In Praise of Communal Values

Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I’m Russian, let’s just get that out of the way. May 9th is a special day for any Russian. It’s both a joyous celebration of our victory over fascist Germany in 1945 and also a day of reflection and remembrance. To many people it’s the most treasured and most profound, a knot-in-the-throat holiday, as sacred as 4th of July is for any American. Every family has a relative who died or fought in that war. With sadness I watch more and more veterans leave our ranks every year and I contemplate over these special men and women and wonder what I would do if I was born in 1924. Would I have the guts to do what they did, to be on the frontlines, to face an armada of German tanks pacing toward me when I had just a rifle and a grenade? There’s no place of cynicism and individuality on the battlefield. My generation grew up watching war movies and talking to live witnesses of those events, we played “war” and our heroes were young partisans. We grew up picturing ourselves in those situations and admiring real war heroes, just like young Americans grow up admiring comics superheroes. During those games and those daydreams what was always present is the collective spirit. “We’ll show them!” – our thinking went. There was no “I” on our imaginary playground battlefield. Contemplating the victory in World War II (or Great Patriotic War) for a Russian is to invoke the “us” narrative.

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Traders also protest free market. But from a different angle.

How about this one?

OTC trading is only good if you’re doing it. If others are doing it it’s bad!

I can’t help but quote from the article:

The protest followed a massive block options trade performed in Eurodollar futures on Thursday. Block trades are privately negotiated transactions performed off the trading floor, but cleared by the exchange, and reported minutes later on the CME website.

The locals were upset because they weren’t able to participate in the trade, brokers said.” (Emphasis mine)

Free Market vs. Conservative Moralists

“A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.” Albert Einstein

For an average American the economic reality is increasingly dual – you’re either on the working “treadmill” running faster and faster or you’re a bum, and there are few choices in between. Some people work longer hours for less pay, while others can’t get a job at all.

The praise on the right of the current economic system of “treadmill” lifestyle does not fit well with their demands of the return of traditional values. Let’s assume that we magically return to the desired “nuclear family” era that the right so nostalgically revere. If only we work harder we will become more moral, the thinking goes.  Such a family would immediately drop out of the treadmill participation simply because the middle class has long been relying on two person incomes, not one.

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Honest Conservatives

It is possible, although decreasingly so in American politics, to admire, if disagree with, your political opponents. I keep a dwindling collection of conservatives, who are not preoccupied with vengeance, destruction, pledges and sexual politics. I call them thinking conservatives and perhaps the matters where we disagree would come down to economics and foreign policy. David Frum is on that list, so is David Brooks. William Buckley, the lucid founder of conservative magazine National Review, whose son Christopher Buckley famously left his father’s venue and voted for Obama in 2008, was a pleasure to read before he passed away, if not for agreement but for his deft command of English. I can hardly imagine a current day conservative to publicly criticize Ayn Rand, as well as denounce John Birch Society as “far removed from common sense”. Who does the Right have now to carry the torch – Rush Limbaugh? Charles Krauthammer? It’s beyond embarrassing! Continue reading

A Party without Judgment

Capt. Willard: “They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.”

Col. Kurtz: “I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. … And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. … If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

John Milius & Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now.

 

I remember how in the run up to a debt ceiling debate last summer I wrote on my wall: “In the battle between the Tea Party and Wall Street I’m betting on Wall Street.” How naïve I was back then. How much faith I put, wishfully, into Republicans’ supposed concerns for other people’s hard earned money. How much weight I gave to the notion that Republicans will put business interests, money and fiscal responsibility first. How much significance I assigned to the bond between Wall Street and Republicans. In my head I had pictures of Wall Street moguls frantically dialing their buddies in Congress, saying: dude, look, I understand you hate Obama and stuff, but I have a huge position in this and that, you have to pass this, I don’t care about politics – just pass the damn thing! That was my bet. I lost, of course. I underestimated the will of the Republicans to cut off the arms of little children if it meant victory. Continue reading

Why Play a Rigged Game?

Poker is my religion. There are rules, upon violation of which, you get punished mercilessly. Some call it statistics, some – including myself – poker Gods.

When I sit down at the table I appreciate the plethora of characters from all walks of life. I appreciate the fact that there are winners and losers, luck and grind, spectacular twists of fate, rivalries but also universal fairness: In the long run, if you play correctly, you win. Very American Dream, isn’t it? There are quiet types you have to watch out for, business travelers, retirees, smelly hobos, students and “just passing by” types. There are also administrators of the entire establishment including dealers, floor managers, security that derive their sustenance from players; and an element of game – a deck of cards that is changed every few hours. You get my drift – just like a democracy. Except that we’ve been playing with the same stacked deck for the last few decades. Some people at the table will never get dealt two kings or two aces and it is not chance related. Others, who consistently win at the table make me wonder – have they really become so much smarter, savvier and better at math to beat the odds in such a remarkable manner? Am I to believe that some players are now so much sharper and more productive than they were 30 years ago, thus deserving not 20 times but 300 times the payouts of an average Joe Schmo?

