Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 10:21 pm

“File this under, ‘Things you never want a judge to write about you.’”

So say those raging secular humanists at The Wall Street Journal:

Austin federal judge Sam Sparks dismissed a suit by the Dallas-based Institute of Creation Research, which seeks the right to grant a master’s degree in science from a biblical perspective. And by “dismissed,” we mean the judge tore it apart.

But first, a summary of the suit, as reported today by the San Antonio Express-News. The Institute seeks to offer a masters degree that critiques evolution and champions a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation. Texas’s higher education board nixed the group’s application, because of the proposed program’s creationist slant. This, the Institute contended, was a violation of its First Amendment Rights.

That claim was dismissed by Sparks in an opinion that criticized the Institute’s arguments as incoherent. At one point he writes that he will address the group’s concerns “to the extent [he] is able to understand them.” At another, he describes the group’s filings as “overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information.” Click here for the judge’s opinion.

So I clicked there for the judge’s opinion and read all 39 pages. And lemme tell you, I would say that Sparks’ ruling in this case will stand with the ruling in Dover v. Kitzmiller, except that there was even less substance in the creationists’ arguments in this case than there were in Dover. Which is saying something, I’ll grant, but good night, the Institute of Creation Research’s suit was a dog’s breakfast of FAIL:

  • A review panel “reasoned much of the course content was outside the realm of science and lacked potential to help students understand the nature of science and the history and nature of the natural world.”
  • “First, although it is difficult to follow ICRGS’s complaint, it appears …”
  • [Sparks, quoting a state reviewer]: “The proposed program of study in no way would adequately prepare students in the field of science education, at any level, and certainly not at the graduate level.”
  • “It is unclear whether ICRGS intends to assert a procedural or substantive due process claim in its complaint …”
  • “Because ICRGS alternates between arguing it is merely teaching science and arguing its program is compelled by its religious beliefs, the Court is at a loss to determine what portion of ICRGS’s behavior should be considered motivated by its religious beliefs.”
  • “And although its pleadings and various documents in the record (such as the report of the review panel) contain third-person references to ICRGS’s religious beliefs, the Court has no actual evidence (such as an affidavit) of what those beliefs are and to what extent they motivate ICRGS in offering the degree in question.”
  • “… because ICRGS has not raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Board imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise, the presence or absence of a compelling governmental interest is immaterial.”
  • “ICRGS claims Standard 12 “criminalizes free speech.” (see Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. at ¶ 5.) The statement is misleading. The governing regulations do in fact have a criminal component: Rule 7.5(a)(1) provides, in relevant part, that no person or institution may offer a degree on behalf of a nonexempt institution unless the institution has a certificate of authority to offer the degree. 19 TEX. ADMIN. CODE § 7.5(a)(1). Rule 7.5(c) warns a violation of the rule may constitute a violation of Texas Penal Code § 32.52 or Texas Education Code §§ 61.312 and 61.313, and an offense under subsection (a)(1) may be a Class A misdemeanor.”
  • “In this case, ICRGS has offered no actual evidence Standard 12 is unconstitutionally vague (though it pontificates extensively on the subject) …”

And last but not least:

In conclusion, the Court finds ICRGS has not put forth evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to any claim it brings.

Memo to creationists: You can call it creationism or you can call it intelligent design or you can call it a dog’s breakfast, but whatever you want to call it, in front of any half-bright judge, your sins Stoopid will find you out and leave you, as the Institute of Creation Research Graduate School is left tonight, in a well-deserved world of butthurt.

Unfortunately, the only negative consequence to this attempt to securitize Teh Stoopid is that they get told no. I think these people ought to face criminal fraud charges for making the state waste so many bureaucrats’ time, and the lawyers who represented this asshattery should lose their licenses. That would put a stop to this foolishness right quick.

But this is Texas we’re talking about.

How to tell that someone is a zombie

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 5:16 pm
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(h/t: Jill)

Eye on the ball

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 12:22 am
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The stink over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disparaging remarks about his commander-in-chief remind me of something: that I’m old enough to remember when David Stockman got his education.

I don’t mean his college degree, which he got in 1964 or thereabouts. I mean his experience as Ronald Reagan’s first White House budget director — and with the national media and his fellow Republicans — after he talked to William Greider of The Atlantic, perhaps too candidly, about his work.

What Stockman actually said was almost forgotten immediately. What the press insisted on talking about, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was: What would happen to David Stockman? In particular — and, God, how tired I grew of hearing this phrase — would he be taken to the woodshed? In other words, the most important story in U.S. government for — well, I don’t remember how long, now, because it was almost 30 years ago, and it was probably only days, but it seemed at the time like months — was, “Will some bureaucrat keep his job?”

Not “Is the government doing what it is supposed to?” or “Is the government doing what it’s doing cost-effectively?” or even “Do the people who are running the government know what they are doing?”

No, it was all about David Stockman’s Job.

