Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sunday Sermons on the Decline and Fall

Our familiar Sunday themes:

-Fr. Frank Rich has an even better than usual piece on our Poodle Press in today's New York Times.

-News Flash: private sector failed to Rebuild LA. Sorrowful views 15 years later (1, 2, 3).

-Catch up on Paul Krugman's demonstration that the U.S. income and wealth spreads have returned to the 1920s or the 1890s, depending on your measure. Contrast it with Human Helium Balloon Tom Friedman's happy Einstein parable of salvation through science education. Why does anyone take Friedman's corporate global future seriously when he is in blanket denial of the corporate global present? A central symptom of that present -- the grotesque and bizarre maldistribution of money -- is noted by Krugman: the top 25 hedge-fund managers made $14 billion in 2006, which would have covered the cost of health insurance for the U.S. 8 million children who current lack it. Remember: soaking the rich does work, financially.

-A federal Court of Appeals immunized banks that helped Enron defraud investors by hiding loses and pumping the stock.

-Public investment stops: watch infrastructure fall. Today the LA Times reported that California's genius Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is strangling planning for a bullet train network, which eventually would have brought this huge state with terrible traffic into the second half of the twentieth century. Today, a gasoline truck completely destroyed a connector to the Bay Bridge that links Oakland to San Francisco. Whoops. A few more people will be taking the train.

-News Flash: racism undermines support for public services! Economists have figured out the obvious, but better late than never.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Rich Man Middle Man

The dailies are starting to cover the crazy incomes of hedge fund chiefs. Here's a sample from the Los Angeles Times. At the bottom is this list:

1. James Simons, Renaissance Technologies, $1.7 billion

2. Ken Griffin, Citadel Investment, $1.4 billion

3. Edward Lampert, ESL Investments, $1.3 billion

4. George Soros, Soros Fund Management, $950 million

5. Steven Cohen, SAC Capital, $900 million

6. Bruce Kovner, Caxton Associates, $715 million

7. Paul Tudor Jones, Tudor Investment, $690 million

8. Tim Barakett, Atticus Capital, $675 million

9. David Tepper, Appaloosa Management, $670 million

10. Carl Icahn, Icahn Partners, $600 million.

The assets of the rest of us are starting to flounder. Housing sales were down over eight percent last month compared to the month before. This will soon mean the end of the price inflation that owners used to boost their often-stagnant incomes and that kept many renters locked out of the market. It will be interesting if folks finally start to ask why the new wealth isn't shared like the old used to be.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Afraid for France

Today's first-round presidential elections in France are making me nervous. What if Sarkozy comes out way in front? What if the second-round consists of a choice between Sarkozy the wannabe Thatcherite and le Pen, the National Front right-wing racist? What if French voters turn out to be as dumb as we are?

Some reasons why they might be:

1. Sarkozy is widely portrayed in the press as a New Man, a bold, vigorous, decisive leader able to break France's attachment to its statist past. France could vote in effect to get rid of its best features - great public services like transportation and health care, and make its crappy features, like its university system and its rigid, top-down corporate world, even worse.

2. France's poor, though a much smaller piece of the pie than in the U.S., are often portrayed as violent, illiterate, Islamic fanatics who refuse to assimilate into France. Shades of Thatcher and Reagan, Sarkozy parades his contempt for the "scum" of the projects in place of meaningful accomplishments in reducing crime and increasing school achievement and employment. But these strong-man gestures please a lot of people in all countries.

3. France's business class is as irresponsible as that of the US and the UK, and incessantly demands lower taxes and easier firings rather than solutions to real social problems like racism, unqualified school grads, social polarization, and - the one we never talk about - clueless business elites who really have no idea how to make their companies excel internationally, and so fall back on milking their own public sectors.The slogan should be "Sarko le mediocre." This is a guy who never had a new idea in his life, who plays the race card and the deregulation card like the Anglo-Saxon right began doing thirty years ago. He would be the worst of both worlds, delivering cronyist neoliberalism in economics (France's biggest companies getting more favors, not getting more productive, and doing less and less for the country), and racialized dismantling of society, exploiting France's diminishing confidence in the value of its great public services and residual egalitarianism.

