Monday, December 29, 2008

The Political Question

I was prompted to this thought by an email from a friend who sent me a link to a Joan Walsh piece on Salon. Walsh is more right than wrong in the article, though she misses (or deliberately overlooks) the use of institutional power within the Democratic Party to bring about the desired nomination outcome.

However, the big political question is not being asked, let alone answered, and that is why did Obama end up running for the presidency not against John McCain but against Sarah Palin?

I'm going to continue my blogging hiatus a little while longer, but that question has been nagging me since September.


Friday, December 12, 2008

The Clapper

Another great bit of cultural comedy, this courtesy of comic genious Mark Fiore:

The Clapper

Do watch it until the end for the punch line.

Other bits of market crashing fun:


Monday, December 08, 2008

Dignity of the Office

There are good discussions of the Favreau photo showing Obama's chief speechwriter and another Obama staffer performing lewd acts on a cutout photo of Hillary Clinton, with Favreau grabbing Sen. Clinton's breast while the other staffer grabs her hair and forces her to chug beer. See posts one, two and three on Alegre's Corner, and posts at one and two at Corrente, Feminist Law Professors, Historiann, Shakesville and TalkLeft. My opinion of Favreau himself is that he finds denegration through sexual molestation a neat-o thing, and I pity those who have to deal with him on a daily basis. I am a little unclear on when the photo was taken (Before June? Near the convention? Before the election? Within the last few weeks?) and I am also uncertain about his employment status (Is he currently chief speech writer? Applying for a job at State?), but these are subsidiary concerns, things that slightly increase or decrease the offensiveness of the image but do not change the political circumstances of the revelation of the image.

The question of Favreau himself (well discussed at the above linked blogs) may be getting most of the attention but that is not where the political issues lie. The political question remains: what will Obama do with this challenge to his authority? Does he have the political acumen and self-assurance to make a well-timed example of someone who has been important to the campaign?

The stance Obama takes towards Favreau will have repercussions. To say "Sorry, this behavior does not measure up to this administration's standards, can't have this around," would clearly communicate some serious expectations for executive staff performance and workplace environment. To fail to do so will damage the administration.

The reluctance to act upon the irreducible fact of this photo is paradigmatic of Obama's political behavior. He is loath to spend political capital to do the right thing if that thing involves an implicit (let alone explicit) criticism of himself. This is one of the reasons the Rev. Wright situation dragged on as long as it did. The desire to not be wrong overshadows the desire to do what is right, particularly if there is political advantage (real or imagined) to be wrung from the wrong. I compare this political tendency - wait out bad news and see if it will resolve itself - to the behavior of banks that have reaped a windfall from the Hanky Panky. They have capital but will not put it at any risk even when the long term danger for failing to do so dwarfs any immediate penalty. The Village snickers at Hillary's degradation, shills like Campbell Brown want HRC to act out their own private revenge fantasies instead of behave like a public figure of stature, and the public is distracted by the collapsing economy. It must be tempting to see if this situation can be toughed out.

What should be an opportunity to set a number of political expectations is being allowed to slide down the memory hole to defend the imagined hoard of capital.

But this isn't a campaign and we are talking serious, high-stakes politics. Hillary Rodham Clinton is not an electoral adversary, nor is she just another senator. By virtue of her appointment as Secretary of State, she is the representative of the United States to the world. She embodies American policy and reliability to other sovereign nations. To allow this image of her being treated with disrespect by a close associate of the president, someone who appears to be on track as a member of the administration, says two things to the nations and diplomats she will engage:
  1. Go ahead, piss on her. We do.
  2. We don't respect you enough to send someone we respect to treat with you.

Had this photo come out during the campaign, it could have been kept an individual matter, dimissed (however disingenuously) as the unfortunate side effect of a highly competitive contest. But now Hillary has been named Secretary of State and the revelation of the contempt under these circumstances carries a different meaning. This image is no longer about her. This is not a situation of her making. It is an act of denegration towards her. She cannot respond to it politically because, while it is a personal insult, it is not her political predicament.

It is about defending the dignity and authority of a cabinet officer, which is identical with defending the dignity and authority of the administration as such. It is about Obama's ability to maintain order and enforce discipline. In this case, the president is responsible for defending the nation, as represented by a member of his cabinet, from violation and degredation. That the acts were perfomed on a cardboard cutout should increase awareness of the symbolic import of an assault upon a representation of the country. People have mentioned (and even Photoshopped in) faces of other women, which misses the point. The correct reshuffling of that image would be to have foreign nationals in the place of the staffers. What is done to the Secretary of State is done to the nation.

As I mentioned above, it is not clear when the picture was taken but that is irrelevant. The repercussions of this demonstration of disrespect are happening now.

The dignity, efficacy and authority of the office is at stake.


Jet crash in San Diego

To all the emailers and commenters, thank you for your concern. I don't live anywhere near the crash area, nor do I work in the vicinity. The Spousal Unit saw smoke rising a few miles north of his office building, but nothing more than that.

National news says two people were killed in the house hit by the jet while local news says three. It could have been worse as there were people throughout the neighborhood and a large in-session high school a few hundred yards away.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Undeserving

The LA Times has a business columnist, David Lazarus, who isn't much of a writer and he's far too committed to conventional economic wisdom for his own good, but in today's Sunday Times he hit one out of the park:

Why were Wall Street workers not asked for concessions?

Say what you will about the role of the [UAW] in exacerbating Detroit's financial troubles, one thing stands out: Blue-collar workers are taking it in the shorts as part of their employers' efforts to secure some bailout bucks from Uncle Sam.

I don't recall white-collar workers on Wall Street stepping up with similar concessions in return for their companies' receiving billions of dollars in taxpayer cash. ...

That said, a bailout's a bailout, at least as far as taxpayers are concerned. So why are we holding blue-collar workers to a different standard than their white-collar kin?

Put another way, how many people can even list the terms of the recently announced multibillion-dollar bailout for financial colossus Citigroup Inc. and what the company agreed to do in return for our generosity? ...

The UAW, long criticized (unfairly, I believe) for being too powerful and too greedy, has done the stand-up thing in offering concessions to protect jobs at a perilous time for the auto industry.

White-collar workers on Wall Street, many of whom pull down hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salary and bonuses, have shown no such spine or self-sacrifice as their employers pass the hat among taxpayers.

[Economist Robert] Reich is right: A bailout should require concessions from all stakeholders, not just the top brass and certainly not just the public.

By that standard, the auto industry has earned its piece of the pie, while Wall Street firms, silver spoons in hand, are enjoying their dessert on the house.

The poll that accompanies the article is over 77% in agreement that blue collar workers are being treated differently and unfairly compared to white collar workers. It's just an online poll so should be taken with a grain of salt, but it probably does register some fairly common popular sentiments that are not often represented in the media.

The people being forced to offer concessions here for a manufacturing base bailout are not members of Whole Foods Nation, the people who comprise the symbolic analyst elite that is having its collective butt covered by the economic Hanky Panky (thus far).

From my perspective, this is another sign of the fault line in the Democratic Party and is indicative of where and how the power elite is going to spend their political capital.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hubble Telescope Advent Calendar

Big Picture at is doing a very fun picture show - a celestial "advent" calendar where a new Hubble telescope image is posted each day:

Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2008

I love the Hubble images and my computer at work always has some beautiful vision of the galaxy, so this is a very fun online present to unwrap, so to speak.

Keep it bookmarked on your desktop and visit every morning.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Wisdom of Tanta

CR of Calculated Risk has composed a post that is a chronological list of Tanta's writings on the blog:

Compendium of Tanta's Posts

I'm linking that here to bring it to my readers' attention. I have also linked to that post under the Econoblog heading in the right-hand sidebar. For anyone who wants to understand the ins and outs of the mortgage industry from someone who can explain the arcana with intelligence, wit and no bullshit, you will not find a better teacher. If Paul Krugman can learn from Tanta, so can you.

