Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reasons to Be Cheerful

OK. I admit it. It's not all climate change deniers and distracted drivers and a government hellbent on sucking Wall Street's penis to the exclusion of legislating and leading in a semi-responsible way.

There are, in the words of the immortal Ian Dury, reasons to be cheerful.

1.) I was able to locate a liquor department stocking New Belgium Brewing Company's Frambozen, a brown ale and raspberry concoction far better-tasting than you might be inclined to believe.

Upon my first taste of the stuff, I wasn't especially impressed and relegated it to the “interesting” category. But by bottle number-six, I was on the verge of proposing marriage.

So yes, I search high and low for Frambozen at Christmastime. You should, too.

2.) The New York Knicks are 5 and 27. The Los Angeles Lakers 10 and 21.

Nothing like seeing the league's most-dysfunctional franchise continue to flounder under its Hall of Fame slash opportunist GM. The realization that former GM Isiah Thomas couldn't make things any worse than they already are at Madison Square Garden is staggering.

And the Lakers? I confess to getting a kick out of watching the league's most-entitled team suffer the ravages of old age and free-agent defection. 

As a card-carrying member of N.C.F.K. (Never cared for Kobe), I'm not shedding many tears at the sight of Bryant starring in the role of former superstar hobbled by injuries and in the twilight of his career.

True, the record will show that Bryant scored more points than M. Jordan, but another will show that insofar as championships were concerned, the Black Mamba did less with more.

3.) The 2014/15 Chicago Bulls, custodians of a tidy 22 and 10 record which places them atop the Central Division.

After impressive victories over Memphis, Toronto and Washington and another Christmas Day over the Los Angeles franchise formerly known as contenders, the Bulls appear to be rounding into shape.

Best of all, Derrick Rose looks like his old self, driving the lane and giving the once-anemic offense options. With free-agent acquisition Pau Gasol playing like he's in his mid-twenties and the bench once again full of characters ready, willing and able to defend and even pad leads, the Bulls look awesome and formidable.

4.) Finally, there is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I don't see much live music anymore, which is mostly a byproduct of my limited income. But even if things were different, I'm still not sure I'd be plopping down three-hundred bucks to see the likes of 2014-era U2.

So as an early X-mas gift to my mate, I bought a pair of tickets and we made the trip downtown to Orchestra Hall to see the CSO play a program featuring Haydn (93rd symphony), Strauss (Don Juan) and Beethoven (7th symphony).

Let me first say that classical music benefits more than any other when heard live. I'm still waiting for the recording that captures the transparency and richness of an orchestra in full flower.

Whew.

Of course, great seats don't hurt. Neither does a little Ludwig Van (as Alex in A Clockwork Orange was wont to call the estimable Mr. Beethoven).

Without the vocabulary and experience of a seasoned listener, I'll just say it was wondrous, with textures, sounds and melodies that enchanted and excited and got my soul righted.

More than any other piece performed that night, Beethoven's seventh was an orgy of mood and sound, fully animated by what is still one of the world's leading orchestras. I was agog.

And a post-concert walk through Millennium Park, with its backdrop of skyscrapers and Christmas lights, was a silent night-styled treat. It was the perfect coda to an evening of powerful music.

So life could be worse.

I remain grateful for Stand 'N Stuff taco shells. Express check-out lanes. The chime that goes off when I leave my headlights on. The fact that I am not legally or biologically related to anyone named Kardashian. Elizabeth Warren. And the continued functioning of my overworked and much-abused ears.

But life could be a great deal better, also. Which is what I'm hoping the next calendar holds for me and you.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Am I the Only One Who Sees the Ghost?

Dear readers, I'm going to ask you for a favor.

I want you to go to the biggest, most opulent homes in your community and leave $10,000.00 on each of their doorsteps.

That's right. $10,000.00. On the doorstep.

Then I want you to write out a check to the following: Google, Goldman-Sachs, Exxon, British Petroleum, Apple, Microsoft and Citibank for—you guessed it—10K.

Stay with me. Just one more step.

Could you please petition your congressional representation (yes, you still have some—sort of) and the president to imbue the nation's largest and most powerful corporations with absolute power?

Thank you.

OK. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? 

At your most civil, you might be thinking, well, what's he thinking? Did he have a bowl of bad chili? Forget to take his meds? Tell me he's not experimenting with meth! At your most uncivil, you're speculating into which bodily orifice I've inserted my head.

