Monday, April 26, 2010

 

Going Out on a Bang

...As Sara Jane Moore Might Say

Okay, Stephen Sondheim isn't retiring, at least he hasn't announced that he is. After all, there's at least one more book rewrite and another title left in Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show alone, I'd say.

But if you're going to mark your 80th year -- and if you have pretty much indicated that, at this point, there'd be so much pressure for your next work to be such a hit out of the park that it basically dooms it from the start -- you could do worse than to do it the way it's been done this year. And since he composed so many of our favorite Broadway musicals (well, all of Tom's and almost all of mine, with a nostalgic detour for Meredith Willson and Rodgers & Hammerstein thrown in there by me), we decided to celebrate his birthday this year, too. Actually, if you were buying tickets to shows this year, it was kind of hard to avoid it.

First, in January, I think, we saw the revival of A Little Night Music, starring Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Alex Hanson, which we both said at the time was one of the most satisfying shows we'd seen in a few seasons. More recently, we saw the City Center "Encores" concert staging of Anyone Can Whistle. That assertion remains to be seen, but Raul Esparza and Sutton Foster sure knew how to put their lips together and sing. (Okay, enough with the heyday review-speak, right? Sorry.)

In there somewhere, we saw the Michael Feinstein/Dame Edna warring-but-costarring vehicle (sorry, I'm doing it again) All About Me. Dame Edna declared it a "Sondheim-free zone," given all else that's going on in town this year, but she nonetheless did a pretty well acted rendition of "Ladies Who Lunch" as one of her musical contributions to the show. (And if anyone still wears a hat, it's Dame Edna. And probably Michael Feinstein, actually. She's wearing some fantastic Ascot-worthy number; he's in a Homburg. Personally, I found it a fun show, but some people thought it a waste of time. I'd say they were people who didn't particularly like one or the other performers already, so they wouldn't like this. Whereas if you'd enjoyed both of them, singly, as we had, then you were more likely to feel it was a kind of party with some of your favorite people.)

Tonight was #3 (if you don't count Michael & the Dame) in our Year of Sondheim, and probably the big one for us of the year: City Center's One-Night-Only Benefit Gala in Celebration of Stephen Sondheim. We were led to believe that the hefty ticket price went toward the City Center refurbishment (this is the theater on West 55th St. just west of Sixth Avenue; home of the "Encores" series, but also a pretty serious dance performance venue, I understand, plus some other major productions and performance institutions in this town.)

This was a gift from "me" to "us" for Christmas, and it was a gift tonight as well. It was hosted by John Doyle, who has recently immersed himself as a director of Sondheim's works (Road Show) and the most recent revivals (Sweeney Todd and Company), and Mia Farrow, whose only claim to being onstage (besides being famous) is an apparently lifelong friendship with Stephen Sondheim. Thanks to her commentary in particular, he will henceforth in this post be referred to merely as "Steve."

The two of them did a great job, making their jobs as co-narrators for the evening feel both heartfelt AND rehearsed, which is a nice combination. And along with singers on the stage (we were led to believe, at least, and it was a benefit for City Center, after all), they donated their time for this performance. And it was a pretty fantastic -- nearly fantastical -- list of performers, I have to say.

Not in order of appearance, but giving prominence to the artists already mentioned above: Lansbury ("Liaisons"), Zeta-Jones ("You Must Meet My Wife" with Hanson and Len Cariou, who himself first appeared onstage in a trio of "Pretty Women" with Michael Cerveris and Mark Jacoby; later Zeta-Jones sang "Send in the Clowns"), Raul Esparza ("Being Alive," which was probably the best number of the night; he also had a lead part in the closing number), and Foster ("Anyone Can Whistle"). Along the way: Debra Monk reprising her darkly hilarious role as Sara Jane Moore in Assassins, and Joanna Gleason (looking not a day older) reprising her post-prince song "Moments in the Woods." As well as, not in order, but as they come back to mind: Donna Murphy (whom we saw most recently in Anyone Can Whistle as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper) reprising two of her heartbreaking songs from Passion; Chip Zien in a reunion with the original Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from Into the Woods singing "No One Is Alone"; Nathan Lane using a combined Frogs "Prologue" and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's "Comedy Tonight" as a jumping off point to do a send-up of Sondheim, although not without poking fun at John Doyle first (he walked onstage and started by trying to play the tuba and cello simultaneously; the cello was eventually destroyed in the process); B.D. Wong (with others) for "Someone In a Tree" from Pacific Overtures; and Maria Friedman, who from what I can gather is basically the West End's Sondheim answer to Bernadette Peters or Donna Murphy and who sang at least two solos and had a featured part in the final song from Merrily We Roll Along, "Our Time." (Her solos were "Children and Art," from Sunday in the Park with George, and "Broadway Baby" from Follies.)

Actually, Alexander Gemignani deserves special mention too, because not only did he perform with Michael Cerveris in the first number, in a duet between the two brothers in Bounce/Road Show, he also had a role in the Pacific Overtures number, carried Joanna Gleason onstage for her number (being a prince, you see); and was part of one other number that escapes me at the moment. No solos, I think, but still managed to be on stage a good amount of time.

The lesser-known, shorter-run shows got the bigger applause, as each person in the audience was obviously there to fly their Sondheim geek flag.

And that's all more (unless you are a die-hard Sondheim geek) than you care to know, I'm sure, and someone somewhere has probably already blogged far more complete and far more accurate details than I just have, if you really are that big of a fan. But we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and when Mia Farrow brought him out on stage to a the audience's thunderous ovation, Steve seemed to have enjoyed himself too.

