Category Archives: News

House of Cards, part 2

Back in November last year I had the first House of Cards post, which at the time seemed a bit alarmist, but at least plausible to me.

The past week (and the weeks to come) appear to be going way beyond what I would have thought possible, but I must assume that things are very close to coming completely apart in the financial world.

A story from the NY Times, “Fed and Treasury Offer to Work with Congress on Bailout Plan” by Edmund L. Andrews  indicates that a initiative is in the works to set up a government organization to buy up bad mortgages…

The head of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve began discussions on Thursday with Congressional leaders on what could become the biggest bailout in United States history.

if (acm.rc) acm.rc.write(); While details remain to be worked out, the plan is likely to authorize the government to buy distressed mortgages at deep discounts from banks and other institutions.

While I don’t think it’s fair to simply call this a failure of the ‘free market’ (since Fannie/Freddie were deeply involved in making mortgage money available and loosened standards at governmental request), it certainly indicates that many things have gone very wrong.  When the government becomes the only buyer left, the market has collapsed.

In the end, it seems possible that given a long-enough time horizon (presumably the government can hold onto these mortgages for a real long time), this may actually be a good deal for the taxpayer (or perhaps equally likely it could turn out miserably).  But how can anyone know today?

Reining in the "Imperial Presidency"?

Very interesting interview with Andrew Bacevich, author of a new book entitled “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism”. About Bacevich:  After 23 years in the Army, the West Point graduate retired as a colonel and has been teaching international relations and history at Boston University.  Here he makes a point that I think voters of both parties should consider:

BILL MOYERS:  Do you expect either John McCain or Barack Obama to rein in the “imperial presidency?”

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, people run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, the people who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, these are people who yearn to exercise those kind of great powers.

They’re not running to see if they can make the Pentagon smaller. They’re not. So when I – as a distant observer of politics – one of the things that both puzzles me and I think troubles me is the 24/7 coverage of the campaign.

Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected. It’s not going to happen.

I think we’ve gotten a hint of this lately with McCain’s aggressive comments with regard to Russia’s actions in Georgia, but I have no doubt Obama & team yearns to likewise wield government powers (perhaps in a slightly different way than McCain would, but in the end not so different).  Ambitious people rarely take any pleasure in dismantling things, even when they clearly aren’t working very well.

Well worth reading the whole interview.

Orange!

Orange

Orange is the color of the day! That’s because Holland has gotten off to a great start in the Euro 2008 soccer tournament, with victories over Italy (3-0) and France (4-1). I’m not much of a fan really, but it’s great fun to see how the country has come alive and the national color is out all over. Read all the latest news on the Euro 2008 site.

Update: Well, it’s all over now.  Last night Germany lost to Spain, 1-0.  A kind of surprising result after all the higher-scoring matches.  I watched the Dutch lose to Russia in the Old Town Square in Prague, then saw the Russians lose to Spain a few nights later.

Anxiety…

Here’s Don DeLillo from The Names (1982):

The price of oil was an index to the Western world’s anxiety.  It provided a figure, $24 a barrel, say, to measure against the figure of the month before or the year before.  It was a handy way to refer to our complex involvements.  It told us how bad we felt at a given time. (p. 66)

So, how do we feel at $130+ a barrel?

Thoughts on Obama

First off, I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishment of Barack Obama in winning the Democratic nomination.  The campaign was a long slog, and prior to Iowa seemed like an extreme long shot, but his team appears to have had a solid strategy and great discipline in working toward the end goal.  They were of course helped by the fact that so many people felt that Clinton was a shoo-in, to such an extent that even the Clinton team simply did not pursue the contest in all the states.  Essentially if Obama was running against a less confident front-runner, he might not have had a chance.

I find it a refreshing change to watch a young man (well, he’s a year older than me, but still young in the political world) who is very smart and very articulate go through this process with most of his dignity intact.  Some may find his message on hope and change to be empty, but let’s consider whether it’s really so much different from Reagan’s ‘morning in America’ message…  I think we may well be talking about ‘Obama Republicans’ in the years to come.

The general election campaign will be a much different affair; substantive policy differences, and major ‘style’ differences, and a generational gap all make it next to impossible to feel that the candidates are basically the same (even though I recognize that in many ways things in America will play out in a similar way regardless of the next President).  There are major challenges to be faced in the years ahead: energy, water, global competitiveness, national security, immigration.  I would like to see the two candidates will focus on these real issues, despite the almost inevitable media hysterics driven by a need to gab 24/7.