Is France on a death trip of its own?

Sunday symptoms:
  1. our own utterly decadent leaders, anatomized by Fr. Frank
  2. free market health care strikes again in America's death-trip zone, The South
  3. migrate to live under globalization
  4. finally a non-stupid piece on France in the New York Times
  5. American financial culture's made-up rules: are we smart enough to follow the story?
  6. shareholder votes on executive pay? One small step for reform.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blingdexes Boom, Unlike You

This is under the heading of "proof of what you already knew." Robert Frank's Wealth Report in Friday's Wall Street Journal cites several indexes of the luxury consumer sector to show that indexes that track high-end goods have gone up much faster during the Bush years than those that track consumption for the rest of us. Frank writes, "Most of the luxury index have posted an average increase of at least 13% between 2001 and 2006. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, by comparison, has increased an average of 4.7% annually during the same period." And of course GDP has increased less than that. In addition, "same-store sales for upscale stores like Saks and Barneys are increasing at more than twice the rate of the overall retail sector, analysts say."

Another example: Merrill Lynch's new MI LIfeStyle Index (which includes BMW, Porsche, Bulgari, Coach, Burberry, Tiffany, Sotheby's, etc.) "increased 23% in 2005 and 12.5% in 2006 - above the 14% and 7% posted for the Morgan Stanley's MSCI World Consumer Discretionary Index" which tracks global consumer stocks.

And of course the inevitable stats behind this are not long in coming: "The number of millionaire households in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1995," and "the total wealth held by the nation's richest 1% has increased more than 50% since 1998, to $16.7 trillion in 2004."

No wonder we had to cut national higher education funding by over 15% in real dollars in the 2000s, and had to privatize the formerly federal student loan agency Sallie Mae, whose CEO after 1997, Albert L. Lord, made $235 million between 1999 and 2004, and stands to make another $135 on this new deal. (See a good piece by Joseph Nocera, and and another by Julie Bosman on loan companies phony but mandatory "counselling" to students on campus.) Why send two kids to Harvard, or fifteen to Cal State Channel Islands, when you can buy a Bugati instead, make the kids take on debt, and then pay off your Bugati with the interest you make from their securitized debt? This is what makes this the greatest country in the world!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Goodbye Means Hello

I haven't read Vonnegut in years but I will miss him anyway. I'll miss what he represented - originality and stylistic loopiness that opened up new windows into how people think and feel. I loved how he believed that we could imagine other worlds, and then went ahead and imagined them.

There's some good quotations in this clip from David L. Ulin's obit in the Los Angeles Times of April 13th. But there's also a tendency to cut Vonnegut down to size.

Here's Ulin:
"Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut's masterpiece, is the story of a World War II veteran named Billy Pilgrim who comes unstuck in time. The book is centered around the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces near the end of World War II, which Vonnegut survived as a prisoner of war. It's no understatement to suggest that this was the defining experience of the author's life, not because it made him bitter but because it opened up his point of view.

Close to 100,000 people died in Dresden, almost all of them civilians: shopkeepers, nursemaids, teachers, children. It was a horror so incomprehensible that the only reasonable response was to see it as absurd. For Vonnegut, this was the linchpin in what became a humanistic outlook on the world. It allowed him, in some fundamental way, to develop his own odd bittersweet sense of humor, since he had witnessed such indiscriminate devastation and despair.

What set Vonnegut apart is that, even as he commented on this, he understood there was nothing to be done about it; when he acknowledged, in response to a question from an acquaintance, that he was writing an antiwar book, he was asked why he wasn't writing an anti-glacier book instead. "What he meant, of course," Vonnegut wrote, "was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too."

