Poor Us: The Great Depression 2.0

May 19, 2009

Beach Reading: 2008 Best Notable Government Documents

Filed under: Wise up — debacled @ 4:38 pm

Naked_April_by_NuclearSeasons

Your interest in government documents may begin and end on April 15. Who but geeky reporters or  nerdy law professors would be seen on the sand flipping sunblock-smeared gov doc pages speckled with guacamole and margarita salt? Fair enough. However, there have been some real page turners in the genre. Remember the Pentagon Papers? And I’ll wager a few of you still have well-thumbed copies of Monica Lewinsky’s expert testimony re: cigars in the bottom drawer of your nightstand.

So, just imagine the eye-popping revelations that must be contained within the Best Notable Government Documents : Who doomed the economy? Who killed Kennedy?  Who piloted the Roswell UFO?  Is the answer to all of the above Dick Cheney?

Thanks to the Library Journal’s timely publication of their annual “Best Notable” list,  some sizzling reading matter like Turning Points in Wisconsin History can be downloaded before the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.  And for those of you who have an attention span longer than a Twitter Tweet, you’ll find some of these BN gov docs might be…

Intriguing:

The FBI: A Centennial History, 1908–2008. Federal Bureau of Investigation. It all started with a short memo, dated July 26, 1908, describing a “regular force of special agents” available to investigate certain cases of the Department of Justice. Includes overviews of more than 40 famous FBI cases and an extensive collection of never-before-seen photos.

Useful:

Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World This first comprehensive report on global green job trends and prospects finds that efforts to control climate change are already generating new jobs, with more growth potential in both developed and developing countries. Data on renewable energy, energy efficiency, transit, and organic agriculture indicate that transitioning to a sustainable, low-carbon economy can provide an engine for growth. Though intended for a wide audience, this title is particularly relevant to policymakers, entrepreneurs, workers, and trade unions. Enhanced by many dynamic photographs

And yes, there’s even a few gems for those who prefer the scent of a smoking-gun over sunscreen:

Thanks to the man who brought us EDGAR, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) database of corporate filings, Carl Malamud is particularly noted for “ripping” information from clunky government servers, which either charge users for downloads or make the information so difficult to find as to be virtually unworkable. He then posts it freely on his web site. Government agencies accustomed to making money off taxpayer-funded data have naturally been displeased, but librarians have been delighted. Malamud has posted over 80 million pages of legal documents on the site Public.Resource.Org, including federal appeals court decisions, navy papers, and building codes from all 50 states (some states claim copyright over state legal material).

Wikileaks: Congressional Research Service (CRS)

Last February, WikiLeaks released a total of 6780 CRS reports going back to 1990. The Congressional Research Service (CRS), the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, has never systematically made its reports available to the public. This institute, funded annually by $100 million of taxpayer money, writes well-researched and informative studies for members of Congress to assist in the making of our laws…CRS reports have long been scattered and difficult to obtain—until now.

And don’t forget to have some fun under the sun, too!

Looking Back, Moving On: 2008 Best Notable Government Documents

h/t Resource Shelf

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May 7, 2009

“What need is there to weep over parts of life?”: A Timely Essay on the Folly of Optimism

Filed under: Wise up — Tags: , , , , , — debacled @ 6:40 pm

Hope over Fear by Lee026 via Deviantart.com  “The whole of it calls for tears,” is the philosopher Seneca’s punch line to the titular quote. Ah, despair. What a perfect antidote to the populist rage fomented by Matt Taibbi in yesterday’s post, which was the first of the Poor Me posts published during the current Poor Us flu crisis. 

Tip of the hat to the always fascinating and usually uplifting website BookofJoe where I stumbled upon the following ray of sunshine published last week in the Financial Times

The essay, which explains why we should fear hope above all, was written by Alain De Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy , How Proust Can Change Your Life and more recently The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.   It almost makes having the flu seem like the least worst thing that could be happening to me this week. For that I’m grateful.  It’s about the only comfort to be found here, as precious little as that is, but if you follow his advice, you’ll do as I have and take what you can get and be glad you got that much.