(And people think TODAY’s news media suck.)

See if you can guess what it was that Stockman said that actually got people all het up in the first place. Go on. If you weren’t there at the time, you’ll never figure it out.

Well, it was this.

The main idea on which Ronald Reagan had campaigned in 1980 — cutting top marginal income tax rates would stimulate business and industry enough to generate a net increase in revenues — was bogus. During the campaign, Stockman said, he’d never believed all that strongly in the idea in the first place, and once he got into the actual business of crafting a budget, he knew it was crap.

Now, a news media that had the first idea of what it was doing might be expected to pounce upon, pursue, expand upon and analyze the idea that the signal piece of ideology behind a president’s historic, overwhelming electoral victory was fraudulent. That, however, was not the news media we had.

Had we had that media, we might have learned much sooner (perhaps even before the 1980 election) what Stockman finally told us in 1986, long after he had left government: The President of the United States didn’t have the first damn idea what he was doing with the budget.

Michael Kinsley summarizes in his New York Times review of the book:

There are repeated scenes of the President sitting in amiable silence through policy discussions until some word or phrase -”Medicare,” perhaps, or ”oil depletion allowance” -sets him off on an anecdote, usually revealing that he has totally misunderstood the preceding conversation. A reference to the Cabinet’s failure to cut personnel costs leads to a long and familiar anecdote about filing cabinets. Senator Bob Dole comes by to plead for cuts in programs other than welfare. Mr. Dole utters the word, ”welfare.” Mr. Stockman thinks, ”I wish he hadn’t said that.” And sure enough, ” ‘Bob’s getting at the same thing we found in California,’ the President observed right on cue. He went on to make a point precisely the opposite of Dole’s.”

Cabinet members take skillful advantage of the Commander in Chief’s capacity for befuddlement. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis convinces him that quotas on Japanese cars are not a violation of free trade because Government regulations have hampered American producers. (Japanese cars must meet the same regulations, of course.) Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger shows up for a meeting intended to settle whether the defense buildup should be $1.46 trillion over five years or only $1.33 trillion. His chief prop is a cartoon of three soldiers – one, a pygmy without a rifle, representing the Carter budget; one, ”a four-eyed wimp . . . carrying a tiny rifle,” representing $1.33 trillion, Mr. Stockman’s defense budget; and one, ”G.I. Joe himself . . . all decked out in helmet and flak jacket and pointing an M-60 machine gun,” representing $1.46 trillion. This is how Presidential decisions are made.

This information would have been helpful to know in real time. It certainly would have been helpful to know before the 1984 election, although I doubt it would have made any difference.

I tell this story because we’re in a similar situation with McChrystal and his disrespectful staff: we’re focusing on whether one guy will keep his job.

In fact, he probably should have lost it long ago:

After Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former-NFL-star-turned-Ranger, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters. He signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn’t read the recommendation closely enough – a strange excuse for a commander known for his laserlike attention to minute details.) A week later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman’s death. “If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public,” he wrote, it could cause “public embarrassment” for the president.

“The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat’s true actions,” wrote Tillman’s mother, Mary, in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk. McChrystal got away with it, she added, because he was the “golden boy” of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command. Nine days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal was promoted to major general.

Two years later, in 2006, McChrystal was tainted by a scandal involving detainee abuse and torture at Camp Nama in Iraq. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, prisoners at the camp were subjected to a now-familiar litany of abuse: stress positions, being dragged naked through the mud. McChrystal was not disciplined in the scandal, even though an interrogator at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times.

As the article points out — and unwittingly illustrates — McChrystal has been a media favorite, for reasons probably only a forensic psychiatrist could explain: Even while writing an article that exposes McChrystal, Michael Hastings says the Tillman scandal “would have destroyed the career of a lesser man” (emphasis added).

Well, should McChrystal lose his job? Probably, for two reasons: 1) Active-duty service members, who matter who they are, are forbidden from publicly criticizing the commander-in-chief, no matter who he/she is. 2) This isn’t McChrystal’s first such mistake. He publicly criticized the counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan developed by Vice President Joe Biden — who, like him or not (and I think he’s kind of an ass), has a lot more foreign-policy experience than McChrystal does. Not to say that McChrystal is bad at what he does. Quite the opposite. But what he does, or has done, mainly, is black ops, which is, at best, one tool among many in a comprehensive counterinsurgency program and at worst just flat illegal.

But to focus only on McChrystal’s insubordination is to miss a much bigger picture: McChrystal’s — this country’s — counterinsurgency strategy is failing in Afghanistan. In all fairness, that’s not for lack of trying on McChrystal’s part:

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

In fact, the response from his command has been even more negative:

Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

And if the U.S. were winning hearts and minds, perhaps — perhaps — the U.S. casualties might be worth it. But that isn’t happening:

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN [counterinsurgency] theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.