He was also smart enough to recognize his complicity, the idea that as a writer or observer, he was not above the fray. "One way or another," Vonnegut acknowledged ruefully in 1976, "I got two or three dollars for every person killed [in Dresden]. Some business I'm in."

This willingness to tell the truth would sometimes blur, as Vonnegut grew older, into cynicism. He could be a misanthrope; in his 1991 essay collection "Fates Worse Than Death," he described humanity as "an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again," and later he would go so far as to say that we, as a species, had been a mistake.

Indeed, much of his later work was marked by a pessimism about the fate of the world and, indeed, the human race. "The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy," he wrote in his last book, "A Man Without a Country," published in 2005.

Still, even the existence of that final effort spoke to an opposing, and more optimistic, point of view.
Actually, no. Vonnegut never thought there was nothing to be done about things like war. He was depressed and "pessimistic" because there were lots of things to do to stop war, global warming, etc. - we just weren't doing them. That's depressing.

He's gone and not suffering anymore. And he's not pessimistic anymore. And not gone - there are those amazing books. RIP Kurt. We will keep working on your other worlds.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Executive Pay Frenzy at the New York Times

As readers here know, Sunday in America is Class Anxiety Day. The New York Times prepared a special Easter Class Anxiety edition with excellent graphics available on line for a week or so. The anxiety almost spills over into anger and even a little whiff of class war. It is pretty outrageous, what you can do by studying 200 "large public companies" and the pay of the top three folks. Look at the graph to the left. I don't think I have the heart to write about this long enough to get to the bottom of this insane, stratospheric spike they've given themselves - oops, I made it. The big spike is actually the top 10% of executives, showing the nutty spikes within spikes of the inequality that has become our defining national feature. My gut reaction is that these guys at the top don't care about anything - the country, the economy, the people, the environment, nothing outside of crushing everybody else in whatever game they think they're playing. Maybe they'd pay attention if somebody tried to raise the 15% capital gains tax rate back to the 38% or whatever the hell the top bracket is in this country of clueless leaders. But global warming, civil wars, blown up in the market, starvation and drinking water for a billion people that makes you crap your guts out: these guys can't do a goddam thing except make it worse, so you wonder why we're paying them anything. It almost makes you wish the Second Coming would come right now. Happy Easter everyone. I need another chocolate bunny.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Restless Scarf Day

Today I had lunch with my brother upstairs in a good hole-in-the wall mom-n-pop restaurant in the Galerie Vero Dodat, just off the Palais Royal which was looking mighty good in early spring as we walked through. We talked about about all sorts of things, particularly the upcoming presidential elections here in France, which as Americans we feels we've already lived through. Sarkozy the candidate of security, patriotism, immigration controls, and the deregulation of business; Royale, getting called inexperienced and indecisive and going down in the poles. Sarko is the culture of force brought to France, and of cronyism already here, and of Blairite privatization which means giving businesses slices of government activity thus driving up costs, allowing business to declare government inefficient and taking even more of the action. Maybe Sarkozy can bring HMOs to French healthcare so the French can pay three times what they do now, making them "efficient" like us. Naturally, Brad says, much of the middle class supports Sarkozy.

But what the hell. Things feel less urgent in Paris, which has survived centuries of lying and stealing leaders. The Palais Royal was the original fusion of government and retail, built for Richlieu in the 1630s and combining over time royal apartments and every variety of snobbery and trade. After lunch we walked down rue de Rivoli, the heart of middle-brow commerce, and then I continued on across the amazing Seine on an early spring day that combined an unsteady, chilly north wind with lots of unbroken sun. I passed la Conciergerie with its famous round towers, the heart of the old monarchy and of royal imprisonment and then past le palais de justice, the heart of the law, and on to Notre Dame de Paris. As ye olde Catholic atheist, I visit cathedrals every chance I get, including ones I've visited dozens of times before, like this one, a destination of one of my traditional Paris walks. If you asked me "what is European civilization's single greatest achievement," I would immediately reply, "Notre Dame."

