A Level Gaze

"What effect must it have on a nation if it learns no foreign languages? Probably much the same as that which a total withdrawal from society has upon an individual."
--G.C. Lichtenberg


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Bob. A damn fine comic.


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Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Carly Fiorina's Ego

Man, I love this. Carly can't admit that just about any egotistical blowhard can serve as a corporate figurehead, so she goes and trashes her boss:

Carly Fiorina, the former chairman of Hewlett Packard, and a senior economics advisor to McCain was asked by a local Missouri radio: "Do you think (Palin) has the experience to run a major company, like Hewlett Packard?"

"No, I don't," Fiorina replied, before adding. "But you know what? That's not what she's running for."


Asked later by the MSNBC news channel if she regretted what she had said about Palin's business acumen, Fiorina replied: "Well, I don't think John McCain could run a major corporation."

Running a corporation is orders of magnitude easier than running the United States government and managing our relations with each and every other country on the globe. CEOs can get away with gladhanding, yelling at managers, and occasionally making ill-advised mergers. They are taken seriously even after they are fired.

A president's daily decisions have the potential to affect millions of people, and he/she has final, unavoidable responsibility for all of them.

Regardless of what she believes, Carly's every breath for the last several months has been in the service of putting John McCain in the White House. Still, she just couldn't bring herself to say that an obviously-unqualified Sarah Palin is as good as she is. Better, even.

Even John McCain, king of the egotistical blowhards, doesn't pass muster. Fiorina's ego is a formidable thing.

Saturday, December 08, 2007
Sucker Trap

I had thought the Paulson Plan rather a poor deal for homeowners:

The basic outline is that loans are put into three segments:

1. Borrower appears (from fairly superficial analysis of the data, not any deep digging) to be eligible for a refinance. These borrowers are to be encouraged to refinance.
2. Borrower appears able to make payment at current rate, but appears (again, from fairly superficial analysis) to be unlikely to be able to refinance (generally because LTV is too high with FICO too low). These borrowers are eligible for the “fast-tracked” mod (the rate freeze) if they meet some FICO and payment increase tests.
3. Borrower appears unable to make payment even at current rate; these borrowers are presumed to be unable to refinance. They are not eligible for the “fast track” rate freeze mod; they may be eligible for some kind of work out, but it would have to be handled the old-fashioned fully-analyzed case-by-case way.

Which the inimitable Tanta further boils down to:

1. Not in default and default not imminent
2. Not in default and default reasonably foreseeable
3. In default or default imminent

As I mentioned in the previous post, the plan was specifically targeted to freeze the rates of only those homeowners who were at the very limit of their financial wherewithal, to squeeze the absolute last nickel out of them. As Tanta explained, there is a good reason for this: the securitization contracts specify that the terms of only those loans in imminent danger of default may be modified without (complex, expensive) renegotiation.

In an environment of decreasing prices, spiking inventory, and tighter credit, a provision that makes it barely possible for homeowners who bought at the top of the market to stay current on their mortgages is at best dubiously advantageous. Against the ability to stay in their homes would have to be weighed the fact that they would be overpaying for the privilege with the last of their financial resources. Unless their incomes increase significantly during the five years the Plan covers, they would be in much the same position in which they find themselves today: facing a significant payment increase they can't to afford. In the then-likely event of foreclosure, they would be left with nothing. If, instead, they just mailed the keys to their servicers now and walked away, they could then rent essentially the same houses for much less money, save the difference, and be in a position to make downpayments on rationally-priced homes when their credit ratings reset.

This looked like a bad enough deal considering what many thought to be the Plan's other major stipulation: that the loan-to-value ratio (LTV) of the first mortgage could be no less than 97%. As such, mortgagees facing hopeless levels of debt on their homes would be excluded from participation, and wouldn't be thereby tempted to prolong their impossible situations. However, as Mike Shedlock pointed out yesterday afternoon, that provision had been widely misread: the Plan covers only those with LTVs of more than 97%. That is, only those in the worst shape, many of them already owing more than the value of their homes, would "benefit".