For a happier life, shake off your misplaced optimism

It has been clear for a while, at least since the first talk started about “green shoots” of recovery, that what we have to fear above all is hope. Attempts to trust that the worst is over and to stop frightening ourselves seem doomed to project us into yet worse disappointment. We are not only unhappy but – believing calm and happiness to be the norm – unhappy that we are unhappy.

It is time to recognise how odd and counter-productive is the optimism on which we have grown up. For the last 200 years, despite occasional shocks, the western world has been dominated by a belief in progress, based on its extraordinary scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. On a broader perspective, this optimism is a grave anomaly. Humans have spent most of recorded history drawing a curious comfort from expecting the worst. In the west, lessons in pessimism have derived from two sources: Roman Stoic philosophy and Christianity. It may be time to revisit some of these teachings, not to add to our misery but precisely so as to alleviate our sorrow.

To focus on the first of these sources, the philosopher Seneca should be the author of the hour. Living in a time of financial and political upheaval (Nero was on the Imperial throne), Seneca interpreted philosophy as a discipline to keep us calm against a backdrop of continuous danger. His consolation was of the stiffest, darkest sort: “You say: ‘I did not think it would happen.’ Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened … ?” Seneca tried to calm the sense of injustice in his readers by reminding them – in AD62 – that natural and man-made disasters will always be a feature of our lives, however sophisticated and safe we think we have become.

If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden calamity, in the money markets or elsewhere, and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting decades; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event, after which nothing will ever be the same again. The Goddess of Fortune can scatter gifts, then watch as with terrifying speed a 50-year-old company disappears or a balance sheet is destroyed by toxic assets.

Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.

Given our financial prowess, we have for too long thought of ourselves as in control of our destiny. We have trusted in the mathematical geniuses who promised us “risk management” and fashioned derivatives so complex we dared not look inside. Such trust could not be further from a Stoic mindset. We must, stressed Seneca, expand our sense of what may go wrong in our lives: “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break. A body weak and fragile.”

Christianity only backed up the Stoic message. It pointed out that while humans might strive for perfection, it is a problem – indeed a sin – to suppose that such perfection can ever occur on earth. Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust, mayhem and death.

We have tended to cast such gloomy messages aside. The modern bourgeois philosophy pins its hopes firmly on two great presumed ingredients of happiness, love and work. But there is vast unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within this magnanimous assurance that everyone will discover satisfaction here. It is not that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so for too long.

When an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and disaster in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages, unexploited ambitions and exploded portfolios, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to make more of ourselves.

We should, of course, instead remember the great pessimistic voices of history. There are two quotes I cherish for these sorts of times. One is from Seneca: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.” The other is from the French moralist Chamfort: “A man should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.”

bookofjoe: ‘We are hurt most by what we do not expect’ — Alain de Botton

May 6, 2009

Matt Taibbi sez “Stop Whining About Populist Anger!”

Filed under: Wise up — Tags: , , , — debacled @ 9:45 pm

Character, Southern Illinois, by Lee Russell, WPA 1937

My own populist outrage has been muted by the flu just when I should be bulking up my torch-waving arm for a march against  big investors angling to take over banks (and steal what’s left of our prosperity). Luckily, journalist Matt Taibbi has enough for both of us and then some.

Start your blood boiling below, but then read Taibbi’s full fury here  … and just know that I agree with him even though I’m currently too sick to shake a fist much less a pitchfork.

“As for the credit card companies, fuck them. The biggest of them are engaged in one of the all-time great scams right now, gorging themselves on cheap money lent to them by the Fed or the government via bailout programs and then turning right around and further widening their spread by increasing prices to the ordinary consumer. Imagine an oil company that got to buy government crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at a discount during the Katrina crisis and then turned around and gouged consumers during the shortage.

