Saturday, February 28, 2009

Well - we common folks aren't alone

Berkshire has worst year, Buffett still optimistic
By JOSH FUNK, AP Business Writer
Sat Feb 28, 2009
OMAHA, Neb. – Warren Buffett remains optimistic about the prospects for his company and the nation even though Berkshire Hathaway Inc. turned in its worst performance in 2008 and the widely-followed investor says the economy will likely remain a mess beyond this year.

When Buffet's Berkshire takes a beating, we just plain folks oughtn't hope for too much.

And at least Buffet is honest:
Buffett wrote he's certain "the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 — and, for that matter, probably well beyond..."
How this sentiment translates into optimism is beyond me.

Again: stock up on rice & beans!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Re-visiting anti-trust legislation: "too big to fail"

Insurance giant AIG facing possible breakup

I am very definitely NOT an expert on anti-trust legislation!
What I learn from Wikipedia is this:
United States antitrust law is the body of laws that prohibits anti-competitive behavior (monopoly) and unfair business practices. Antitrust laws are designed to encourage competition in the marketplace. These competition laws make illegal certain practices deemed to hurt businesses or consumers or both, or generally to violate standards of ethical behavior.
The original intent of anti-trust legislation was to "encourage competition in the marketplace".

Given the underpinnings of the current mess - with so many financial institutions deemed "too big to fail" - perhaps it's time to revisit anti-trust laws with an eye more towards practices "deemed to hurt" consumers. Among these I would today count practices that encourage entities to become "too big to fail".

I note that Citi is divesting itself of large chunks of its business - making itself smaller.
Now we learn than AIG may be headed in the same direction.

Perhaps if they'd not become so big in the first place, we'd now be spared the $750Bn bailouts.

I'm guessing that the original intent of the various mergers & acquisitions that created these super-entities was marketplace efficiency, and from a pure "efficiency" standpoint it's likely to be difficult to argue against such mergers and acquisitions.
BUT - when the resulting entities become such large players that their individual failures threaten our entire economic system, something is out of whack. (See, e.g., Lehmann Bros.)

Could rational legislation be crafted that would prohibit any corporate entity becoming "too big to fail" without seriously impairing market efficiency?

I don't know... but it seems worth considering.

More fun W bashing... (I'll let someone else do the talking)

From fellow blogger One Fly:
Another Bush Bastard Pleads Guilty
This is getting to be a fun cottage industry!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Valuing labor

Never having been a union member I've been reluctant to weigh in on the Employee Free Choice Act - though if only because of Republican opposition I'm inclined to support the bill.

Here, however, is a loyal reader & fellow blogger who DOES have an informed opinion: Union Proud.

I will note that:
In 2007, the total compensation of chief executives in large American corporations was 275 times that of the salary of the average worker, estimates the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. In the late 1970s, chief executive pay was 35 times that of the average American worker."
[Wall St. Pay Is Cyclical. Guess Where We Are Now., NYT, 4 Feb 2009]
... and that from the 1970s till now our Republican friends have aggressively (and successfully) pursued blatantly anti-labor policies.

At last! - the rule of law (what a concept!)

Sources: Feds moving enemy combatant to Ill. court
By DEVLIN BARRETT, Associated Press
26 Feb 2009
WASHINGTON – An accused al-Qaida sleeper agent held for 5-1/2 years at a Navy brig in South Carolina will soon be sent to Illinois for trial in civilian court, a move the government has fought for years saying terror suspects caught in the U.S. could be held indefinitely without charges.

Has habeas really been restored?

... of course, I do regret that President Obama likely will NOT declare W an "enemy combatant" and have him imprisoned, incommunicado, in isolation, for years - effectively burying him alive... at probably less expense to U.S. taxpayers than current Secret Service protection.

Restoring habeas corpus is a good first step.
Prosecuting torture would be a good second step.

... I'll be grateful for the first step, for now.

bin Laden won! - revisited

A few posts back I noted that in the title fight, bin Laden vs W, bin Laden seems to be ahead on points.

What I improperly failed to note is that there is one crucial distinction between bin Laden's campaign against the U.S. & our campaign against al Qaeda:
bin Laden has an explicit strategy!
From his Oct 2004 speech:
"As previously mentioned, it was easy for us to provoke this administration and to drag it [after us]. It was enough for us to send two Jihad fighters to the farthest east to hoist a rag on which 'Al-Qa'ida' was written – that was enough to cause generals to rush off to this place, thereby causing America human and financial and political losses, without it accomplishing anything worthy of mention, apart from giving business to [the generals'] private corporations.
We are continuing in the same policy – to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing."
Note: bin Laden articulates a clear strategic objective ("causing America human and financial and political losses"; making "America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy"), together with a strategy to attain these ends ("provoke this administration and to drag it [after us].").

This is considerably more advanced strategic thinking than anything we saw or heard from W, ... and, sadly, than anything we've so far seen or heard from President Obama.

Perhaps bin Laden is winning on points because he has clear goals and a simple strategy to attain those goals.

Perhaps we ought follow his example.

As promised: what Krugman actually said

Loyal readers know that I've been hankering to see a "playbook" from SecTreas Geithner for spending TARP $$$.
(This after former SecTreas Paulson declared that, "There is no playbook for responding to turmoil we have never faced.")

Yesterday I noted that Paul Krugman is also waiting to see Geithner's playbook. Here's what he had to say on Countdown:
KRUGMAN: "... On the banks, I really can‘t see. There really seems to be, we are going to put in some more money, we‘re going to, you know, say stern things to the bankers about how they should behave better, but if there is a strategy there, it‘s continuing to be a mystery to me and to everybody I talk to."
[emphasis added]
It's nice to be in such good company.

Just for fun: W's guy at the CIA

Feds: Misconduct by CIA's Foggo spanned decades
Associated Press Writer
Posted: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009
ALEXANDRIA, Va. A former CIA agent rose to the agency's No. 3 rank despite a record of misconduct that stretched over 20 years, prosecutors said, until his career came to an end with his conviction in a bribery scheme.
Court papers filed this week offer the most detailed glimpse yet of Foggo's misconduct, which included getting his mistress hired to a $100,000 a year job at the CIA and steering millions of dollars in CIA contracts to
[Foggo's old friend, contractor Brent] Wilkes.

No - W didn't appoint him... But W's man, CIA Director Porter Goss, did! This at a time when reforming our intelligence system was supposed to be a top Administration priority.

W: the gift that keeps on giving.

"Enlightened self-interest", redux

North Carolina Syringe Factory Tied to Deaths Went Uninspected Despite Complaints
Published: February 26, 2009
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina syringe factory linked to hundreds of illnesses and five deaths operated for almost two years without an inspection despite a series of complaints that its needles were dirty or filled with colored particles.
Federal investigators contend that the company, based in Chicago, was so consumed with maximizing profits that it shipped syringes filled with saline and the blood-thinner heparin from a dingy facility without ensuring they were sterile.

[emphasis added.]

I believe it's important to keep a file of such examples.
When Republicans try to thwart new regulatory legislation - almost certainly citing the magic of the market - have the file handy to provide detailed case-studies demonstrating the failure of "self-regulation based on enlightened self-interest" (I believe that's Greenspan's phrase).

Of course, hauling out the case-studies is only the second action to take in response to Republican "the market is self-regulating" talking points.
The first action: As soon as anyone utters the term, "self-regulation", start laughing... loudly.

"Self-regulation" is an oxymoron.
"Self-regulation based on enlightened self-interest" has failed time & time again, bringing our financial system to its knees, flooding our food supply with poisons, and directly endangering our health.

Re-structuring & strengthening our Federal regulatory system will be addressed by Congress in the not-too-distant future. Republicans & industry lobbyists will howl.
It is not too early to start putting together a battle plan.

[update]Here's Greenspan himself:
“All of the sophisticated mathematics and computer wizardry essentially rested on one central premise: that enlightened self interest of owners and managers of financial institutions would lead them to maintain a sufficient buffer against insolvency by actively monitoring and managing their firms’ capital and risk positions,” the Fed chairman said. The premise failed in the summer of 2007, he said, leaving him “deeply dismayed.”

Self-regulation is still a first-line of defense, Mr. Greenspan said. But after the financial collapse of 2007 and 2008, “I see no alternative to a set of heightened federal regulatory rules of behavior for banks and other financial institutions.” ...
[emphasis added]
The financial system isn't the only arena in which regulatory over-haul is needed.

Blast from the past: bin Laden won!