We’ve been in Afghanistan longer than in any other war. The person whom we went to war to get, Osama bin Laden, is still alive and not even in the country anymore. The best minds in U.S. counterinsurgency have been set on the problem of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and have come up dry. McChrystal is failing. The U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is failing. It is time to bring the troops home.

That is the fact that matters most. Whether or not Stanley McChrystal gets to keep his job or retire with the thanks of a grateful nation, while certainly important to Stanley McChrystal and those who love him and work with him, is not, ultimately, an important national concern.

The media couldn’t keep their eye on the ball in the David Stockman case in 1981. They won’t keep their eye on the ball this time. And more people, American and Afghan alike, will die unnecessarily because of it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 8:20 pm

Testing stuff on the ‘Droid

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:20 pm
Tags: ,

Am I wrong to love the mental image this creates?

Google Maps Navigation is in beta. Use caution. Do not manipulate this application while driving. Traffic data is not real-time, and directions may be wrong, dangerous, prohibited or involve ferries.

Which gives me an excuse to embed this, which might be the Greatest Film Chase Scene Evah:

Reasons to grow old

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 6:25 pm
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Monday, June 21, 2010 7:35 pm

But first, I think I’m gonna have to read this

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 7:35 pm
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Diary of a Very Bad Year:

n+1: When you were talking about misallocation of resources, right, what you were really talking about was that somebody was given money to do something that didn’t need to be done. . .

HFM: Exactly. Some very smart, intelligent people, very intelligent physicists spent their time creating mortgage-backed securities to fool S&P into giving them a rating that they shouldn’t have given them. That’s one example. Another example is a Mexican, a rural Mexican, swam across the Rio Grande to hammer together houses in the exurbs of Arizona that no one is ever going to occupy. …

n+1: You’re saying the Mexican guy spent all the money? That doesn’t make sense.

HFM: He spent it on himself, or he sent it to his family, and his family bought stuff they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

n+1: Billions of dollars? You’re saying the Mexican guy took billions of dollars?

HFM: Well a billion Mexicans…not one Mexican guy! How about all the mortgage brokers who were brokering these mortgages that didn’t make any sense? They all got paid, right?

n+1: Right, those guys! So it’s not just…

HFM: No! Anybody who worked in sectors where there was a tremendous amount of activity where there shouldn’t have been. So we’re talking about housing: It means the Mexican guy who hammered together the house. It means the logger who cut down the wood that was used in the structural lumber. The guy who worked at the saw mill. It means the steel company that created the steel for the nails. It means the mortgage broker who sold the mortgage. It means the physicists who decided instead of doing physics they should work on Wall Street to create the asset-backed security that helped to fund the mortgages that the mortgage broker was originating. All of these people were doing things that turned out not to be productive.

The loser was whoever turned out to be the investor at the end of the chain. So there’s a loss that needs to be allocated. That’s backward-looking. On a forward-looking basis, now we all know there shouldn’t be 50 zillion mortgage brokers, right? There shouldn’t be 50 zillion people working on this stuff. What do you do with those people now? They need to find, we need to, the economy needs to find another use for them. These pay scales will shift, and those people will be moved to their highest and best use, right? But the dynamics are very tricky because these are quantities in a—ultimately people are not quantities in an equation—but it’s difficult for that mortgage broker to find the right job for himself. Maybe he needs to move across the country? All of that is a slow process. And a costly process. And a difficult and disruptive process.

You wonder why I keep saying this is all far from over? Well, now you know.

The book’s out tomorrow.

Drink long the draught of bile

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 7:04 pm
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If you ever read Mark Twain’s posthumous “Letters From the Earth,” you might have the slightest idea what his autobiography will be like.

Yeah. His autobiography. The one he ordered not be published until 100 years after his death, which — hello! Boy, where has the time gone?

So, yeah, coming out this year. And the best part? Five. Thousand. Pages. Suck on that, J.K. Rowling. I may have to take, like, 14 months off from work to read it.

Quote of the day

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.: “I mean, I don’t speak Latin. But unless stare decisis* means ‘overturn stuff,’ then maybe it’s time for conservatives to stop calling other people ‘dangerous radicals.’”

*”To stand by that which has been decided,” more or less. I don’t speak Latin, either. Oh, and if you follow that link and scroll down, you’ll get to the full text of Franken’s speech, and Dawn Johnsen’s. Both are very much worth reading.

The Washington Post should just die already

Yesterday the Post apparently published an article by the Fiscal Times. The Fiscal Times is published by Pete Peterson, the billionaire raising such hell about the deficit because his agenda is cutting social spending as an end in itself, not just as a means to long-term deficit reduction, a fact the Post didn’t see fit to share with its readers.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that U.S. deficits have far less to do with social spending per se than they do with our absurdly high-cost and inefficient health-care system. Adopting any of a number of other Western health-care financing systems, which run the gamut from total socialization to private, nonprofit funding, would generate long-term surpluses rather than deficits even before we touched other social spending, let alone military spending or our absurdly regressive tax system.

