try to convert them. The whole purpose of this exercise is to bring out people of your own party to the polls, not waste your time on goners. So you probably won’t find yourself talking to a belligerent redneck, as was my original fear. (As a side note, my canvassing experience shows that even when an R somehow makes it to your list, they tend to avoid any sort of confrontation. People generally just don’t want to be assholes in a face to face encounter. Worst case they shut the door.)

So, if you feel like the time has come to do more than just post on Facebook and complain, there are plenty of opportunities to canvass in and around your area in the coming weeks. In just a few clicks you can find the nearest candidate’s office and show up there for a 2-3 hours of meaningful exercise (both physical and civic).

 

 

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.

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?