In light of this clarifcation, the Plan can no longer be construed as possibly a good deal for certain people in very specific circumstances. It is, in Mish's very apt characterization, nothing more than a "sucker trap" that will ultimately ruin nearly every homeowner who participates in it.

Friday, December 07, 2007
Felix Salmon Thinks I'm a Bad Person

Salmon Sez:

"If you're hoping to get a home [on] the cheap out of foreclosure, then maybe you're damaged."

My response:

Excuse me?

Real estate is overvalued. Those who, like me, did not buy for that reason will naturally wait for prices to come down before considering buying. Foreclosure is one means by which the the expected price reductions will be effected. That's how the market works. There is nothing normative about it.

I'm not going to buy a house until I find one that I like at a reasonable price. If that house is available as a result of foreclosure, so be it. *I* didn't cause the previous owners to buy more house than they could afford, nor did I scam them into signing an impossible mortgage. I strongly resent your characterization of those who hope to benefit from the coming rationalization of the real estate market as "damaged."

Just because I saw this train wreck coming and anticipate the availability on the market of decent housing I can actually afford doesn't make me some kind of ghoul. I might feel good that I haven't overextended myself, but that's my right. And it doesn't make me "damaged."

On the subject of what a good deal this plan is for everyone, I'd like to point out that the plan will give "relief" only to those who are already stretched to the limit. To the extent the plan is carried out, there will be that many more people stuck paying top dollar for a depreciating asset. Unless their incomes rise substantially, they won't be able to afford much else, and when the interest resets in five years, they'll be in the same boat they're in now: facing foreclosure.

Yeah, this is a great deal.

Update: Exclusive to ALG! Felix says he didn't mean it. See comments and judge for yourself.

Thursday, December 06, 2007
"Freedom requires slavery just as slavery requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with Master. Freedom and slavery endure together, or perish alone."

- Mitt Romney

Also, read this.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

since 9/11 there hasn't been a dropoff in foreign tourism in New York City, where the attacks actually took place.

It's at places like Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon where they're getting the dirty looks.

Monday, September 24, 2007
The Most Important Post You will Read This Year

Although this blog is basically moribund at this point, I feel an obligation to spread the word about this post by Karl Denninger by any and every means necessary. It is about the housing market, the credit markets, and the US economy in general.

Although I disagree fairly thoroughly with his politics, he is an extraordinarily sharp cookie when it comes to financial matters. And in this post, he cranks it up at least 3 notches.

An excerpt to whet your appetite:

If you think this housing market mess won't get that bad, you're very wrong. Well, at least the market says you're very wrong. Take a look at this; the CME now lists housing futures.... where you can place futures bets on the price of housing in major markets. Have a gander..... they don't see a bottom coming for years.

Now maybe you can tell me how we can have any "home equity withdrawals" to fund consumer spending if this view is correct? Oh, and by the way, these futures are of course priced in nominal dollars - add inflation and things get REALLY bad.

Ok, so what has really happened here up until now?

We need to identify this with some degree of confidence if we are going to figure out what's coming around the bend! Why? Well, I hear the rails singing and past experience tells me that this usually means you better get the hell off the tracks..... but am I right or wrong?

Let's postulate a few things from what we do know, because it has been published.

First, Bernanke pulled the safety pins out of the banking system when he waived the 10% affiliated capital limits. This was done for ONE bank back earlier this year, but just recently, he did it for four large primary banks. WHY? One can assume that their affiliated entities, which are the "trading" or "securities" arms of these organizations, were on the verge of collapse!

I urge you to read the whole post.

Thursday, May 31, 2007
These people have no credibility at all

The operational commander of US troops in Iraq on Thursday said officers are seeking local ceasefire deals with insurgents, after the deadliest month for American forces in two-and-a-half years.

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the number two US officer in Iraq, told reporters that about four-fifths of the militants currently fighting American forces were thought to be ready to join Iraq's political process.

Now who's getting close to terrorists?