As for the lack of my own posts lately, I've had various problems (family, head cold, basement) to attend to and that means less time to read up on events and compose posts. I anticipate slow posting through December. My one observation that I'm going to try to write up soon is on Kevin Drum's "hat eating" stunt. It says a great deal about the myopia of the blogospheric pundits and points to the self-defeating division of the left that these pundits reproduce day in and day out.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tanta Has Passed Away

I am heartbroken. From Calculated Risk:

My dear friend and co-blogger Doris “Tanta” Dungey passed away early this morning. I would like to express my deepest condolences to her family and friends.

From David Streitfeld at the NY Times: Doris Dungey, Prescient Finance Blogger, Dies at 47

The blogger Tanta, an influential voice on the mortgage collapse, died Sunday morning in Columbus, Ohio.

Tanta, who wrote for Calculated Risk, a finance and economics blog, was a pseudonym for Doris Dungey, 47, who until recently had lived in Upper Marlboro, Md. The cause of death was ovarian cancer, her sister, Cathy Stickelmaier, said....

Tanta used her extensive knowledge of the loan industry to comment, castigate and above all instruct. Her fans ranged from the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times who cited her in his blog, to analysts at the Federal Reserve, who cited her in a paper on “Understanding the Securitization of Subprime Mortgage Credit.”

She wrote under a pseudonym because she hoped some day to go back to work in the mortgage industry, and the increasing renown of Tanta in that world might have precluded that. Tanta was Ms. Dungey’s longtime family nickname, Ms. Stickelmaier said.

From CR to Tanta’s many readers, fans and internet friends: Tanta enjoyed writing for you, chatting with many of you in the comments, and corresponding with you via email. She told me several times over the last few months how much she enjoyed discussing current events with you.

Tanta worked as a mortgage banker for 20 years, and we started chatting in early 2005 about the housing bubble and the changes in lending practices. In 2006, Tanta was diagnosed with late stage cancer, and she took an extended medical leave while undergoing treatment. At that time I approached her about writing for this blog, and she declined for a simple reason – her prognosis was grim and she didn’t expect to live very long. To her surprise, after aggressive treatment, her health started to improve and she accepted my invitation. When she chose an email address, it reflected her surprise: tanta_vive ... Tanta Lives!

Armed with a literary background and extensive knowledge of the mortgage industry, Tanta wrote about current events with deep insight and wit. Here is the introduction to one of her posts in 2006: Let Slip the Dogs of Hell
I still haven’t gotten over the fact that there’s a “capital management” group out there having named itself “Cerberus”. Those of you who were not asleep in Miss Buttkicker’s Intro to Western Civ will recognize Cerberus; the rest of you may have picked up the mythological fix from its reprise as “Fluffy” in the first Harry Potter novel. Wherever you get your culture, Cerberus is the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hell. It takes three heads to do that of course, because it’s never clear, in theology or finance, whether the idea is to keep the righteous from falling into the pit or the demons from escaping out of it (the third head is busy meeting with the regulators).
Tanta wrote a number of posts detailing the inner workings of the mortgage industry. These posts covered a wide range of topics, from mortgage servicing, to everything you want to know about mortgage backed securities (MBS), to reverse mortgages. She called these posts “The Compleat UberNerd” and in typical fashion she noted:
An “UberNerd” is someone who is compelled to understand how things work in grim detail, even if the things in question are tedious in the extreme …”
Tanta liked to ferret out the details. She was inquisitive and had a passion for getting the story right. Sometimes she wouldn’t post for a few days, not because she wasn’t feeling well, but because she was reading through volumes of court rulings, or industry data, to get the facts correct. She respected her readers, and people noticed. Felix Salmon at Cond√© Nast, wrote on Nov 7, 2007 wrote:
“Tanta is one of the best financial writers in the world, and explains complex ideas with wit and great clarity."
Paul Krugman at the NY Times complemented Tanta several times, recently writing:
“The great thing about this age of blogs is the way people who really know something about a subject can quickly weigh in, without being filtered through Authority.”
Even researchers at the Federal Reserve referenced Tanta’s work: From Adam Ashcraft and Til Schuermann: Understanding the Securitization of Subprime Mortgage Credit, credit on page 13:
Several point raised in this section were first raised in a 20 February 2007 post on the blog entitled “Mortgage Servicing for Ubernerds.”
Tanta was also extremely funny. She introduced the Muddled Metaphor Index (MMI) and Excel Art featuring the Mortgage Pig, and she was the originator of a number of phrases in use today, like “We’re all subprime now!”

This is a very sad day and I know many of you are in shock. Tanta was our teacher. She generously shared her knowledge with all of us. I doubt she knew how many lives she touched; her insights, spirit and passion lives on in her writings – and in all of you.

Tanta Vive!

Tanta's UberNerd series remain linked in my sidebar.


Focus of Attention

Hillary will be Secretary of State.

Something I find fascinating about that article is the URL. The name of the file is "01clinton.html". The article is about the "security" (note - not foreign policy) team that Obama has assembled, yet it is filed under Hillary's name. This makes me think about a few things.

The chattering class and their avid readers in Whole Foods Nation are still more obsessed with their internal demons than with the fate of the nation. Stanley Fish's article on calumny aimed at the Clintons is as relevant today as when it was first published, and this is a danger to liberal politics. The fault line within the Democratic Party remains.

Next, the Neocons have succeeded in getting international relations and foreign policy intrepreted as police actions. It's not a policy team, it's a security team. The parts of the article not drooling over the presumed battle against the evil Clintons plays up the toughness and hawkishness of the new team, with emphasis on terrorism rather than the true international danger, which is the world wide collapse of economies.

The problematic emphasis on the Bush-style use of terrorism (The bad guys are gunna git you if you don't give us what we want) that so many of the Very Serious People want to promulgate, as though the problem with Bush/Cheney was the mode of execution and not the foreign and domestic policy objectives, focuses on the guys caught on video camera in train stations and hotel lobbies, the viscerally menacing Other, all too like the raging shooters at schools and malls. This terrorism is photogenic, adapts well to endless video loops on CNN, and allows the talking heads to hyperventilate.

What we don't see is the struggle for power in Pakistan, where the military continues to defy the civilian government, and where decades old US-USSR cold war operations continue to generate blowback. The Vale of Kashmir may be the single most dangerous flashpoint on the planet at the moment. We have an incoming president who has repeatedly voiced critical and belligerant opinions about Pakistan. We now have a Secretary of State who has connections to the (note relative term) more democratic elements in the country. And this is just one of the foreign policy challenges facing the new administration.

It may send WKJM into apoplexy, but the worst job in the world has been put into very good hands.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Monster Crash

This one goes with Ben Bernanke Please Send Me Some Green.

Monster Crash

h/t to Shainzona for bringing this to my attention.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Reasons to be Thankful

Good thing we weren't planning any big holiday celebration today.

We've had record breaking rain the last 24 hours around these parts which is fantastic for reducing wildfire dangers but sadly has turned the Casa Anglachel basement into a swimming pool. There's a leak in a wall and seepage in spots in the foundation. We knew we would have some long term issues when we bought the place. The house is more than 80 years old. We've been doing drainage work and it's better than last year.

I am thankful that the problems aren't worse, that we have a roof over our heads, food in the fridge and a furnace that works, and that we have some savings to get us through the rainy days.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Infrastructure Repairs

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I'm having difficulty getting my braining to run in a single direction the last few days and I think I'm coming down with something.

As someone who has had sewer line problems at my last three abodes and know just how wretched they are to deal with, I'd like to direct your attention to a sewer infrastructure problem plaguing Lambert of Corrente fame. If you have spare change rattling around in your PayPal account, please consider donating some of it. Do your part to stimulate the local economy and keep Lambert out of deep doo-doo!


Friday, November 21, 2008

Pandora's Box

So the NYT is saying that Hillary will be Secretary of State. I am, of course, intrigued and pleased by the prospect, but note that I won't believe it until the official announcement. Indeed, I won't actually believe it until the confirmation hearings are completed and she takes the oath of office.

What I expect to see for the next week is mass hysteria among the Whole Foods Nation crowd who won't accept that this can be a legitimate appointment. The CDS will get worse, not better. They will do everything in their power to try to derail the nomination.