Fair enough.

Suffice to say I'm in a bad way. Let me tell you why.

In 2008, our economy collapsed after years of abuse and neglect. It wasn't because of ignorance, as you could rightly claim with the 1929 crash that kick-started the Great Depression.

No, this crash was premeditated. Enacted with malice aforethought. It was manufactured by jackals who purchased the prostitutes which inhabit the U.S. Congress.

Seduced with promises of unlimited campaign financing, our mealy-mouthed elected representation then repealed the very legislation meant to protect us from the ravages of unregulated bankers and drooling Wall Street carnivores.

Before being neutered in 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act had protect the American economy for sixty-six years. But it also kept Wall Street in shackles. 

Dozens of billions were made instead of hundreds of billions. Some chief executive officers were forced to drive two-year-old Ferraris. Bonuses that rendered Major League Baseball payrolls chump change weren't even a glimmer in Wall Street's eye.

You can see why something had to change.

It shouldn't be a surprise that a Republican, Phil Gramm of Texas, introduced the bill that would play such a large part in unraveling our economy. Two more Republicans, Jim Leach of Iowa and Thomas Bliley, Jr. of Virginia, quickly co-sponsored it.

After tossing the public a bone which amounted to bringing the woman you've just raped a bouquet of roses, the Senate and House passed the final version of the Financial Services Modernization Act that November, with President Clinton signing it into law on November 12, 1999.

Do you remember what you did on that date? Ironic how an event which will one day upend your life can pass by practically unnoticed, isn't it?

It's worth noting that the bill received very little opposition. 

In the Senate, 98.1% of voting Republicans and 84.4% of voting Democrats favored the bill. It was much the same story in the House, with 97.6% and 75.2% of voting Republicans and Democrats, respectively, approving.

Only Michigan Democrat John Dingell voiced concern, exhibiting an uncanny prescience when he stated on C-SPAN that after creating too-big-to-fail banks, passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill would one day necessitate a federal bailout.

It is remarkable that so few questioned legislation which would undo protections enacted in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in American history. Protections whose effectiveness was measured in the six-decade absence of home-wrecking financial cataclysms since they became law.

Combined with the Riegel-Neal Act of 1994 (also signed into law by President Clinton—who says Democrats aren't business-friendly?), the environment in which banks and financial services entities operated in was changing rapidly. 

Everyone was going to get bigger and richer and less-regulated. Yay!

Banks and investment houses no longer had to adhere to bothersome restrictions dictating how and with whom they did business. They could co-mingle in any way they pleased. At its essence, the Financial Services Modernization Act meant that banks and investments firms didn't have to bother with condoms anymore.

By the ninth anniversary of its passage, the U.S. economy was in a shambles. An unholy trinity of mortgage brokers, investment firms and gargantuan banks, let off the leash of regulation, had sodomized anything and everything they could lay their hands—and other body parts—on.

The economic equivalent of unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases came with an enormous price tag—one which was borne by the tax-paying public. Congress fixed Wall Street in a single weekend, earmarking 700 billion dollars to bail out the very firms whose deregulation-inspired recklessness had destroyed the economy.

(Permit me a moment to point out how cries of “socialism!” accompany such aid when it is directed at individuals, but an amount which would fund the SNAP program for a decade was given away in a matter of days.)

Fast forward to Fall, 2014 and the creation of a new national budget. 

With the nation still mired in a slow-motion recovery, Wall Street feels put-upon. This despite a robust four-year run that finds the DOW, which bottomed-out in March of 2009 at 6,626, having more than doubled, closing on December 5th at 17,958.

For the mathematically-challenged, that's an increase of 63.1%. Clearly, their economy is doing just fine.

But it's not enough.

The creation of a consumer protection agency and the Dodd-Frank financial reform left Wall Street and our corporate banks feeling picked-on. Unloved. Unappreciated. Why hadn't we cuddled them and kissed them goodnight?

Never mind that the consumer protection agency isn't headed by firebrand Elizabeth Warren because the banks and Wall Street were afraid she might actually do something, or that the Dodd-Frank bill was drastically watered-down to ensure quick passage by an obstreperous Congress.

No, the petulant and entitled product of unbridled wealth and privilege wants more.