From Osama bin Laden's speech of October 29, 2004:
"As previously mentioned, it was easy for us to provoke this administration and to drag it [after us]. It was enough for us to send two Jihad fighters to the farthest east to hoist a rag on which 'Al-Qa'ida' was written – that was enough to cause generals to rush off to this place, thereby causing America human and financial and political losses, without it accomplishing anything worthy of mention, apart from giving business to [the generals'] private corporations. Besides, we gained experience in guerilla warfare and in conducting a war of attrition in our fight with the iniquitous, great power, that is, when we conducted a war of attrition against Russia with Jihad fighters for 10 years until they went bankrupt, with Allah's grace; as a result, they were forced to withdraw in defeat, all praise and thanks to Allah. We are continuing in the same policy – to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing. And that is not too difficult for Allah."
[emphasis added.]
Recall, this is the guy that W vowed to get, "Dead or Alive".

I'd say he's won - if not the war, at least most of the battles!

For what it's worth: this isn't just my snarky anti-W opinion:
Recession, bailout, stimulus: US security threats?
26 Feb 2009
WASHINGTON – Trillions of dollars in government spending might stabilize the economy, but for now it may have weakened some U.S. security interests abroad and hampered the nation's ability to respond financially to an attack at home.
Heckuva job, W!

[Recall: during the presidential campaign I suffered occasional moments of weakness during which I sort of hoped McCain would win... because I didn't want to see Obama saddled with the mess that W created! - Who would wish this on his worst enemy?]

9000 earmarks

Okay - I don't usually venture into media criticism.
I (mostly) avoid snide remarks about Rush Limbaugh.

But Sean Hannity's 9000 earmarks is just too easy a target!

H.R. 1 (the "stimulus bill") runs to 647 pages.
9000 earmarks? That's just shy of 14 earmarks per page.
It should be pretty easy for Hannity to pull up the bill, pick a couple of pages at random, and find at least ONE earmark.
Does he do this? No.
Rather, he waves a sheaf of papers & states, "I have a list of... part of the 9000 earmarks." He offers to read 'em (if we'd like).

Hmmm... where have I heard this before? Oh, yeah!
"In my hands I have a list of 205 members of the State Department that are Communists."
[Joseph McCarthy, 9 Feb 1950, Wheeling W.Va]
You'd think waving a sheaf of papers around & saying, "I have a list...", would be avoided by TV "journalists" - even on Fox.

You'd think...

Off topic: Music & Life

The director of St. Tim's choir sent this link to choir members: Welcome Address, by Karl Paulnack. It is a welcome address given to entering freshmen at the Boston Conservatory by Karl Paulnack, director of the music division.
It's worth the read!

The story involving Copland's Sonata is particularly haunting.

Dr. Paulnack notes that following 9/11 in NYC:
"The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night."
For me, singing is just fun. It is challenging & rewarding on many dimensions: physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Dr. Paulnack presents a different, much deeper meaning for music.

Quoting Joseph Goebbels - to advance my own agenda!

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda
The Republicans have been using this advice to their advantage for a very long time.
I figure it's time those of us on the other side paid some attention to the advice... No, not to get our own lies accepted, but to promote the truth.

Back on Nov 8, 2008 I noted then SecTreas Paulson's remarks before the House Financial Services Committee (also published in a New York Times Op-Ed):
"There is no playbook for responding to turmoil we have never faced."
In a postscript to this post, I offered the following advice to SecTreas Paulson:
SecTreas Paulson, not that it's my place to tell you your job, but: isn't it a reasonable expectation that your top priority over the past 2 months ought to have been drafting a playbook???
Since then I've frequently called upon our new Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, to draft a playbook before using any more TARP funds.

I've written several posts on this subject. I've written my Rep & Sens. I've written (Dem) Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank. I've even sent a letter to SecTreas Geithner.
My single request?
Draft a Playbook!!!
I learned tonight that I'm not alone.

On tonight's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Krugman expressed his frustration that SecTreas Geithner has yet to publish a clear plan for rescuing our financial system.
[I'll get the transcript when it becomes available.]

Dear Readers: Please help me!
Perhaps if we repeat this request often enough, someone will listen!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They're our nominal allies. Can we listen to 'em?

Strikes Worsen Qaeda Threat, Pakistan Says
Published: February 24, 2009, NYT
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — American missile strikes have reduced Al Qaeda’s global reach but heightened the threat to Pakistan as the group disperses its cells here and fights to maintain its sanctuaries, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The officials acknowledge that the strikes and raids by the Pakistani military are proving effective, having killed as many as 80 Qaeda fighters in the past year. But they express growing alarm that the drone strikes in particular are having an increasingly destabilizing effect on their country.

[emphasis added.]

Note: Pakistan's definition of "effective" is number of bad guys killed.

But the larger point. Maybe I'm hopelessly naive and misinformed - but isn't a STABLE Pakistan to our advantage in our efforts to diminish al Qaeda's influence, and in our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan?

We've been killing bad guys for seven years. I don't know how long we've been killing bad guys by launching missile strikes into Pakistan, but it's been longer than a couple of weeks.
IT'S NOT WORKING! (Unless your only metric is "number of bad guys killed.")

Special Envoy Holbrooke, I implore you: stop the madness!

I did not watch... no principles involved in decision

I missed President Obama's address to the Joint Session of Congress last night.
I also missed Gov. Jindal's Republican Response.
Not watching was not a principled decision, but an accident - an unintended consequence of being in a show.
I was at rehearsal.

With lines to learn, I've neglected my civic duties - like listening to our leaders, and keeping this blog current.

I scanned the NYT's coverage of President Obama's speech. A line the Times chose to call out I found rather trite:
"We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."
Well, yes - what else would he say? (Tho' I suppose I ought remember President Carter dwelling on our "malaise"!)

I am now reading Gov. Jindal's response, having seen that it's been panned for both delivery and content. (Reading it provides no opportunity to evaluate Gov. Jindal's delivery, but does make it easier to focus on content.)

The intro was actually quite good.
The first passage that caught my eye:
"Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us.

Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina -- we have our doubts."
Here we see a Republican mistaking negligent, incompetent Republican governance for Government.

Republicans have no interest in actually governing. Why should they? They believe Government to be the root of all evil.
Yes - the past eight years of Republican "governance" have been disastrous. The response to Hurricane Katrina is but a minor example. ("Heckuva job, Brownie!")
Republican "governance" has brought us to the precipice on which we now teeter.

Ah - here it is now. The panacea:
"That is why Republicans put forward plans to create jobs by lowering income tax rates for working families, cutting taxes for small businesses, strengthening incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment and hire new workers, and stabilizing home values by creating a new tax credit for home-buyers."
Whatever ails ya, Tax Cuts'll fix ya right up!

I have a simple question that I'd really like to ask Gov. Jindal:
When there's no demand, how does cutting taxes create jobs?
I'd really like to hear the explanation - exactly what magic economic mechanism turns tax cuts into jobs in the absence of demand?

I concede that giving a median-income household ($50K/yr) a few extra take-home $$$ might create demand - the median-income household may get that new washer. BUT - they might instead sock the $$$ away. (One of the occasional side-stories to the current economic mess is that we are saving more!)
Relying on the median-income household to spend the $$$ is an act of faith. Maybe the tax-cut for median-income household would stimulate demand - but there's no guarantee.

How 'bout tax cuts for the wealthy? The 95th %-ile of household incomes is less than $200K/yr. I seem to recall Candidate Obama targetting folks making more than $250K/yr.
So - what will these folks buy that they're not buying now?
For the really well-off, those making more than $500K/yr, are they really putting off purchases because they can't now afford 'em? Seems to me the extra $$$ in pocket for these folks is not too likely to create demand.

Okay, how 'bout tax cuts for business? The only argument I can posit is something like, "With the extra $$$, biz will hire more folks, thereby increasing demand."
There's a problem here: biz is currently laying off folks BECAUSE THERE IS NO DEMAND! Why would they use the extra $$$ to hire anyone?
Maybe the argument is, "With the extra $$$, biz will make more stuff." I note only that the current malaise arises from an absence of DEMAND, not a shortage of supply.

But, as a dutiful, deluded Republican, Gov. Jindal is still selling the same old snake-oil.

Okay - here's Gov. Jindal's solution to our energy problem(-s): more drilling. This, too, is a Republican standard.
(I'd bet Gov. Jindal would favor tax breaks to Big Oil to encourage more drilling!)
I note that we are now currently awash in relatively cheap oil (so Big Oil might demand tax incentives to drill!). Longer term... well, oil really is a finite resource - why not pass along some tax incentives to alternative energy? - Maybe even some direct spending on alternative energy projects?

