Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sherry Cooper's "The New Retirement"

I was not impressed by this latest book by Sherry Cooper. She claims this is the result of her efforts to plan her own retirement, but I find it thin on material. Her best advice is in Chapter 9 "How Much is Enough? Nest Egg Arithmetic" and it boils down to a simple rule of thumb: you need to have enough financial assets (in addition to your home) such that you can live on withdrawing 4% a year. E.g. if you need $60,000/year pre-tax, then you need to have $1.5 million in an financial assets that are diversified, and this means 40% large cap, 20% small cap, and 40% intermediate bonds. That's the heart of the advice. In addition she works through some numbers to show people just how hard it is to save enough.

The rest of the book is filled with fairly obvious "advice" about lifestyle and meaning in life. I found chapter 11 "Health and Happiness in Act III" just too much to take. It is just too full of smarmy advice about career and "giving back" and the psychology of an "integrated personality". That is material I would expect in a self-help psychology book, not a retirement book.

The early material about the financial state of the world is not very interesting. Maybe for a completely naive person seeing this material for the first time it might be an eye-opener, but still, is it really relevant to planning your retirement. All the material about how wonderful DB (Defined Benefit) versus DC (Defined Contribution) retirement plans is a nice rant about the gold-plated government worker and big industry unionized company pensions plans, but it does nothing to help the poor fellow like myself without a DB plan. All it does is make us feel worse than we already are by rubbing our noses in how much we have to save to try to "keep up" with those who have these deluxe retirement plans.

On the whole, it was a fairly mediocre read. Too bad. I've enjoyed Sherry Cooper's articles and her previous books. I even enjoyed her website where she has posted her articles and has a very nice little Java-based retirement calculator.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Life in Stunning Colour

I just stumbled across a web site that is full of wonderful photo essays on all kinds of subjects. The site is named "The Big Picture: News Stories in Photographs". I didn't see all that much "news". Instead, I see this as a wonderful gallery of artistic photographs that are outside the tyranny of the art academicians.

Examples of what they are "currently showing"...
The site is well worth a visit. I've stuck it into my Google Reader so that I'll be notified when new photo essays become available.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cycles in Scientific Debate

Anthony Watts has a blog that monitors global warming as well as other scientific bric-a-brac. Watts' lastest blog entry provides an article written by Roy W. Spencer, a climate scientist and a "global warming optimist", that identifies a possible error in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate models. He notes that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) may account for much of the heating that has been attributed to greenhouse gases by the IPCC. Here is a graphic showing the discrepancy.

Here is material from the conclusion of Spencer's article. Notice how Spencer says he is forced to go around the news media in order to get his scientific ideas heard (I've bolded that bit):

The evidence continues to mount that the IPCC models are too sensitive (produce too much global warming). If climate sensitivity is indeed considerably less than the IPCC claims it to be, then increasing CO2 alone can not explain recent global warming. The evidence presented here suggests that most of that warming might well have been caused by cloud changes associated with a natural mode of climate variability: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

I am posting this information in advance of publication because of its potential importance to pending EPA regulations or congressional legislation which assume that carbon dioxide is a major driver of climate change. Since the news media now refuses to report on peer-reviewed scientific articles which contradict the views of the IPCC, Al Gore, and James Hansen, I am forced to bypass them entirely.

We need to consider the very real possibility that atmospheric carbon dioxide - which is necessary for life on Earth and of which there is precious little - might well be like the innocent bystander who has been unjustly accused of a crime based upon little more than circumstantial evidence.

Stereotyping

I remember being bashed about the head in the 1980s by feminists who would tell me that I was "stereotyping" when I made generalizations. I would defend myself by saying that we only gain knowledge when we are able to abstract from particulars to generalizations. The generalization is a tool to be used to simplify our way through the world. Of course, in the end, you need to be both aware of particulars as well as welling to generalize. To go to any extreme is usually a disaster. (Of course my words had no traction with the politicized feminists. They were on a warpath and the only generalizations they wanted to hear were ones that kowtowed to their sacred truths.)

Here's an article by Satoshi Kanazawa in Psychology Today that looks at an examples of generalizing and then stereotypes it:
The naturalistic fallacy, which was coined by the English philosopher George Edward Moore in the early 20th century though first identified much earlier by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, is the leap from is to ought – that is, the tendency to believe that what is natural is good; that what is, ought to be. For example, one might commit the error of the naturalist fallacy and say, “Because people are genetically different and endowed with different innate abilities and talents, they ought to be treated differently.”

The moralistic fallacy, coined by the Harvard microbiologist Bernard Davis in the 1970s, is the opposite of the naturalistic fallacy. It refers to the leap from ought to is, the claim that the way things should be is the way they are. This is the tendency to believe that what is good is natural; that what ought to be, is. For example, one might commit the error of the moralistic fallacy and say, “Because everybody ought to be treated equally, there are no innate genetic differences between people.” The science writer extraordinaire Matt Ridley calls it the reverse naturalistic fallacy.

Both are logical fallacies, and they get in the way of progress in science in general, and in evolutionary psychology in particular. However, as Ridley astutely points out, political conservatives are more likely to commit the naturalistic fallacy (“Nature designed men to be competitive and women to be nurturing, so women ought to stay home to take care of the children and leave politics to men”), while political liberals are equally likely to commit the moralistic fallacy (“The Western liberal democratic principles hold that men and women ought to be treated equally under the law, and therefore men and women are biologically identical and any study that demonstrates otherwise is a priori false”).
Interestingly, Kanazawa defends stereotyping in his book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters. In the above he offers a stereotype of how political viewpoints attach to these fallacies.

I'm not sure that the Kanazawa's stereotypes are right, but I would defend it as a tool to think about these things. In science you propose a hypothesis like this, examine its logical implications, and look for facts that support or conflict with this proposed "truth". So I'm happy to see him discuss this. I would be happy to see other opinions, arguments, and "facts" put forward to test the stereotype. Eventually I expect somebody will fit these political political stereotypes into a broader scientific theory. Of course Kanazawa will offer up evolutionary psychology as the place that this kind of theorizing will find a home. Maybe. Maybe not. But I'll enjoy the scientific discussion. I won't do what my feminist friends did in the 1980s, i.e. beat people about the ears for "generalizing".

Learning Lessons the Hard Way

Here's an article by Robert Schiller in the Washington Post that is well worth reading. The four key points are:

The current crisis offers us a singular opportunity to reevaluate fundamentally the safety and permanence of the master financial institutions that we have come to take for granted...

1. Handle moral hazard better. The term "moral hazard" refers to the pernicious tendency some people have of failing deliberately if they think it's advantageous to do so. Moral hazard is used to justify teaching people a lesson for their failures... the meaning of a contract.

By rescuing Wall Street tycoons who succumbed to the lure of an irrationally exuberant housing bubble, the bailouts today do pose something of a moral-hazard problem. But we can more than repair it by defining a new generation of financial contracts ... reflecting greater enlightenment, greater understanding of human psychology and the means to deal with financial failure. ...

2. To limit risks to the system, build better derivatives. Some of today's derivatives ... turned out to be "financial weapons of mass destruction,"... The problem isn't derivatives per se but a certain kind... Some kinds of derivatives, such as those maintained by futures exchanges using procedures that effectively eliminate the risk that the other party in the agreement will default, are more useful -- and far safer -- than others. It is high time to redesign derivatives...