I don't have time for a longer post this moment. If you have not been reading Bob Somerby this week, go there right now (he's linked in the sidebar) and read very carefully what he has to say about CDS. The opposition to HRC as Secretary of State is rooted in the green light Obama himself gave to using irrational hatred as an acceptable political tool against other Democrats. (And this is why BTD is wrong about the conduct of the campaign.) Somerby appears to be the only critical analyst around who understands the implications of this.

Obama opened Pandora's box, allowing the pestilence of right-wing CDS to set up shop in the heart of left politics.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Politics of States

Some are dismayed by the long time it is taking for the SOS decision process to come to a conclusion. I'm actually pleased to see what looks like some serious thinking going on about what role the Secretary of State is going to play in the next administration. Alegre has a great post, Open Thread: More SoS Chatter, talking about some new developments in the Senate including the promise of a subcommittee chair on health insurance.

My own opinion about the choice before Hillary is simply that she has no wrong decision in front of her. Both paths before her, Senate or State Department, have great rewards and great disappointments in store. They are different ways for her to do what she has always done, which is serve the public interest to the greatest extent of her talents and stamina. We as a country will benefit from her dedication, though the people of New York would clearly lose an effective and indefatigable congress critter should she chose the State Department.

I hope a little more that she will go with the SOS position mostly because we know what she'll do in the other role and because we have not had such a presence in that office for so long.

The yowling from The Village that She will just set up a parallel power center if not an actual shadow government is not entirely wrong, though not for the reasons they propose. They are the ones who have forgotten that "L'√Čtat, c'est moi," is not the law of the land, and that people who identify themselves as the emobodiment of the state rather than as the prime servant thereof are the ones at odds with the nation. To do so is to reduce the nation to an extension of a particular will, something that has no right and, indeed, no desire to resist the impulses of the prince. It is the politics of a social clique, not of states.

This is my point of push-back on both the professional Hillary haters and (more gently and with a lot more sympathy) on the Hillary supporters who are suspicious of Obama's intentions. We need to think about this appointment (whether or not Hillary decides to fill it) in terms of serious politics and effective promotion of US interests in the world. We need to consider the representation of the state to other states.

The office could be filled as it has been since at least Eisenhower as a high technocratic position, a place for someone who has not been in electoral politics, is often from a think-tank or academia, or else comes out of a civil service background. You have to go back to George Marshall to find someone who coming into office is a political figure in their own right. Dulles and Kissenger became such figures as a result of being SOS. Even Marshall is not really a good comparison as his political claim was his prominent military role under FDR, where he basically ran WWII. But he accepted the SOS post from Truman while better known and better liked than his boss. He took it up as an opportunity to do world-historic things. You know, the Marshall Plan, that little thing? Since then, all others have come from less illustrious backgrounds. In the case of Colin Powell, the office diminished him. Putting a technocrat into the post would be the safest political bet for the Obama administration and would reinforce the tendency towards an imperial Presidency. The Very Serious People would approve.

So what can it mean that the most prominent, attention getting politician in the country might accept the SOS role? It would be a political bargain and risk. It would mean betting that someone as capable and with the immense national and international authority Hillary commands is a net gain for your administration. To use someone of that stature, as Truman did Marshall, is to go all in on the policy side, because the selection of that individual becomes the touchstone for your policy. The expectation in return is that her prominence and ability will be an asset, more to your advantage than any real or imagined loss of power.

When the talking heads start foaming at the mouth about Hillary forming a parallel sytem, they recognize that power is something that is created, not granted, and that it will accrue to those who know how to use the tools at hand. The state department and foreign service is the most self-concious political class in DC, with the possible exception of the Pentagon. It is the part of our government that is most like the civil service found in other states. It is a veritable mandarinate. Under Powell and Rice, this group has been mocked and sidelined by Cheney and his dirty tricks crew. What could this department do if given a leader who will expect their best across a wide range of issues and events instead of subordinating them to a single-minded pursuit of coersive power? How will other governments respond to Hillary as SOS, particularly given her investment in human rights?

Thus, my curiosity and excitement over the possibilities.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chicks Dig Me

I was reading Historiann's account, Welcome to, a NASCAR and law enforcement blog by and for menz, of analyzing her blog with various online tools and got quite a giggle out of it. I decided to give the same analytical tools on my own site and see what came up.

Gender Analyzer says there's an 80% chance that this blog is written by a man. I even went back to my October posts which were full of feminist writing, and scored a 77% chance of the blog being written by a man. Given that the topics were clearly feminist, what does that say about the way language is perceived in the absence of biological signs of the speaker? It is amusing to note that I was considered male in the Tolkien fandom for several months because my screen name was a weapon (Anglachel) and not a feminine Elven or Hobbit style name. What interests me more is that linguistic combinations (Key words? Locution? Grammar? Obscenities?) are considered masculine or feminine, and that somehow it is important to identify the gender of the person on the other end of the keyboard.

Somehow, my blog is assigned a value of $84,681.00. I'm disappointed. I thought it would be worth at least $84,681.89. Most of this is measured by the number of links in and out of the blog, which indicates traffic levels, which indicates potential ad revenue. Technorati scores are also factored in. Um, I think I'll keep my day job.

Typeanalyzer may or may not be measuring something real, but it sure know show to appeal to my ego:
INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications. They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Yup, I know how to think. What I would be interested in knowing is whether "female" blogs get lower monetary scores and get categorized as the work of people who are "Feelers" rather than "Thinkers".

So, I went and tested the first chapter of my fanfiction novel, Hands of the King, on two differnt web sites. Same author as this blog, same story text, different information in the margins:

HotK on Romenna:

  • Gender analyzer: We guess is written by a man (59%), however it's quite gender neutral.
  • Worth $0.00 dollars (Tell that to Peter Jackson)
  • ENFP - The Inspirers: The curious and insightful type. They are especially attuned to possibilities that involves peoples potential. They usually have a lot of relations and are very perceptive and often unconventional. They enjoy working together with people and to make use of their enthusiasm. Lonely work and environments with many distractions make them scattered and often gloomy feeling overwhelmed withdraw further.

HotK on HASA:

  • Gender analyzer: We guess is written by a man (53%), however it's quite gender neutral.
  • Worth $0.00
  • Typelyze: Detected language Filipino. The only supported languages are English and Swedish. But stay tuned, we are expanding. (There is no Filipino on the page)



The Stupidity that is CDS

Paul Krugman takes a whack at the latest round of CDS:

Clinton business issues

Everywhere you look, there’s stuff about Bill Clinton’s donors and all that, often with the implication that there must inherently be something dirty going on, because, well, just because.

But I guess that’s just the way things are. After all, do you remember all the grief President Bush got over his family’s questionable business ties?

Neither do I.

Any blogger who participates in the continued hunting of President Clinton by the right wing and the MSM rather than helping to shoot down the bullshit demonstrates that he's no different than Matt Drudge. Period.

The pernicious effect of CDS is that it has convinced vast swaths of the chattering class that the source of corruption in American politics is the Clintons, and that anything except them in a position of power is preferable to either of them having any authority, even if that means Republicans or a Democrat who insists on keeping the political opposition with their hands in the cookie jar.

The disconnect between their hysterical paranoia and reality would be amusing if it was not continually endangering the nation.

Without CDS, would we have had W in the White House? I think not.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Sounding Serious - Updated

Update - And the Guardian says its a done deal. I'm not certain this is so as in the body of the article they don't present anyone on record definitively saying yes, the deal is signed. It reports little more than the NYT article does, but with less asshattery. The reason I'd be inclined to believe this report despite the lack of sources is the Sidney Blumenthal connection.

This NYT article says to me the consideration of Hillary for Secretary of State is serious.

The "worry" about Bill Clinton is such bullshit, of course. It is no more than fear of the Unity Democrats that they will be over shadowed by this person they irrationally hate. The media is only too happy to drool over the maybes and perhaps and some people say and what don't we know, what isn't he telling us rumor mongering. It is no less than the manufacture of scandal. Calling Bob Somerby...