This next one is a bit trickier:
"Republicans believe in a simple principle:
No American should have to worry about losing their health
coverage -- period. We stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage. What we oppose is universal government-run health care."
I am in full agreement with Gov. Jindal that, "No American should have to worry about losing their health coverage -- period." I too stand "for universal access to affordable health care coverage."
The problem here is that the Republicans LIKE the current system - which neither relieves any American from the worry of losing health coverage, nor produces universal access to affordable health care coverage.
In a prior post, I noted that our current health care system costs more than any of the other 29 OECD countries, and produces results near the bottom of the list.
The system we have now is BAD. Again I cite the trite but appropriate popular definition of insanity:
Doing the same thing over & over and expecting different results.
Why are Republicans so seldom challenged on this?

The rest of the speech seems to be simply a recitation of Republican talking points (tho' I didn't notice anything about abortion!):
Improve education? - School vouchers!
Cut defense? - NEVER!
I note that Gov. Jindal concludes with a joke:
"In all these areas, Republicans want to work with President Obama."
I'm happy I didn't watch!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Would that I were so confident!

Survey Reveals Broad Support for President
Published: February 23, 2009; NYT
President Obama is benefiting from remarkably high levels of optimism and confidence among Americans about his leadership, providing him with substantial political clout as he confronts the nation’s economic challenges and opposition from nearly all Republicans in Congress, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
[Read Complete Poll Results]

3. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling the economy?
2/18-22/09 Approve: 57%; Disapprove: 32%; DK/NA: 11%

26. How confident are you in Barack Obama's ability to make the right decisions about the economy — are you very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, or not at all confident?
2/18-22/09 Very: 31%; Somewhat: 45%; Not too: 15%; Not at all: 8%; DK/NA: 1%

76% are at least "somewhat confident" in President Obama's ability to make the right decisions about the economy.

Me? I'd say 76% rather over-represents my subjective assessment of President Obama's ability to make the right decisions about the economy... but then, it's not clear that I would award an omniscient, omnipotent Economist the benefit of the doubt here, either.
Who knows the right thing to do under current conditions?

9. How would you rate the condition of the national economy these days? Is it very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad?
2/18-22/09 Very Good: -%; Fairly Good: 8%; Fairly Bad: 30%; Very Bad: 61%; DK/NA: 1%

12. How long do you think the current recession will last — six months, a year, two years or more than two years?
2/18-22/09 6 mos: 6%; 1 yr: 27%; 2 yrs: 28%; >2 yrs: 35%; DK/NA: 4%

20. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the next four years with Barack Obama as President?
2/18-22/09 optimistic: 77%; pessimistic: 18%; DK/NA: 5%

These last three intrigue me. 91% assess the economy as at best "fairly bad", and 63% believe the current mess will last at least 2 years...
BUT: 77% are generally optimistic about the next 4 years with Obama as President! - Apparently folks really do think he'll do okay.

Again, I'm not so sanguine.

Public Service Announcement: U.S. Health Care system

Writing my Rep & Sens about the desireability of universal health coverage, I stumbled across a wonderful comparative study - prepared by the Congressional Research Service:
U.S. Health Care Spending:
Comparison with Other OECD Countries

CRS Report for Congress
September 17, 2007
Chris L. Peterson and Rachel Burton
Domestic Social Policy Division
(Order Code RL34175)
Based on OECD ("Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development") statistics, the report reveals that the U.S. spends more per capita ($6102) than any other of the 30 member countries; more on health care as percentage of GDP (15.3%) than any other of the 30 member countries...
YET: ranks near the bottom on several "outcome" measures, including life-expectancy (22nd of 30), and infant-mortality (28th of 30).

I'm having a hard time understanding the rationale for opposing cheaper, more effective health care models than what we have currently. (Well... except for vested $$$ interest of insurers, Big Pharma, and other Big Health players.)

Me? I continue to reference my favorite list of "strategic objectives":
We the people of the United States, in order to... promote the general welfare... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States.
Again: the general welfare!

Wow! Why haven't we tried this before?

US, Iraqi forces launch anti-al-Qaida offensive
By SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press
Sun, 22 Feb 2009
BAGHDAD – U.S. and Iraqi forces have begun a new military offensive in northern Iraq aimed at rooting out al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgents, American and Iraqi officials said Sunday.

FIVE YEARS AGO it was sort of fun to count the number of times we chased insurgents/al-Qaida out of Samarra.

Any more, the game has lost its appeal.

Why are we still there, doing exactly what we were doing FIVE YEARS AGO??... in exactly the same places???... with, I suspect, exactly the same results?

As in Afghanistan: killing bad guys doesn't seem to be getting us any closer to whatever end state might be envisioned - unless that end state is simply, "more bad guys are dead than when we started".

Stop the madness!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Alone... why???

Swelling ranks of US jobless yearn for health insurance

We are the only developed country in the world without universal health coverage.

When shibboleths (e.g., "socialism") trump policy, something is very, very wrong. Recall:
We the people of the United States, in order to... promote the general welfare... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The general welfare - not just the welfare of the well-to-do!

Stop the madness!

Winning hearts & minds

This is becoming a common story:
US finds 13 civilians died in Afghanistan strike
By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press
21 Feb 2009
KABUL – An operation the American military at first described as a "precision strike" instead killed 13 Afghan civilians and only three militants, the U.S. said Saturday, three days after sending a general to the site to investigate.
The U.S. military originally said 15 militants were killed Tuesday in a coalition operation in the Gozara district of Herat province, but Afghan officials said six women and two children were among the dead, casting doubt on the U.S. claim.
Killing bad guys - even 15 at a time - ain't gonna win the "war". When we miss the bad guys and kill civilians instead... well, it's not quite clear how this contributes to restoring the "rule of law".

President Obama continues W's drone Predator strikes in Pakistan - going after bad guys.

When will someone point out to him that IT'S BEEN SEVEN YEARS and "KILLING BAD GUYS" is NOT WORKING!

It's trite, I know, but still apt:
Popular definition of insanity:
Doing the same thing over & over and expecting different results!
We've got a new "special envoy" for Pakistan & Afghanistan - Richard Holbrooke. I don't know the guy, but he came highly recommended.
When might he start suggesting that "killing bad guys" ISN'T WORKING?

Stop the madness!

We're just 75% of the way through February!

Small Oregon bank becomes 14th bank to fail in `09

Fourteen so far this year - and it's only February!
Last year's total? 25.
Note: last year's total of 25 was, "more than in the previous five years combined."

Three possibilities: decreasing failure rate, constant failure rate, or increasing failure rate.
Having no crystal ball, I'll assume constant failure rate... and I'll generously assume next week sees no more bank failures. That'll come to 7 bank failures per month, for a 2009 total of 84!!!

Remember: this is W's fault!!! - no one else's.

I love these folks (redux)... Thanks, again!!!

What's not to love?
Jindal rejects $98 million in stimulus spending
by Jan Moller, The Times-Picayune
Friday February 20, 2009
BATON ROUGE -- Saying that it could lead to a tax increase on state businesses, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Friday that the state plans to reject as much as $98 million in federal unemployment assistance in the economic stimulus package.
What's Louisiana's unemployment rate?

Putting failed ideology above the needs of his constituents: Bobby Jindal is the perfect Republican!

I love these folks! - Keep Talking, PLEASE!

From Crooks and Liars:
Republican Congressman Says Republicans Will Cancel Stimulus Bill If They Retake Majority in 2010
By Nicole Belle Saturday Feb 21, 2009
Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (TX-01) goes on FOX News and vows that the Republican Party will cancel the stimulus bill if they retake the majority in 2010.
The C&L note also includes commentary reflecting my sentiment exactly:
All I can tell you, buddy, is that you just keep talking like that. Keep proving how out of touch with what's really happening with Americans right now. Keep showing how petty and petulant and how you place party over country. We'll see about that majority in 2010 with that attitude.
Again: I sure hope someone at DNC is writing down this stuff! (... and in this case, it wouldn't hurt for DCCC to be paying attention, too!)

Encourage your Republican friends to speak up! Frequently.

I feel for 'em... deeply

From Think Progress:
Former Bush administration officials are having trouble finding work
My local Circle K is hiring!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Remember this story?

Feds disrupt alleged plot targeting Obama

Wonder what happened to these guys?