3. Trust markets, not Wall Street titans. If institutions can be said to have charisma, such giants as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch certainly had it in spades. But these firms proved not to be the sole source of financial intelligence. They were merely meeting places for smart, financially savvy people -- and for some reckless folks besides. We need to learn to trust people and markets rather than institutions...

4. Ideas matter. Maybe next time, we will listen more closely to financial theorists who think in abstract, general terms. Consider the Long-Term Capital Management debacle in 1998... Lots of people hold that the moral of the LCTM story was the failed thinking of two of the firm's founders, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, both of whom were Nobel Prize-winning financial theorists. In fact, the collapse of LTCM was largely due to the overconfidence of bond trader John Meriwether and some of his other LTCM colleagues, who were gambling in the markets. The disgraced Merton has been working for the last decade trying to build better risk-management systems, mostly to little avail. Maybe he will be heard now. People still seem to want to trust businessmen who have made bundles and have a huge investment bank behind them, rather than listen to experts who are thinking about the fundamentals of risk management. We would have been better off this month if we'd been ignoring the former and listening to the latter. ...

If we move smartly, Americans can have a better, more robust financial democracy.... The current crisis does not mean the end of American capitalism. But if we are lucky, it will mean an important step in its evolution.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An Economist Explains the Financial Crisis

Here is a video done by Mark Thoma, an economist at the University of Oregon, who has a blog called Economist's View, that explains how financial intermediation works and how this mechanism failed to cause the financial crisis. If you have 45 minutes and enjoy a lecture done at a level accessible to a general audience, then watch:

Reasons to Worry, the Canadian Edition

Stephen Gorden, a Laval University economist, has summarized and detailed the reasons why Canadians have to worry about a recession:
  • The decline of exports to the US
  • Financial contagion
  • Housing markets
  • Consumer confidence
Read the details on his blog entry to understand why the following will cause us to go over a cliff along with the US.

Personally, I'm convinced that Canadians just can't stand seeing the Americans outdo us in anything. So if they want to run their economy over a cliff like lemmings into the sea, then by golly gosh, we have to show them that we are can do a good lemming imitation to preserve our honour as almost-Americans.

Seriously, I was happier with an earlier post by Stephen Gorden which showed how much healthier our employment was than the US. As you can see we are still growing our employment while employment is actually shrinking in the US:

This divergence is even more obvious if you look at the level of employment and not at the rate of change:

Jousting with the Lance of Jest

Here are the two US Presidential candidates playfully jesting at their own and each other's expense...

Obama:


McCain:

A Wishin' and A Hopin'

The following graphic gives me great hope...


If the Democrat Obama can get elected in the US, the above tells me that the US economy will recover sooner than under the Republican McCain. That, along with the fact that the Democrats will remove the tax cuts for the rich, and turn the Reagan illusion of a trickle-down economy into a bottom-up, more jobs, better pay, and more emphasis on the middle class, brings a smile to my face. I'm thinking the US (and Canada maybe!) can get back to something closer to the 1946-1976 era:


Or, to make the same point using a cartoonists' eye...


I'm ready to break out into song "Happy Days are Here Again!". Only... first, the Democrats need to unseat the Republicans. Here in Canada we failed to unseat Harper and his me-too conservative agenda. But if they pull the trick off in the US and we see our neighbor to the south looking like a Middle Class society once again, maybe we timid Canadians will find the courage to throw off our overlords, the Conservative Party, and try something a little more adventurous!

Acorns Don't All too Far from Republican Sleaze

Here is the dirt about how the Republicans are using their sleazy techniques to try and subvert the US 2008 presidential election:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Global Warming Strikes, and Strikes Hard!

Here is the latest devastating news of Global Warming and its brutal effects on the US Northeast this year...



Tragic isn't it?

On a more serious note...

For those convinced that Arctic sea ice is destined to melt away in the next few years, here's some news about Global Warming Delayed...

The red line is 2008 and sea ice extent is back to 2005 levels. So the hue and cry raised earlier this summer about the "disappearance" of the sea ice appears to be premature.

Some people are not happy about the recalcitrant sea ice and its unwillingness to disappear on schedule:
There is no mention of this on the National Snow and Ice Data Center sea ice news webpage, which has been trumpeting every loss and low for the past two years…not a peep. You’d think this would be big news. Perhaps the embarrassment of not having an ice free north pole in 2008, which was sparked by press comments made by Dr. Mark Serreze there and speculation on their own website, has made them unresponsive in this case
Meanwhile, this has been an unusually cool year given that we are in the throes of a cruel Global Warming event. Here is a report in Canada's National Post:
Forget global warming: Welcome to the new Ice Age

Lorne Gunter, National Post Published: Monday, February 25, 2008

Snow cover over North America and much of Siberia, Mongolia and China is greater than at any time since 1966.

The U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reported that many American cities and towns suffered record cold temperatures in January and early February. According to the NCDC, the average temperature in January "was -0.3 F cooler than the 1901-2000 (20th century) average."

China is surviving its most brutal winter in a century. Temperatures in the normally balmy south were so low for so long that some middle-sized cities went days and even weeks without electricity because once power lines had toppled it was too cold or too icy to repair them.
There may be some connection between this observed cooling and the strange as reported in Canada's Financial Post:
Global cooling sign: Solar winds at 50-year-low

Posted: September 28, 2008, 2:24 AM by Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon

In yet another sign that the Earth could be heading in to a period of global cooling, NASA reports that the solar wind is now at a 50-year low, the lowest that NASA has seen. This change in solar activity, which began to occur about a decade ago, coincides with the end of the climb in global temperatures that had been underway for decades.

"What we're seeing is a long term trend, a steady decrease in pressure that began sometime in the mid-1990s," explains Arik Posner, NASA's Ulysses Program Scientist in Washington DC.

"How unusual is this event?

"It's hard to say. We've only been monitoring solar wind since the early years of the Space Age—from the early 60s to the present. Over that period of time, it's unique. How the event stands out over centuries or millennia, however, is anybody's guess. We don't have data going back that far."
The New York Times does a better job of highlighting what this solar quiescence may mean. I've bolded the bits that I think are important to give them emphasis:
Sunspots Are Fewest Since 1954, but Significance Is Unclear

By KENNETH CHANG, Oct 3, 2008

The Sun has been strangely unblemished this year. On more than 200 days so far this year, no sunspots were spotted. That makes the Sun blanker this year than in any year since 1954, when it was spotless for 241 days.

The Sun goes through a regular 11-year cycle, and it is now emerging from the quietest part of the cycle, or solar minimum. But even for this phase it has been unusually quiet, with little roiling of the magnetic fields that induce sunspots.

“It’s starting with a murmur,” said David H. Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As of Thursday, the 276th day of the year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., had counted 205 days without a sunspot.

In another sign of solar quiescence, scientists reported last month that the solar wind, a rush of charged particles continually spewed from the Sun at a million miles an hour, had diminished to its lowest level in 50 years.

Scientists are not sure why this minimum has been especially minimal, and the episode is even playing into the global warming debate. Some wonder if this could be the start of an extended period of solar indolence that would more than offset the warming effect of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. From the middle of the 17th century to the early 18th, a period known as the Maunder Minimum, sunspots were extremely rare, and the reduced activity coincided with lower temperatures in what is known as the Little Ice Age.