However, I have to admit I'm not sure I'd be happy to have Henry Kissinger praising my abilities.

Ignoring the specious scandal-mongering of the last part of the article, what the report says is that the decision of acceptance is based on conditions being met. That's serious and negotiations can fall apart for politically legitimate reasons. HRC will request a significant degree of power and autonomy to accept the obligations and burdens of the office because that is how she does things. You can approve of this or not, but that is part of her character. Is what she requests reasonable? Whether reasonable or not, will it be acceptable? There are balance of power issues that are not just personality conflicts (the tedious crap The Village and Blogger Boyz roll in like dogs with a rotting carcass) but involve questions of authority and state interests that matter when dealing with other sovereign states.

Pulling on the poli sci cap, this is a fascinating and significant development for the incoming administration. It is a real test of leadership and how the executive branch will be run. Can this administration put the interests of the country first? We have had 8 years of one that would not. And before the Obamacan zombies start screaming how I am not giving The Precious a chance, this is a challenge that any incoming non-incumbent president must face. Traditionally, a new president focuses on domestic issues in a first term because those are the issues you campaign on and that is what matters most to the electorate. Screw it up and you lose power. Really screw it up and you lose office. See Carter, Jimmy and Bush, George H.W. In both of these cases, they had domestic and foreign policy challenges. One had a failed foreign policy while the other had a successful one. They both got chucked out of office (Carter more decisively than Bush) because of the crappy domestic conditions. Two-term presidents tend to focus on foreign affairs in the second term because the domestic policy battle lines are settled. It gives them some stature and gets them out of the daily mud-slinging.

Obama has been signaling that he really didn't care too much about domestic affairs, offering lack-luster domestic policy positions (except for environmental stuff - whomever is writing those papers is the sharpest person he has in the policy shop) and indicating that he wants to be leader of the free world. The collapse of the economy has brought those intentions to a screaming halt. This presidency cannot be conducted through symbol, gesture and a desire to be the good guy who frees the world of the Bush Doctrine. Domestic affairs will dominate, but foreign affairs are as pressing as ever.

Regardless of who ends up in the SOS seat, the administration is going to have to make some hard decisions about the autonomy of that office. Where is policy actually developed? Who are those actors? Will you have integration or oppositional relations by design (which is different than whether individuals like each other)? I agree with the article that the two most significant cabinet choices are SOS and Sec. Treas. How much will these two coordinate and communicate? To what degree will domestic policy and foreign policy need to work in tandem due to the global nature of the financial crisis? Also, what about the VP? We have been seeing a more activist role for this office since Carter. Where will Biden fit in the overall picture?

Putting the conduct of foreign policy into Hillary's hands could be an extremely bold choice that is in the best interests of the country, even if not in the short-term electoral interests of the individuals involved. With reference to a comment in my earlier post asking about Samantha Powers, the answer is simple - if HRC is the SOS, Powers will get on board and do her job to the best of her considerable abilities or she will leave. That says nothing about Powers individually. It's just how the system works. But that points towards the as-yet-unanswered question of where and how power will be balanced in the administration. A confident executive gets the best, puts them in place, defines the ground rules, and tells people to be smarter and better than the boss in their area of expertise. Do not underestimate the dangers of this power model. The wrong mix of "the best", poor ground rules, bad rule following, titanic ego battles, and people with a great deal of autonomy being flat-out wrong in their judgment will wreck it, just to name a few common problems. Actions to limit risks introduce their own risks of missed opportunities, insecurity about and second-guessing of area leaders, negotiation partners not trusting the authority of who they are dealing with (Can you really promise me X?), and a failure to succeed because of risk avoidance, etc. These are not qualities specific to the SOS appointment, but will accompany any of the cabinet positions and major advisory posts.

Oddly enough, this story has little to do with Hillary and everything to do with Obama.

It is time to commit to a course of action.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

California Dreamin'

This was taken near Huntington Beach yesterday afternoon. The smoke from the LA area fires blanket the area.

I think the LA Times is doing the best, least sensationalistic coverage. Check there for photos, maps and updates.

It is hot and dry here. My skin looks like it came from a lizard and my lips are cracking from the dryness. So far, there are no reports of significant fires in San Diego County but everything is on high alert. The National Weather Service forecasts these conditions to persist locally into Tuesday. We're still being spared the high winds they are getting further north which is probably why we haven't seen a big fire yet.

This photo came from the BBC:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Against Conventional Wisdom

While I'm sitting around here in the heat watching California's annual Apocalypse unfold, I thought I'd blog about the current political Apocalypse, namely the possibility of Hillary becoming Secretary of State.

There is a wide consensus that She Must Not Do This.

The professional Clinton haters don't approve of anything that involves her taking part in public life, so they can be ignored. Whole Foods Nation doesn't want that woman anywhere near The Precious for fear she will sap his vital fluids or something else equally silly. A certain cadre on the left is absolutely convinced she will launch a preemptive war against Syria and the Palestinians, being nothing but the cat's paw of Israel. (They think this about, umm, everyone as far as I can tell, even Obama.) Certain others simply babble incessantly that she is a hawk, and we can't have a hawk, no, that would be bad, she is a hawk... , subsituting assertions for argument or even a few stray facts. A shockingly large number of this latter group were originally supporters of the Iraq invasion, once again demonstrating that this country is an irony-free zone.

On the pro-Hillary side, people are shouting for her to stay away, it is a trap! There are a number of arguments being advanced, the most cogent among them being that the offer itself is not sincere but is just an attempt to inflict public humiliation, that she will be tainted by association with a failed Obama presidency, that she will lose her independence and be forced to advance a policy she does not believe in, that this is just an attempt to get her out of elective office and prevent her from advancing her domestic agenda, and that to take this position basically ends her elective office career. I find each of these points plausible and reasonably compelling. There is also the argument put forward from both pro- and anti-Hillary writers that she is not the best person for the job.

I'm going to go against conventional wisdom here and argue that not only is Hillary Clinton among the handful of people eminently suited for this particular office under current international conditions, but also that this is a position that will allow her to advance her agenda powerfully and broadly, will provide her with mechanisms for affecting the long term trajectory of domestic affairs, and is simply the smartest choice for serving the interests of the country. While I don't trust The Precious further than I can kick him, the burdens of office and the consuming nature of current events will circumscribe what he can do. Mostly, when I apply the cold eye of political science to the situation and set aside the junior high school popularity contests so beloved of the chattering class, what I see are some very solid reasons to want this person in this role.

First, let me address some of the reasons why she should not accept the offer, should it be made. One of the more compelling arguments against her taking the position is that to do so would mean sacrificing her position in the Senate where she can shape policy. Realistically, her level of seniority is so junior that she cannot effectively lead actual legislation. Given the Senate committee rankings, HRC would end up carrying water for too many people for too many years before she could take power directly. The crude rebuff she received from Kennedy's staffers about holding a sub-committee chair told me a great deal about the tit-for-tat spite of the hierarchy, which is the heirarchy of entrenched staff jealous of their status as much as that of individual senators clinging to theirs. To answer a question others have asked on the blogs, you bet your bippy "they" will diss her and her 18 million supporters. OTOH, she has already set expectations for legislation that others are going to have to meet. My judgment is that the Senate is her fallback position if the Secretary of State position does not materialize under terms she is willing to accept.

Which leads to concerns about the validity of the offer. There has been too much skullduggery from the Obama camp to take anything at face value, so suspicion is warranted. The diss over the VP slot is the model for whether this is a "real" offer, and bringing Richardson in on the heels of HRC's meeting is a very big red flag.

I will reach back to my Tea Leaves post and note that the political landscape is not what it was in August because the financial crisis is remaking conditions on the fly. If the conditions were the same as when Bush took office, or even when Bill Clinton did so, I would give more credence to the "He's just going to screw her over," argument because the stakes for Obama would be low, but they are not and the knowledge that bad decisions now will doom his administration should act as a brake on his more vindictive impulses.