Man accused of plotting to kill Obama seeks dismissal
ASSOCIATED PRESS • February 14, 2009
MEMPHIS — Lawyers for one of two white supremacists accused of plotting to kill President Barack Obama asked a judge Friday to dismiss a threat charge against him, arguing the comments couldn't have been acted upon.

Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., and Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., were charged in October with plotting a robbery and killing spree that would climax with a firearms attack on Obama.

Charges include conspiracy, fire arms violations and threatening a major presidential candidate.

Schlesselman's lawyers contend that any threatening statements he made came while under arrest and during questioning by law enforcement.

"In such an environment, it is impossible for a defendant to make a statement that qualifies as a true threat," the filing says.

The petition seeks dismissal of the single charge in Schlesselman's multi-count indictment accusing him of threatening Obama.

Other defense petitions filed Friday ask the court to dismiss evidence seized during searches of Schlesselman's father's residence in Arkansas and the home of Cowart's grandparents in Tennessee.

Schlesselman, who wants statements he made to investigators suppressed, contends he was wrongly arrested on a tip from an unreliable informant and that authorities failed to get search warrants before seizing his belongings.
I note that coverage of this case has yet to rise to the level of hysteria attached to the "Miami 6" or the "Ft. Dix 5".

Why is that?

I'm glad someone asked this question!

Given the recent news of yet another Ponzi scheme being uncovered - it seems we've had about one per week since the Madoff case broke - I occasionally gave some thought to this question, but didn't have the energy to do any follow-up commentary.

Now I don't have to: AMERICAblog is on the scene:
Has anyone been working at the SEC in recent years?

Today's NYT has a fun story related to Stanford's Ponzi empire:
Texas Town Holds Roots of Empire
Published: February 19, 2009
MEXIA, Tex. — When Robert Allen Stanford began planting the seeds of his multibillion-dollar financial empire decades ago, he turned to a family friend here in his hometown, population 6,600, to fill a seat on the board.

Today, Oliver Goswick — a small-time car dealer with a high school education — oversees investments for the board of Stanford International Bank, according to the company’s most recent annual report.

But, Mr. Goswick’s son says, his father is not in a position to provide much oversight. “My father had a stroke in 2000 and has been unable to talk or communicate much for a multiple of years,” said Dick Goswick, explaining that be believes his father has been kept in a post normally considered pivotal to any bank’s operations out of respect for his long ties to the Stanford family.

[emphasis added]
High school education? Disabled by stroke?

On the bright side, it's good to know that even I might yet get a job in high finance!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Public service: Iraq's Provincial Elections

The results of Iraq's recent Provincial elections have been released. 14 of 18 provinces reporting.
Iraqi provincial election results

I'll not list 'em.

I WILL note that my predictions of Sadrist victory were wrong.
In Baghdad, Sadrists got 5 of 57 seats.
In Babil, 3 of 30 seats.
In Basra, 2 of 35 seats.
In Dhi Qar, 7 of 31 seats.
In Kharbala, 4 of 27 seats.
In Maysan, 7 of 27 seats.
In Muthanna, 2 of 26 seats.
In Najaf, 6 of 28 seats.
In Qadisiyah, 2 of 28 seats.
In Wasit, 3 of 28 seats.
Total: 41 seats of 440 total.

By contrast, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law party got 126 seats.

Note: these are seats on provincial councils, not in parliament.

Now you know.

Israeli politics... sigh...

Note: the "Lieberman" referenced in the following headline is NOT the independent Senator from Connecticut!
Lieberman endorses Netanyahu for Israeli premier
By STEVEN GUTKIN, Associated Press Writer
Thu Feb 19, 2009
JERUSALEM – Benjamin Netanyahu won the endorsement Thursday of an anti-Arab politician who emerged from Israel's election as a kingmaker, virtually ensuring that the hawkish, U.S.-educated politician will once again become prime minister.
The "Lieberman" of the headline is Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Israel's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party, which finished third in recent elections. The party takes a hard line towards Israel's Arab citizens and Palestinians.

This was a very close election. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party finished second. Livni, who has indicated she will enter the opposition, favors a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

As previously stated, I am only a very casual follower of Israeli politics. I've visited Israel on biz and as a tourist several times, and have a handful of Israeli friends.

That said, I view Netanyahu's Likud Party as antithetical to a rational settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a difficult U.S. partner.

Have a nice day.

Nat'l news with local & personal twist!

Recently unemployed engineer Arthur Santa-Maria poses for a photo Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009 at a Bank of America ATM in Los Lunas, N.M. Santa-Maria was surprised to learn he must pay fees to withdraw his unemployment money using a state-issued Bank of America debit card.
(AP Photo/Sergio Salvador)
AP IMPACT: Jobless hit with bank fees on benefits
19 Feb 2009
First, Arthur Santa-Maria called Bank of America to ask how to check the balance of his new unemployment benefits debit card. The bank charged him 50 cents.

He chose not to complain. That would have cost another 50 cents.

So he took out some of the money and then decided to pull out the rest. But that made two withdrawals on the same day, and that was $1.50.

For hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs during the recession, there's a new twist to their financial pain: Even as they're collecting unemployment benefits, they're paying bank fees just to get access to their money.

Santa-Maria, the laid-off New Mexico engineer, said he didn't pay any fees the first time he was laid off, for several months in 2007. His unemployment benefits were paid by paper checks. He found a new job last year but was laid off again last fall.

This time, he was issued a Bank of America debit card — a "prepaid" card in industry lingo — but he was surprised to learn he had to pay fees to get his money. He asked the bank to waive them. It said no. That's when Santa-Maria called back to ask how to check his account online. He logged on and saw that the call cost him a half dollar. To avoid more fees, Santa-Maria found a Bank of America ATM at a strip mall and withdrew $80 at no charge. When he got back to his car, he decided to take out the rest of his money — $250 — and deposit it in his bank account.

Afterward, Santa-Maria logged on to his account and saw a charge of $1.50 for two withdrawals in one day.

Arthur Santa-Maria was a colleague of mine. He was laid off when the company decided to abandon what some 20 years earlier had been its core business. He'd done nothing wrong, had a sterling work history, and knew his job well. He just happened to be one of several hundred who found themselves in a business unit the company decided would be best divested.

All these folks got the news in the 2nd week of August, 2007. It was a very strange time to go to work. You didn't know if you should ask, or even if you should look friends in the eye.

When I started work at the company in 1987, one of its "claims to fame" was that in its then 20-yr history, it had never had a lay-off. That started to change in 1997, when it instituted the first of several subsequent "voluntary separation" programs. More recent RIFs were less-than-voluntary.

In retrospect the Aug 2007 divestiture & lay-off can be seen as the opening chapter of what no one at the time was acknowledging as a difficult economic future. The company continued to publish absurdly optimistic growth "forecasts" - I deliberately put "forecasts" in quotes: these were based less on any rational business model than on fantasies mandated by internal politics.

Having been retired for 9 months, I don't know if current forecasts better reflect reality.

At any rate, it was surprising to see Arthur's picture in a national news article!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Uh-oh: Sen. Lindsey Graham is making sense!

I think I'm in trouble: I agree with just about everything Sen. Graham (R-SC) has to say in this article:
Sen. Graham defends view on nationalizing banks
Graham: Ignoring possibility is irresponsible.

By Jim Morrill
Charlotte Observer
Posted: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009
Despite criticism from fellow Republicans, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina Monday defended his statement that the U.S. should consider nationalizing some banks.
“Politicians are worried about words,” he said Monday. “I'm worried about outcomes.”

Graham said the government has already poured billions into banks with little to show for the economy. Bank of America, which has received $45 billion in bailout money, is currently worth $27 billion in market capitalization.

“The truth is we've put more money into the Bank of America than it's worth,” Graham said. “That's not nationalization. That's just stupid.”
“It would be smarter from a taxpayer point of view to take them over and make them (successful) than it would be just to sit back and write checks or let them fail,” Graham said. “We need to cut our losses.”

Graham would consider temporary federal control of some banks. He discussed his proposal Monday during a roundtable with S.C. business leaders and economists at the University of South Carolina. Some welcomed his proposals.
Graham said nationalization – or at least a form of it – is just an option.

“It's not responsible to take options off the table that might work,” he said. “I never suggested that the government take over every bank in America. I did say it might be better in some cases to take over a bank and restructure it.”
The only small comfort I can take is knowing that within the week he'll be back to being a true-blue Republican!