Compared to the Maunder Minimum, the current pace of sunspots “makes it look like we’re having a feast, not a famine,” Dr. Hathaway said.

Scientists expect that sunspot activity will pick up in the coming months, but exactly what will happen next is open to debate. Dr. Hathaway had predicted two years ago, based on the Sun’s behavior near the end of the last cycle, that the maximum this time would be ferocious.

“I’m getting worried about that prediction now,” he said. “Normally, big cycles start early, and by doing that, they cut short the previous cycle. This one hasn’t done that.”

But many of the other competing predictions — more than 50 over all — pointed to a quieter-than-average cycle. “They do kind of go all over the map,” said Douglas Biesecker, a physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center who led an international panel that reviewed predictions.

The solar wind is another piece of the puzzle. David J. McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and one of the researchers who analyzed data from the Ulysses Sun-watching spacecraft, said that the strength of the solar wind seemed to be in a long-term decline. The pressure exerted by the solar wind particles during the current minimum is about a quarter weaker than during the last solar minimum, Dr. McComas said.

Dr. McComas said scientists were still trying to figure out how all the data fits together.
On the other hand, you may ignore the above news reports and scientific presentations. Instead you can point to some solid "facts", some incontrovertible and well documented. Say, something like the following facts gathered over the last hundred years...

Peroration upon Closing a Hedge Fund

Here is an interesting letter sent by Andrew Lahde to the investors in the Lahde Captial hedge fund to announce that he was closing the investment fund and retiring. As much as I hate the hedge fund industry, this letter is worth reading:
Today I write not to gloat. Given the pain that nearly everyone is experiencing, that would be entirely inappropriate. Nor am I writing to make further predictions, as most of my forecasts in previous letters have unfolded or are in the process of unfolding. Instead, I am writing to say goodbye.

Recently, on the front page of Section C of the Wall Street Journal, a hedge fund manager who was also closing up shop (a $300 million fund), was quoted as saying, “What I have learned about the hedge fund business is that I hate it.” I could not agree more with that statement. I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy, only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.

There are far too many people for me to sincerely thank for my success. However, I do not want to sound like a Hollywood actor accepting an award. The money was reward enough. Furthermore, the endless list those deserving thanks know who they are.

I will no longer manage money for other people or institutions. I have enough of my own wealth to manage. Some people, who think they have arrived at a reasonable estimate of my net worth, might be surprised that I would call it quits with such a small war chest. That is fine; I am content with my rewards. Moreover, I will let others try to amass nine, ten or eleven figure net worths. Meanwhile, their lives suck. Appointments back to back, booked solid for the next three months, they look forward to their two week vacation in January during which they will likely be glued to their Blackberries or other such devices. What is the point? They will all be forgotten in fifty years anyway. Steve Balmer, Steven Cohen, and Larry Ellison will all be forgotten. I do not understand the legacy thing. Nearly everyone will be forgotten. Give up on leaving your mark. Throw the Blackberry away and enjoy life.

So this is it. With all due respect, I am dropping out. Please do not expect any type of reply to emails or voicemails within normal time frames or at all. Andy Springer and his company will be handling the dissolution of the fund. And don’t worry about my employees, they were always employed by Mr. Springer’s company and only one (who has been well-rewarded) will lose his job.

I have no interest in any deals in which anyone would like me to participate. I truly do not have a strong opinion about any market right now, other than to say that things will continue to get worse for some time, probably years. I am content sitting on the sidelines and waiting. After all, sitting and waiting is how we made money from the subprime debacle. I now have time to repair my health, which was destroyed by the stress I layered onto myself over the past two years, as well as my entire life — where I had to compete for spaces in universities and graduate schools, jobs and assets under management — with those who had all the advantages (rich parents) that I did not. May meritocracy be part of a new form of government, which needs to be established.

On the issue of the U.S. Government, I would like to make a modest proposal. First, I point out the obvious flaws, whereby legislation was repeatedly brought forth to Congress over the past eight years, which would have reigned in the predatory lending practices of now mostly defunct institutions. These institutions regularly filled the coffers of both parties in return for voting down all of this legislation designed to protect the common citizen. This is an outrage, yet no one seems to know or care about it. Since Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith passed, I would argue that there has been a dearth of worthy philosophers in this country, at least ones focused on improving government. Capitalism worked for two hundred years, but times change, and systems become corrupt. George Soros, a man of staggering wealth, has stated that he would like to be remembered as a philosopher. My suggestion is that this great man start and sponsor a forum for great minds to come together to create a new system of government that truly represents the common man’s interest, while at the same time creating rewards great enough to attract the best and brightest minds to serve in government roles without having to rely on corruption to further their interests or lifestyles. This forum could be similar to the one used to create the operating system, Linux, which competes with Microsoft’s near monopoly. I believe there is an answer, but for now the system is clearly broken.

Lastly, while I still have an audience, I would like to bring attention to an alternative food and energy source. You won’t see it included in BP’s, “Feel good. We are working on sustainable solutions,” television commercials, nor is it mentioned in ADM’s similar commercials. But hemp has been used for at least 5,000 years for cloth and food, as well as just about everything that is produced from petroleum products. Hemp is not marijuana and vice versa. Hemp is the male plant and it grows like a weed, hence the slang term. The original American flag was made of hemp fiber and our Constitution was printed on paper made of hemp. It was used as recently as World War II by the U.S. Government, and then promptly made illegal after the war was won. At a time when rhetoric is flying about becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy, why is it illegal to grow this plant in this country? Ah, the female. The evil female plant — marijuana. It gets you high, it makes you laugh, it does not produce a hangover. Unlike alcohol, it does not result in bar fights or wife beating. So, why is this innocuous plant illegal? Is it a gateway drug? No, that would be alcohol, which is so heavily advertised in this country. My only conclusion as to why it is illegal, is that Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other additive drugs, than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers. This policy is ludicrous. It has surely contributed to our dependency on foreign energy sources. Our policies have other countries literally laughing at our stupidity, most notably Canada, as well as several European nations (both Eastern and Western). You would not know this by paying attention to U.S. media sources though, as they tend not to elaborate on who is laughing at the United States this week. Please people, let’s stop the rhetoric and start thinking about how we can truly become self-sufficient.

With that I say good-bye and good luck.

All the best,

Andrew Lahde

Flashback

Here is April 27, 2007 interview by Bill Moyers of Jon Stewart that is one of the best dissections of the interplay between media and politics. Here's the byline to the video:
Bill Moyers talks with comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's THE DAILY SHOW since 1999, about how faking the news can reveal more of the truth than all of the Sunday-morning talk shows put together.


This is a truly great interview that gets at some very deep questions and provides some very useful insights into how the world works.

Why Not Break It, Smash It, Ruin It?

Here's a guy, Jason Youmans, standing up to fight the good fight. He's a guy after my own heart arguing that the crazy new Canadian election rules are tilted against the little guy...

Why Fix What Ain’t Broke?



Posted by: Jason Youmans
09/17/2008 8:00 AM

As democracy watchers wring their hands over declining voter turnout, our federal government just made it harder to cast a ballot

Taking a page straight from the U.S. Republican Party’s playbook of dirty electioneering, legislation passed by Canadian parliament in 2007 will make it more difficult for citizens at society’s edges to cast ballots when the country goes to the polls on October 14.