Obama has less than two years to provide some kind of measurable economic improvement to the majority of the population, or he will lose seats in the mid-term elections and probably will be turned out of office in 2012. The domestic agenda will be all consuming under these conditions. Whatever plans Obama and his hangers-on may have had for his fairy tale presidency were jettisoned in mid-September. If he does not get the domestic situation on the right track at once - and he will only have one chance - then he is toast. This puts constraints upon him that most observors are not taking into account.

Let's talk about the Secratary of State office itself. This is not a time of peace and quiet industriousness around the globe. American hegemony is in doubt. For Obama to "play politics" with the Secretary of State position weakens American standing with other nations because it says "You people aren't important enough for me to give you our best ambassador. Your interests and your actions are of less concern to me than settling some political scores." That will not go over well, especially after the Bush years. No matter who he selects in the end, that person has to embody the full strength and resilience of the nation to other national actors. I suspect this is why Kerry is not making the cut - he is too much the milquetoast nebbish. I add that if all Obama wants is a technocrat in that position, he should pick Richard Holbrooke.

The need to deal with the economy and the interrelated domestic policy issues means that Obama must make a decision about the conduct of foreign policy. Either he must put it into a holding pattern and trust that events will not get out of hand for over two years, or else he must place it in the hands of someone who can execute it without hesitation and without any doubt on the other side that this person can act in the stead of the administration. In addition, given that the financial crisis is international, you need someone who is thoroughly versed in economics and the impact of financial markets on domestic policy.

If the choice is Hillary, Obama has no choice but to invest her with that authority or undermine the very reasons to have selected her in the first place. You cannot pick this person and not have her bear the full authority of the administration because to do so is to endanger national interests. It will make Obama himself appear weak, second guessing his picks for the office. When you select HRC, you are not picking some career bureaucrat - her selection must take cognizance of who she is in an international context.

A rock star. Someone known and respected around the world. Someone who understands better than Obama himself the implications of international actions by the president, having been the implicitly trusted mediator between a president and other international actors before. Someone who has no need to establish any credentials with the people she will meet.

So now lets look at Hillary in the context of the office. She is already an international advocate for women's rights. She defends human rights. She fights for working people, especially women. She is on a first name basis with many heads of state asnd is loved by general populations. She understands economics, trade, diplomacy, and war. Unfailingly civil and dignified, she cannot be bullied or intimidated. She will be a team player by being an unflappable leader, demonstrating by example how to do the job right. This is someone who has political vision and believes in the ability and obligation of her nation to do the right thing. And, yes, she is a hawk which pleases me a great deal when the loosest cannon around is Vladimir Putin. Touchy-feely only goes so far with sociopathic dictators. Beijing already knows they cannot push her around. She has standing in Africa.

But there are a few conditions under which it makes no sense for her to accept. The four most powerful positions in the cabinet are Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury and National Security Advisor. Gates will be Sec. Def. for the time being. In the past, the SOS and the NSA have engaged in power struggles that have worked to the detriment of foreign policy. If Obama has the sense to put HRC in as SOS, he may suffere a failure of nerve and decide to divide powers by putting an opponent in the NSA slot to "counter balance" her influence, and we would end up with political infighting. Unless that position is filled by someone who would work with the SOS and not be a pawn in some passive-agressive game, it would be foolish for Hillary to leave the Senate. It would need to be someone like Wes Clark or Richard Clarke. Likewise, if the Sec. Tres. is filled by some tired Wall Street insider hack, there will not be a partner to work with on economic concerns. (I myself would love to see Stiglitz. He's run the World Bank, he won't be bullied, and Wall Street has no attractions for him.)

As mentioned above, that Obama would have HRC and Bill Richardson as finalists for this office does not make me hopeful that he really gets what he needs to do. They are not comparable political actors. Richardson would be suited to a holding pattern foreign policy, for example, and that makes me doubt Obama's confidence in both the policy and the person he would put in place. Holbrooke would be a stronger choice if that is the case and would smack less of political favors. Nunn, Powell, Hagel and Kerry are simply inadequate for the challenge. The only other person comparable to Hillary for this position, frankly, is Bill, and I'm not sure Bill's ego could be contained at Foggy Bottom.

So, that is my argument against conventional wisdom. Much of it is driven by a realistic assessment of just how bad the next four years are going to be no matter what the new adminsitration does or does not do, and a desire to see the best possible outcome by using the best possible people. I do not think my personal wish for the political future can become reality, and the conditions under which that could happen are grim to imagine.


But You're Supposed to Teach Me!

Go and read Historiann's post about an obnoxious exchange with a student, Ummm, you e-mailed *me* for advice, remember?, and be sure to read the comment thread.

I agree with commenter Dr. Crazy that the emailer was being sexist as well as rude when one of his ass-covering excuses for being rude was that he wasn't asking Historiann out on a date, which is a weirdly inappropriate reply. Would he have said the same to a male professor? Why would being civil and acknowledging the humanity of the other person be confined to trying to get a date?


And Another Wildfire Breaks Out

Another major fire has broken out, this one in the foothills above the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles and 10,000 people are under evacuation orders. Dubbed the Sayre fire, it is also referred to as the Sylmar fire for the town it is burning down. Here is a page with live video of the fire. This is a more heavily populated area than Montecito, where the Tea fire continues to burn. That fire is 40% contained, according to this news report from the LA Times.

The problem of the winds is illustrated by the below photo:
See the palm tree torches behind the house? As they burn, the winds whip embers off them and carry the embers dozens, even hundreds, of yards away. In this case, they are all falling on the roof of the nearby house. If you watch some of the videos linked above, you will see how strong the winds are and how they get a "rain" of embers going. This allows the fires to jump over fire breaks, wide roads, even major freeways, and spread quickly and erratically. The Sayre fire jumped over Interstate 5 just north of Sylmar, which I believe is an 8 lane freeway at that spot. (Maps of the burn areas are embedded in the news articles I linked above.) Update - and here is a picture of I-5:
It is extremely hot and dry in San Diego County right now, and I'm near the coast where conditions are most mild. We are experiencing record high temperatures for this time of year, with inland temperatures in the 90s. What we are not experiencing at the moment are very high winds, which is what turns localized fires into fast spreading wildfires, though the entire county is under red flag warning for extreme fire danger. The big problem in this area is the new growth in the portions of the county where most of the building for the housing boom took place. There are many suburbs built near mountain foothills and canyons filled with dry vegetation. A number are built on the ridges and slopes, and they are directly in the usual paths of wildfires. When winds increase, a small fire can quickly become huge and these widely dispersed developments are surrounded by acres of tinder.

In California, your house can both be underwater and on fire.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Women They Love to Hate

The Incomparable One, Bob Somerby, dissects Olbermann and Archie Bunker (my emphasis):

He’s gotta do it: Progressive interests would be better served if our leaders could stop saying things like what follows. On Wednesday evening, Keith Olbermann was chatting with his “friend,” Margaret Carlson about—what else?—Sarah Palin. Carlson was lounging about the Republican Governors Conference in snowbound Miami:

CARLSON (11/12/08): We’ll always have Sarah Palin, it seems. But here, actually, the governors are wanting to talk about 2010, because the number 2012 is code for talking about Sarah Palin, which was where they do not want to go. Her saying that she doesn’t represent herself, she represents an entire movement that’s going to save the Republican party is just what they quietly don’t want to happen. If they had their way, she wouldn’t be here tomorrow.

OLBERMANN: Wow. I mean, to what degree is that the other prominent Republican governors who got some passing mention during this campaign, with an eye towards 2012—Jindal, Pawlenty, Crist? Is there any sense that any of them are forming a power base behind Palin? Or are they intending to, you know, cut her up like a Roman dictator and smuggle her out under their robes?

CARLSON: Ha, ha. Well, they only say that quietly, Keith.

Sorry, but that’s very strange. A few months ago, Olbermann apologized for picturing Hillary Clinton getting beaten up by a bunch of goons behind locked doors. This week, he was picturing Sarah Palin getting cut up into pieces.

Within moments, he mockingly compared her to Lindsay Lohan—then, to Dizzy Dean.

