Friday, January 25, 2008

No Rules Means No Cheaters

This week, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit that sought to hold Wall Street bankers liable for losses stemming from the collapse of Enron.

The plaintiff's contended that said bankers conspired to conceal Enron's vulnerabilities from investors. But the court ruled in this instance, as in several others recently, that responsibility should rest exclusively with the liars at companies like Enron, not with the nice people in the financial services industry (is there any other industry left? Oh, right--I always forget about pharmaceuticals and pornography...) who so cheerfully delivered those lies to you and I.

And isn't that only fair? Don't investment bankers put on the pants of their $5,000 Armani suits one leg at a time like the rest of us? Or have their valets do it one leg at a time for them? Aren't they struggling to put food on the table for their families, just like any feedlot salesman in rural Texas. Except with different food. On a nicer table. In a bigger house. And with a staff to handle the dishes. What I'm trying to say is, aren't we all the same mortal clay, trying to make ends meet? And isn't that all the harder when one end is at a beach house in Maui and the other is with the children at their prep school in Connecticut?

After the case was dismissed, Antonin Scalia was emotionally overcome with sympathy for the heroes of high finance. Later, that most soft-hearted of Supreme Court Justices sought to blot out the tormenting images of suffering bankers by making himself a cup of hot cocoa and flicking lit matches at orphans soaked in gasoline.

So the financial services industry will emerge unscathed from the Enron disaster. And after a weekend of celebratory high-fiving, meth binges and raucous circle jerks, they will buckle down on Monday morning and find new pyramid schemes to misrepresent.

Yes, they are abhorrent. Yes, they should be ashamed, and probably would be if they hadn't had their sense of honor surgically extracted to create for themselves the same sort of career advantage possessed by prostitutes with removable dentures. But does the ultimate responsibility lie with the bankers or with the regulations under which they operate? If the rules of boxing awarded extra points for blows to the kidneys and testicles, who would be a dirty fighter?

I'm sure this notion will offend the mechanical flag-wavers, were it possible for opposing viewpoints to pierce the Fox News-hardened protective bubble of their obliviousness. This is America, they'll shout, the land of fair play! Regulation is the great enemy of prosperity! If you knee-cap our entrepreneurial enthusiasm with your schoolmarmish delicacy regarding con games and loansharking, how will we be able to afford the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts we need to look our best when Jesus returns?

Fair play? America may believe in a level playing field, but fair is anything you can get away with. And if you can get away with tilting the playing field, that's OK too.

Law has always been more important in this country than in the old world. In Romania they have thousands of years of custom--most of which relates to proper ways for killing Jews--to serve in law's stead. But America is basically one giant trailer park. The only customs dictate quiet time after 10 pm on weeknights and who has dibs on the sceptic hookups. Without rules and regulation, we'd be living in... well, exactly the kind of chaos we have today.

So make no mistake, we have both a people problem and a rule problem. The people problem is profoundly intractable. People are just awful, and if God made them, he has a crappy sense of humor.

But the rules problem is correctable. If we can get the people to make the necessary corrections. Wherein it is possible that even a small degree of optimism is misplaced.

For today, "regulation" is as dirty a word as it has been at any time in our brief and tawdry history. The perceived causal relationship between the scuttling of so many structural constraints over the last 25 years and the false sense of general prosperity over that same time frame has reinforced the negative image of regulation in any form. There is no question that each President since Carter has wiped his ass with the pages torn from our country's regulatory rulebook, and that G.W. Bush is a man that uses a lot of toilet paper. The authenticity of the affluence generated in that interval is debatable, however. First, like all compulsive gamblers, we tend to retain clearer impressions of our wins than our losses. Second, much of the residue of success that persists after the bursting of the technology and real estate bubbles reflects money borrowed from countries that build their wealth by producing actual things of value, rather than simply delivering pizzas to each other. Payback will be a bitch, as our children will discover soon enough.

But the perception of regulation as an evil persists. And if a free market is good, than isn't a free-er market even better? Shouldn't we make the market so fucking free that the Chicago commodities exchange will grow wings and soar away westward over Minnesota? The answer of course, is no. And not just because of the dangers that an aviating financial center would pose to the good people of Rotchester and St. Paul.