This initiative reeks of desperation.

We're not going to offer the insurgents anything close to what they want in the longer term. They know it, and we know it, and in no case does any potential party to these agreements have the first reason to trust the other. Whatever 'agreements' we come to with the insurgents are going to be entirely of the moment, and will ultimately leave the situation on the ground unchanged.

After all the talk about how U.S. military might could "win" in Iraq, the very idea that the strategy going forward should be to engage with the people who have been shooting and (mostly) blowing us up is an insult. They're stabbing in the dark, and it is pathetically obvious.

Sunday, March 18, 2007
It's not quite that simple

Atrios puts forward the rudiments of his response to the mortgage crisis:
Essentially you need to make it possible for people to refinance, both by getting rid of prepayment penalties and strongly "encouraging" lenders who gave out a bunch of mortages they shouldn't have to renegotiate the terms in order to make repayment more realistic.
I know Mr. Black is an actual, like, economist, and I'm just some schmuck, but I think he's entering into some very dangerous territory with his prescriptions. We're only weeks away from this story jumping to the top of every newspaper, and politicians and rabble-rousers are going to be climbing all over one other with their "solutions" to this Grave and Serious Problem. Eschaton is very widely read (for good reason) by just about all of the lefty Establishment types. I'm worried they'll follow him up on it.

In my mind, I liken the situation to an auditorium full of people who have just discovered the exits are locked and there is a very powerful bomb in the room, which, for all the world, exactly resembles an M-80. Not a trifling problem, but a threat they think they can handle. In reality, it's going to completely blow out one of the auditorium's walls no matter what they do. If they don't do everything right, it will bring the whole building down on them.

If mortgagees are allowed to reduce their payments, a cascade of effects follows:
  • Payments to the investors who bought these loans will decrease. They will demand compensation. These costs will run to hundreds of billions of dollars, the bill ultimately falling on the U.S. taxpayer.

  • If interest rates on such a large part of the credit market are reduced to accomodate
    mortgagees, the value of the dollar will decrease. Those holding dollar-denominated assets will see their values eroded. In addition to foreign central banks and investors, pension and mutual funds will be affected.

  • If the dollar goes down, inflation and interest rates will go up. In the long term, this will be good for manufacturing and exports, but the shorter term effects will be disastrous for the economy.

  • Financial markets price things according to the future. If they get much more than a whiff of any of this going down, prices of all kinds of assets are going to be marked to their future market value, and very, very quickly. The loss of value will be staggering.

Unfortunately, much of the above is probably unavoidable at this point, and throwing money at the problem will only postpone and worsen the inevitable.

I agree that people who were given loans they had no hope of repaying should get relief, but meddling in the markets, especially at a point where conditions are so far from equilibrium, is extremely dangerous.

A better approach would be to allow those (and only those) who were given clearly unrealistic mortgages to walk away from their obligations with no or significantly reduced penalties. This would include an exception in the bankruptcy laws (which need to be completely overhauled, anyway), and a reduction or elimination of the credit score penalty. It's not as though anyone will be trying to throw money at them anytime soon, anyway.

Such an strategy would split the hurt between the banks and those who bought the mortgages, and allow former homeowners to make a clean start without the mortgage monkey on their backs.

There is no silver bullet for this monster of a credit bubble; the contraction is going to work itself through the economy one way or another. Somebody is going to wind up holding the bag, and it shouldn't be the already overextended lower and middle classes. I violently object to saving the banks' bacon with what limited money consumers have left.

There are a lot of elected Democrats who carry the water of the financial industry, and this conflicts intrinsically with the interests of the vast majority of the American people. How the members of our new congressional majority react to the credit crisis will be a crucial litmus test of their commitment to our well-being.

In fairness to Atrios, he may know in his political savant's heart of hearts that some form of stupid populist tubthumpery is going to be adopted, and he's just trying to wear a path to the least harmful of them. In my naivete, I think it is important that we push for the best solution. He could very well be right.