That’s some impressive margin of error! So a hobo-looking character and a few students at the table complain about it and demand a new deck. And predictably, “good players” immediately jump in and attack them for being losers and comment on their personal hygiene. I wonder why – are they in on it? The sad truth is – correct play is no longer a guarantee against a long-term loss at this poker table of ours. And, if you don’t want to award any credibility to dirty hippies for voicing it, then who’s to know that better if not hundreds of thousands of people laid off from financial industry in the wake of the financial crisis. They played correct, solid game – they went to college, worked hard, got a mortgage, paid taxes and still got run over. Just look at the headlines from the last few days:

“Finance Job Losses Near 200,000 as BNP, Citigroup Cut Staff

Commerzbank sinks to first quarterly loss since ’09 and begins lending pull-back

UBS plans to cut 2,000 investment banking jobs

More heads roll in 2011 than in 2009

BNP Paribas to lay off 1,396 as crisis deepens” (Source: Options Group, Fins.com)

The first, and understandable, reaction of those laid off is to blame government regulation that encumbers the normal flow of business. If the government wasn’t pressuring banks to comply with strict rules those people would not have been laid off, the logic goes. While this can be somewhat true in the short term, are those people prepared to endure boom and bust business model in the future? And, more importantly, do they want to continue to play the game where the odds are against them, no matter how good their skills are? Guys, it’s been a juicy game at the table, no doubt, but not for you. Because to have a comfortable, middle-class life in Manhattan (not lavish, just comfortable!) you have to be a Managing Director at a Wall Street firm, but there’s simply not enough facility to accommodate everyone to become one. So what is the rest, the middle of the Bell curve with just college degree, strong work ethic and no delusions of grandeur supposed to do? Why is comfortable, middle-class life increasingly becoming a luxury available only to super achievers?

This juicy table is on the brink of breaking as more and more players are saying – we don’t want to play this game.

Those who think that OWS are anti-capitalists, iphone-using, Starbucks-drinking hypocrites and society leeches demanding handouts could not be further from the truth. “Get a Job” signs, while prompting self-satisfied chuckle in the Fox News crowd for being “clever”, fall flat. Those protesters would love to get a job but they can’t. Why is it that thousands upon thousands who lost jobs on Wall Street following the crisis deserve sympathy and the unemployed protesters don’t?

All they want is a new deck of cards. To clarify what I consider a new deck of cards is (just to start, in no particular order): reinstatement of Glass Steagall Act; effective government regulation (not necessarily more and not necessarily stricter – effective); enactment of Volcker Rule; a bailout fund sponsored by a tax on corporations to save themselves should shit hit the fan again; stricter regulation of credit-default swaps – you can buy protection only on the asset you own; executive compensation regulation. The latter is controversial and I would support a legislation that regulates the payouts of CEOs of deposit-taking institutions. If it’s a hedge fund that trades its’ own money – knock yourself out. But there’s no amount of stress and hard work that I can think of that would justify $68mln payout (Lloyd Blankfein compensation for 2007) for a bank CEO. Tough decisions to make, thousands of people to manage, sleepless nights, erectile dysfunction – fine – but unless you played with your own money and took your own risks and your downside is that you lose it all, move to the projects and dodge collectors – it’s not worth $68 bucks. Commanders in Iraq are under more stress and have to make decisions with lives, not money – for what a typical CEO considers change.

Americans love a good underdog story and often see Rocky or Billy Beane in themselves. That’s commendable, but under the current rules Rockys will be perpetually dragging that log and Billy Beanes will be perpetually tweaking those metrics with only a promise of a win in sight. I too love the element of competition and game in life, but to stay and play at that table would not make me a hero – it would make me a fool.

Keep the Customer Happy

“There has been class warfare going on. It’s just that my class is winning. And my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.” Warren Buffett

Have you seen this We are the 53 percent website yet? The hard-working 53% sticking it to the 47% “whiners”? Somehow, in this country, it’s considered a badge of honor to suffer, to work oneself to the bone, to work two jobs and call those who are not “ok” with such a state of affairs “whiners”. These 53% are completely missing the point. The point is: it’s ok to work hard and make sacrifices in order to succeed not in order to get by. From those pictures I can tell that they are just scraping by, barely holding their head above water, and proud of it. Look, they are good folks, no doubt, but just because they are ok with being abused doesn’t mean all others should do the same. What about the disabled, elderly, single mothers? How are they supposed to work two jobs without health insurance? The 53% percent are looking for the culprit in all the wrong places. Somehow they think that the 47% are lazy bums on welfare who refuse to work. The 53% are either blissfully or willfully unaware that what keeps them from joining the 47% is one injury, one pink slip, one accident. Adversity is no doubt good for building a character but not everybody is Napoleon. And what do they have to show for such hard work that they’re doing? Guys, you’re on a treadmill that keeps going faster and faster and one day you won’t be able to keep up. I appreciate your fighting spirit, but you’re fighting the wrong war! The source of your suffering is not the unemployed, they are merely a symptom, it’s the rigged game that you play against the house. The 47% or the 99% of the OWS are simply saying: we refuse to play that game.