Step number-one is the removal of safeguards which were designed to limit our liability in the event Wall Street and Citibank couldn't control themselves. Translated, we (that's you and me) are now liable if Wall Street and our ginormous banks get too much slobber on the steering wheel and lose control of the car.

I'll let CNN explain:

“At the center of the dispute are arcane financial instruments known as loan swaps. Those are contracts between banks used to spread the risk in their loans and trades.

A rule that would have limited the use of those swaps by commercial banks (think Citigroup (C) or JPMorgan Chase (JPM)) was essentially stripped out of the law during budget negotiations in recent days.
Swaps were ground zero of the 2008 meltdown of the global financial system. That's because banks had bundled risky mortgage loans and sold them as bonds. And to make the bonds more appetizing to investors, swaps were created as a form of insurance that the bonds would pay as promised.

So when the housing bubble burst and so many people couldn't afford their mortgage payments anymore, those bonds blew up. And the banks and firms like AIG (AIG) that held the suddenly-toxic swaps contracts needed bailouts.”

And later:

“One provision of Dodd-Frank to protect taxpayers was a rule saying major banks couldn't use their normal commercial banking operation to create, buy or trade these kinds of swap contracts. Instead those contracts had to be held by separate entities whose assets were not insured by the Federal Reserve or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"If Wall Street banks want to gamble, Congress should force them to pay for their losses, and not put the taxpayers on the hook for another bailout," said a letter signed this week by both one of the most conservative senators, David Vitter, and one of the most liberal, Sherrod Brown.

Even though Dodd-Frank was signed into law more than four years ago, the rules to limit banks gambling with taxpayer-backed money are not yet completely in place.”

So. You get this, right? 

If Citibank and Wall Street fuck-up, it's on us. Their losses will be insured by the same people who insure your bank account—the taxpayer-funded FDIC. Which is another way of saying we the people are on the hook for it.

It's called gaming the system. Casino-owners in Las Vegas will throw you out on your ass and put you on their permanent shit list if they catch you doing this, but in Washington D.C. it amounts to following best practice.  

I'd be fine with this if we also shared in Wall Street's gains. But strangely enough, those will remain in the private sector. Only their losses will find their way to the public sector. 

Privatized gains, publicized losses. Still think the President runs the country?

Call America what you want. Just don't call it a democracy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

321,000

As if you could forget, it's that time of year again.

No, I'm not referring to Christmas. I'm referring to the annual November jobs report, which nearly every year portrays a robust economy firing on all cylinders like a V8 under full throttle.

It's economist's version of a baby animal story; as full of fluff as Good Morning America.

This year, the Department of Labor reported that 321,000 jobs were created in the United States of America. By almost any measure, that's a lot of jobs.

Except in a country with 320 million people saddled with a moribund economy which continues to seek an order of protection from the Great Recession of 2008.

What the Department of Labor's report fails to tell us it that approximately 320,000 of those jobs are either seasonal, part-time, or both.

In other words, it's Christmas, stupid!

Yet the media continues to gush, swarming over the news like kids at a free cotton candy store. As it did last November and the November before that. 

And why not? Consumer confidence is a critical measure of the economy, and if people feel things are looking up they'll be more willing to open up those wallets and spend, spend, spend.

And that means more advertising revenue and more tax revenue for the selfsame media and government who told you everything is just great. 

I think I smell a great big win-win! Yay!

A convenient side-effect of this news is that when jobs are created the unemployment rate goes down. But you should know that the government has a very generous definition of 'employed'. 

It has almost nothing to do with the notion of being self-supporting that 'employed' implies.

For instance, the government considers me employed. This despite the fact I can't afford an apartment within several zip codes of where I work and am unable to find enough hours in the week to accommodate the number of crappy jobs I'd need to support myself.

The government also considers a single mom employed as a Wal-Mart cashier employed, even though she's part-time and dependent on multiple government programs for her survival--and that of her kids. 

It considers busboys, convenience store cashiers and CNAs employed in spite of hours worked and dollars earned. In other words, the Department of Labor job report is like your resume. It's formatted to present the best-possible picture, not necessarily the most-honest one.

I'm not against good news. I'm against spin and massaging the facts and painting a picture which says everything is okay when it isn't.

The fact remains that 320,000 temporary jobs aren't going to change anything. Except a politician's resume.