It’s always surprising to see the way such fellows discuss the women they hate. They seem to find it hard to do so without picturing violence or turning to overt, gender-based derision. In our view, Palin is a remarkably underwhelming figure, in ways which are quite easy to define. You don’t have to compare her to Lohan, or picture her being killed—unless your skills are remarkably weak, or you simply enjoy hating women. But MSNBC has trafficked, for many years, in weird, remarkable woman-loathing. And when it comes to their new uber-star, it seems he’s gotta have it.

But then, here’s Archie Bunker—sorry, Josh Marshall—letting us know, just yesterday, who the latest “dingbat” is. Without even bothering to report what this new "dingbat" actually said! [Anglachel note - WKJM has belatedly identified the woman he was deriding.]

But so it goes as progressive intellectual standards spiral steadily downward. Olbermann’s performance on Wednesday’s show was an unfortunate case in point. He performed in ways which used to define the woeful standards of pseudo-con talk. ...

Increasingly, it’s sad to watch the work done on Countdown. Increasingly, that work reflects the lowball intellectual standards pioneered by pseudo-conservative talk. In the long run, progressive interests will not be served by dumbing down the progressive base. It may be good for ratings and salaries—but it can’t be good for the country. This country badly needs to be smart.

(By the way: There has been a lot of chortling this week about the Martin Eisenstadt hoax. On October 16, Olbermann showed remarkably odd judgment in the way he handled one part of this story. No, he wasn’t taken in by the part of the hoax allegedly involving Joe the Plumber. But in repeating claims which he knew were untrue, he almost seemed to be trying to make sure that some viewers did.)

Increasingly, Olbermann offers extremely weak work. What can you say about a guy who can’t lay out Palin’s obvious weaknesses without resorting to gender-based trashing? But most strikingly, Olbermann’s instinct for violent imagery doesn’t seem to want to quit. This is bad for progressive interests, and it’s bad for young men and young women. We’d have to say it’s just plain bad for the world in which we all live. Can someone explain why “progressive” leaders can’t seem to quit this kind of talk?

Perhaps more to the point, why don't we have more men like Bob Somerby unflinchingly calling out the misogyny of people like Olbermann?

Hannah Arendt once described this situation as that she was not so much concerned about Bluebeard himself (pirate, marauder, criminal) as she was by those who would not find Bluebeard objectionable. I take this to mean that while there will always be people who will engage in violence and inhumane acts, the danger to a population is those people who do not see that kind of behavior as needing opposition. Perhaps they view it ironically, or explain it away, or secretly approve because it is of momentary advantage to themselves, or because it allows them to vicariously enjoy the expression of things they (usually) know better than to say out loud.

The last two reasons are what we saw on parade this electoral cycle. People like Olbermann would be outrageous and then the enablers would try to explain why it wasn't so bad instead of standing up to the violence and rejecting it. The overall language and imagery would rachet up in the next round. The introduction of violent, misogynist themes into political discourse, the normalization of exhortations or suggestions to do physical harm to non-compliant women, all of it explained away as self-defense mixed with just desserts for getting out of line - hmm, where on the political spectrum is that usually located?

Right. Not anymore.


Tea Leaves

The media and blogosphere are abuzz with rumors of HRC being considered for Secretary of State. From CNN to Alegre's Corner, there are plenty of perspectives on why this is/isn't a "real" offer, why this is/isn't a good position for Hillary to take, why she should/shouldn't accept this offer if it is actually an offer at at all, and so forth.

Steve Clemons at the Washington Note appears to have some of the most insider information on what facts can be known and offers a few considerations, most of which are simply inside-the-beltway horse race handicapping. He has another post from about a week ago, Who Wasn't On Stage With Obama and Should Have Been?, discussing the participants at Obama's first post-election press conference. There was a post by Lambert day before yesterday, Mysterious spreadsheet lists candidates for appointments in the Obama administration, which presented screen shots of what purported to be an Excel spreadsheet of the short list of Cabinet and other top advisory positions in the administration-to-be. The provenance of this document is unclear and it strikes me that it is more an attempt to influence the final choices than a presentation of those choices.

As far as Hillary and the SOS, if there is any validity to the rumors (and we'll know soon enough), I'm not of any particular opinion as to the outcome. HRC would be a solid choice for SOS, though I suspect there are other people (not many) who are better prepared right now to take over the office. I share Alegre's glee at having HRC's foreign policy chops being recognized by the group that spent so much time dissing her over them, and it's fun to watch the exploding heads. That said, I'm actually disinterested in what Hillary will do in regards to her next career move. She's brilliant, she will work her heart out for the nation, and she has nothing to prove to anyone. Hillary is a known quantity.

What is making me go "Hmm" over the last few days is the cast of characters trotted out in public to measure reactions to potential choices, such as Clemon's wish list, the PDF Lambert referenced, and the Larry Summers death-watch. There was Yves Smith's reaction to Albright and Leach representing Obama at the G20, Bush and Obama Diss the G20 Financial Summit, which made me wonder why Obama would not send a stronger economic advisor presence, though it may simply be a move to have two excellent observors present while staying detached from the Bushies. I got some snarks in last week about the presence of former Clinton administration people on the transition team and being tapped for key positions, mostly to poke a finger in the eye of professional Clinton haters (and, oh boy, but did I get a fine selection of outraged responses - you guys are a riot!), but the on-going news leaves me scratching my head.

Why is there so much indecision about key posts like SOS or Treasury? Throughout the primary campaign and more muted in the general, I remember how the high-brow punditocracy like Clemons was insisting that Obama had this great team on foreign affairs (or the pundit's particular specialty), and they knew the players and they were excited at the potential, etc. I don't think this was BS for the most part, though it may have been wishful thinking. I admit to being surprised at just how heavily the prospective administration is populated by former Clinton people, even if it is just rumors and wish lists. There's a lot spinning going on over the prospective choices as is to be expected, and the people doing this are playing a game I have no part of. When I look at this, even taking into account both the obvious political jockeying and the short duration since the election, what I see is indecision.

Here's a proposition - McCain wasn't the only candidate side-swiped by the abrupt collapse of the economic world. I'm not saying this to be snarky nor am I drawing some kind of equivalence. There are a large number of very smart people who expected a downturn but who didn't anticipate the expanding sinkhole. The recent unemployment numbers are shocking people who have not been wearing rose-colored glasses. People who know what they are talking about are nervous, if not downright afraid, of what they see.

When the economic horizon looked like a another recession, somewhat worse than the downturn after the dot com crash but not as much as the mess of the early 90s, mild and vague policy stances seemed sufficient and blather about bipartisanship could be served up with a straight face. Even now, these nostrums - not so much centrist as inconsequential - are being pushed by Villagers truly too stupid to recognize reality even when it beats them over the top of their perfectly coiffed heads. They are still obsessing about whether the Evil Hillary Mommy Monster will get "rewarded" with a major administration post.

My deepest suspicion is that Obama has just run smack into the realization that events are in the saddle and ride men.

He is now faced with the situation of having spent more than a year cruising along on the demonization of the people who are in possession of the institutional knowledge and practices that will give his administration any hope in Hell of surviving the next four years, which is tantamount to saying the people who give the nation that hope of getting through it. This is bigger than the Clintons themselves; this goes to the entire cadre of top and middle level Clinton appointees and hires who have been treated like shit from the left and the right for nearly a decade, and who Obama himself dismissed throughout his campaign as the old way of thinking. It is irrelevant whether that stance is his true belief or just a campaign posture because it has set up expectations that he will reject them.

This is a problem for him on all fronts because his rejection of the previous administration has resulted in opposition from a significant slice on the left, people he took for granted beacuse they had no where else to go, but whose support he will now need to put through the kinds of programs and policies necesary to deal with the sinkhole. To placate them means pissing off the interests who he pandered to in order to secure the nomination. Rock, meet hard place.

Taking seriously the reasonably dire predictions of thinkers and analysts that we are facing at best severe recession and possibly a full-blown depression, what is needed in the administration are old hands capable of performing new tricks, people with thorough knowledge of the federal bureaucracy and a willingness to turn it upside down, comfortable ignoring the squawks of the Village, the bluster of the Movement Conservatives and the greek chorus of the blogosphere.