A few words about the house. I think the most honest business nowadays is a casino. Let me elaborate. First of all, they do not hide under the false façade: you know how their business model works. They do not pretend that your well-being is important to them, they are there to assist you in having a good time. When you’re a client of the casino they hold their promise: you get free drinks, you get comped, sometimes you get a free room. If you’re elderly or disabled you get an oxygen mask and an electric cart. And they take your money. Yes, it’s a fleecing business, but 1. You’re fully aware of this 2. You’re  having a good time. Wall Street and corporations have thus violated the most important principle of the system they themselves built: keep the customer happy. And by customer I mean taxpayer. If they insist on running the country, if they insist on controlling government (read: taxpayers) resources then the first rule they should have upheld is keep the customer happy. Imagine if the casino gambled with your money, lost it and then had the chutzpah to call you a welfare bum. That would piss you off. But would you be pissed off at your fellow customers or at the casino? Wall Street fucked it up spectacularly! They would have never drawn so much attention to themselves and would continue to run this shop if only they adhere to some simple rules and knew when to stop. Everything was going in their favor. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision granting corporations a personhood, politicians in their pocket, oblivious populace immersed in Jersey Shore and the belief that hard work pays off. It is those customers, the golden goose, the sacred cow that should have been cared for, not slaughtered; it’s them that Wall Street needs, not the other way around. Nowhere in the world can you find such premium clients as American taxpayer. What more did they want? The conditions were ripe to once and for all to cement the corporate world domination (cue in Dr. Evil’s laugh here), but then they handed the reins to a few self-assured frat boys. Very imprudent! So, Wall Street really have no one to blame but themselves for the current predicament. Not the customers. Customers played by the rules.

Wall Street Protests

Remember how in the first Wall Street movie Michael Douglas, while riding in a limo with Charlie Sheen, describes to him what it means to be rich. “I’m not talking about $400K working Wall Street stiff flying first class and being comfortable. I’m talking about being rich enough not to waste time” and then points a finger at a bum and a man in a suit on the sidewalk and says something like: there’s no difference between the two. I agree. There’s no difference between the current day protesters and most of the suits who’s commute the protesters are obstructing. Sure, one has a job, a house in New Jersey, health insurance, wife and 3 kids, the other – a sublet with roommates in Williamsburg, no job, no prospects and crushing student loans. What they don’t realize is that socially they are on the same side of the barricades, although the former associates oneself with his bosses rather than with those proletariats on the street. Our Wall Street Working Stiff (WSWS) is right to be upset and unhappy: he wakes up at 5, takes a long commute to work, takes shit from his boss, fends off vultures, pleases clients, worries about bonus and how not to get fired, goes home, takes shit from his wife, worries about mortgage and kids’ college fund and if he’s lucky he falls asleep without medicine. Day in and day out, year after year. And then to pile up on his already miserable existence he gets painted by all kinds of bums as being the culprit. That’ll make you angry.

You see “Wall Street” as a composite is about 99% guys like WSWS. They are the accountants, the compliance officers, the programmers, the analysts, the back office, the middle office and most of them wear suits to work. But the majority of them never had the imagination and the aptitude to come up with the stuff that brought this economy down. Those who did are long gone with nice packages. There are some still left but they don’t walk past the crowds downtown. They have limos waiting in the garage. But for the protesters every guy in a suit is a villain. They can’t tell a difference. I can. Only wannabes wear pinstripe suits and carry a briefcase. Whenever I see a guy like this I smell stiffness, platitudes and fear. The real rainmakers wear shirts with rolled-up sleeves and cheap shoes. And the “Wall Street” has long moved to midtown. Only the Fed and the Goldman is downtown now.

Now that I have defended, to the best of my abilities, Wall Street Working Stiffs I should say I support the protesters for finally channeling the anger of many to the right place. The “Wall Street” as an idea is still there and any attempts by politicians to rein it in so far have failed. Dodd-Frank, already toothless enough at the inception in order to be passed, has been made into a joke with amendments that favor the wrong guys. The bad guys will never go to jail as it’s almost impossible to indict them. Who? On what grounds? Creating mortgage-backed securities, while abominable, wasn’t illegal, selling them to “qualified” customers wasn’t either. Knowingly misleading the clients is such a weak case and everybody knows Goldman was doing it and yet Lloyd Blankfein still has his job.

The only thing clear now is that we’re all in this together. WSWS and hippie protesters are the 99%. Each group’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to the other, is a natural result of flawed policies. Both played by the rules and both feel, rightly, shortchanged. But instead of blaming each other they should turn their gaze and anger upwards. The kids occupying Wall Street seem to understand it. The WSWS – not yet.

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.