Recent amendments to the Canada Elections Act under Bill C-31 will, among other things, require all voters to prove their identity and residential address prior to receiving a ballot at their polling station. For those with a fixed address and government-issued photo ID, the new law will be little more than a footnote on their day of democratic duty. But for those who live on the streets, senior citizens in residential care and anyone prone to a more transient lifestyle like students and low-income earners, Bill C-31 sets new hurdles to clear before being given the okay to exercise their constitutionally-enshrined right to vote.

Also swept away by the new legislation is the ability of a registered elector to vouch for the identity of an unlimited number of other registered electors. With the implementation of Bill C-31, one elector can now vouch only for the identity of one other elector in his or her polling precinct. That means individuals who used to swear an oath on behalf of groups of electors—say, an advocacy lawyer on behalf of a bloc of homeless voters—are out of luck.

Opponents of C-31 say those who control the levers of Canada’s electoral system should be working to make the democratic process less onerous, not more so, if the country’s declining turnout is to be reversed at a time when 35 percent of eligible voters stayed home during the last election in January 2006.

Bill C-31 was introduced by former Conservative democratic reform minister Rob Nicholson with the explanation that strengthening identification requirements would prevent manipulation of the electoral system. In a January 31, 2007, speech to parliament, Nicholson’s successor in the post, Peter Van Loan, told the House of Commons, “Addressing voter fraud is the core reason for Bill C-31. The potential for voter fraud hurts the integrity of our electoral system and undermines public confidence in the voting process. In fact, every time someone votes fraudulently, it undermines the legitimate say of every other voter. We all lose a little when that fraud takes place.”

There’s just one problem with Van Loan’s argument: the highest-ranking officials at Elections Canada have made repeated public statements that voter fraud is a negligible factor in the outcome of the country’s general elections. [emphasis added]
Sadly, voter turnout dropped to the lowest since Confederation. Instead of 35% staying home. This time it was 41%. So the right wing achieved its goal of restricting the vote. Youmans saw it coming. Read his whole article to get the bigger picture of how this new law was introduced under a deception.

Here's my earlier attempt to comment on this issue.

Good Advice

There is something wonderfully down-to-earth about billionaire Warren Buffet that makes it hard to dislike him. He's now offering some good advice to everyone...

Buy American. I Am.

Omaha

THE financial world is a mess, both in the United States and abroad. Its problems, moreover, have been leaking into the general economy, and the leaks are now turning into a gusher. In the near term, unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines will continue to be scary.

So ... I’ve been buying American stocks. This is my personal account I’m talking about, in which I previously owned nothing but United States government bonds. (This description leaves aside my Berkshire Hathaway holdings, which are all committed to philanthropy.) If prices keep looking attractive, my non-Berkshire net worth will soon be 100 percent in United States equities.

The only problem: most normal Americans have no money to "invest". In fact even the rich aren't doing that well right now and have little free cash lying around to be invested. So this wonderful opportunity will be left for Warren Buffet and the ghouls of the hedge fund trade to pick up the carrion and feast off it.

Now for Something Familiar but New

Country and Western fans should find this song familiar...



This is Quebec's Annie Blanchard doing a C&W heart breakin' sing-a-long...

For comparison, here's Johnny Cash and June Carter trying their hand at this song...



Nothing like a little broken hearted song to make an economic downturn seem "not so bad"...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Does this Scare You?

Here is Jeff Frieden of Harvard with his views on the financial crisis:



Now... are you scared?

Should you be scared?

I would say "no". Why? This guy is a professor of "government" at Harvard! What qualifications does he have to pontificate on "the crisis"?

This is typical of "big events". It brings all kinds of crazies out of the woodwork who suddenly puff themselves up and sagely give their "learned opinion" on the big event of the day. Typically they echo the mainstream opinion. There is no content. They have no special expertise. But the media quickly hand over the microphone to them and let them drown out the few real experts who have something useful to say.

Who perpetrated this talking head on us? Greg Mankiw. Bush's former head of the Council of Economic Advisors. I would say that Mankiw delights in passes out this "the world is falling" meme because he is a sock puppet of the rich and powerful. They are tickled pink to see the collapse of civilization as we know it because they simply get in their yachts and sail away.

So don't get caught up in stuffed shirts pontificating. Ignore them!

Canada catches a US Voting Disease

This recent federal election had the lowest voter participation 59.1% ever recorded in any Canadian federal election. Here is the record:
Year Voter Turnout(%) Year Voter Turnout(%)
1867 73.1 1949 73.8
1872 70.3 1953 67.5
1874 69.6 1957 74.1
1878 69.1 1958 79.4
1882 70.3 1962 79.0
1887 70.1 1963 79.2
1891 64.4 1965 74.8
1896 62.9 1968 75.7
1900 77.4 1972 76.7
1904 71.6 1974 71.0
1908 70.3 1979 75.7
1911 70.2 1980 69.3
1917 75.0 1984 75.3
1921 67.7 1988 75.3
1925 66.4 1993 69.6 (70.9 adj.)
1926 67.7 1997 67.0
1930 73.5 2000 61.2 (64.1 adj.)
1935 74.2 2004 60.9
1940 69.9 2006 64.7
1945 75.3

Why is that? I have two explanations for the low turnout.

Explanation #1: Harper is following the play book from the US where the rich don't want the poor to vote by blocking efforts to lower the hurdles to voting. Instead they try to make it harder to qualify to vote by making voter registration more difficult and time consuming.

Here is a comment by Mark Thoma about the US election that is relevant to what just happened in Canada:

Costs and Benefits of Increased Participation in the Democratic Process

from Economist's View by Mark Thoma

I didn't watch the debate, but in reading about it, I have a question.

Why is it “destroying the fabric of democracy” to register low and moderate income people, many of whom are either young or minorities, to vote?

That statement can only be made if you see only costs (a tiny potential for voting fraud) and not the offsetting benefits (increased participation of these voters in the democratic process). Doesn't McCain believe there are large benefits to increased participation of low-income voters, voters of color, and young voters in the democratic process, country first and all that? Apparently not. He does not seem to believe that the benefits are large enough to overcome the trivial costs. Here's the quote from the debate:
ACORN ... is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
But McCain knows this, at least he should:
[E]lection experts say the chances for significant voter fraud in November are slim. Most of the false or duplicate names - such as "Mickey Mouse" and the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys - are already being struck from voter rolls by election boards. Election experts say while there have been a few isolated cases of voter fraud in recent history, it's virtually impossible to pull off large-scale voter fraud without being discovered. ...

The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002 after the 2000 election debacle in Florida, required that new voter registrations include a "unique identifier" - a driver's license number or the last four digits of the Social Security number - to verify the voter's identity.

"It's not like you can just make this stuff up and, voila, you are a registered voter," Weir said. "You've got to be pretty clever to steal an 'identifier' to steal a vote. You have to have one of those identifiers. If you don't that's going to stop the process."

Also:

  • ACORN has helped 1.3 million citizens from all parties and all walks of life apply for voter registration.
  • In most states, ACORN is required by law to turn in every voter registration card - even in cases where the cards are not valid.
  • It is ACORN that has reported almost all of the issues regarding voter registration cards.
  • Invalid voter registration cards do NOT constitute voter fraud. Even RNC General Counsel Sean Cairncross has recently acknowledged he is not aware of a single improper vote cast as a result of bad cards submitted in the course of an organized voter registration effort.
The only way you can conclude that ACORN is undermining democracy is if you see almost no benefit from increased participation of these voters in the democratic process. I understand why, as a political matter McCain wouldn't be anxious to increase the numbers of particular types of voters, but on more general principle I just don't see how you can conclude that signing up 1,315,057 new voters is contrary to democracy.