You see, balance is good. Every empirical faculty we possess tells us this is so. In an engine we need just so much fuel and so much air. Creatures in the ocean need just so much salinity and no more. And our financial system needs just the right mix of constraints and flexibility.

The problem is that our culture holds nothing but contempt for moderation and balance. We are the land of 80-hour work weeks, of obesity and anorexia, of multitasking so frenetic that we are developing a new generation of personal music devices designed to respond to contractions of the sphincter, so that we won't have to stop text messaging when we want to skip to the next song. We demand that everyone give 110%, though it leads not only to insurmountable paradox, but pulled hamstrings as well.

Admittedly, our unfettered aversion to fetters has spurred our tremendous material advancement over the years. There are eastern cultures, Hindu and Buddhist, that in contrast to us aspire to optimal balance in all things. And in case you hadn't noticed, an inordinate number of those people are at this moment covered with flies and sitting in a pool of raw sewage. Yet our pedal-to-the-metal economy delivers plenty of volatility and uneven distribution of wealth as it lurches from bubble to bust. And the ratio of good times to bad is likely to deteriorate as we hurl ourselves kamikaze-style against the business end of a hockey-stick curve of debt, energy costs, and a living standard unsustainably out of level with the rest of the planet.

Don't look for any populist groundswell in support of regulation, however. Ironically, no constituency is more protective of our wild west marketplace than those who suffer most egregiously from its fallout: the poor. While the wealthy may welcome the security reasonable regulation provides for gains already accrued, those without are terrified to think that the paths to quick riches might be closed before they get their own millions. It is the simplest of propaganda parlor tricks to convince them that affluence is just around the corner, and to provoke a feral response with the canard that regulators want to take it away. Advocates of preserving and extending the most brutally Darwinian and unalloyed form of free enterprise can feel confident that the unwashed masses are behind them. And hopefully downwind as well.

The Enron fiasco is only one of the smaller calamities precipitated by a lack of regulation in recent years. Remember when all those savings and loan institutions went belly up? That was the result of a regulation failure. And the current mortgage credit crisis is entirely the result of fabulously ill-conceived lending instruments, deceptive selling practices and dishonest risk representation of just the sort that regulation could have prevented. Dr. Moreau himself would only genuflect to the mad financial wizards who created these taxonomy-defying devices. It's no surprise that average home buyers didn't know what they were getting into, but Fed Chairman Bernard Bernanke, a certified genius who is keenly aware that any display of uncertainty on his part can have devastating consequences confessed that he did not have a clue as to how these financial instruments worked. Perhaps it was all a practical joke gone awry. If so, somebody needs to get canned.

There is a moment in a tragedy-bound joyride when the car teeters on the verge of control, and the riders are still shouting with glee, even as their overtaxed synapses begin to furiously fire messages of doom. That's where we are right now. Sadly though, no lesson will be learned unless we hit a tree.

Until then--Wheeeeee!!!!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Tell the Aliens I'm Too Busy to See Them Now

So the aliens have arrived.

America greets this news with a selection of emotions as limited as our culinary palate. There is fear, but it so thoroughly blends in to the maelstrom of other terrors that unrelentingly prick the margins of our consciousness that this newest horror quickly becomes indistinct. What is up with that mole on our shoulder? Do we look fat? Is it possible that 24-year old fucktard who lives on the corner makes more money than us? And yes, our penis exceeds average length, but what about girth? All these frights simmer endlessly on the burners of our brain, a vile and noisome gumbo, and who is to say that it is the flying saucers that are making us wretch?

For long-time believers in the existence of extra terrestrial beings, this is a moment of triumph and validation. Yes, they told us so. I hope that their foresight is rewarded with some position of power in the Venutian regime soon to be established. For I dread being strapped to a board next to one of these know-it-alls, waist deep in an animate, sulfurous mucus while our unseen captors breed generations of offspring in the linings of our exposed intestines. That physical agony will be nothing compared to the psychic torment of listening to my neighbor yammer on smugly about the nutritional requirements of those alien fetuses. If that is to be my fate, tell me so I can slit my own throat now.