Think there would be public anger then? Maybe. This is close to the same thing, and let’s not forget who these motherfuckers are: they are the people who spent most of the last decade and a half showering congressmen with cash in order to get the Bankruptcy Bill passed. That bill made it significantly harder for people to declare bankruptcy to get out from credit card debt so that they could keep their homes. A study by the New York Federal Reserve last year concluded that there are roughly 32,000 more foreclosures per quarter because of this bill than there would have been had the old bankruptcy laws remained in place. The study estimated that the bill resulted in about 400,000 additional foreclosures total since its inception.

Gee, you think that played a role in the financial crisis at all? Forgetting all the predatory practices that these people are known for, they were a major accomplice in the financial disaster — and now they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep Congress from forcing them to stop arbitrarily jacking up fees on consumers. In other words the same banks (like Citi, for instance) that got a hot sexy multi-billion-dollar massage from the Fed and TARP when they pushed their debt-to-equity ratios to insane levels, borrowing 30 and 40 dollars for every dollar they had and investing them in the housing casino and the derivatives market, now are arguing that ordinary losers like you and me who might have $5000 or $10000 in revolving credit card debt shouldn’t get a break on their fees just because times are tough (or because they’re too stupid to hire a $500-an-hour lawyer to decipher their insane consumer contracts). In other words, when you borrow $500 billion against $20 billion and blow all of it at the roulette table, you should get a bailout; but when you take out a $10,000 credit card to pay for gas and groceries, you should pay whatever freight the company deems fit.”

Matt Taibbi – Taibblog – Stop Whining About Populist Anger! – True/Slant

April 22, 2009

Oligarchs Rule! (But Not In A Good Way)

Crushing  the American Dream by discogangsta via DeviantArt.com

“President Bush announced his new economic plan. The centerpiece was a proposed repeal of the dividend tax on stocks, a boon that could be worth millions of dollars to average Americans. Well, average stock-owning Americans. Technically, Americans who own a significant amount of shares in dividend-dealing companies. Well, rich people, that’s what I’m trying to say. They’re going to do really well with this.” Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

Yesterday we learned (and isn’t it ironic?) that many of the really rich people at the pin-head-tiny top of the economic pyramid, the top 1% of US income getters, just happen to work for the banks and financial institutions whose Three-Card-Monty investment schemes wrought this fresh hell in which we now find ourselves.

Who are these privileged few? Some call them oligarchs, running the world with their cabal of elites.  Others say they’re plutocrats, the lucky few whose wealth gives them near total control.

One thing is clear, they think small d-democracy is a sucker’s game. One of the angry bankers Poor Us talked about yesterday complained about Obama’s tax increase, ranting that he already “supported 20 poor families” with his tax dollars. He’s absolutely convinced he’s not only entitled to a salary (plus bonuses!) big enough to maintain an entire village of serfs while allowing him to live like a king (a really rich king), he thinks the serfs are exploiting him. Whoa! Maybe he’s just an asshole.

Whatever you  want to call them, they are a breed most  serfers didn’t know too much about. Until they crashed the economy, that is.  Now, we’re obliged to get acquainted with these self-anointed Masters of the Universe so we won’t get fooled again. And your re-education starts here with the Poor Us Better-Know-Your-Oligarch Primer.  Coming soon: The Peasant’s Guide to Getting Even:

The Pirate Pose by Tom Wolfe, Portfolio Magazine, May 2007

Twenty years after The Bonfire of the Vanities, the author checks in on the new masters of the universe and finds them even coarser and ruder than their predecessors could have ever.

First, they have more money, infinitely more, than any of the various waves of new money that preceded them, with the possible exception of robber barons on the order of John D. Rockefeller, who, incidentally, was regarded as a rude Pocantico hillbilly Baptist by society in New York a hundred years ago. Hedge funds have what investment managers call “the greatest business plan of all time,” known as “2 and 20.” Each year the typical fund takes 20 percent of the return plus 2 percent of the

total investments. Some of the hottest managers, such as Icahn and Stevie Cohen, reportedly take 50 percent of the profits.  (read on)

The Quiet Coup by Simon Johnson, The Atlantic, May 2009

Johnson is a former economist with the International Monetary Fund, now writes the Baseline Scenario blog, is a contributor to NPR’s Planet Money and the New York Times.