This information is readily available to the public, so we must presume that the editors of The Washington Post are either idiots or corrupt. And call me crazy, but I’m going to presume further that they’re not total idiots.

UPDATE: Peterson is also behind the group America Speaks, which will be holding meetings across the country this weekend to discuss what to do about deficits. As you might expect, the group’s framing has been constructed to try to build consensus around cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Who decided it was OK to hate the unemployed?, cont.

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 4:37 pm
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Senate hopeful Rand Paul thinks we’re cuddling the unemployed too darned much:

“In Europe, they give about a year of unemployment. We’re up to two years now in America,” Paul said on Sue Wylie’s WVLK-AM 590 radio program.

“As bad as it sounds, ultimately we do have to sometimes accept a wage that’s less than we had at our previous job in order to get back to work and allow the economy to get started again,” Paul said. “Nobody likes that, but it may be one of the tough love things that has to happen.”

Let’s examine the unspoken premises here, shall we?

  • The problem isn’t that people are unemployed, it’s that we’ve extended unemployment insurance benefits for up to two years.
  • The problem isn’t that there are no jobs, it’s just that there aren’t any jobs at the wage we used to have.
  • People aren’t out of work because they can’t find jobs, they’re out of work on purpose because they haven’t been shown enough “tough love.”

Jesus wept. That’s not libertarianism, that is psychotic hallucination. And that’s bad enough.

But combined with what else is going on, there is a very, very ugly school of thought developing among some conservative Americans, and it needs to be called out. Digby puts her finger on it, I think:

This new meme about the unemployed continues to shock me, and I’m not easily shocked by rightwing rhetoric. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one before, however. They are making a conscious decision to portray the unemployed as the cause of high unemployment so they don’t need to factor it into economic decisions. The actual point seems to be making a permanent underclass out of what were responsible members of the workforce and then demonizing them for being unemployed — thus creating a scapegoat for continued unemployment. This also gives them an excuse to “welfare queen” these people and cut services and social spending even more under the rationale that we need to teach them a lesson in tough love. After all, we “reformed welfare as we know it” so why not “reform unemployment insurance as we know it” too?

Next step: the elderly who are living high off the hog on social security instead of selling oranges on street corners as they should. (That’s another one of those good jobs that are being stolen by undocumented workers.) …

It’s clear that stubborn unemployment is impeding the Grand Bargain to “cut the deficit,” which actually means cutting social spending of all kinds. (After all, even a high school economics student can figure out that reducing unemployment is key to reducing the deficit, so I think we can fairly assume at this point that the deficit is beside the point.) So they are attempting to change the perception that unemployment is something that happens to people and turn it into something they do to themselves, thus making it something that shouldn’t require social insurance. It’s a very daring thing to do because it goes right to the heart of the middle class. But from the looks of things, they are in the process of consciously turning the middle class into an underclass on all kinds of levels, so perhaps that’s not an accident.

This war on the unemployed and the New Austerity is very, very creepy and I’m extremely concerned that it’s going to take on a life of its own. Not only will it destroy the economy further — it’s the opposite of what needs to be done — it’s going to finally destroy what’s left of our frayed social contract. This is the environment in which very unpredictable things begin to happen.

And I’m always amused by the extent to which the folks who push this sort of stuff believe they are immune to its effects.

Good news about vuvuzelas!

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 3:40 pm
Tags: ,

“Good news” and “vuvuzelas” in the same sentence? Epistemologically unlikely, but true nonetheless.

If you’ve got a graphic equalizer on your TV audio (or if you’re watching on a computer), push anything below about 500Hz as low as it will go. The standard vuvuzela B-flat is roughly 235HZ with a harmonic at 470, so doing that should take care of upwards of 95% of the vuvuzela drone.

Now, don’t say I (or, strictly speaking, Jason) never did anything for you.

Can anyone reading this in Charlotte please do me a favor …

Filed under: Panthers,We're so screwed — Lex @ 2:57 pm
Tags:

… and go slap Steve Smith upside the head?

Thank you.

Concern troll is concerned

Oh, dear. The normally level-headed folks at the Economist have taken a gander at some of the anti-BP sentiment in the U.S. and are concerned that President Obama is not doing enough to squelch it. Strictly speaking, they don’t call for Obama to pull a Joe Barton, but they worry that he is “cementing business leaders’ impression that he is indifferent to their concerns.”

I, being concerned that their concerns mainly seem to be composed of wanting BP to be able to kill 11 people and do hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage to people’s property and livelihoods, also am worried about Obama’s being indifferent to their concerns. Because what he ought to be is actively hostile to their concerns.

All right, Ayn Rand was not a total waste of a carbon-based life form.

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 1:12 pm
Tags: ,

After all, her work has led to commentary such as this:

SADY: … I myself am greatly looking forward to the movie ["Atlas Shrugged"]. Because the whole point of it — superior people make superior products and earn superior money because they’re superior! — is going to be really complemented by the spectacle of this broke-assed movie made with former WB stars for like five cents. …

AMANDA: The positive here is that if Ayn Rand’s novel is any indication, they won’t need to hire an editor.

