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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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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Conservative Mind Expansion

An average conservative head is a complete mess these days. But it’s a creative mess. They have learned so many new words and names and concepts they haven’t heard of before and are so eager to share their newfound knowledge that they remind me of a teenager who has just discovered Nietzsche. They walk around dispensing words like socialism, Marxism, Objectivism, anti-colonialism, quoting Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and even Saul Alinsky. But I commend them for the mere curiosity and interest in learning new things.  Why shouldn’t we celebrate when the unassuming inhabitants of Midwestern and Southern towns are now conversing in terms that you would otherwise hear at a preppy College Libertarians soiree?

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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

Thoughts on Republican presidential field.

You gotta feel sorry for Republicans. I do. Now that Christie is out it comes down to Romney vs. Cain. To a collective gasp for both moderate Republicans and Tea Partiers. I think it’s time for us on the left to stop calling Tea Parties racist, since from the copious, albeit unsatisfactory, field they ended up preferring a black guy. I also look in amazement at how much they must hate Romney! Losing Christie has deprived us from a promise of a good fight. He would be a formidable opponent to Obama. I guess Tea Partiers like Christie because he’s always angry and moderates like him because, anger aside, he’s rather middle of the road in his views on guns, gay marriage, and in general he errs on the side of getting things done rather than sticking to rigid principles. Not that I’d root for him, but he seemed like the most decent, honest and straightforward guy among the roster.

I also have a few words on Rick Perry. In my view, he showed his human side when he called those who want to deny illegal immigrant’s children a chance at education “heartless” only to be quickly brought down from the pedestal by the same people who elevated him there just a few weeks ago. They certainly didn’t like to hear the truth about themselves even coming from a gun-toting, death-penalty loving Texan. I’m afraid that with so many requirements for a perfect candidate and unwilling to compromise on any of them the Tea Party will never get laid.

From my partisan standpoint I like what I see in the opposition camp. But from the broader and more significant perspective I weep together with and for moderate Republicans for what the party of Lincoln and Regan has become. That’s the best you’ve got? In the whole South and the Midwest, from the plethora of Republican governors and senators, you’re down to flip-flopping guy from Massachussetts and a black guy who has never held a public office (the last one is particularly ironic). You refuse to even give a good look to Jon Huntsman or Gary Johnson or even to Ron Paul, for Christ sake, who loves your Ayn Rand so much as to name his son after her. Btw, since I mentioned Jesus and Ayn Rand in the same sentence let me expand on it: if Jesus and Ayn Rand married and had a child together the Tea Partiers would still be unsatisfied: Atheist who loves the poor, what a nightmare!

The best thing for Romney, should he get the nomination, would be to pick Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, for VP spot. Tea Partiers love him, he can attract the Hispanic vote that went overwhelmingly for Obama last time and they will have groomed the next GOP presidential contender for 2018 or beyond.

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.

Tea Partiers and the Constitution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foreclosure Situation

Given the recent development on the foreclosure front here’s my 2 cents and a possible solution.
How can a trust with tens of thousands of individual loans in it dispute each one of those defaulted loans one by one in court? This isn’t going to happen. And it’s not because it’s too long and too costly – there are ways around that, but because trusts can’t prove that they own those mortgages, they don’t have the paperwork needed. To go forward with foreclosure en masse would mean some abrogation of the sacred contract. Also, if the house has several liens on it, as happens in most cases, the potential buyer, who’s hunting for a cheap foreclosed home can’t be 100% sure what exactly he’s buying. It can turn out that he’s going to be second in line, after the primary mortgage holder claims to own the property as these two unfortunate guys found out. I mean what reliable source or a database do you check to know what it is that you’re buying with a foreclosed home? I think foreclosure has a risk of becoming a four-letter word.

What it can mean is foreclosure market will be dead for a long time, because bargain hunters will be spooked by the legal uncertainty. In reality it would look like the whole country will be plagued by haunted houses that no one can sell, buy, move into, bulldoze to the ground and not even touch with a ten foot pole. Wouldn’t that signal that the new construction will be hot again? People have to live somewhere. Just a speculation on my part.

That’s just one of many problems. The other one is sloppy record keeping.

Even before the mortgage meltdown, the servicing industry “was plagued with problems,” such as servicers charging unauthorized or excessive fees and making false or unsubstantiated statements about how much borrowers owed, says David Vladeck, head of the bureau of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, which has brought several recent cases against servicers.

WSJ Article

I read a few articles in the past few days and to my horror I found out that no one is really insured from being foreclosed upon in this unceremonious manner, even if you’re current on your mortgage! That is because most of those small lenders that originated your loans are non-existent right now, those loans are long gone from their balance sheets into the trust without proper documentation being transferred into the hands of a new owner or lost altogether. In this case how do you prove that you paid all your mortgage bills on time? You have your records, sure, but they have theirs! Prove that your records are correct! These robo-signers are a sort of indiscriminate roulette that can pull your own mortgage out of some system purely by mistake and make you in default. “Because it says so on the computer screen” – you will be hearing when, puzzled, you call your mortgage servicer trying to clear the little misunderstanding. You will be speaking with some clueless person who will be immune to your logic and calls to reason, because I suspect they all are being trained to not understand questions for which there are no standard answers from the manual. What recourse do you really have in situation like this other than going to court?

The solution. With such clusterfuck in the foreclosure process and a high unemployment rate the solution begs for itself. Just like in early 2000s a bunch of no name lending companies popped up here and there I can see a huge market for foreclosure specialists. The business model would look like this: A small company gets a list of the prospective foreclosures from the trust or from the sponsoring bank and hires high-school drop outs for $10 an hour to phone the properties on the list. If somebody still lives there and pays mortgage or at least is working out a payment plan – those get dropped from the FC process. If no one answers the phone, the bank is given the green light to proceed with the FC. I mean this is a rough idea, perhaps those employees have to do visits to the property and follow some guidelines, etc. but you get the idea. Then they send the updated list back to the bank, which, in turn, proceeds with the wholesale robo-signed foreclosures. It’s a sort of quid pro quo: if banks want to speed up the process and bypass the paperwork requirement they have to pay to make sure that no current homeowners end up on the list. Isn’t that a reasonable requirement? This way we kill many birds with one stone: the FC proceeds at a reasonable speed (not as fast as it is right now, but not as slow as it would under the judicial review); a bunch of unemployed people get jobs (and maybe, as a positive side effect, even pay their own mortgages); politicians can move on something else, like fighting socialism – everybody’s happy. I think even Republicans can support something like this – after all it’s good for business.