Explanation #2: Harper is following the play book from the US where the rich don't want the poor to vote by playing the phony "security" card to disenfranchise voters.

This year Elections Canada imposed a new rule requiring "voter identification" before you could vote. Why? Has there been some massive security breach that has allowed fraudulent voters to flood the polls? I don't think so and I sure haven't heard great outcry in the past that would justify this new hurdle to voting.

Presumably the new "voter identification" requirement has been put in place as part of a "security" scheme to prevent fraudulent voting. If so, this "security" scheme is a fraud:
If you notice, one of the "identification" techniques is to have somebody with a driver's license "vouch" for any number of other people. This is a loophole big enough to drive as many fraudulent voters as you want through it.
All this identification "system" does is make people like me throw up their hands and refuse to play the game. The cheaters will continue to cheat because the system is stupid. It is "mock" security, just like Bush has mock "homeland security" in the US. Harper (via Elections Canada) is not concerned with fraudulent voting. He is simply raising the bar to make it harder to the poor to vote. (What, you mean everybody doesn't have a driver's license?)

This is just another small wedge in Harper's goal of implementing a full "national identify card" scheme for the country. Hey Harper, why not go whole hog and just line us up like the NAZIs did and tattoo our "identify number" on our forearm as you march us into the barracks you have reserved for those of us not affluent enough to buy a piece of the "Canadian dream" that you so jealously guard?

Good News Comrades, the Revolution has been Achieved!

Here is a blog entry by Hiltzoy at the Washington Monthly that proclaims that Socialism has been brought to us by the most unlikely means. The Right has nationalized the banks and industry to give us the long awaited Revolution! Hurrah for the Capitalist Running Dogs, they have brought us the longed for Revolution. They have broken the chains of the workers and given us all the debts of the bankrupt economic system that is left after the rich have looted everything in sight and run off for their yachts and sailed away.

But wait a second... did we want this "revolution" brought to us by Bush? I don't remember anybody calling for it. So why have the right wing nuts who hate the poor and the working class so much brought us this new dispensation? Well, here is Hiltzoy's take...

The Corner: Objectively Pro-Socialist

K-Lo gets an email about the stock market:

"OK, I'll say it...I believe today's massive decline was, in part (and maybe a big "in part"), in fear that the debate tonight won't go well for McCain and the implications that will have for an Obama victory. The likelihood of a recession has been talked about and, probably, factored in to a lot of folks' thinking already... ...if tonight's debate tracks well for McCain, you'll see a positive response tomorrow; if it doesn't, hold on; it won't be pretty. Call it: 'Flight to Safety (from Socialism).'"

No doubt they're all worried that Obama might do something drastic, like, I don't know, take over one of the world's largest insurance companies, or maybe even nationalize the banks.

Oh, wait...

Seriously: given all the fretting on the right about Obama's possible socialist leanings, of which I have seen precisely no evidence, you'd think they would have noticed that someone has recently been taking steps that are genuinely socialist. And that someone isn't our guy; he's theirs.

There are several ways to end up with socialism. One is to try to bring it about. There is, as I said, no evidence that Obama wants to do that. But another is to govern so disastrously that drastic steps like nationalizing banks look like the least bad option. That was the Bush administration's route. And even though I'm sure that Bush did not intend to nationalize banks and an insurance company, he accomplished it anyways, through sheer ineptitude.

If the people at the Corner are really worried about socialism, they should spend less time trying to conjure evidence of it out of thin air, and more time trying to make sure that their party nominates and elects people who will actually govern competently. Their years of cheerleading for Bush's incompetent leadership have done more to bring about socialism in this country than William Ayers ever did.

The First Flower of Spring?

I like Barry Ritholz. I think he tells the story straight. He is now saying the worst is over for the stock market plunge. I sure hope so. The loss of trillions of dollars will affect the economy via the "wealth effect" (if people feel poorer, they spend less). The economy needs an injection of hope and cash. A stock market rally is the medicine needed...

The Steps to Stop Doom

Here is an excellent article by Brad DeLong, published in the UK's Guardian newspaper, that outlines all the steps taken to prevent the impending collapse from the financial crisis. It is very useful summary of all the steps taken to get where we are today and a sobering look at the few options left open to keep us from a world-wide Great Depression...
It was time for Plan F. If the prospect of buying up mortgage-backed securities did not boost asset prices and bring banks enough investment profits to create confidence that they were not all going bankrupt next month, governments could invest public money in the banks whether they liked it or not, thus making them so well-capitalised that their failure would be inconceivable.

...

Now we get to see whether Plan F will work, and whether this recapitalisation of the global banking system with public money will stop the slide of the world economy, and keep us in mild recession rather than severe recession or even depression.

There is every reason to hope that it will. The liquidity-squeeze theory, the expected-deflation theory and the Bernanke banking-collapse theory were the only live theories of the Great Depression. The first two no longer seem viable. (The past year has been a big intellectual victory for Bernanke-as-academic.) So if we can counteract the chain of causation of the third - the only one left standing - we should be in no danger of even a not-so-great depression. But the theory that recapitalising the banking system will cure what ails the global economy is, at the moment, only a theory. It could be wrong.

If Plan F fails, we move to Plan G: we pull the Keynesian fire alarm and begin an enormous government infrastructure building programme in the whole North Atlantic to keep away depression.

But as of now there is every reason to hope that it will work - that this time, for sure, what our magicians pull out of the hat will be the desired rabbit.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Rules of Debate and the Fine Art of Cheating

I watched the final US Presidential debate tonight...

I had to wrestle with myself to keep from throwing things at my TV and risked letting my anger destroy the TV as my anger welled up at the idiocy I was seeing.

McCain makes me go ballistic. He is a slippery congenital liar in the same mold as George W. Bush. How can the American people go for another idiot as their President. McCain can't string ideas together. He uses Hitlers "big lie" technique of telling the same lie over and over to subtly plant the idea that there must be some truth to the lie because it keeps coming up and everybody is talking about it. He is in the pockets of the rich and keeps selling "tax cuts" as his "fix" to the economy despite Obama pointing out that eight more years of Bush's (tax cutting) policies will destroy the United States. Ho can people be so stupid as to fall for Bush policies warmed up and served over again? (Sure McCain claimed he isn't Bush, but as Obama pointed out, the differences are only on tangential issues. On the big issues of taxes, the economy, war, health case, education, etc. McCain is a Bush Mini-me.)

I can't stand the moderators of those debates. Schieffer who would pose a question and then McCain would jump the fence running off on some other topic and ignoring the debate subject. Schieffer wouldn't reel him in. Schieffer never called him to account for disregarding the rules of the debate. (Also, notice how McCain consistently went over his time limit while Obama stayed within it).
I was beside myself at the end when the talked about educational funding. McCain suddenly talked about "funding special programs for autistic kids with special needs". Obama should have said:
"Time out John! earlier this evening you said you were going to take an axe to the budget and I pointed out a need for a scalpel. You said you were going to freeze spending and I said that in some cases we might have to increase spending. You railed against me with a pretense that you had a plan to control spending. But here at the very end you start with a new spending initiative that would break any freeze and that would escape your axe. In short, you have been caught lying to the American people!"