BUT - till then: thanks for speaking up, Senator Graham!

Nat'l news with a local twist

Nat'l economic news:
GM, Chrysler seek billions more, to cut more jobs
Local twist (from KOB TV, Albuquerque, NM):
Zangara Dodge dealership closes
Posted at: 02/17/2009 5:58 PM
Zangara Dodge in Albuquerque appears to be latest victim of the country's deepening financial crisis.
Owner Ken Zangara said last week that he was trying to sell the dealership because sales were down 50 percent.

Zangara Dodge opened 18 years ago.
Not being particularly observant, I'd noticed few local signs of the impending disaster - this is my first.

[helpful hint: stock up on rice & beans!]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I thought market-worshipping Republicans respected private property!

You'd think that the Republicans - after all their loud laments about incipient socialism & the wisdom of cutting taxes so's we the people could decide how best to spend our $$$... well, you'd think they'd have tremendous respect for property rights.

Apparently not.

Original reporting from TPM:
Aerosmith to House GOP: Don't Use Our Song
By Elana Schor - February 17, 2009
Poor House Republicans. They were pretty psyched yesterday about that new troops-rallying video from Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) that used Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" to declare that "The House GOP is back" thanks to the party's unanimous opposition to the stimulus.

But unfortunately, Aerosmith wasn't feeling the love. Cantor's clip has been pulled from YouTube after a copyright infringement claim made by Stage Three Music, which owns the rights to "Back in the Saddle."

The GOP's use of the tune "was something we, as the publishers, didn't approve and would not have approved without going to the writers," Connie Ashton, director of copyright and licensing at Stage Three, told me. "Aerosmith did not approve of its use and also wanted to have it taken down," she added.
If they're going to base their opposition on principles, it'd be appropriate if they actually observed those principles!

[Again: I sure hope someone at DNC is writing all this Republican crap down!]

Greenspan's a pinko-commie too! (who knew?)

From Financial Times:
Greenspan backs bank nationalisation
By Krishna Guha and Edward Luce in Washington
Published: February 18 2009
The US government may have to nationalise some banks on a temporary basis to fix the financial system and restore the flow of credit, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman has told the Financial Times.
But... but... I thought the market was magically self-correcting?... and whatever happened to self-regulation deriving from enlightened self-interest???

What would Milton Friedman be doing if he were alive today?
Scene: inside a coffin
FRIEDMAN (scratching wildly at the coffin lid): Let me OUT!!!
(Okay: it's a bad joke.)

Atrios says it best... (+ commentary)

Yesterday Atrios wrote:
One point that seems to be largely lost in the discussions about what to do about the banking system is that every week the FDIC is "nationalizing" banks, or more specifically putting them into receivership. This "socialism" is happening regularly. Sometimes the FDIC swoops in and hands off the assets to another bank immediately, sometimes the bank they EATED sits in their belly for awhile. So the question is why, other than the fact that they're very politically connected, the "big" banks like Citi and Bank of AMERICA, are exempt from this standard process.
[emphasis added]
Today he writes:
Can't Make Super Shitpile Work
... There was a time when maybe it was reasonable to think that there were at least some liquidity issues with big shitpile, that the assets were actually worth more than the "market" would recognize. But now it's pretty obvious that the financial institutions aren't willing to sell them at market prices because doing so would force them to acknowledge that they're insolvent.
The implied logic is really quite beautiful:
The U.S. puts insolvent banks into receivership.
If the Big Banks honestly valued their portfolios, they would be insolvent.
Therefore, if the Big Banks honestly valued their portfolios, the U.S. would put them in receivership.
One of the many repeated themes surrounding what Atrios calls "Big Shitpile" is that it just isn't possible to honestly & accurately value all the mortgage-backed securities in the Big Banks' portfolios.

The argument is that it would take years to dig deeply into every one of these securities to truly assess their value.

The very idea of these securities was to distribute risk - the underlying argument being that packaging a bunch of stuff together had the effect of "averaging out" the risks of individual components. It's a good argument, as far as it goes.
BUT - it also has implications for valuing these securities NOW!

Here's my very simple-minded suggestion:
In Apr 2007 the median home price peaked at about $232,000 (2008 dollars).
My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggests a true "bottom" median price of about $158,000 (2008 dollars).
I'm betting the Big Banks are carrying valuations that reflect the peak.
Their "true value" ought to be about 158/232 x that value... about 68 cents on the dollar.
This estimate is rather higher than most I've seen published.
But, you get the idea: If bundling mortgages was appropriate to dilute risk, the same idea ought be appropriate to assess current "true" value.
Maybe my use of median home prices was TOO simple, but it's a start.

What is NOT appropriate is insisting that every individual mortgage be analyzed in detail. That pretty much ignores the foundation of the securities in question as bundles.

Have fun!

Well... THAT plan didn't work!

Largest banks that received aid cut lending
17 Feb 2009
WASHINGTON – The 20 largest banks that received government rescue funds slightly reduced their lending to consumers and businesses in the last three months of 2008, the government said Tuesday.

If memory serves, the original rationale ("the sky is falling") for TARP was that the credit markets were freezing up, and that without injection of capital - somehow - banks would stop lending.
I admit that I didn't pay too much attention to SecTreas Paulson's constantly changing plans for using the initial $350Bn of TARP funds, but I'm pretty sure the basic rationale was constant: the credit markets were freezing up.

So... if we injected $350Bn into the banks to free up credit, and then they loaned less money in Q4 - after they got our $$$... What's going on???

This is a reason that I'd really like to see current SecTreas Geithner present a very detailed, clear, compelling playbook for use of future TARP funds. (... and why I'm about to send emails to my Rep & Senators requesting that they demand to see Geithner's playbook!).

Sing a song!

NM in the news (NYT, no less!)

[NM's Rail Runner light rail system; photo: Rich Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times]
Bond Advice Leaves Pain in Its Wake
Published: February 16, 2009
... In some places, Mr. [David] Rubin’s firm also contributed to political campaign funds. In New Mexico, federal authorities are investigating whether CDR [CDR Financial Products of Beverly Hills, Calif.] made improper payments to Gov. Bill Richardson’s campaigns in exchange for work on a $1.6 billion transportation bond issue, a disclosure that caused Mr. Richardson to withdraw from consideration to join the Obama administration.
One type of trade the firm recommended was subsequently banned — but not before CDR helped New Mexico execute eight such trades. CDR; the law firm of Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll; the accounting firm of Grant Thornton; and the Bank of Albuquerque took a cut on each trade, earning $556,000 in total.
New Mexico officials said they believed the state’s finances were better off because of CDR’s services but were unable to provide a complete accounting.
The I.R.S. has disallowed at least seven housing bond deals that were assisted by CDR, in Florida, California, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas and North Dakota, according to notices filed in a municipal data base.

There were even problems in New Mexico. The year before the transportation bonds were sold, the firm helped a regional housing authority there issue bonds that were later stripped of their tax exemption by the I.R.S., which found an improper relationship between CDR and Société Générale.
It was pretty cool to see NM's Rail Runner pictured on page 1 of today's NYT Biz section!

What's the plan for the 'Stans?

SoS Clinton is off to Asia on her first diplomatic mission.
Somehow, I'd rather she'd have stayed home for a while longer... until some semblance of a coherent strategy could be devised - with her participation - for our future in Afghanistan and our related future relationship with Pakistan.

Three stories today call attention to the mess bequeathed by W:
UN says Afghan civilian deaths jumped 40 percent
By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press
17 Feb 2008
KABUL – The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan's worsening conflict jumped 40 percent to a new high last year, and more than half of the deaths were inflicted by Taliban insurgents and other militants, the United Nations said Tuesday.
[emphasis added]

NATO cautions Pakistan over truce with Taliban
By SHERIN ZADA, Associated Press
17 Feb 2009
MINGORA, Pakistan – NATO led a growing chorus of international concern Tuesday by warning that a truce between the government of Pakistan and Taliban militants in a restive region near the Afghan border risks giving the extremists a "safe haven."

Obama sending additional US troops to Afghanistan
By ANNE GEARAN and LARA JAKES, Associated Press
17 Feb 2009
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama says he's sending additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan to battle insurgent threats and crumbling security along the Pakistan border.
What's the plan?

More than seven (7!) years after the U.S. toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan & enlisted Pakistan as an ally in the so-called "war on terror", we seem to be no nearer a satisfactory end-state than we were when we started.

Do we even know what a satisfactory end-state might be?