I think I have just found my favorite way to save the environment

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 12:22 pm
Tags: ,

This:

The [Porsche] 918 Spyder prototype combines high-tech racing features and electro-mobility to offer a fascinating range of qualities: An emission level of just 70 grams CO2 per kilometre on fuel consumption of three litres/100 kilometres (equal to 94 mpg imp [78 miles per U.S. gallon]) truly outstanding even for an ultra-compact city car, on the one hand, combined with the performance of a super sports car and acceleration from a standstill to 100 km/h in just under 3.2 seconds, top speed of 320 km/h (198 mph) plus …

But because it’s a hybrid and gets 78 mpg, it’s probably boxy and ugly.

OK, maybe not.

How do you keep banksters from engaging in irresponsible risk?

By making them responsible, duh — via joint and several liability, of the type incumbent upon partnerships in Wall Street’s (very recent) past.

Layin’ the smackdown on Alan Greenspan

Why do so many people think Alan Greenspan is a genius? Barry Ritholtz just doesn’t get it, and after reading him for several months, neither do I:

Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan discussed the Federal deficit in a WSJ OpEd yesterday. In it, he argued that the budding “urgency to rein in budget deficits” is occurring “none too soon.”

Like most of the former Fed Chair’s analyses, forecasts, and economic beliefs, this one is pure, unmitigated nonsense. A brief look at the Greenspan legacy, along with his track record of forecasts, leads to the obvious conclusion: Greenspan is an economist to blithely ignore, as his commentary contains almost nothing of value other than its status as a contrary indicator.

Before we get into the details of his deficit commentary, I must highlight this sentence: “The financial crisis, triggered by the unexpected default of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, created a collapse in global demand that engendered a high degree of deflationary slack in our economy.”

No, Alan, the financial crisis was not triggered by Lehman’s collapse. You are getting the causation exactly backwards: The crisis is what triggered LEH’s collapse. Further, the fall of Lehman was hardly “unexpected.” Whether you want to look at stock price before the collapse, spreads on its debt, David Einhorn’s forensic accounting (he was short LEH) or our own quantitative analysis (we were short LEH), there were plenty of warnings about Lehman’s collapse. It was only unexpected by those whose ideological beliefs blinded them to reality. (Remind you of anyone?)

I am not particularly well-versed in economics — I’ve taken one course in my life — and yet I knew the economy in general and Lehman Bros. in particular were overextended even before Lehman failed. So how did this escape the notice of the Master of the Universe?

And this is not an isolated instance. Ritholtz actually makes a decent case that Greenspan is “the most incompetent economist of his generation” … which is saying something.

Thing is, there are still plenty of politicians in positions of power out there who will believe every word Alan Greenspan says because he tells them what they want to hear.

Sunday, June 20, 2010 11:43 pm

Foreclosing on foreclosure

Filed under: Evil,I want my money back. — Lex @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , ,

One obvious potential problem with the “securitization” — the packaging of mortages and selling them as financial instruments — is: Who really owns the mortgaged property?

Oddly enough, a lot of judges want to know and are not entertaining kindly attempts by banks to fudge their answers:

The backlash is intensifying against banks and mortgage servicers that try to foreclose on homes without all their ducks in a row.

Because the notes were often sold and resold during the boom years, many financial companies lost track of the documents. Now, legal officials are accusing companies of forging the documents needed to reclaim the properties.

On Monday, the Florida Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating the use of “bogus assignment” documents by Lender Processing Services Inc. and its former parent, Fidelity National Financial Inc. And last week a state judge in Florida ordered a hearing to determine whether M&T Bank Corp. should be charged with fraud after it changed the assignment of a mortgage note for one borrower three separate times.

“Mortgage assignments are being created out of whole cloth just for the purposes of showing a transfer from one entity to another,” said James Kowalski Jr., an attorney in Jacksonville, Fla., who represents the borrower in the M&T case.

Now, I should point out that I am not arguing that lien holders shouldn’t be paid what they’re owed. But I’ll argue all day that if property “owners” have to have their paperwork in a row, so should lien holders.

Cynthia Kouril of Firedoglake comments:

You know, if banks had just dealt honestly with people about modifying the mortgages to reset the principle [sic] to reflect the post bubble value of those houses, and the post bailout interest rate, a whole slew of home owners could have been kept in their homes, with a payment they could afford. By doing this, using the money that the TAXPAYERS gave them for this very purpose –Hello, remember TARP?—housing prices would have stabilized, neighborhoods would not be in freefall and bankers, and the investors in those mortgage backed securities, would be enjoying a steady stream of income for years to come. The pittance they will get for the house at foreclosure auction is a tiny fraction of the amount they would have collected over the life of those modified mortgages.