American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world. (read on)

The Big Takeover by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, April 2009

So it’s time to admit it: We’re fools, protagonists in a kind of gruesome comedy about the marriage of greed and stupidity. And the worst part about it is that we’re still in denial — we still think this is some kind of unfortunate accident, not something that was created by the group of psychopaths on Wall Street whom we allowed to gang-rape the American Dream. (read on)

The Dirty Dozen, Rolling Stone Magazine, April 2009

Meet the bankers and brokers responsible for the financial crisis – and the officials who let them get away with it. (read on)

March 24, 2009

Watch “Frontline” Tackle the Ten-Trillion Debt Tonight

Filed under: Wise up — Tags: , , , , — debacled @ 5:58 am

usa by piko72 via DeviantArt.com

After NPR: Planet Money, the folks at PBS: Frontline are the best explainers when it comes to telling the sort of complicated, multi-layered, ambiguity-laden news story that stump the talking heads cast as journalists on the 24-hour cable news networks.   So, if you ever hope to understand just exactly how broke we are, the report premiering online and on many PBS stations tonight is must-see TV  :

Ten Trillion and Counting: “All of the federal government’s efforts to stem the tide in the financial meltdown that began with the subprime mortgage crisis have added hundreds of billions of dollars to our national debt. FRONTLINE reports on how this debt will constrain and challenge the new Obama administration, and on the growing chorus on both sides of the aisle that without fiscal reform, the United States government may face a debt crisis of its own which makes the current financial situation pale in comparison. Through interviews with leading experts and insiders in government finance, the film investigates the causes and potential outcomes of—and possible solutions to—America’s $10 trillion debt.”

Stay tuned: next week “Frontline” takes on the health care crisis.

A look at the health-care crisis, which finds some 46 million Americans uninsured and many more underinsured. The episode highlights the problems faced by small businesses and employees, who often pay more for less.

Sick Around America, premieres on PBS stations and online March 31

via Paul Kerdosky’s Infectious Greed

March 12, 2009

Watch The Daily Showdown: Stewart vs. Cramer 2nite

Jon Stewart by Foxy Roxy237 via DiviantArt.comIt certainly has been a pleasure to watch Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert take on CNBC’s team of “reporters,”  who, as The Daily Show‘s clips have demonstrated, are about as “fair and balanced” about Wall Street as Fox News is on neocons.

What’s even nicer to know is that according to CNET, calling out Jim Cramer and company has done for Comedy Central what CNBCers failed to do for their Wall Street buddies (or for that matter CNBC), drive the stock way, way up.

“Traffic to the shows’ Web sites has been at its highest of the year so far in the past week, at over 60 percent their weekly average for 2009. ComedyCentral.com, which hosts video clips of both programs, also had its best traffic of the year, and the digital version of a viciously funny clip called “CNBC Gives Financial Advice” logged over 1.3 million views in a week, the sort of numbers usually reserved for grainy videos of cats behaving unnaturally.” via CNBC spat mints online hits for Stewart and Colbert | The Social – CNET News

Meanwhile, Mad Money’s mad man Cramer has been making the rounds on NBC and MSNBC pretending to be all hurt that he’s been made a laughingstock, which just may turn out to be the least of his problems:

Jim Cramer Shorting Stocks, Manipulating Markets, Saying The SEC Doesn’t Understand via Huffington Post

In light of the current economic crisis, and with the hullabaloo ignited recently by Jon Stewart over the accuracy of CNBC’s reporting, we thought it might be useful to revisit this shocking 2006 interview Jim Cramer gave to TheStreet.com’s Aaron Task. (more…)

March 10, 2009

Precarity: The Art of Living Dangerously Close to the Edge

Filed under: Uncategorized, Wise up — Tags: , , , — debacled @ 10:46 pm

The news is bad: “In addition to the 651,000 lost jobs in February, the government increased its estimate of the number of jobs lost in January to 655,000 (up from 598,000), while December’s was bumped to 681,000 (up from 577,000),” the Dallas News reported Friday. “It’s the highest national unemployment rate since December 1983. The number of job losses in February was the highest for one month since October 1949 – except, of course, for December 2008 and January 2009.”