Thus, I'm looking at the trial balloons going up and what I see is an attempt to decide who Obama can bring in to do the job that needs doing without creating a backlash from the unstable part of his electoral coalition.


Fire Season in California

Yup, we're still on alert down here. Drier and windier weather forecast for the weekend. This is the Tea fire burning in the hills above Santa Barbara.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

You Are *So* History, Joanie

I've had a long and wearing day, so I won't be doing much braining, but I had to provide this double dose of Doonesbury. I was raised on equal amounts of Doonesbury and Tom Lehrer (which explains a lot about my political philosophy, no doubt) and Joanie Caucus has always been one of my favorite characters. She has always been a voice for feminism in the comics. The strips documenting her attempt to apply for law school were both comical and enraging. Earlier this year, while imagining a Hillary presidency, Joanie dreamed of being named Attorney General.

This week, Trudeau has been poking sly fun at Obamacan maniacs suddenly deprived of their election drug, but just tossed in a wonderful twist.

Alex Doonesbury, Joanie's granddaughter, is in major Obama withdrawal, as she discusses with her roommate, Drew. To cure the pangs, she attends a political science class where the professor is looking at pre-Hillary female politicians. Alex suddenly gets an education in American political history. (Click the image for the full sized version. I'm not sure why Blogger is shrinking this.)

Maybe Alex will find a political hero closer to home.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Precious Victory

So I'm getting bitched out plenty in the comments and through email about how I never say a nice word about Obama and I"m soooo bitter and can't I get over it and why won't I say things that validates the writer's political choices, yadda, yadda, Ginger.

Sure, here ya go.

I want Obama to go to Georgia and campaign his heart out for a single day, just one day, so we can put another great Democrat into the Senate and remove Saxby Chambliss from office. You want to know why? Because it is going to take his star power to get out enough votes to make the difference in this runoff election. I don't think Hillary alone can do it. It's going to take both of them to do this. I want the Democrats to take back Max Cleland's seat. I want Democrats to put another person on their side fo the aisle in the Senate chamber.

And I swear, as sure as God made little green apples, that I want our African-American President-Elect to walk down in to heart of the Old South, take the stage, and show the hateful, authoritarian, revanchist bastards who have divided this nation since the moment of its founding that their days are numbered by being the factor that turns this "sure bet" election for Chambliss into a rout for Martin.

I mean, c'mon, how can this team lose?



In the Alaska Senate contest, Begich has pulled slightly ahead of Stevens!

According to CNN, it is only a bare THREE VOTES.

He has come from behind being thousands of votes down. Everyone, keep fingers and toes crossed that the numbers keep going Mark Begich's way!

We're at 57 - Begich, Franken and Martin for 60! It can be done!


Update 11/14 - Begich's lead has opened up to over 800 votes now. If Stevens can be removed from the Senate, that would be so sweet.

Loan Modifications

As I mentioned in my post discussing HRC's letter to Bush & the Senate leadership, a crucial financial event that has to happen is the revaluation of houses sold since 2002. They should never have risen to the levels they did, the exotic loan vehicles used are unsustainable (Barry Ritholz on The Big Picture argues that many were issued knowing they were impossible to pay back), and the looming tidal wave of probable foreclosures can only be reduced (there is no way to stop it) is through loan modifications.

Modifications can take a number forms - reduce interest rates, change loan types, forgive outstanding interest, extend the term of the loan, and (the most radical) reduce the loan principal. (Note - these may be other ways to modify the loans than this that I don't know about since I"m not in the industry.)

This NYT article in today's edition, Lawmakers Debate Loan Modification, discusses some of the difficulties in trying to achieve these modifications. BS and buck-passing figure prominently:
The problem is that financial executives have competing views on whether mortgages that were packaged — or securitized, in industry parlance — can be modified or not. These mortgages are no longer owned by the banks that service them; they are instead owned by numerous investors, and some in the industry think the investors might sue banks that modify mortgages. ...

At the hearing, panelists disagreed on whether modification was allowed with bundles of mortgages that were resold. An executive from Bank of America said that the contracts behind some securitizations expressly prohibited changes to the underlying mortgages. The executive, Michael Gross, managing director of loan administration loss mitigation at Bank of America, said that banks had more flexibility to modify the rules in loans that they still held.

But an executive with the American Securitization Forum, an industry group, said that contracts did allow bundled mortgages to be modified. The forum is in discussions with a range of investors who bought mortgage bonds to streamline the process of such modification, said Thomas Deutsch, deputy executive director of the group. ...

Mr. Deutsch’s assertion faced skepticism among lawmakers. Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the committee, said he was hearing evidence that servicers were having trouble modifying loans that were securitized.

“They can’t get this worked out,” Mr. Frank said. “Who am I going to believe? You or my own eyes?”

The loans were bundled and sold as securities, and the holders of those securities are unwilling to eat the losses, except some say they don't object, but others are threatening to sue. The servicers (the people who collect the money, but who don't hold the risk) are claiming that they will be sued if they modify.

Well, we've got a chicken/egg situation here. The underlying asset simply aren't worth their sales prices anymore. Some are a little bit off. Some, especially the biggest bubble markets, are off by 1/4, 1/3 or even 1/2 the original price. Even some that have not lost a great deal of value, maybe a less than 10% decline, were sold using loan products (Interest Only, ARMs with extreme resets, etc.) that the borrowers are going to default.

The bubble value of the house is going to be lost. Period. That basic fact needs to be drilled into people's heads. We are not going to maintain the bubble prices because they have no basis in reality. Anyone who thinks it can be sustained is spitting into the wind. The question is who will bear the loss.

So, how can this happen in a way that does not involve the full force of the tidal wave crashing down on the financial shore?

I've spoken before about the HOLC/HOME program promoted by sensible economists and politicians. I have also spoken about the need to allow any homeowner, endangered or not, to make use of this program to reduce their principal, though with a penalty for anyone who sells before the full term of the revised loan for more than the value of the original loan. One commenter said that some profit needed to go back to the investors while I was more hard-nosed and said they needed to take on the risk for their investments.

But maybe we can adjust the program to sweeten the deal for these securities holders and get them to agree to loan restructuring rather than suing banks. Instead of only dealing with home owners, perhaps the securities people can say they will accept the revaluation of their securities and continue to hold them or they can sell them back to the HOME program for the revalued price and and take a financial loss in exchange for jettisoning risk. If they continue to hold and they allow the revaluation, then, should the homes sell before the maturity date and should the sale price be greater than the revised loan amount, the difference goes to the securities holder (original investor), not the government. If they continue to hold the securities, then there is no reason the servicers can't administer the situation and it stays off government books.

The immediate problem I see here is that these securities are not necessarily composed of entire loans, but are often are built from "tranches" - slices of loans that are valued according to the probability of them being paid back. (This is a layman's definition. Please go to a real econoblog like Calculated Risk for detailed information about tranches) The coordination costs alone make this of limited use, but it is one way to try to address restructuring value, debt and risk in a way that reduces crisis, encourages housing stability and does not enrich free riders at the expense of true risk takers.

Alternatively, recombined securities could be revalued and resold without tranches and with very easy to understand levels of risk. A house with an original loan of $450K and a revised loan of $300K is worth the latter amount but may return the former if sold before the 30-year term is up. A good number of these houses will probably sell within twenty years, and while they may not regain the original $450K value, they may be worth $365K - and the extra $65K goes to the investors. At worst, the investor receives the full value of the $300K on the 30-year loan held to maturity and the home owner has exchanged future potential returns for current financial salvation.

A very, very smart home owner who knows they won't be going anywhere for 30 years and is not distressed, but falls within the time frame, can greatly reduce home costs, freeing up household income for other things. Which is a boon to the broader economy because people need to spend to fend off recession and depression. In short, it increases liquidity of earnings very fast and keeps them liquid in the future. If home owners default, the value if lost anyway and the larger the number of defaults the more depressed the housing market becomes until slack is taken up. If we are heading into a wide-spread depression, that could be a very long time.