That’s the point nobody wants to talk about now: TARP was intended to help banks extend credit, keep home owners in their homes and write down the values of the bubble-priced assets on their books without having to go bankrupt. But, of course, the money came with no regulatory or oversight strings attached, as federal money always seems to do when it’s going to corporations, and so the money went elsewhere, like proprietary trading and executive bonuses.

Moreover, when the emphasis changed from originating profitable mortages to originating mortages, period, collecting the origination fees and then selling them just as fast as possible, any idiot could have told you what was going to happen:

What really gets me, is the audacity of the greed. The entire system is set up to generate fees, rather than income from the repayment of the mortgages. So, not only is the homeowner suffering, but the municipalities and pension funds that foolishly invested in those mortgage backed securities are losing, too, because the trustees and others who owe them a fiduciary duty are ripping them off for more servicing fees and foreclosure costs instead of taking proper steps to secure an ongoing, though somewhat diminished, income stream.

Those of you who are fond of Big Questions might like to ponder this one: Why does no one take his fiduciary responsibilities seriously anymore? And this one: Why are there no serious real-life consequences for breach of fiduciary responsibility?

Corrected NYT headline: “Twisting Arms at BP, Obama Sets Off a Debate on Tactics. In Times reporter David Sanger’s head.”

I’ve got a question for both New York Times reporter David Sanger and the people through whose hands his copy passed who supposedly call themselves editors (and it’s at least theoretically possible that two friends and former colleagues are among that group): In what universe, what dimension, is it true that:

The question is whether the cumulative effects of these actions create an impression that, over the long run, may make it harder to persuade both American and foreign corporations to cooperate with Mr. Obama’s program to reinvest and reinvigorate the American economy.

Does anyone in a responsible position in business, government, the nonprofit sector or the national media — and I include both David Sanger and everyone he quotes in this risible “news analysis” — really think that “foreign and domestic investors come to view the United States as a too risky place to do business, a country where big mistakes can lead to vilification and, perhaps, bankruptcy”?

I’ve got one other question, and it’s for everybody:

Why, exactly, would this be a bad thing? Someone please explain to me why it is, in general, a bad thing for America when companies that do bad things, on a grand scale can go bankrupt, let alone be vilified? Because maybe I’m just a total idiot, but I’m having a hard time ginning up an answer.

God almighty, if this is what passes for “journalism” at The New York Times, then the Times needs to just hurry up and die already.

UPDATE: Also, “as a too risky place”?? Really, NYT copy desk? How ’bout “as too risky a place”? Geez.

Immigration and the feds

Filed under: More fact-based arguing, please — Lex @ 10:50 pm
Tags: ,

Dumb as I think Arizona’s S.B. 1070 is, my first reaction to news of the administration’s plans to sue to overturn it is that it’s not obvious to me that the federal government has standing to sue.

Any real lawyers wanna tell me what the deal is?

See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya: Erik Prince edition

Filed under: Hold! Them! Accountable! — Lex @ 10:43 pm
Tags: , ,

I noted two months ago that five Blackwater/Xe folks, including its ex-president and corporate counsel, had been indicted, and I asked at the time, “If, as the indictment alleges, the corporate counsel was involved, what are the odds that CEO Erik Prince wasn’t?”

Apparently Prince doesn’t like those odds very much because he’s reported to be moving to the United Arab Emirates, which — imagine that! — doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

If we’re going to be doing extraordinary rendition, perhaps we could start with Mr. Prince.

UPDATE: Prince has put Xe up for sale. Buh-bye, Erik.

Have I mentioned lately that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a bunch of whores?

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 10:38 pm
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First, they want you, the taxpayer, to help pay to clean up BP’s mess.

That’s bad enough. But to add insult to injury, here’s their logic:

“It is generally not the practice of this country to change the laws after the game,” said Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “. . . Everybody is going to contribute to this clean up. We are all going to have to do it.  We are going to have to get the money from the government and from the companies and we will figure out a way to do that.”

Uh, Tom, what was that you guys said about changing the laws after the game back when the telcos were in danger of being charged and held civilly liable for their roles in Bush administration violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act?

Oh, yeah, this:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation representing more than three million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region, strongly supports S. 2248, the “FISA Amendments Act of 2007,” as passed by the Senate on February 12, 2008. The Chamber believes that this bill, in its current form, provides necessary, appropriate, and targeted relief commensurate with the threat to national security that arose in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The Chamber represents companies across various industries which own or operate vital components of the nation’s critical physical, virtual, and economic infrastructures. The federal government continually depends upon such industries for cooperation and assistance in national security matters, including homeland security programs and activities. The government also turns to these companies in times of crisis, when the speed, agility, and creativity of the private sector can be critical to averting a terrorist attack.

Therefore, the Chamber urges the House to consider S. 2248 and pass this bipartisan compromise legislation. The Chamber firmly believes that the immunity provisions in S. 2248 are imperative to preserving the self-sustaining “public-private partnership” that both Congress and the Executive Branch have sought to protect the United States in the post-September 11 world.”