But for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the arrival of characters from beyond our solar system has aroused little more then a gentle, fleeting hillock in the flatline of their existence. It is not a case of denial, because to be in denial implies that the conscious mind, having recognized the discomfiting import of a phenomenon, takes the prophylactic step of suppressing the distasteful news. But this is an event utterly beyond our experience, and we have not slots in our head suitable for storing it. As with every first-time experience in our lives, we must sit patiently on our couches, waiting for our television to tell us what it means, and what sort of personal grooming products we must buy as a result.

For me, the emotion most prominently elicited by the arrival of the aliens is exasperation. At this moment, I have an almost limitless amount of shiznit on my plizate. My sixth-grader has a math midterm this week, and apparently this requires me to master his curriculum. I am engaged in a nasty negotiation with my health insurer over co-payments on a colonoscopy. And the world is in political, economic and environmental meltdown and I have no idea what slogan I'm supposed to chant to put things to right.

And now flying saucers? Well, that's just fucking great. I have meetings all day tomorrow, and the grocery store closes in one hour. Tell the men from space to get in line.

What limited mental energy I have dedicated to the UFO problem I have allocated in the hopes of stumbling upon a quick explanation, a logical debunking that will allow me to return my full attention to the trite and pedestrian frustrations that suffuse my every waking moment. But it's backfiring. The more closely I examine the problem, the harder it is to dismiss. Are the witnesses lying? That seems unlikely. Lots of people saw the same thing and it seems they had no opportunity to cook up the story together. Perhaps it was an optical illusion? Possible, but it's odd that the same optical phenomenon was experienced by people observing from a variety of angles. Maybe the flying craft were actually part of a top secret U.S. government military research program? But the notion that America possesses the technology to allow an aircraft to hover, and then silently accelerate to thousands of miles an hour instantaneously, and yet that technology has in no way been deployed commercially to enhance the performance of personal watercraft or to formulate shaving products that provide unparalleled closeness and comfort seems to me even less plausible than the idea of visitors from Andromeda.

And so, reluctantly, I have decided to clear my calendar for the aliens. If they really are out there, I suspect there's a pretty good chance they've been keeping an eye on us for some time, observing us like zookeepers. It seems their intentions are benign. They have overcome the challenges of interstellar travel, and if they haven't atomized us, it can only be because they haven't tried.

If I had to hazard a guess as to the most likely purpose of this unexpected incursion into our planetary airspace, I would have to say it's eco-tourism. They are here to see the pandas, the whales and the penguins. But most of all, they must be fascinated by the homo-sapiens. There is a great debate about us going on at home on Krypton. What the hell is Hip-hop? Is the George Foreman grill some sort of primitive tool, or an object of religious devotion? And of course, they are every bit as confused about the Japanese as we are.

But there is cause for concern. If we are someone's fish tank, they may be wondering why the water is so cloudy of late. One species has gotten a little out of control, it seems, and it is time to cull.

Then so be it. But I hope the human race will be permitted to endure until next Tuesday. I have a dentist's appointment.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Republicans are Chickens

Dear Barack,

Your letters are becoming a nuisance.

At some point you will have to learn to formulate your own message. I cannot always be there to whisper in your ear from offstage and to vet your speeches. I have responsibilities of my own. A family to feed and a demanding job in waste management. The waste will not manage itself. Believe me, I have given it every opportunity.

Must I do everything?

Very well then. But listen carefully--I will only say this once.

I can see that you and your democratic co-candidates are showing signs of shaking off the enervating spell cast upon you by the Republicans. The spell that compels you to respond in kind to their message of fear. For too long you've let them frame the debate. All they have to do is say the word "terror" and, like Skinnerian rats eager for a pellet of food, you respond with mechanical bombast and bravado, promising to begin each of your Presidential days by feasting on the still-beating heart of suspected terrorists, relishing the warm infidel blood that runs rich and red down your neck.

It will never work. If the Presidency is to be awarded to the candidate most eager to flay heathens, can any Democrat possibly defeat the holy warrior Huckabee? The bloodthirsty cannibal Giuliani? Romney the Guantanamo doubler? Or that veteran of Vietnamese tiger-cages, Rambo McCain?