Again - I'd really like to see SoS Clinton huddled with SecDef Gates & Nat'l Security Advisor Jones to figure this out - not off to the Far East.

While I'm sure than Japan, Korea & China deserve attention, they seem far less worrisome to me right now than the mess in south central Asia.

A good idea from Captain's Log

Reader & blogger P.M. Prescott writes:
Here's an Idea
Thinking over the last eight disastrous years, if you want to put a blame on how W became Der Decider it lands squarely on the shoulders of 5 members of the Supreme Court. They were the ones whose votes ultimately sentenced this country to this nightmare.
Why don't we start a movement to impeach any justice still serving for violating their oath to uphold the constitution? The constitution puts the issue of who votes for the president in the hands of the people and they took that right away from the people. The people should then demand they be replaced. There should be some consequence for them since they caused it all.
I'll add: The U.S. Constitution puts the States in charge of Presidential elections:
Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.
[U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1]
Without looking up the case, my memory is that the Supremes interfered with a state-mandated recount.
Is my memory accurate?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Republicans' true colors: pink

Yep - Republicans are really dirty pinko commie fellow-travelers.
Graham: Nationalizing Banks Should Be On The Table
I'm not quite sure who their Lenin will be... Sarah Palin? - I guess I could see her leading the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Of course, now that Sen. Graham has put his fingerprints on nationalizing the banks, I'm not sure it is viable option!
[This based on the simple rule: "If he be fer it, I'm agin' it!"]

I'm still waiting to see Geithner's playbook.

Our shame: seeing the light of day

Two stories may help us - and our new President - finally come to grips with Our Shame: W's torture.

First up, from Newsweek:
A Torture Report Could Spell Big Trouble For Bush Lawyers
By Michael Isikoff | NEWSWEEK
Published Feb 14, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Feb 23, 2009
An internal Justice Department report on the conduct of senior lawyers who approved waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics is causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials. H. Marshall Jarrett, chief of the department's ethics watchdog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), confirmed last year he was investigating whether the legal advice in crucial interrogation memos "was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys."
It sharply criticized the legal work of two former top officials—Jay Bybee and John Yoo—as well as that of Steven Bradbury, who was chief of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the time the report was submitted, the sources said.
But then–Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his deputy, Mark Filip, strongly objected to the draft, according to the sources.
But the OPR probe began after Jack Goldsmith, a Bush appointee who took over OLC in 2003, protested the legal arguments made in the memos. Goldsmith resigned the following year after withdrawing the memos, and later wrote that he was "astonished" by the "deeply flawed" and "sloppily reasoned" legal analysis in the memos by Yoo and Bybee, including their assertion (challenged by many scholars) that the president could unilaterally disregard a law passed by Congress banning torture.

[emphasis added]
Recall, during his confirmation hearings Mukasey effectively held that the President is above the law. It is therefore no surprise to learn that he strongly objected to a draft report that found assertions of expansive Executive power unwarranted.

By now it should surprise no one that Yoo's arguments for this expansive Executive power might be based on "deeply flawed" and "sloppily argued" legal analysis.

Next up, from Harper's:
Former Gitmo Guard Tells All
By Scott Horton
February 15, 2009
Army Private Brandon Neely served as a prison guard at Guantánamo in the first years the facility was in operation. With the Bush Administration, and thus the threat of retaliation against him, now gone, Neely decided to step forward and tell his story. “The stuff I did and the stuff I saw was just wrong,” he told the Associated Press. Neely describes the arrival of detainees in full sensory-deprivation garb, he details their sexual abuse by medical personnel, torture by other medical personnel, brutal beatings out of frustration, fear, and retribution, the first hunger strike and its causes, torturous shackling, positional torture, interference with religious practices and beliefs, verbal abuse, restriction of recreation, the behavior of mentally ill detainees, an isolation regime that was put in place for child-detainees, and his conversations with prisoners David Hicks and Rhuhel Ahmed. It makes for fascinating reading.

Neely’s comprehensive account runs to roughly 15,000 words. It was compiled by law students at the University of California at Davis and can be accessed here.
Does anyone but Cheney believe Gitmo is a shining star in the firmament of America's committment to the rule of law & human rights?

The Harper's article notes that during negotiations "relating to legislation creating criminal law accountability for contractors",
The Bush White House vehemently objected to provisions of the law dealing with rape by instrumentality.
When House members asked the reason for these objections?
When House negotiators pressed to know why, they were met first with silence and then an embarrassed acknowledgement that a key part of the Bush program included invasion of the bodies of prisoners in a way that might be deemed rape by instrumentality under existing federal and state criminal statutes.
In our names!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How W spent our $$$ in Iraq

Inquiry on Graft in Iraq Focuses on U.S. Officers
Published: February 14, 2009
Federal authorities examining the early, chaotic days of the $125 billion American-led effort to rebuild Iraq have significantly broadened their inquiry to include senior American military officers who oversaw the program, according to interviews with senior government officials and court documents.

My favorite passage:
As part of the inquiry, the authorities are taking a fresh look at information given to them by Dale C. Stoffel, an American arms dealer and contractor who was killed in Iraq in late 2004.

Before he was shot on a road north of Baghdad, Mr. Stoffel drew a portrait worthy of a pulp crime novel: tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered surreptitiously to the American contracting offices in Baghdad, and payoffs made in paper sacks that were scattered in “dead drops” around the Green Zone...
What a way to run a reconstruction effort!

How much $$$ of the hundreds of billions were diverted?
Beats me.

Recall: Former Texas Governer Bush did have an MBA from the Harvard Business School!

Desultory aside: during the primary season, particularly, much was made of "experience" and Obama's lack thereof. He seems to be making an effort to fill his cabinet with "experienced" choices...
Me? I'm not at all sure that experience, per se, is all it's cracked up to be.

The geniuses who led us into Iraq and "managed" initial reconstruction efforts - those efforts including, we now learn, "tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered surreptitiously to the American contracting offices in Baghdad..." - who were these people?
Richard Bruce "Dick" Cheney
Staff, Office of Economic Opportunity, 1969–70
White House Staff Assistant, 1971
Assistant Director of the Cost of Living Council, 1971–73
Deputy Assistant to the president, 1974–1975
White House Chief of Staff, 1976
U.S. House of Representatives, 1979-1990
Secretary of Defense, 1989-1993
Donald Henry Rumsfeld
Administrative Assistant to Rep. David S. Dennison, Jr. (OH-11), 1957
Staff assistant to Congressman Robert P. Griffin of Michigan, 1959
U.S. House of Representatives, 1963-1969
United States Office of Economic Opportunity, Assistant to the President, and a member of the President's Cabinet, 1969–1970
Counselor to the President in December 1970
Director of the Economic Stabilization Program; and member of the President's Cabinet, 1971–1972
U.S. Ambassador to the NATO, 1973
White House Chief of Staff, 1974-75
Secretary of Defense, 1975-77
Member of the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control—Reagan Administration, 1982–1986
President Reagan's Special Envoy on the Law of the Sea Treaty, 1982–83
Senior Advisor to President Reagan's Panel on Strategic Systems, 1983–84
Member of the U.S. Joint Advisory Commission on U.S./Japan Relations—Reagan Administration, 1983–84
President Reagan's Special Envoy to the Middle East, 1983–1984
Paul Dundes Wolfowitz

U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1972
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Regional Programs, 1977-80
State Department Director of Policy Planning, 1981-82
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, 1982-85
Ambassador to the Republic of Indonesia, 1986-89
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, 1989-93

These are impressive resumes...
And, yes - these very "experienced" are the folks responsible for getting us into Iraq, and for "managing" Iraq's reconstruction!

Perhaps President Obama should throw the Commerce post open to competition!... Maybe post a want-ad on Craig's List?

Curious... why now?

Saudi king shakes up religious establishment
By DONNA ABU-NASR, Associated Press
14 Feb 2009
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The Saudi king on Saturday dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing the owners of TV networks that broadcast "immoral" content, signaling an effort to weaken the country's hard-line Sunni establishment.

The shake-up — King Abdullah's first since coming to power in August 2005 — included the appointment of a female deputy minister, the highest government position a Saudi woman has attained.

The article notes that the Saudi King is not absolute, so had to get some consensus from the family & other key players...
BUT: did it take 3 years?

What I'm asking is: Why wasn't this move made while W reigned?

Why now?

In the best of all possible worlds, this will be the first of many liberalizing actions taken by the new monarch.

Explaining themselves

A few Republican leaders are attempting to explain themselves.
They seem to provide pretty good material for Democrats!

