Category Archives: News and Politics

What’s Going On

There’s a story going around that the economy imploded because the government wanted to encourage minority home ownership. This story is the purest of high-grade manure. Minorities are not somehow inherently unable to afford stable thirty-year mortgages. Google “redlining” and “sundown towns” if you want to know why they might have trouble getting them. There are people who want very much for you to believe that forced loans to minorities caused this collapse. These are the people who want to bring redlining back.

No, the crazy mortgages went to everybody–people of all races, classes, and economic strata. A lot of them went to smart, responsible people who just didn’t understand every little thing about loans and trusted their bankers to tell the truth. (And that’s normally okay! Most of us don’t understand every little detail about medicine, so we trust our doctors. We don’t understand everything about our cars, so we trust our mechanics. We can’t personally inspect every poultry plant, so we trust our FDA inspectors. This kind of trust is the thing that makes modern civilization possible.) A lot of these mortgages went to people who could have coped with a stable 30 year mortgage. A lot of them went to buy McMansions that now sit abandoned in suburban cul-de-sacs turned to slums.

The mortgage mess is more complicated than that, and, as with everything else in life, if you really want to understand it you’re going to have to (gulp) *think*. Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math, Bad Math has the best explanation I’ve seen.

First, read “Economic Disasters and Stupid Evil People”:

The situation is both very complicated and very simple.

The simple version? People made lots and lots of stupid loans that couldn’t be repaid.

Of course, it’s not really that simple.

(Like I said: complicated.)

Then you might want to read his explanation of a normally sensible practice called “tranching” and how the Wall Street dingbats perverted it to squeeze out a little more fast cash.

You can follow up by reading “Bad Probability and Economic Disaster; or How Ignoring Bayes Theorem Caused the Mess”:

One of the big questions that comes up again and again is: how did they get away with this? How could they find any way of taking things that were worthless, and turn them into something that could be represented as safe?

The answer is that they cheated in the math.

And “How Mortgages Turned into a Trillion Dollar Disaster”:

What really created the disaster is a combination of leverage – that is, borrowing money to amplify an investment, and derivatives – fancy investments that are really nothing more than bets.

Truly understanding this mess takes more time and thought than blaming minorities. But it’s worth putting in the work.

Sarah Palin Notices Something Funny

That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundry that we have with Canada. It’s funny that a comment like that was kinda made to … I don’t know, you know … reporters.

Sarah Palin

When asked for clarification, Governor Palin explained she had understood that, as the candidate for Vice President of the United States, she would be providing comments to “mostly trained chimpanzees, or maybe if things went well some ski instructors and Latvian yak herders.”

Bailing Out Dombey

I’ve been thinking lately about the last Dickens book I read—Dombey and Son. The news brought it to mind.

Dombey is the head honcho of Dombey and Son. He thinks this makes him a Great Man, and just to make damn sure he’s out to suppress all threats to his Greatness. This can get time consuming. See, all you actually have to do to threaten Dombey’s Greatness is contradict him. So Dombey spends half the 900 page epic picking up sycophants so oily you could run a Hummer off their bodily secretions, and the other half methodically alienating anybody who cares enough about him to tell him the truth.

The truth is: Dombey is a moron.

That name, “Dombey and Son?” Our Dombey’s the son. He’s like the third or fourth generation of son. He didn’t build the business. His dad didn’t build the business. Everything he has, he inherited from somebody else who also inherited it. Dombey and Son started without him and continues through inertia while he warms the chair in the big office. And he has no idea how to run it. He has no idea, for example, that sycophant numero uno Carker has for years been using shady accounting to siphon off gobs of funds. And when Carker runs off with the cash, Dombey has no idea it might be time to do something differently. He has no idea he could do anything differently. He’s Dombey, dude! The top of the heap is Dombey’s natural place. That’s how the world rolls. So he coasts placidly along as he always has, and bankrupts the firm.

This is where the news comes in. And as our fearless leaders discuss handing a $700 billion blank check of taxpayer money over to the guys who created this interesting situation, I can’t help but remember what happened to Dombey.

He, himself, personally, went bankrupt.

This was not an oddity in Dickens’s time. It was standard operating procedure. Business owners in 19th century England were personally liable for business debts. (It was a better deal than ordinary debtors got. They ended up in prison. See Little Dorrit.) But Dombey’s attitude is striking:

‘The extent of Mr Dombey’s resources [says Mr. Morfin, one of his middle managers] is not accurately within my knowledge; but though they are doubtless very large, his obligations are enormous. He is a gentleman of high honour and integrity. Any man in his position could, and many a man in his position would, have saved himself, by making terms which would have very slightly, almost insensibly, increased the losses of those who had had dealings with him, and left him a remnant to live upon. But he is resolved on payment to the last farthing of his means. His own words are, that they will clear, or nearly clear, the House, and that no one can lose much. Ah, Miss Harriet, it would do us no harm to remember oftener than we do, that vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess! His pride shows well in this.’

The vices of our current class of economic honchos are probably not virtues carried to excess.

I don’t mind bailing out the little guys. If this $700 billion were going to rescue struggling people who got suckered into crazy mortgages, I’d consider it money well spent. But before we hand our tax money over to these companies? I’d like to see their CEOs and boards of directors sell off a few private planes and summer homes. Then we’ll talk.

Journalism for Dummies

John Camp has been covering riots for forty years. Back when he started, you didn’t find many reporters hiding in violent mobs. Why, you could swing a cat—hell, a full-grown puma, if you were hardcore—and though you would be immediately jumped by a pile of incensed hooligans with fur allergies, you could pretty much rest easy that you hadn’t hit a journalist.