Shorter Chamber: We expect large corporations to be able to do any damn thing they want. You meatsacks can just suck it up.

(h/t: Marcy)

Saturday, June 19, 2010 10:04 pm

Because we haven’t had a post on the dining habits of reptiles in WAY too long

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 10:04 pm
Tags: ,

… I’m delighted to report that Jude comes through in the clutch:

She writes: “What you see here is a swamp gator chomping on a hot dog on a stick down in Louisiana,” which the voice behind my eyes reads to me in the voice of Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke.”

You should totally apologize to BP

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 9:27 pm
Tags: , , , ,

So go do it. Right now.

Friday, June 18, 2010 9:50 pm

Gettin’ medieval on their buttocks …

… or at least Victorian. David Walker, president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation — Peterson’s the guy who’s behind this whole deficit-commission scam to gut Social Security and Medicare — has some interesting notions about civilization. Yea, verily, he wants to bring back debtors’ prisons:

The fact of the matter is, we have to change how we do things. We are on an imprudent and unsustainable path in a number of ways. You talk about debtor’s prisons, we used to have debtor’s prisons, now bankruptcy’s no taint. Bankruptcy’s an exit strategy. Our society and our culture have changed. We need to get back to opportunity and move away from entitlement. We need to be able to provide reasonable risk but we need to hold people accountable when they do imprudent things. It’s pretty fundamental.

Hey, I am ALL ABOUT holding people accountable when they do imprudent things. Like giving mortgages to people who never should have gotten them. Like creating mortgages that are designed to fail, then selling them off. Like assigning AAA ratings to financial instruments backed by crap mortgages. Like buying financial instruments you know are crap, knowing that you can resell them at a profit and also make money by betting that they will fail. Like lying about the value of the assets on your company’s books and then making taxpayers take them off your hands at inflated rates.

Yes, a lot of people got over their heads in debt who shouldn’t have and who should have known better. But a lot of honest people, and American taxpayers generally, also were victimized by corporate predators. Hold people accountable? I’d like nothing better.

Meet Ralph the Death Pigeon*

Filed under: Cool!,Sad — Lex @ 8:53 pm
Tags:

Some unmanned aircraft are more futuristic, including a drone created by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is shaped and painted to resemble a real bird. Though not ready for deployment, the bird drone, which may someday recharge itself by perching on utility lines like a real bird, has flown for 30 minutes.

*(h/t and name: Spencer Ackerman)

Who decided it was OK to hate the unemployed?

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Ew.,We're so screwed — Lex @ 8:35 pm
Tags:

No, really?

First, Congress blows town for Memorial Day without extending unemployment benefits because OMG DEFFISITZ!!11!111! Because lots of well-placed idiots have gotten it into their heads that the possibility of 2% inflation is a more clear and present danger than the actuality of 10% (and worsening) unemployment.

Then Sen. Orrin Hatch says the unemployed should be drug-tested, on the grounds that … well, I’m not clear, exactly, but if it has anything to do with receiving federal cash, then the first people we ought to drug-test are investment bankers and defense contractors because, as the great and wise philosopher Willie Sutton once observed, that’s where the money is.

And now some companies are saying, in a time of 10% unemployment, that they will only consider you for a job if you already have one. Translation: “We’re going to deliberately cut ourselves off from a significant number of potentially top-notch job candidates because we think they’re contagious. Or something.”

Note to job candidates: Times are tough, so I won’t judge you no matter what you decide. But think hard about going to work for an employer who does this. This breathtaking display of irrationality, of blaming the victim, of IGMFY, is never an indicator of good management and is frequently a sign of both incompetence and genuine evil.

* * *

After some consideration, I went with the more-or-less literal headline on this post. I almost went with a really radioactive metaphor, however.

Threat assessment

A relatively small number of our foes are very bright, very dedicated, very competent, very well funded and very dangerous.

But the rest? Not so much:

Their leaders and recruiters can be lethally subtle and manipulative, but the quiet truth is that many of the deluded foot soldiers are foolish and untrained, perhaps even untrainable. Acknowledging this fact could help us tailor our counterterrorism priorities—and publicizing it could help us erode the powerful images of strength and piety that terrorists rely on for recruiting and funding.

Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where it’s fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks—or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.

Many Taliban operatives are just as clumsy when suicide is not part of the plan. In November 2009, several Talibs transporting an improvised explosive device were killed when it went off unexpectedly. The blast also took out the insurgents’ shadow governor in the province of Balkh. …

If our terrorist enemies have been successful at cultivating a false notion of expertise, they’ve done an equally convincing job of casting themselves as pious warriors of God. The Taliban and al-Qaeda rely on sympathizers who consider them devoted Muslims fighting immoral Western occupiers. But intelligence picked up by Predator drones and other battlefield cameras challenges that idea—sometimes rather graphically. One video, captured recently by the thermal-imagery technology housed in a sniper rifle, shows two Talibs in southern Afghanistan engaged in intimate relations with a donkey. Similar videos abound, including ground-surveillance footage that records a Talib fighter gratifying himself with a cow.