Specter: Republicans Support Stimulus, Don't Want 'Fingerprints' On It
Specter, along with centrist Maine Republican Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, joined with Democrats last week to move the stimulus bill forward. Specter said he doubted there would be any more Republican votes than those three Friday night.

"I think there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who are glad to see this action taken without their fingerprints, without their participation," he said.
"Don't trust us":
RNC Chair Steele on his own party: ‘No reason, none, to trust our words or our actions at this point.’
STEELE: Yeah, no, Glenn. I’m not gonna, look, I’m not going to soft pedal this with you. I’m not going to try to blow smoke either. The reality of it is, you are absolutely right. You have absolutely no reason, none, to trust our word or our actions at this point. So, yeah, it’s going to be an uphill climb.
I sure hope someone at DNC is writing down this stuff!

Friday, February 13, 2009

As promised: Paul Rieckoff on Afghanistan

On The Rachel Maddow Show last night, Paul Rieckoff (IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA) covered a number of topics. Among them, Afghanistan:
RIECKHOFF: "... People are finally starting to understand that troops alone are not the answer. It is not an antidote to violence.

You don‘t just drop in 30,000 troops and wave a magic wand and call it democracy and make it look like New Jersey. It‘s going to take comprehensive effort that include micro-financing. The State Department has got to get involved. Secretary Gates deserves a lot of credit for - well, he leads the Defense Department, calling for more State Department resources.

[transcript, 12 Feb 2009]
Note his praise of Gates for engaging the State Dept!

Again: if anyone has brilliant ideas about how to proceed in Afghanistan - send 'em in. (No - not to me! To your elected Representative, Senators, SecDef Gates, SoS Clinton... )

Why'd we invade Iraq?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

3 strikes?

Richardson, Daschle, Gregg: Who knew Commerce was such a hard slot to fill?

How 'bout Joe the Plumber?

A bit more seriously:
Obama promised change.
How 'bout actively recruiting for the post, with the single requirement to apply being that one has absolutely NO ties to D.C.?
No legislative experience, no experience in any previous Administration, no civil service experience, no lobbying experience (or involvement).
It's "Commerce", right? - Recruit from among the pool of recently laid-off workers. I'd bet there are more than a couple of competent, capable managers in the pool.

Remember the movie Trading Places? The Duke brothers turned street-hustler Billy Ray Valentine into a high-powered commodities broker - simply by giving him the chance!
Why not?

Secondary considerations: no tax problems; employ no domestics; not currently under federal investigation.
As Gregg's withdrawal illustrates, it would help if the applicant supported Obama's policies! (... I guess that leaves Joe the Plumber off the list.)

Otherwise? Open, free-market competition.

Again: why not?
[What Obama's team has tried so far hasn't worked very well!]

Rule-of-thumb sane home price

... but first:
Home Prices in U.S. Slid 12% in Fourth Quarter, Most on Record
By Kathleen M. Howley
Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Home prices dropped the most on record in the fourth quarter as foreclosures dragged down values and the recession pushed buyers out of the market.

The median price of a U.S. home declined 12 percent to $180,100 from a year earlier and sales of properties with mortgages in default accounted for 45 percent of all transactions, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors said today.

What's a reasonable bottom?

A few posts back I mentioned a website that suggested one oughtn't pay more than 2.5 times one's household income for a house.

In 2007 the median household income of homeowners was $61,581. This suggests that the median home price ought be about $154,000 (2007 dollars). Adjusted for inflation, this is just under $158,000.

I'd guess we have a ways to go before housing prices reach a natural bottom.

The moral Republicans

From reader & blogger, Captain's Log:
Our Arbiter Of Morals

Beginning to sound like 1989... [update]

... when the Soviet Union was chased from Afghanistan:
20 Dead as Taliban Attackers Storm Kabul Offices
NYT, 12 Feb 2009
This article was reported by Richard A. Oppel Jr., Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi and written by Mr. Oppel.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen struck government buildings at three sites here on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding 57. It was a complex and closely coordinated attack that demonstrated the ease with which the insurgents could penetrate even Kabul, Afghanistan’s heavily fortified capital.
Note: Not in Kandahar, not in some village near the Pakistan border... in Kabul - the only place nominally controlled by the Karzai government!

[Note: I'll include some comments from Paul Reickoff regarding the Afghan war when transcript is posted by The Rachel Maddow Show.]

Realizing that SoS Clinton faces myriad challenges left by her predecessors, I'd still like to see some coherent statement regarding our ultimate goals in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, I have a radical tactical suggestion:
Encourage the only currently thriving export industry in the country: Opium poppy cultivation!
Our current eradication policy seems only to be driving the Afghans into the camps of warlords & the Taliban. Let's legitimize the drug business (who knows - maybe we could adopt a sane drug policy here at home.).
[See, e.g., Prohibition for a none-too-sane approach that we finally abandoned!]

30,000 more troops?
Okay... to do what?

Global Economic Crisis Poses Top Threat to U.S., Spy Chief Warns
Published: February 12, 2009
WASHINGTON — The new director of national intelligence told Congress on Thursday that global economic turmoil and the instability it could ignite had outpaced terrorism as the most urgent threat facing the United States.
But Mr.
[Dennis C.] Blair also spread around the blame for Afghanistan’s problems. A day after a brazen attack by Taliban gunmen in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Mr. Blair named the American-backed government of President Hamid Karzai as part of the problem in Afghanistan.

“Kabul’s inability to build effective, honest, and loyal provincial and district level institutions capable of providing basic services and sustainable, licit livelihoods erodes its popular legitimacy and increases the influence of local warlords and the Taliban,” Mr. Blair said.

[emphasis added.]
On the bright side: Obama's appointees seem willing to speak the truth.

He just keeps giving & giving & giving...

Thousands of US weapons astray in Afghanistan: auditors
by Jitendra Joshi Jitendra Joshi
– Thu Feb 12
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Thousands of US weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, may be in Taliban or Al-Qaeda hands in Afghanistan because of lax controls, congressional auditors warned on Thursday.

The Pentagon has failed to track an estimated 87,000 weapons given to Afghan security forces, one-third of the 242,000 shipped by the US government between December 2004 and June 2008, the Government Accountability Office said.

A 46-page report by the GAO, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, said there had been no monitoring of a further 135,000 weapons donated by NATO allies to the poorly paid and corruption-rife Afghan army and police.

How many businesses did former Texas Governor Bush run into the ground before becoming #43?
He seems to have learned little from the experience.

An M-16 costs about about $450. I suspect this is the cheapest piece of hardware we've lost.
87,000 M-16s? Roughly $39.15M. Okay - given the $$$ in the news recently, this ain't a big deal... BUT it is 783 median-income households. Lost. Worse yet, given to the enemy.

"Go home, go to bed, take two aspirin, drink plenty of liquids. Call me in about 20 years."
Will we ever recover from W?

a perhaps more fitting tribute to Darwin

A former colleague sent me this link from ScienceNews:
Darwin: The reluctant mathematician
Despite disliking mathematics, the great biologist inadvertently advanced statistics
The article tells the story of Darwin's genetic experiments on a wildflower, Common Toadflax. (note: this was pre-Mendel, and the word "genetics" would have been foreign to Darwin.)

Trying to determine if cross-breeding produced superior plants compared to in-breeding, Darwin reasoned out a particular experimental design now known as a paired-comparison - a simple version of blocking.
(Note: these experimental efforts were motivated by logical inferences from Darwin's theory of natural selection - yes, his theory implied directly testable hypotheses!)

Darwin not having the mathematical expertise to fully analyze his data presented the problem to his cousin, Francis Galton, a pioneer in the field of statistics.
(Note: though Darwin's cross-bred plants were on average more robust than the in-bred, Darwin recognized that variation within populations made it troublesome to draw firm conclusions based on averages alone. It was this problem that motivated him to seek assistance from Galton.)

Galton could help some, but not enough to provide quantifiably phrased conclusions.

There the matter rested for a number of years, till a fellow at the Guinness Brewery - Wm. S. Gosset - attacked the problem. Publishing under the pseudonym "Student", Gosset provided the mathematical framework within which to compute a quantitative conclusion.

R.A. Fisher took up the challenge a few years later.
As a college student, Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher learned about Gregor Mendel’s work in genetics and Darwin’s work in evolution, but the theory connecting the two hadn’t yet been developed. Fisher set out to create the statistical foundation to make the connection possible. Darwin’s experiment with hybrids was just the kind of problem Fisher needed to be able to solve.