"Harsh Interrogation Techniques"

Gravensteen

Above is the old castle Gravensteen in Gent, Belgium, which I visited yesterday. It dates back to days we refer to as medieval. For years it was used as a court, and prisoners were kept there. Nowadays it’s a museum of sorts, with rooms of old armor and weapons, massive ‘two-hander’ swords and such things. In another room one can find what we can only refer to as the torture instruments; thumbscrews, various bindings used to put people into ‘stress positions’, etc.

Here’s a shot I took of one old picture in the room.

Gravensteen Torture

This looks to me very similar to what we now call ‘waterboarding’.

Regardless of whether one thinks such techniques are necessary and useful, it seems to me that the Bush Adminstration is playing word games of the worst sort as it refers to its high-level discussions of ‘harsh interrogation techniques’. Torture is an ugly concept, and calling it something else does not make it go away.

Not to say that the current administration is using all the techniques of 500 years ago. Below is a torture that apparently was quite successful at eliciting confessions – a necklace of sharp pins that no one could stand for more than 4 hours.

Gravensteen Torture -necklace

Man’s imagination in coming up with incredible torments seems unfortunately quite vivid.

Interesting news…

Two quick items that caught my eye lately:

From a March 27 article in the International Herald Tribune on “Berlin’s Art: A melting pot of talents” by Simon Marks, an art gallery owner Thomas Schulte is quoted like so:

Many American visitors tell me that Berlin reminds them of New York during the 70s; not much money, but very sexy.

I hope to get back to Berlin sometime this spring…  last visit was in 2000, where I nearly got trampled trying to get away from the Love Parade!

And on another topic altogether, from a March 31 article in the SF Chronicle entitled “Social gaming picks up momentum” by Ellen Lee, I learned of ‘Friends for Sale’:

San Francisco startup Serious Business, founded by 23-year-old Alexander Le and 24-year-old Siqi Chen, believes that a new genre of games could be mined from tapping into social networks.

In November, the duo created Friends for Sale, now one of Facebook’s most popular games with nearly 700,000 daily players. Users buy, sell and own their friends, as though their friends were pets or stocks. Owners can control their acquisitions, forcing them to do or say things, as well as sell them and turn a profit. Those being bought and sold are also part of the game, going up and down in value.

There’s no telling what those crazy kids will get up to next…

Congrats to Geelong!

Geelong Cats win Grand Final

Saturday morning – got up very early, got a 6:06am train to Den Haag (The Hague), to join some Aussie compatriots at an Irish bar to watch the Grand Final match of the Australian Football League.  I’ve seen a few footie games in person at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but this was my first Grand Final.  Unfortunately it was a very lop-sided game – the Geelong Cats absolutely crushed Port Adelaide, 163-44, and Port Adelaide only got worse in the second half!  Congrats to the Cats!

The Sound of a Brand Dying

From a story on Ford Motor company in today’s NYT (story by Claire Atkinson):

Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consumer loyalty measurement firm in New York, said that Ford’s biggest marketing deficit is simply standing for something. “There is a brand association test. If I said Mercedes, you’re likely to say luxury; Volvo: safety; Toyota: reliability. With Ford, you’re likely to hear the sound ummm,” he said. “That is the sound of a brand dying.”

"No End in Sight" (2007)

Bremer & Garner

I saw the documentary film “No End in Sight” last night, Charles Ferguson’s film on Iraq. While the title makes it sound forward-looking, for the most part the film focuses on the beginnings of the war, in the first half of 2003. It consists of interviews with officials and military who were in Iraq, particularly those who were initially in charge of the ‘reconstruction’ like Jay Garner, along with some news footage of other top officials who would not be interviewed for the film.

While there are many reasons that the Iraq situation has gotten as messy as it is now, the film essentially makes the case that some bad decisions and lack of planning for the aftermath of toppling the regime pretty much ensured a bad outcome. Worst decision according to the film was to disband the Iraqi army, which put a huge number of men out of work and at the same time doing little to secure arms caches around the country. The U.S. Army did not appear to support the decision, and it seems as if Bush was not even informed of it until after it was a done deal.

The film asks the question of why this happened, and seems to suggest that in the end the key decisions were made by a very small group with little reconstruction experience, who were not open to opposing ideas or drawing upon people who did have that experience. You know what they say about good intentions.

Ferguson is an interesting character; he has a Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT, and made a bundle with a software company that was sold to Microsoft. The film is pretty even-handed in my opinion; it’s not at all like a Michael Moore effort. I think he made this film essentially to try to answer his own questions about how things got to be such a mess. His depressing finding is that it seems like things could and should have gone a whole lot better.