So, those are my thoughts after reading this article. Losses are going to happen. Revaluation with special conditions for recouping original values is one way to free up consumer cash while defending original loan obligations.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


The last few days of political news has a familiar ring. From the Villagers outraged at the mere idea of former Clinton administration staff are part of the transition team, to the haughty rejection of Hillary as the leader on health care reform, to the rumors of HRC being considered for Secretary of State, to anti-Hillary sentiment among former Hillary supporters, to confused responses to whether Joe Lieberman should go because he's in bed with the Clintons (ewww, sorry, here's some bleach for your brain to scrub away that image) to whether he should stay because it is brilliant strategy by The Precious, and so forth, what we see is that for all the swooning over Obama, the center of the political universe is still Hillary Clinton.

The Unity Democrats and the newly amenable Village can't figure out what to do about this obstreperous woman. There she goes again, making statements and writing letters without asking permission or waiting for a signal. She won't quit. She is impervious to their childish maneuvers and rude behavior. Every expression of hatred, every act of frustration elicits a bigger smile and greater determination. How can she keep doing this when all the Very Serious People are telling her she is a political dead letter?

Easy. She has won the hearts of millions and has pledged herself to their defense. It is her driving passion. As Time magazine stated, "Clinton returns to Congress as a champion of women and the working class."

Every successful public figure is motivated by a passion for distinction. Call it ambition. It is a political virtue because it drives the actor to accomplish more even when there are no obvious rewards. It is not always a constructive distinction the person seeks, but our best leaders will be more good than bad. They wish to distinguish themselves in admirable ways. Hillary has chosen to distinguish herself by recognizing and honoring the dignity of the people she encounters, giving them the respect that they may not deign to offer her in return. By never failing to respect the dignity of those she met, Hillary maintained her own. There is nothing she has done over this long and dismaying campaign that she needs to be ashamed of, which none of her rivals can say for themselves. Instead, she has shamed them with her persistent, unshakeable dignity. Nothing they did could reduce her to their level.

You cannot intimidate someone who doesn't want what you have to offer or who will not be dismayed over territorial displays and backroom intrigues. Every vindictive claim that has been offered up by right, left and the media about what Hillary will/won't do/say (She'll sabotage! She'll kill him! She won't campaign! She'll backstab! She'll destroy rather than let someone else have it!) have all been exposed for the empty lies they are. Instead, we have been privileged to witness a very rare political phenomenon.

She has offered up herself, her time and her integrity, for the sake of others as they needed her help and even when they did little or nothing to deserve it. Her tireless campaigning on behalf of the party and ideology she believes in is unprecedented in the modern history of the party. Compare her hundreds of campaign appearances since the convention and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in PAC money for other candidates to Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart, or Teddy Kennedy in their defeats. Hillary is exactly what she appears to be: a left of center moderate who is completely dedicated to improving the lives of her constituents and people throughout the nation on immediate pocketbook matters - living wages, health care, secure housing and personal dignity.

The distinction between Hillary and the other political actors of this season is that she treats everyone with diginity, even her opponents. Her criticisms are based in policy and practical politics, no matter how The Village mendaciously misconstrued her words. You do not hear her talking down to anyone. She never disparaged any voter who chose another candidate, never told anyone they were not needed, never mocked or ridiculed someone who wasn't part of her tribe.

I would say that her demeanor is true bipartisanship, by the way. She does not talk about Bunkers and Bubbas, demonizing classes of people, but speaks directly to political policies that do not serve us well. It becomes possible, and less daunting, to change political allegiance because it is not you who is under attack or even your beliefs, but support for a particular policy that has failed you. She didn't judge the voters, she judged the politics. This is why voters who were at the margins and who feel endangered were drawn to this leader. She talks in the language of interests and needs, not motivations and morality.

The authoritarians of the left do not like this. As with their conservative counterparts, they are intensely moralistic and judgemental (clinging to God and guns, the white party, bitter knitters, etc.), wanting to divide the political world into the saved and the damned. The need to punish enemies is part of the definition of success. They seek to discipline the souls that make up the body politic, demanding that we love Big Brother and not simply pick a government. You don't want to treat people with dignity in such a case, you want them to look upon you with awe.

I fully expect that Hillary will do things and support measures I do not like, which only goes to show that she is not me and that I should not confuse my will with the good of the nation. I trust her to be consistent and steadfast in her defense of human dignity, which is the human face of human rights. If you cannot see an opponent as a being to be treated with dignity (even as you vote them out of office), then what is to say you will be able to see anyone in such a light? This may not be Joan Didion's unexpressable uneasiness, but it is a great deal of my own.

So, a year on, this is why my respect for the lady in the pantsuit has increased. I expect the trend to continue.


Bye-bye Agenda for Change

I am chuckling over the disappearance of the entire "Agenda" section at the transition website I knew that they were editing parts of it as complaints and objections arose, and now they have yanked it all out. (You can see parts of the "Service" page content quoted in my posts You First and The Hands)

Now, some will see this in a nefarious light, but I'm of a slightly more ironic temper. All of the stuff is still up on his campaign web site under "Issues". I think that people who wouldn't bother going to his campaign site did go to the transition site and actually read what the guy says he's going to do, and all of a sudden The Precious was getting a lot of very bad press and word of mouth criticism. When you say you're going to do something people tend to believe you and will object or hold you to it as they see fit. Accountability is for suckers and losers, as the Republicans have shown us the last few decades, and the Unity Democrats are trying to emulate winners.

More obnoxious is this news from CQ about the Georgia Senate seat run-off:

Both candidates have moved quickly to try to line up high-profile party support for the runoff campaign. Arizona Sen. John McCain — who carried Georgia as the Republican presidential nominee but lost the national election to Democrat Barack Obama — has committed to attend a rally and fundraiser for GOP Senate colleague Chambliss on Thursday. Chambliss spokeswoman Michelle Grasso said discussions also are under way with GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin , the governor of Alaska, as well as three well-known Republicans who rallied behind McCain after losing to him earlier this year in the contest for the party’s presidential nomination: Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas; Rudolph Giuliani, a former New York City mayor; and Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts Governor.

Martin’s campaign, meanwhile, has been in contact with Obama’s staff, but has no firm commitment from the president-elect, according to Martin campaign communications director Matt Canter on Monday. “There are no plans at this time to come to the state, but the request has been made,” Canter said. Canter added that Obama’s campaign team is already lending expertise and experienced campaign staffers to Martin. While President Bush trounced Democrat John Kerry in conservative-leaning Georgia by 17 percentage points in 2004, Obama trimmed McCain’s winning margin in the state to 5 points.

State analysts say the race will test whether Democratic campaign strategists can mobilize Obama supporters to go to the polls without Obama on the ticket. Martin’s first ad of the runoff campaign prominently features Obama and aligns Martin with the president-elect. “Jim Martin will work with Barack Obama to get our economy moving again,” a voiceover states in the ad.

And Martin can make a stronger argument than he could before Nov. 4 that he would have more clout than Chambliss in a Senate dominated by the Democrats. The Democrats’ predicted gains, still speculative before Election Day, are now tangible at six seats, with the races for Republican seats in Georgia, Minnesota and Alaska still undecided. That means the Democrats, who entered the elections with effective control over just 51 of 100 seats, already have clinched 57 seats in the upcoming 111th Congress, counting two Independents who have caucused with Democrats.

Georgia Senate Runoff Foes Vie for Big-Name Support

Uh, what? We have a chance to pick up this seat, get another Senator closer to the magical 60, and knock out one of the bigger jerks in the Republican Senate ranks and Mr. Hopey-Changey can't get his skinny ass down there for a single day to campaign for Martin, especially when AA turn-out will probably decide the contest? Jim Martin was one of Hillary's HillPAC candidates. I bet she'll be down there fighting for him. I also note that Chambliss wants Palin campaigning for him. So much for the thesis that she is seen as a drag on the party.

This is an interesting commitment to an agenda for change - take down your promises and don't show up for the party.

h/t Howling Latina