You know this. And you are beginning to see that the Republicans are bluffing when they play the fear card, and that each time you respond in kind, you strengthen their hand, validating not only the perceived reality of the danger but also their ham handed, rusty-knife approach to confronting it. You have begun to experiment with a different formulation, nervously watching the polls to see whether the public is open to something other than a vengeance-based policy.

But half measures won't suffice. You can't just say their bluffing. You will have to actually call their bluff.

Edwards can't do it. He's too busy rousing the rabble, invoking the ghosts of the Grange and William Jennings Bryan. Has he been asleep for the last sixty years? Is there anyone left in this country that even knows what a mill is?

Hillary can't do it either. She is a machine. She may, in fact, be the perfect machine for running the country, an unstoppable policy-making leviathan who will vaporize all resistance like some terminator of the French enlightenment. But she has not oratory beyond that suited to automated corporate telephone systems.

For English, press 1.

This message has to be delivered with the clarion call of trumpets, with fatherly assurance, with the easy courage that dispels doubt.

I know Hillary says you get elected with poetry, but must govern with prose. But note that you haven't been elected yet.

Do you have a pencil ready? This is the message:

The lying is going to stop. Now.

Starting today, we are going to live up to our most noble aspirations rather than be slaves to our basest fears.

For seven long years we have been told that if want to remain powerful, we cannot allow our fate to be bound up with the rest of the world's community of nations, but must instead think and act only in our own interests.

For seven long years we have been told that the preservation of liberty in our own land could be assured by achieving military domination in others.

For seven long years we have been told that if we wanted to preserve our system of justice and our freedom from physical threats, we would have to torture people, we would have to wiretap people, we would have to shoot first and ask questions later, we would have to consider people guilty until proven innocent.

In short, we were told that we had to make a choice. If we wanted to have self-determination, safety, and freedom for ourselves, we must deny it to others.

And so, despite the nagging sensation that we were abandoning our commitment to fair play, our compassion and our humanity, we chose the path of safety.

But these policies have failed. In seeking to preserve our power we have been weakened. In seeking to preserve our liberty we have been constrained. In seeking to be safer, we have inflamed and emboldened those who would do us harm.

Today America is in anguish, more fearful than ever, pessimistic about the future, and convinced that our country is headed in the wrong direction. Not because we have failed to achieve the security we sought, but because we forfeited so much of that of which we were justly proud in the process.

I have some good news. The good news is that we don't have to choose between safety on one hand and honor and humanity on the other. There is only one path to a better future, and it will take us to the safety we seek in a manner consistent with our highest ideals.

We can be the first in an international family of nations again, leading by the power of our example rather than the threat of compulsion.

We can be a true advocate of liberty around the globe, and in so doing, pacify the animosity that put us at risk.

We can be guided by law and justice, and we will once again be a beacon to the world, a country that even those from other lands feel is their own.

When I think about what has transpired in the last seven years, I think we have been like survivors in a lifeboat, abandoning a damaged ship, still trembling with the terror of our brush with death. Of course, we didn't tell themselves that it was fear that denied us the will to go back and save others. We told ourselves that it would be hopeless to try, that there was no more room in the lifeboat, that those still on the ship should have gotten off faster, and had only themselves to blame.

That is not cause to be ashamed. I believe with all my heart that we are good people, striving to be the best we can. We are human, and so sometimes we are weak.

But the measure of our mettle comes after the flush of fear subsides and we see ourselves with clear eyes. There are still some in our life boat who are spreading fear, who seek to cultivate all that is mean and cowardly in us. But in most I see a new courage, a new resolve, and new clarity of purpose.

Yes, it is true that we cannot escape the challenges we face. There is nowhere for our little lifeboat to sail where our safety and ease are assured. So perhaps returning to cast our lot with those we left to try to save themselves is our only choice. But we are going back not because we have to, but because we want to. Because this is an act that will be frozen in time, and we will relive it every day for the rest of our lives. And we will not have it be to our shame, but to our renown.

This new course we are on will not be an easy one. Change is never easy, and there are, of necessity, profound changes lying ahead. But this change is coming, whether we will or no. To survive in a storm, a ship must put its prow to the gale. We will go forward, confident that our course is both wise and right, and at peace in the knowledge that our triumph will be all the greater for the trials that lie ahead.

Thank you, and gesundheit.