I looked at it today and thought of what Avery says about the ruins at Jumieges. It used to be powerful and evil. Now its power is gone, and it is peaceful. And beautiful, beautiful, beautiful The beauty does mean something. It always gives me hope. The structure, the ornament, the entire world of humanity represented in the figures - all speak of the authority of god, which leads to fixed, rigid, absolute hierarchies on the facade. I like watching the unstoppable mobs of tourists in the parvis in front. They are amazed by it, and excited, at least temporarily harmless and at peace themselves, taking pictures and pointing and deciphering and perhaps they wonder what I always wonder - how did those European barbarians, those superstitious fanatics, those ignorant pretechnological killers, make something as beautiful, as overwhelming as this? How did they do something this right?

They knew many things that we have forgotten. They had labor and craft, and art was central to the ways they honored the universe. They were doing much better at that than we are.

I stared at the central portal as I always do. There are the saints standing on the backs of the servants who twist their necks to look up at them. There are the rows of heads ascending and descending. There are the fake kings looking down, the substitute statues after their forebears were pulled to the ground during the revolution. The destruction of the kings was the beginning of the ruin, and the romanticism, and Hugo's novel that brought people back to the building to look up at it. The end of the kings was the start of the peace.

The revolution left the central portal intact. There is Christ on his throne. Below him an angel conducts the weighing of souls. The saved are directed to heaven. The damned are directed below.

The saved and the damned - this dichotomy is the central mistake of Christianity. This is not Jesus, the great anti-imperial thinker of community-based higher things. This is Christ, whose status as himself divine supposedly ratified church power and what better way to show his power than by damning souls to hell? Really, what worse way? The reflex of damnation - it's nearly been the end of us all.

After weighing the weighing of souls yet again, I walked around to the back, past the pink and the green flowering trees, and the smiling grandfathers having their picture taken, and the boys happily strangling each other on the pavilion. From the heart of the church I walked to the Jardin des Plantes, the heart of old French science, fully repaired, spreading out flat and wide and endlessly in the distance, with the Galerie de zoologie majestic and undisturbable in the distance, wide and high and forming its own horizon. Manet-like tableau sur l'herbe occurred at regular intervals - a teenage girl helping an 8-year-old with her homework under the pink petals, a 4 year old girl in a red coat amiably kicking her way across the crushed granite earth, clumps of shouting schoolkids, businessmen blinking in the sun as they talked on the their phones. I went out the front and walked by the great Mosque, the old heart of Islamic France. I couldn't go home without stopping in at the 5 a Sec on Saint Marcel to see if my regular laundress was there, and thankfully she was. Something else to look forward to.

My scarf took off in the wind about 50 times during the walk. Happy to come back, but equally happy to go.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Robbing Thy Pension

Today's New York Times has a good investigate article about budgetary deception and the siphoning of the teacher's pension fund in the state of New Jersey. "I'm from Jersey" jokes aside, New Jersey is a wealthy state, in per capita income not far behind Connecticut and Massachusetts, ahead of New York, and way ahead of California. So it's particularly ominous that the state has been robbing its teachers to pay its contractors, or its pension consultants at JP Morgan - or somebody, who really knows. This is not a conspiracy against middle-class social services - it's just part of the overall disdain and carelessness regarding public sector resources that create a phony sense of their inefficiency and, more literally, gradually destroy their solvency so after lots of sighing, lamentation, and handwringing our "responsible" public officials - usually Democrats - can clean up the mess by cutting payouts, taking new employees out of the pension altogether, and increasing everyone's insecurity. Actually this downsizing of public pensions and benefits is the specific goal of business roundtable-like organizations like the Rich Citizens Public Budget Complaint Committee, known more formally as the CBC, which constantly argues that public employees don't deserve good pensions because their wages aren't as grossly substandard as they used to be. Well too bad, it's your fault for choosing public service when you could have been an IP lawyer . . .