Times have changed, says Camp. “Now, there are two medias — the MSM, or the ‘Main Street Media,’ as they call it on the net”—or not, as the case may be—and the bloggers, or “citizen journalists,” or whatever they call themselves. Some of them sure dress weird. And they don’t know how to handle themselves. So our pal Mr. Camp has decided to take them in hand, and explain to these funny newbies how to be “a media.”

Some of his advice is unintentionally revealing. I was struck by this little gem:

Always — ALWAYS! — know where the Little Assholes are. Most people in protest mobs are pretty sincere, and don’t want to fight cops or break things. But there’s a subset of most any anti-war mob, the LAs, who are similar to the football hooligans in Britain. They are there to break things for their own entertainment. They don’t have much real interest in politics — they’re just LAs. You can pick them out because they wear fashionable bad-ass street dress — black or olive drab, boots or heavy running shoes, bandanas, hoodies. They tend to pierce themselves a lot. The dress is usually pretty worn, and they tend to cluster; so look around the crowd and when you see a sudden darkening of dress, you’ve found the LAs. You need to know where they are, because when they start breaking things, that’s your film-at-six.

So let’s recap. Most people in a protest are there to, y’know, protest, not to break laws or smash stuff. A few people aren’t interested in the protest; they’re there to smash stuff, using the protest as cover. Your job, as a journalist, is to walk straight past the great mass of protestors to focus on the little gang of apolitical thugs who just came for the smashy-smashy.

That, my friends, is how a protest with a few petty criminals hiding in the crowd, when filtered through the news, becomes a riot. And why some people are losing faith in the “Main Street Media.”

Helpful Bonus Tip: John Camp says, “Breaking glass or sudden gusts of screaming means good photography.” Also people getting injured. But good photography!

Yet another person who doesn’t understand the “library” concept.

Sarah Palin, McCain’s brand-new VP pick, has baffled and confounded Americans in all walks of life, and I have been baffled and confounded along with everyone else. But of all confounding things, a small detail from this Time article has got to be the confoundiest:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. “She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.” That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving “full support” to the mayor.

I think Palin pretty much instantly failed civics, right there.

(via Boing Boing. Don’t bother following their link to the libraran’s blog that pointed this out; the comments there are worse than useless.)

A Nation Led by Really Little Kids

I’d heard President Bush ended a meeting on climate change with a cheery “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter!” But I hadn’t realized he’d been quite this embarassing about it:

The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter.”

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

Nice one, Mr. President. Maybe next you can start a food fight at an official dinner—preferably one at some sort of conference combatting world hunger. That would certainly impress people. Especially if you bring one of these spoons.

Meanwhile, the White House public relations staff has adopted the “last minute grade school book report” approach to their job:

Mr Bush also faced criticism at the summit after Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, was described in the White House press pack given to journalists as one of the “most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for government corruption and vice”.

The White House apologised for what it called “sloppy work” and said an official had simply lifted the characterisation from the internet without reading it.

The National Gallery Has Been Invaded by Suspicious Unclothed Foreign Art

This Washington Post story begins “Washington is a town filled with boobs.” This sentence refers to unclothed statuary. However, it is true in other ways. Authors Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts must have enjoyed writing it.

Robert Hurt, visited the National Gallery of Art ten years ago while in town for a Promise Keepers meeting. He was extremely surprised to find our nation’s gallery liberally stocked with naked statues. Nearly 20 percent of the art in America’s National Gallery–nekkid! Why, he’d never heard of such a thing.

Luckily Hurt is a delegate to the Texas GOP convention. He knew what to do: Give this suspicious foreign statuary a hard smackdown in the party platform. “You don’t have nude art on your front porch,” he argued. “You possibly don’t have nude art in your living rooms. So why is it important to have that in the common places of Washington, D.C.?”

Good point. The National Gallery is the front porch of America. Why should that sacred place contain anything more than a porch swing, a welcome mat, and maybe a couple of potted plants? Note that I do say “maybe.” We must be careful about those plants. They should be familiar plants. It would be a terrible shame if the National Gallery of Art contained anything at all to shock or surprise the uneducated, who are the most purely American of us all.

Alas, Mr. Hurt’s proposal did not make it in. He was similarly unsuccessful with his suggestion that Presidential spouses should have term limits. I think this was a mistake. No one should be forced to be married to a President for more than eight years.

(Via Making Light.)

Revelations from the Bush Interview

Valuable information from the recent [Presidential interview] [pb]:

>I mean, part of the faith walk is to understand your weaknesses and is to constantly try to embetter yourself and get closer to the Lord.

Later, in a clarifying statement, the President explained he’d used “a perfectly [cromulent] [crom] word.”

>Look, I tell people — and this is an interesting thing — it’s harder to be the son of a President than to be the President.

After all, what does a President do all day? It’s mostly hanging out at the ranch and clearing brush!

>I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.

Moved by their leader’s sacrifice, millions of Americans have vowed to stand with him by giving up bowling, letting their lawns grow a bit, skipping “Dancing With the Stars,” and maybe not supersizing that next order at McDonald’s.

>Baseball is a fabulous sport. I used to say it’s a sport played by normal-sized people. It turns out some of these normal-sized people are obviously very strong and very quick, but nevertheless, normal-size — you don’t have to be a huge guy to play baseball. And it’s a great family sport, and it needs to be cleaned up.

>Q: And there haven’t been enough normal-sized people.

>Bush: Well, there’s — yes, there are a lot of normal-sized people. I mean, there’s a lot of little dudes who can play the game and play it well.

In the course of the interview–a rare opportunity to question the most powerful man in America–the President was also asked who does a better impression of his father, whether it’s true he does a great impression of Dr. Evil, whether he’d recently watched “Father of the Bride,” and who he thinks will win on an “American Idol” charity show.

I’m too baffled to come up with a joke for this one.