But the idiot Obama didn't call him out. Schieffer and Obama let the slimeball McCain define his own questions, break rules at will, repeat lies as if they were truths, and never brought him to account. Nuts!

Through the Looking Glass

It is interesting when professors use their current course as a tool to comment on the great events of current affairs. Here is Brad DeLong giving an economics lecture commenting on:
  • Clever political handlers appointing a Vice President for short term electoral reasons. (Think Sarah Palin, but presented in terms of Teddy Roosevelt who ascended to the presidency due to the assassination of McKinley.)
  • How to handle a banking failure and a stock market panic. (Think current crisis, but presented as a series of historical precedents.)
This lecture is well worth listening to. This is his Oct 8, 2008 lecture on "The Coming of the Great Depression". Interestingly DeLong finds his precedents starting with 1793 and lots and lots in the 19th century.

Here's the cartoon that DeLong mentions...

Vote "None of the Above!"

Here's one of the more effective political advertisements of the 2008 US presidential campaign. Watch and enjoy the subtleties of the argument. How can you not be convinced that this guy is ready on Day One to take the bull by the horns and pull the US out of its current economic slump, safely extract the troops from Iraq, deploy the Marines to get Bin Laden "dead or alive!", go after of the Washington Lobbyists and clean up that mess, come up with an energy policy that will save Western Civilization, etc., etc., etc.

It is all laid out in this one clear political ad...

Money is the Root of All Evil

No! Barry Ritholz overthrows this Biblical proverb with a new one...

Regulation is the cause of the New Great Depression...

Over the past 30 years, the United States has moved from an environment of excessive regulation to excessive deregulation. This philosophical shift was taken to irrational extremes, and it is the heart of the current financial crisis.

A brief history: Post War World II, the global economy expanded dramatically. By the late 1960s, the U.S. had an expansive bureaucracy. Regulatory oversight had become time-consuming, complex, and expensive. Eliminating this excess regulation started with President Jimmy Carter, and dramatically accelerated under Ronald Reagan. Originally, only the most expensive and onerous provisions were targeted. But eventually, deregulation became a religion, and effective and necessary safeguards were removed along with the costly ones.

Free-market deregulation became a misguided rallying cry of conservative ideologues. The U.S. moved from a state of excess regulation to radical de-regulation.

In 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed, allowing insurers, banks and brokerage firms to merge. In 2000, Derivatives were exempted from all regulatory, supervisory or reserve requirements by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

During the early 2000s, the Federal Reserve, under Alan Greenspan Fed elected against supervising new mortgage lending firms. This act of nonfeasance, based upon Mr. Greenspan’s free market philosophy, had enormous repercussions.

The final act of deregulatory zeal were the net capitalizations exemptions granted by the SEC to five firms. This exemption allowed firms to exceed rules limiting debt-to-net capital ratio to a modest 12-to-1 ratio. After the 2004 exemption, firms levered up as much as 40 to 1. Not surprising, the five brokers that received this exemption – Goldman Sachs, Merrill, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Morgan Stanley – are no longer in existence; they either failed, merged, or changed into depository banks.

I like be flippant and pithy, but Ritholz has hit the nail on the head. He's found the mark. He's got a dead ringer when he says "deregulation". Yep, the new-found religion of the right -- deregulate! deregulate! deregulate! -- has created the horrors of today. Remember California and the power shortages manipulated by Enron. That was deregulation. Remember the collapse of airline profitability, that was deregulation. Remember the poisoned pet food and child's toys with led paint, that was deregulation. Remember the Katrina response run by political appointees who replaced the professionals, that was deregulation. Too bad the right wing lunatics can't see that their god has failed...
The above is an earlier god that failed.

Well, the new god has failed. As Barry Ritholz pounds the point home:

Why do we have referees in professional sports? All intense competition leads to rules of the game getting tested. Refs are on the field to prevent the game from spiraling into something unrecognizable to fans.

In business, the profit incentive leads to similar behavior. We push the envelope, tap dance close to that line, and then blow past it.

Deregulation took the referees off of the field, allowed speculative excesses to flourish, and reckless short-term incentives to distort behavior.

That is Human Nature – we are competitive creatures, and we require reasonable boundaries to protect ourselves from our own worst instincts. When left to our own devices, we push the envelope, cut corners, even work against our own best interests in the pursuit of profits. Every financial scandal over the past decade – corrupt analysts, fraudulent accounting, over-stating profits, predatory lending, conflicts of interests, option backdating – are the result of a legitimate business operation pushed up to the legal boundaries, and then going far beyond them.

That is the risk deregulation brings: It encourages behavior that leads to systemic risk. In the present case, the global credit markets have frozen, threatening a worldwide recession. The total cleanup costs are scaling up towards $10 trillion dollars.

All due to an excess of deregulatory zeal . . .

Apocalypse Revealed

I'm not big on talking heads. I enjoyed Nassim Nicolas Taleb's books. I admit I didn't act on what I read. I'm guilty of not foreseeing the horrors we are now in. But...

I hate it when a guy who "got it right" suddenly is wined and dined and made the centre of attention after the fact. Who says he is right now? I don't know. I do appreciate that Taleb refuses to take the bait in the following and pontificate on "climate change", "civil liberties" and other "big issues". But I still find it a bit hard to swallow when he starts saying "you tend to think that the crisis is in the middle or towards the end, I think we may be in the very beginning". Argh!

When somebody becomes famous for one thing, that one thing becomes their whole life. Taleb has fallen into that trap. He is becoming a Cassandra.

The following video is a bit chopped up. Whoever submitted it to YouTube cut out everything but Taleb's comments so the larger discussion is lost...



The sad fact is that Taleb is currently one of history's "winners". Here are the facts presented on Bloomberg:
Investors advised by ``Black Swan'' author Nassim Taleb have gained 50 percent or more this year as his strategies for navigating big swings in share prices paid off amid the worst stock market in seven decades.

Universa Investments LP, the Santa Monica, California-based firm where Taleb is an adviser, has about $1 billion in accounts managed to hedge clients against big moves in financial markets. Returns for the year through Oct. 10 ranged as high as 110 percent, according to investor documents. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index lost 39 percent in the same period.

``I am very sad to be vindicated,'' Taleb said today in an interview in London. ``I don't care about the money. We're proud we protected our investors.''

Taleb's book argues that history is littered with high- impact rare events known in quantitative finance as ``fat tails.'' As the founder of New York-based Empirica LLC, a hedge- fund firm he ran for six years before closing it in 2004, Taleb built a strategy based on options trading to bullet-proof investors from market blowups while profiting from big rallies.

While I enjoy Teleb's insights, I have no intention of worshiping at his feet. I'm more a believer in Burton Malkiel in his book A Random Walk Down Wall Street:

Let's engage in a coin-tossing contest. Those who can consistently flip heads will be declared winners. The contest begins and 1000 contestants flip coins. Just as would be expected by chance, 500 of them flip heads and these winners are allowed to advance to the second stage of the contest and flip again. As might be expected, 250 flip heads. Operating under the laws of chance, there will be 125 winnder in the third round, 63 in the fourth, 31 in the fifth, 16 in the sixth, and 8 in the seventh.