Saturday, March 03, 2007
Mitt is a Buffoon

Josh, what I think you mean to say is that Mitt is feckless. He is unserious, a thoroughgoing opportunist.

People will sense this.

Thursday, October 12, 2006
Statistics Illustrated

Lindsay's got a great post up in which she lists some of the more prominent and ridiculous objections to the Johns Hopkins University-Lancet study that estimates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 655,000 Iraqis have died as the result of the American invasion.

I suspect some, maybe most, of the bloggers she enumerates know better, and are just trying to muddy the water to dilute the gut-wrenching horror they believe they helped precipitate. Many Americans, sadly, don't have much of a grasp of statistics, and, not wanting to believe their government has the blood of 655,000 men, women, and children on its hands, will fall for the argument that it's impossible to conclude such a thing from a mere 547 known deaths.

So, in the spirit of public service, here is an illustration I think will help:

Imagine that you are in charge of Best Buy's main warehouse. You're gearing up for the holiday season, and are receiving huge quantities of gadgets and gizmos. You have just received a million units of a hot new laptop that management thinks is going to be a huge seller this year. To keep expensive customer service and repairs to a minimum, you need to make sure the laptops aren't duds. This is especially important in the case of a new product with no track record.

You have 10,000 pallets of 100 laptops each. You instruct your crew to pick out 50 units, each from a different pallet, plug them in and boot them up. The guys extract the laptops, take them over to the testing area and get to work.

About 20 minutes later, one of the crew runs over to you, and says that smoke started coming out of one of the machines and that the guy who was working on it got a nasty shock. You think for a minute and ask him if the rest of the machines are running. "Yeah," he says, "the one that died was one of the first 10 we booted. It had been running about 15 minutes."

It could have been a fluke, right? Dud units are a fact of life in the electronics business. Besides, this is a lot of expensive inventory, and there would be no way to get more in time for the big rush. "Get everyone to a safe distance," you tell him, "and let's see what happens." Over the next half hour, three more laptops go up in smoke.

Well, you think, only 4 units died. Profit on these things is $200 each--$200,000,000 to the company's bottom line. Not to mention the hassle of shipping these things back to Taiwan and the fight to get reimbursed for the machines and for lost profits. Could take years. A headache like that could cost you your job.

On the other hand, though, if more than a small number of customers have these things die on them, it's going to be a customer service nightmare. That smoke has got to be toxic, and then there's the shocking. Both of those could expose the company to serious lawsuits. More than a few of those, and the hit to Best Buy's reputation would cost a lot more than $200 million.

So, how big a problem are you looking at?

You know that 4 out of 50 laptops were smokers. That's 8%. Out of a million, that's 80,000. If that many found their way into people's homes, Best Buy would go out of business. Hell, management would probably blame you. It's possible you could be charged with criminal negligence.

You're in charge. What do you do? Even if you don't know anything about statistics, it's obvious that the one thing you don't do is ship the laptops to the stores. And you know this from only four defective units.

The real number of smokers could be 80,000; it could be 140,000 or 3,000. It's even (extremely) remotely possible that it's only four. The more units you test, the closer you will get to knowing for sure. But, even from that first 50, there's enough to go on for you to singlehandedly put a huge dent in Best Buy's bottom line.

The moral here is that a lot can be inferred about populations from relatively small samples. The math that determines how reliably these samples predict larger populations is solid and has been exhaustively tested. It's still possible that something in the design of the survey caused the projection to be significantly off, but it isn't the math.

Thursday, October 05, 2006
Why Foleygate Won't Blow Over
(alt. Why The Press Corps Cares)

The children involved are rich. The predation didn't take place in Darfur, or at some trailer park off of I-59. The money crowd is just distraught that such a thing could happen to children. Possibly even their children.

Things like Abu Ghraib, they can blow over. This? Not so much.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

So they're really going to do it. Our 'elected' officials have agreed among themselves to revoke the Constitution.