And it’s making us stupid(er)–although given the self-inflicted lameness of our plight, it’s almost impossible to imagine we’ll be dumber still before this is all over, but that’s the Dallas interpretation:

“People who concentrate on all the news work themselves up emotionally and become much, much more likely to make unwise decisions” like selling investments at a big loss, said Daniel Howard, a marketing professor and consumer behavior specialist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.”

What’s clearly needed is an alternative method for finding answer to our pressing questions such as this a new age take on the Old World tradition Tarocchi di Precariomanzia or the Tarot of the Precaromancy.  Produced in Italy for May Day 2007,  the cards were designed to address the precarious situation the working man finds himself in these days. “We are precarious because our choices are limited by the blackmail of the companies, coming by the day with new and surprising shapes: the housing issue, the income lack, the job torture, the self-awareness of our body and soul, our educational system, the possibility to learn and share knowledges and technologies,” the precaria.org authors explain. “The precarity tarots are a symbol to be interpreted so as to read the reality around us. They do not think they can actually foretell the future. The 22 Major Arcana represent desires, ambitions, or needs of our present, of our past, or our future.”

XV The Bank

The Bank is money. The world lives by exchanges, and to have money to exchange for goods, you must work. Food, the Estate, the present for one’s daughter, everything is touched by the hands, the moods and the sympathies of the Bank. It is the necessary evil one has to come to terms with to survive and struggle. It stands for the interested help, for the lack of scruples, for the price of everything, for that which one has to give up in order to be able to get, with no certainty of what one will be able to get at all. The Bank could profit from the fall of the Towers and squeeze money out of the Intern. It is a negative tarot, even if some other tarot could lessen its ill portent. Opening the game, the Bank stands for an initial disadvantage and a bank account below zero. Closing the game stands for the debt with one’s destiny.

For more on the notion of precarity, read Bruce Sterling’s The True 21st Century Begins: “Precarity is, of course, the condition of existing precariously. The condition of losing one’s safety and security, of losing predictability and the ability to rationally plan ahead, the condition of being humiliated and in danger.”

March 2, 2009

Catch up on the crash:Planet Money guys on Bad Banks

Filed under: Wise up — Tags: , , , , — debacled @ 12:47 am

banks_in_need_by_smallgraybox

You should listen to this week’s episode of NPR’s This American Life. It’s  an hour devoted to helping us understanding the Bad Bank idea that I highly recommend even though I haven’t heard it yet myself.

I know it’s going to be worth your while because it’s put together by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson, two of the guys behind NPR’s Planet Money podcast and blog, which is the go-to source of information about this financial crisis for people like myself who have limited experience with money outside of collecting paychecks and paying bills, but who now find themselves victims of the huge,  financial vortex we scarcely knew existed until it started to suck the life savings directly out of our paltry,  direct deposit retirement “savings,” and then went after the actual paycheck.

I first encountered Davidson and Blumberg back in May 2008 when  I heard Giant Pool of Money, the jaw-dropping, mind-boggling episode of This American Life that explained the subprime mortgage mills that sold anything to anyone because Wall Street wanted more mortages to bundle and sell off to hungry investors. In October 2008  they came back with Another Frightening Show About the Economy that cleared up the mysteries of commercial paper and credit default swaps.

In this third installment, Bad Bank, they enlist the help of MIT economist Simon Johnson to explain what it means for a bank to be insolvent, and why we are bailing out bankers who caused their own businesses to fail in the first place.  Johnson who was an economist at the International Monetary Fund, also shows up on Planet Money, and has a very helpful blog The Baseline Scenario, which also provides a great primer: Financial Crisis for Beginners.

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