A number of takeaways from this:

First, to be able to recognize the real threats, we need to be able to acknowledge the “threats” that really aren’t.

Second, while mythologizing an enemy may be essential to uniting an otherwise ambivalent nation, building up your enemy in your mind into something he isn’t will inevitably result in lives needlessly lost, money wasted and security compromised.

Third, it’s important to understand what maroons we’re up against to rebut effectively the claims of the Idiot-Americans that we must scrap the Constitution to save our country.

There are probably more, but those are the biggies.

Real differences

How is it that DFH Digby, all the way out there in LaLa Land, can see things so much more clearly than the highly paid Washington political opinionistas?

If it wasn’t clear by the time Obama took office that Republicans saw “gestures” as a sign of weakness then surely it should be by now. And that’s why it makes his rank and file so frustrated. It’s not because we want catharsis — we got plenty of that with Bush’s ignominious last two years and the routs of 2006 and 2008. And we don’t want gestures either. We’re not like the trained dogs of the right wing.

It’s not some emotional need that’s driving criticism of the president at this point. It’s not even politics. It’s a legitimate fear that he is either using the wrong political strategy or adopting the wrong policy prescriptions (or both) in dealing with the very serious problems we face.

I don’t care if he “acts tough” with BP as long as he makes sure the government does all it can to deal with this crisis and ensures there is accountability for it. (The $20b is a good sign.) But I’d also like him to be politically astute enough to use this issue to persuade the public to back real energy and climate change legislation so that we can get off this noxious spigot before it kills us all. I’d like him to stop coddling the financial sector and fight this trumped up deficit crisis rather than enabling it in another Grand Bargain fantasy that will never work politically in the short or long term and protecting those who perpetuate this economic instability. I’d like the administration to be principled on civil liberties period and take a skeptical position with the military.

I suppose there are some people who are disillusioned, but I’m not. I’m not even particularly surprised. Our political system is so skewed to the conservative side after 30+ years of non-stop propaganda that it’s difficult to shift gears. But I do wish the Democrats would join the Republicans in the recognition that the electorate and the political system really are polarized, that we have different philosophies and ideals and that choices have to be made. This quest for transpartisan utopia simply isn’t possible in a society fractured and riven by competing ideas of what we stand for.

It’s not an emotional need to kick Republicans or an egotistical desire for gestures that drives the criticism right now. It’s a disagreement over policy and strategy and it’s a serious one.

Digby is a liberal Democrat, of course, but disregarding her positions on specific issues, I think many Democrats, and almost all Republicans, would agree that she accurately assesses the overall political landscape. The only bipartisanship in Washington right now is the bipartisan media failure to grasp the political reality: Congressional Republicans, for better or worse, have gone all-in on a strategy of total, scorched-earth opposition, and American voters, for better or worse, are deeply divided. Bipartisanship is neither achievable nor, to most Americans, particularly desirable right now. Reasonable people can disagree on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is, it exists, and the media’s general failure to acknowledge this fact and include it in the context of its reporting and analysis is negligent, if not corrupt.

Climate/environment sustainability and theater

Filed under: Odds 'n' ends — Lex @ 8:29 pm
Tags: , ,

G. Rendell, writing at Inside Higher Ed, notes that global-warming denialists and envirohaters like Cal Thomas equate sustainability advocates with weakness and cowardliness. But not only is Thomas’s argument weak and cowardly, Rendell writes, it’s just flat wrong:

Thomas, for all his faults, has a good grasp of popular American imagery. Sustainability, environmentalism, liberalism and intellectualism are all the territory of nerds. (You know that’s true, in the popular mindset.) And nerds are weaklings. And weaklings are cowards. And cowardice is un-American. You don’t need to do the math — the images are familiar and the result is pre-ordained.

But sustainability and environmentalism don’t have to be nerd territory. They could just as readily be associated with outdoorsmen, and outdoorsmen are (The Lumberjack Song aside), rugged and masculine. (Not sure how far I want to go with that “masculine” thing, of course. Still . . . ) Pioneers, cowboys, family farmers, hunters, fisherfolk, even lumberjacks and -jills. Daniel Boone. Davy Crockett. Lewis and Clark. Et al. (Lots of al.)

Thomas mentions George Washington (if only to ding Obama) in his column. George Washington heated Mount Vernon by burning biomass. If it was good enough for him . . .

And why are people who ride bikes less rugged than folks who drive cars (usually alone)? Which one’s the weakling in that comparison? (And, by Thomas’s own extension, the coward?) Even walking to the bus stop builds muscle mass better than backing out of your driveway.

Which reminds me, I need to lose some weight. Again. (sigh)

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