By this time, crowds start to gether to witness the surprising ability of these expert coin-tossers. The winners are overwhelmed by adulation. They are celebreated as geniuses in the art of coin-tossing, their biographies are written, and people urgently seek their advice.

Taleb is now an "expert coin-tosser". I'm not denying that his insights are not good. But I put him in the camp of "experts" who are now sought for every word of wisdom. He now tells us that we are only at the start of a most horrendous economic downturn. This gives us shadenfreude. We love it!

But the reality -- as even Taleb states in the above video -- is that nobody knows the future. Not even Taleb. So when he pontificates on this being "only the beginning" he has just betrayed his own claim to wisdom!

By the way... if you want to hear some of Kenneth Rogoff's views, try this NPR broadcast. Or, go to Rogoff's website.

Wither Goest Thou?

This is bad news... the slump is headed toward a very serious recession...
or presented in a way that shows both real sales changes versus nominal sales changes over a longer timeline to let you appreciate how much trouble we are really in...

The problem with a recession/depression is the psychology of it. Once everybody is convinced that things are going bad, they tighten up. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unfortunately Bush is yet again a dollar short and a day late. His administration has a long record of responding slowly to emergencies letting this grow from a small problem into a huge problem. Like they say "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". But unfortunately with Bush you have to spend many, many dollars desperately trying to cure a deathbed patient because he responds so late that the patient is on death's door before it gets his attention.

This economy is like all those poor folks in New Orleans. We've now been on the overpasses or trapped on rooftops or huddled at the Superdome and Convention Center for two or three days wondering why the government hasn't responded. Those poor folks didn't realize that they had another 3 or 4 days to wait before Bush would mobilize any serious emergency aid. Well, the same thing is going on today. Back in Dec 2007 Paulson put forward a "plan" to deal with the rising mortgage default rate. It was so constrained and so poorly targeted that nobody could take advantage of it. Now foreclosure rates are astronomically high. The problem which could have been solved with $200 billion is now costing over $1 trillion and -- because it is so late to the rescue -- will probably cost closer to $3 trillion. Bush has consistently been a dollar short and a day late. And the American people (and the whole world) pay a price for his incompetence. What a tragedy!

Here is what Paul Krugman has to say about the above graphs in his NY Times blog...
This reinforces a point I’ve been trying to make: even if the rescue now in train succeeds in unfreezing credit markets, the real economy has immense downward momentum. In addition to financial rescues, we need major stimulus programs.

Getting to the Colonel of Truth, Maybe

Here's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but buttered up, laid-on truth. This is from Fafblog:

So ever since this election switched from practical bread-and-butter issues like how much Democrats are going to tax Jesus to fund their gay-married abortion babies to fluff like "the economy" and "the recession" and "the apocalyptic collapse of global capitalism" it looks like everybody's gonna vote for Barack Obama. Well good for you, see if Giblets cares, Giblets doesn't care about the stupid ol' presidency anyway. But before you go and throw your vote away just ask yourself: who is Barack Obama? "Oh well Giblets Barack Obama is the junior senator from Illinois who is running for president on some moderate health care and tax reform plans and a foreign policy which is actually very similar to John McCain's," you say because you are irritating and stupid and I hate you. Yes yes but who is Barack Obama, really? "Well he was born in Hawaii to Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr. and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and was a community organizer and a law professor before running for the Illinois state senate." Okay okay but who is Barack Obama, really, while I am playing scary music and flashing this terrifyingly desaturated image of Barack Obama in a turban across your television screen? "Oh my god I have no idea, who is this mysteriously radical mystery radical!" Giblets is glad you asked!

FACT! Barack Obama and sixties radical Bill Ayers were both associated with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a radical education foundation whose radical goal is to radically educate black children by educating them... while they are still black.

FACT! Barack Obama spent twenty years in the same church as radically black pastor Jeremiah Wright, who has been known to make such incendiary claims as "white people enslaved black people" and "white people killed Native Americans." Is Barack Obama part of the international black conspiracy to trick white people into thinking about racism? Answer: maybe.

FACT! Barack Obama has been friends with Rashid Khalidi, an openly Arab Arab who is so Arab he writes about other Arabs. Is Barack Obama part of the international Arab conspiracy to trick white people into thinking about Arabs? Answer: also maybe.

FACT! Barack Obama talks about his white mother and his white grandparents and the white half of his family that is white, but did you know that half of his family is also black? In fact, half his family is so black that Obama keeps them hidden away on a whole other continent where they speak in a strange, otherworldly code which is not even English. What is Obama trying to hide? Possibly something black. BONUS FACT! Barack Obama may be half-white and half-black, but he married a woman who is completely black. In a way, doesn't that make him three-quarters black? Math doesn't lie, people!

FACT! "Obama" is an ancient Muslim name meaning "He Who Deceives the White Man with his Telegenic Charisma, Angular Good Looks, and Deceptively Conservative Policy Proposals." Coincidence? Or co-bama?

FACT! The previous fact was made up. But doesn't the fact that it was so easily made up prove that a kernel of truth must exist within the lie, and doesn't the existence of that kernel of truth prove that the lie is, in fact, true? Think about it! But not very hard!

FACT! Barack Obama was a community organizer. ACORN is made of community organizers. Acorns come from oak trees. Oak trees belong to the genus Quercus, which includes Quercus faginea, the Portuguese oak. The prime minister of Portugal is José Sócrates, whose last name looks like Socrates, who lived in Athens, which is also a city in Georgia, whose state fruit is the peach, which is native to China, which is exactly what Osama bin Laden was eating off of while he was plotting to destroy the Twin Towers. It's all connected, people - they just don't want you to know! And they could be black.
Now... don't you feel better? Isn't sarcasm and irony and comedy the way to prick the balloon of the idiot right wing crazies who are working overtime with money from the richest 0.1% of the population to buy this election the good old fashioned way, i.e. by fear mongering, by stirring up religious zealotry, by lying (oh, I mean "spin doctoring"), and the other tricks we have come to love.

By the way... McCain should take heart. The federal election in Canada just returned the mini-Me version of Bush, Stephen Harper, with an enhanced minority government. So take heart you right wing nuts, your money and your bigotry can win you another election and really put the nail in the coffin of your country. Canada is showing the way!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Double Standard

It is pretty obvious that the media in the US is using a double standard when viewing the Obama candidacy versus the McCain candidacy. But it is usually something you have to deduce from the evidence.

Here is Jonathan Chait of The New Republic saying that the Washington Post has let slip the memo ordering a double standard:
Playing Balz

Washington Post news analyst Dan Balz has written a missive to the campaign press corps urging them to, well, there's no other way to put it: start holding Barack Obama to a higher standard than his opponent. Balz is one of the most prestigious members of the Washington press corps, and his commentary has already been fronted by conventional wisdom-arbiter The Page, so it's likely to be influential.

Why should the press train its sights on Obama? Balz says because the election is all but over:

He leads nationally in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll by 53 percent to 43 percent. He leads, too, by a wide margin in estimates of the Electoral College. Virtually all of the closest states left at this point voted for President Bush four years ago.