He noticed something that Galton had missed: Galton had ignored Darwin’s clever method of pairing the plants.
Fisher’s analysis was only possible because Darwin had designed his experiment so well. In fact, Fisher was often frustrated with the quality of other people’s experiments. “To call in the statistician after the experiment is done,” he said, “may be no more than asking him to perform a postmortem examination: he may be able to say what the experiment died of.”
The verdict of a modern-day statistician seems an appropriate coda:
David Brillinger, a statistician at the University of California, Berkeley, says that Darwin’s method of pairing is now common practice. “Darwin was a leader in a subfield of statistics called experimental design,” he says. “He knew how to design a good experiment, but what to do with the numbers was something else."
Again: Happy Birthday, Charles!

Darwin, Pat Robertson, & G-d: a testable hypothesis

Today is the Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.
Somehow honoring this anniversary seems to be obligatory for all self-described progressive bloggers.
This is my contribution.

In November 2005 the citizens of Dover, PA, voted to oust every member of the town's school board, which previously had become "... first to mandate inclusion of Intelligent Design in a public school biology curriculum". All were replaced with new members who opposed including ID in the biology curriculum.

Televangelist Pat Robertson responded:
"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected him from your city. And don't wonder why he hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for his help because he might not be there."
[Pat Robertson Tells Dover Residents They Rejected God]
The Rev. Robertson is careful to say that he's not predicting the good citizens of Dover will be beset by problems... BUT - I think it's a fair inference that in his heart he believed that this would be the case.

Recall, the Reverend Robertson blamed America for the 9/11 attacks:
America was attacked, Robertson asserted, "because God Almighty is lifting His protection from us."
[Pat Robertson's Gold, WaPo, 22 Sep 2001]
When Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, suffered a stroke, Reverend Robertson was quick to note:
"Ladies and Gentlemen I said last year that Israel was entering into the most dangerous periods of its entire existence as a nation. That is intensifying this year with the loss of Sharon. Sharon was personally a very likeable person and I am sad to see him in this condition, but I think we need to look at the Bible and the Book of Joel. The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who 'divide my land.' God considers this land to be His. You read the Bible and He says 'this is my land' and for any Prime Minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says 'no, this is mine.' I had a wonderful meeting with Yitzhak Rabin in 1974. He was tragically assassinated, it was a terrible thing that happened but nevertheless he was dead. And now Ariel Sharon who again was a very likeable person, a delightful person to be with, I prayed with him personally, but here he's at the point of death. He was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any Prime Minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America. God says 'this land belongs to me. You'd better leave it alone.'"
[Robertson 'said Sharon being punished by God']
Hurricane Katrina?
"... We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America. I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he used the term that those who do this, "the land will vomit you out."
But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?"
So, yes - I'm quite certain that Reverend Robertson would interpret any "problems" that beset Dover, PA, as G-d's wrath... and that his admonition, "Don't turn to God", was by implication a prediction of G-d's wrath falling upon the town.

As it turns out, this is a semi-testable hypothesis.
In the 3.25 years since Dover, PA voters "voted God out of" their city, the U.S. has suffered 1000s of tornadoes, floods, and other natural disasters.
The number of natural disasters suffered by Dover, PA? Zero.
The recent winter-storm induced power outages? Dover, PA has NOT been impacted.
I'm not sure that G-d observes any "statute of limitations", but it's curious that in three-and-a-quarter years since being voted out of Dover, PA, He's seen fit to spare the city.

On a more serious note: the Dover, PA school board election was held shortly after closing arguments had been presented in a much-watched Federal trial: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.
Judge John E. Jones, III, issued his decision 20 Dec 2005.

Happy Birthday, Charles!

p.s. Of course, it could be that the deity worshipped by & in direct communication with Reverend Robertson is not G-d.
Who knows: perhaps G-d designed natural selection as the mechanism of evolution.

p.p.s. Copernicus's "hypothesis" was soundly rejected by both Luther and the Catholic Church. None of the ID folks seems to advocating that Ptolemaic astronomy be mentioned in high school physics classes... you know, to present both sides of the issue.
... and I am reminded of Laplace's quote:
"I had no need of that hypothesis." ("Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là", as a reply to Napoleon, who had asked why he hadn't mentioned God in his book on astronomy.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In-depth reporting

I'm still waiting for someone to ask Supreme Court Justice Alito:
How does it feel to know that President Bush thought you were the SECOND most qualified person for the job... after Harriet Meiers?

Strictly speaking he's telling the truth.

First off:
transitive verb
1. To involve by logical necessity; entail: Life implies growth and death.
2. To express or indicate indirectly: His tone implied disapproval. See Synonyms at suggest. See Usage Note at infer.
3. Obsolete To entangle.

[The Free Dictionary]
(This'll make more sense shortly. Trust me.)

Carrying GOP talking points a bit too far:
Rep. Steve Austria: FDR caused the Great Depression.
In a new interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) joined in:
“When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression,” Austria said. “He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That’s just history.”
[emphasis included in source (Think Progress)]
More than a few folks corrected him: The Depression started in 1929; FDR took office in 1933. It's hard to posit cause-effect relationship when the "effect" precedes the supposed "cause" (tho' there may be such relationships in the realm of quantum physics). So Rep. Austria backed off:
"I did not mean to imply in any way that President Roosevelt was responsible for putting us into the Depression..."
Finally - here's where the introductory definiton of "imply" becomes relevant.

In fact, Rep. Austria did not IMPLY that FDR had caused the Depression. He directly stated this.
No involvement of logical necessity, no indirect expression or indication. Just a simple, straight-forward, direct statement.
It's not even necessary to subject Rep. Austria's words to complicated exegesis - even a 5th-grader could grasp their direct, unambiguous meaning:
"When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression."
So... on some level he's telling the truth when he recants by saying he never meant to imply anything...

This was fun.

More than just a little discouraging...

From Gallup via Think Progress:
On Darwin’s 200th birthday, only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution.
Charles Darwin, who invented the theory of evolution, was born on Feb. 12, 1809. Marking the 200th anniversary of his Darwin’s birth, Gallup has a new poll out showing that “only 39 percent of Americans say they ‘believe in the theory of evolution,’ while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36 percent don’t have an opinion either way”:
Once upon a time the U.S. was a leader in science education.

Have a nice day.

NM in the news (still)

From Think Progress:
Domenici’s records subpoenaed in U.S. attorneys probe.
A federal grand jury has subpoenaed the records of former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici (R) as part of an investigation into whether “former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, other Bush administration officials or Republicans in Congress should face criminal charges” for the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
Domenici Sought Iglesias Ouster
Albuquerque Journal
By Mike Gallagher
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was fired after Sen. Pete Domenici, who had been unhappy with Iglesias for some time, made a personal appeal to the White House, the Journal has learned.
Domenici had complained about Iglesias before, at one point going to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before taking his request to the president as a last resort.
Senate and House Democrats have focused on a telephone call Domenici made to Iglesias in October.
Iglesias testified before the congressional committees that Domenici called him at home and asked if indictments were imminent in a public corruption investigation of Albuquerque's Metropolitan Courthouse construction. Iglesias told him indictments were not expected anytime soon.
Iglesias testified that Domenici said, "I'm very sorry to hear that." And then hung up.
Iglesias said he felt "pressured" and "violated" by the telephone call but did not report it to Justice Department headquarters as required.
The new sheriff in town seems to be encouraging further investigation into the firing of U.S. Attorneys following the 2006 mid-term elections.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied any political motivation for the firings. (This may be the only point of fact about which the former Attorney General was certain!)

Me? Without meaning to sound petty... I'm hoping Domenici, Gonzales, Rove, Harriet Meiers, and David Addington are all indicted, convicted, and sentenced to very long jail terms... just on general principle.

Have a nice day.

Under-sized stimulus out of conference...

... I'm not sure "hooray" is appropriate.

Practical personal financial advice!

Load up on "Forever" stamps TODAY!!!

Stamp prices to go up 2-cents in May

Even the article suggests this expedient:
The U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday that the price of a first-class stamp will rise to 44 cents on May 11.

That gives plenty of time to stock up on Forever Stamps, which will continue to sell at the current 42-cent rate until the increase occurs. They will remain valid in the future regardless of rate hikes.

[emphasis added.]
Me? I'd planned a trip to the post-office tomorrow anyway. I'll take advantage of the opportunity to stock up on $0.42 stamps!

Sing a song!