If you doubt me, don't kid yourself: every constitutional protection can now be nullified with the application of a single magic word: terrorism. Since they don't have to actually provide evidence, the rules of evidence don't apply. Freedom of speech? Doesn't matter. Right to privacy? Doesn't apply. Right to an attorney? Does it matter? Bearing arms? It's obvious you were just going to use them for terror.

I can't believe the Democrats agreed not to filibuster in return for having their watery Habeas amendment considered. With a mere three days before the end of term that, with elections coming up, had no possibility of being extended, the Republicans would have had to let the bill drop. They had the power to derail the whole goddamn thing, and they completely pussed out.

Every time I think about the fact that the United States of America will soon be legally allowed to indefinitely imprison people without evidence, and with no recourse for the accused, I taste bile.

All of a sudden, idle talk about people leaving the country because of what the Republican leadership is doing has a real edge to it.

Update: the goddamn thing passed 65-34. I weep for my country.

Update 2: Avedon Carol has an illustration of the detainee bill's effects.

Saturday, September 16, 2006
Why McCain Won't Back Down

Updated - please see below

Last Sunday, Digby made a prediction about the three Republican senators standing in the way of Bush's drive to legalize torture:

My prediction: McCain, Graham and Warner sputter a little bit and then do the big el- foldo. The institutionalization of the American police state will proceed apace until Republicans are removed from power --- and probably beyond. This is the kind of genie that fights going back in the bottle every step of the way.

Now, I don't know whether Graham and Warner have the cojones to stand up to a White House in full roar with a crucial election coming up. In their case, Digby's probably right; they'd be happy with having seeded the notion that they're not Bush's puppets. At the end of the day they could say they had to fall into line for the good of the party. Maybe they even think they're doing their bit to show the public that all Republicans aren't gleeful sadists.

But there are two things that make me think McCain isn't going to budge (much). First, this guy has actually, himself, been tortured. Second, he's the Republican presidential front-runner for 2008, running on a long-cultivated image of integrity.

To a great extent, he owes his political career to his military background, especially the heroic suffering he endured in the course of serving his country. He has said many times that poor treatment of our captives could cause our soldiers to receive poor treatment in turn.

For the first time in five years, he has taken a public stand against the administration on a big issue, and I'll bet he put a lot of thought into doing so. Standing up against torture fits exactly into his political narrative, and is getting huge press. My guess is that McCain means to frame torture as a symbol of everything the administration has done wrong (and Congress signed off on) in the GWOT, and repudiate it all at one go.

If McCain were to cave at this point, any Democratic opponent would beat him senseless with his own spinelessness. By his own logic, he would be at best indifferent to torture of American servicemen in the future. Worst of all, he would be abandoning his most deeply held principle in favor of an evil he has looked in the eye and in the service of crass, political ass-covering. There's no way he would willingly go into 2008 with that kind of albatross around his neck.

Basically, it boils down to this: if he has any integrity, he won't knuckle under. If he is a rank opportunist, he can't knuckle under.


Of course Digby was right. Actually, it's worse than that--McCain didn't just fold, he helped push this thing through.

I waited to admit how utterly wrong I was in the vain hope that McCain would do something, anything, to make this better. When he voted against the Specter-Leahy amendment today, his capitulation was complete.

Words cannot convey the contempt I have for John McCain. He knew better, and he voted to destroy the country anyway. I wish I believed in hell.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Continuum of Barbarity

Staying with Booman for a moment, I'd like to respond in very simple terms to Alan Dershowitz' argument that:

There is a vast difference — both moral and legal — between a 2-year-old who is killed by an enemy rocket and a 30-year-old civilian who has allowed his house to be used to store Katyusha rockets. Both are technically civilians, but the former is far more innocent than the latter. There is also a difference between a civilian who merely favors or even votes for a terrorist group and one who provides financial or other material support for terrorism.

As far as I remember, every Israeli citizen is obliged to give at least two years of service to the Israeli army. Where does that put them and their families on the "continuum of civilianity?" Does the esteemed Harvard Law professsor think that makes them fair(er) game? I doubt it.