The presidential race is not over, but at this point, Obama has a better chance of becoming president than McCain, and as a result, the questions ought to be going toward him as much or more than McCain

In other words, Balz argues, Obama should be treated as if he's already president, rather than as one of two candidates for the presidency. I suppose that, if you think the election is truly a formality, an argument could be made for skipping ahead to post-election coverage. Yet, a few paragraphs later, Balz says that it's important that this new phase of one-sided inquiry happen now so that voters can potentially decide if they want Obama at all:

It would be helpful to voters to know now, rather than after the election, whether [Obama] will take a zero-based look at everything and rearrange priorities.

Does this make any sense? Balz is saying that voters need to know all these things about Obama (he does not say they need to know this about McCain) before the election. Why before the election? It can only be because they might decide they prefer McCain instead. But why should voters be making this decision on the basis of how they judge Obama, rather than an even comparison between the two candidates? Balz is saying that the press should give Obama the scrutiny of an incumbent president so that voters can potentially choose somebody else to be president. I suppose that if voters decide to start flocking to McCain, Balz's logic would compel him to urge the press corps to start suddenly applying one-sided scrutiny to the GOP candidate -- unless it happened too late.

I'm on favor of rigorous, intelligent questioning of both candidates. But the first "questions" Balz proposes aren't really questions at all but opinions that the press corps is apparently supposed to adopt. Balz:

[Obama] stayed in close contact with Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke and with Democratic congressional leaders. He both embraced the sense of urgency to act on the $700 billion bailout package and offered criticisms of the administration's initially sketchy plan. His criticisms were in line with changes that Congress made before eventually approving the package.

But it's not clear that he has had any better ideas -- or put them forward more aggressively -- than Paulson and Bernanke when it comes to dealing with the crisis in the credit markets. It's not clear that he has pushed ideas that would have dealt with the crisis more effectively. At every turn, he has voiced support for the general course the administration has outlined, but he's not been far out ahead.

What? First he says that Obama proposed different ideas than the administration, but then says it's not clear that he has any better ideas. I suppose Balz could believe that Obama's opinions are no better than Paulson's. That's a subjective judgment, though not many economists --- nor even, by this point, Paulson himself -- would agree with him. But clearly, as Balz just admitted in the previous paragraph, Obama did have different ideas.

Balz proceeds to propose more questions:

Nor is it evident that [Obama] has dealt realistically with the impact the economic crisis may have on the next president. He has not backed away from ambitious plans for a second stimulus package, for dramatically expanding health care, for reducing dependence on foreign oil or for other spending plans that long have been part of his campaign agenda.

First of all, this question has been asked -- in all three presidential and vice-presidential debates, while vast areas of domestic and foreign policy have been ignored. Second, the question is economically illiterate. Virtually any economists would agree that, to the extent that domestic spending makes any sense, its rationale is stronger, not weaker, during a recession. Certainly many conservative economists would oppose Obama's spending plans under any circumstances. No economist would favor them under normal conditions but oppose them due to the recession.

Balz flays Obama because he "has not backed away from ambitious plans for a second stimulus package." Of course he hasn't backed away from his stimulus plans because of the recession. He came up with it as a response to the recession. That's what a stimulus package is. Bill Clinton scaled back his plans for a stimulus package in 1993 because the economy was getting better and no longer needed it.

Balz then proposes a series of questions about whether Obama is a "pragmatist" or "ideologically oriented," and whether he'll pursue bipartisanship if elected. Okay, fine. Shouldn't the press be asking this of both candidates before the election? Balz covers himself by adding that "both candidates" should get these questions, but "especially" Obama. I've heard reporters admit that coverage can be biased for one reason or another -- ideology, desire for a close race, personal afinity for one of the candidates -- but I've never before seen one openly propose a double standard.

--Jonathan Chait

Objective Truth

How can we establish the "truthiness" of a fact? What makes an opinion expert? How do we know that we really know what we think we know?

Here's John Cleese on Sarah Palin:

Throwing Slanders to Obscure the Facts

There is a good article by Daniel Gross in Slate magazine that points out ridiculousness of the latest slander from the Right:
On the Republican side of Congress, in the right-wing financial media (which is to say the financial media), and in certain parts of the op-ed-o-sphere, there's a consensus emerging that the whole mess should be laid at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the failed mortgage giants, and the Community Reinvestment Act, a law passed during the Carter administration. The CRA, which was amended in the 1990s and this decade, requires banks—which had a long, distinguished history of not making loans to minorities—to make more efforts to do so.

The thesis is laid out almost daily on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, in the National Review, and on the campaign trail. John McCain said yesterday, "Bad mortgages were being backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and it was only a matter of time before a contagion of unsustainable debt began to spread."

...

Let me get this straight. Investment banks and insurance companies run by centimillionaires blow up, and it's the fault of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and poor minorities?

These arguments are generally made by people who read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and ignore the rest of the paper—economic know-nothings whose opinions are informed mostly by ideology and, occasionally, by prejudice. Let's be honest. Fannie and Freddie, which didn't make subprime loans but did buy subprime loans made by others, were part of the problem. Poor Congressional oversight was part of the problem. Banks that sought to meet CRA requirements by indiscriminately doling out loans to minorities may have been part of the problem. But none of these issues is the cause of the problem. Not by a long shot. From the beginning, subprime has been a symptom, not a cause. And the notion that the Community Reinvestment Act is somehow responsible for poor lending decisions is absurd.

Here's why.

The Community Reinvestment Act applies to depository banks. But many of the institutions that spurred the massive growth of the subprime market weren't regulated banks. They were outfits such as Argent and American Home Mortgage, which were generally not regulated by the Federal Reserve or other entities that monitored compliance with CRA. These institutions worked hand in glove with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, entities to which the CRA likewise didn't apply. There's much more. As Barry Ritholtz notes in this fine rant, the CRA didn't force mortgage companies to offer loans for no money down, or to throw underwriting standards out the window, or to encourage mortgage brokers to aggressively seek out new markets. Nor did the CRA force the credit-rating agencies to slap high-grade ratings on packages of subprime debt.

And the goes on from there with more reasons why this ridiculous slander from the Right is absurd and unfounded. That won't stop the Right. They own the media, so they will go ahead with their slime. The tragedy is that Americans have to work hard to find bits of truth through the chinks of light that slip past the dark bars of lies and innuendos that the Right slathers across the media in the US.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I enjoy reading Olivia Judson's essays. I first ran across her in her book...


Now I get to enjoy more of the same from her NY Times blog where she write roughly once a week with another fascinating story of creatures and their amazing/perplexing/unusual/fascinating aspects.

Here is a fascinating bit about masculine immaculate conception in Judson's NY Times blog:

Sex, to get technical about it, is the mixing of genes from two parents to make a new individual that has a genetic contribution from both. Asexuality thus refers to any of a number of forms of reproduction that involve only one genetic parent.

That parent is typically the female. The reason is that, in many species, females can easily reproduce without males. An egg, after all, contains nutrients and other stuff that an embryo needs in order to grow. Often, the only thing the egg is missing is the set of genes that comes from the father. But this set of genes can sometimes be dispensed with — the egg can develop without it. As a consequence, females in species from aphids to dandelions are the ultimate single mothers: they reproduce without males, and each is the sole genetic parent of her offspring.

Becoming an ultimate single dad is more complicated. The problem is that sperm are little more than mobile packets of DNA: they don’t have what it takes to grow into a new individual by themselves. For an offspring to have a father but no mother thus requires some genetic jiggery-pokery.