If he noticed that Len Cariou's voice wasn't what it used to be -- and of course he noticed, he always notices -- he didn't seem to mind. For that matter, Sondheim wrote some of his best songs for roles where the person doesn't necessarily have a great singing voice: for singing actors (as in musical theater) far more than for acting singers (as in opera), in other words.

Mia Farrow said, in her introduction, that Steve once gave one of her daughters, his goddaughter (don't ask; I have no idea how a Christian baptism with a Jewish godfather works, if that's actually what she meant; just go with it), a thesaurus as a present when she was four or five. I wish I had a good one right here in front of me to find a way to say just how much fun this evening was for Tom and me.

We still have an appointment for one more night of Sondheim, Sondheim on Sondheim. There will probably be some overlap with some of the songs we heard tonight (at least we hope there is: as good as Sutton Foster's was, Tom Wopat's version of "Anyone Can Whistle" is the best either of us have heard), but that's okay. If we're going to saturate on Sondheim it, this would be the year. We likely won't get another.

"Just remembering you've had an 'and'
When you're back to 'or'
Makes the 'or' mean more
Than it did before."

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

 

My Letter to Congress

Schumer, Gillibrand & Rangel

S
o I sent the following letter earlier tonight to Chuck Schumer, as well as a similar version to Kirsten Gillibrand and another to Charlie Rangel. They represent me in Congress.



The Honorable Charles E. Schumer
757 Third Avenue, Suite 17-02
New York, NY 10017

Dear Senator Schumer,

I am writing you for two purposes. The first is to ask you to vote AGAINST any healthcare plan that does not include a "public option" for people to buy healthcare coverage.

A healthcare plan that relies on state or regional co-ops to somehow bring healthcare costs under control and yet have a large enough pool of currently healthy participants to pay for any currently unhealthy participants -- as every insurance organization needs, whether for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental -- is nearly akin to telling people that if they don't like their choices among private insurers, they're always welcome to go start their own insurance company. As fellow New Yorkers, we both know that lip-service programs (such as "No Child Left Behind" and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue") ultimately do more harm than good. A collection of small insurance co-ops across the country will be similarly destined to fail. Please vote against any healthcare plan that does not include a "public option."

Second, but even more important, I am also writing you -- as my senator, as the vice-chair of the Joint Economic Committee, and in your roles on the Healthcare Subcommittee and the Securities, Insurance and Investment Subcommittee -- to ask you to consider a bill should the healthcare plan fail to include a public option. In that event, I'm hoping you and your fellow leaders in the Senate would work to save Medicare by introducing and passing a "Save Medicare Now" Act.

As we know, Medicare will be insolvent within a decade. Medicare is one of the most popular government programs today, and its bankruptcy would be disastrous to the many older Americans who depend on it for covering their healthcare costs. With the aging Baby Boomers, more and more Americans will be entering the age of Medicare-eligibilty, even as less funds are paid into the program by fewer younger, working taxpayers.

A Save Medicare Now Act would allow U.S. citizens not yet eligible for Medicare to buy Medicare coverage for themselves and their dependents by paying an annual fee (in addition to the contributions they already make via payroll withholding) perhaps equal to a flat 6% of their adjusted gross income. In addition, individuals and families with incomes less than two-times the poverty rate should be provided Medicare coverage as if they were already eligible at age 65.

Not only would such a simple-to-explain and simple-to-execute plan introduce a much larger potential pool of younger, healthier, paying people -- including many self-employed people and small business owners -- into the Medicare program, righting its finances, such a bill could be politically popular for a number of reasons:

  • Medicare needs to be solvent, and America's seniors will be enthusiastic for Congress to save it.

  • Medicare is universally popular; in surveys, over 60% of Americans think that saving Medicare from bankruptcy is a priority.

  • By making it a flat fee, it could garner support from libertarians and those who normally oppose progressive taxation plans.

  • By making it a bill to save Medicare, it could be more palatable to senators from states with a high percentage of older citizens. And particularly popular for senators from states with a high number of people approaching Medicare eligibility who may be very glad to have Medicare as an option if they were to lose or have lost their job so late in their career.

  • Many employers, particularly small business owners, will be enthusiastic for the program, because it would allow them to finally get out of the healthcare business and focus their employee costs on their business strategies.

  • Finally, a Save Medicare Now Act avoids introducing any new "public option" or "single payer" idea into the debate -- and at this point, the less said with those two terms, the better, regardless of their meaning.


And, as I know you are aware, because the purpose of the Save Medicare Now Act is to provide financing for a popular but increasingly insolvent federal program, it is a budget bill, and cannot be filibustered according to Senate rules.

I thank you for your consideration of such a bill, or a similar bill. I am also writing to Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Rangel with this request. I am proud to have the three of you representing me in the U.S. Congress, but I am troubled by the current direction the healthcare debate is taking and thus urge your support of a Save Medicare Now Act -- for the physical health of our senior citizens, the economic health of our medical system, and the moral health of our country.

Sincerely,
Derek A. Baker


Now, I recognize that Chuck Schumer is partially to blame for the mess we're in right now. He was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and as such, convinced a lot of "centrist" (or even right-wing) Democrats to run for Senate in Republican-friendly states ... which is why we have so many "Blue Dog" Democrats today who are resisting a public option in healthcare reform. On the other hand, I don't doubt that Schumer wants the right thing for America and if he could convince all those Blue Dogs to vote for an expansion of Medicare, he would. So perhaps my letter gives him at least one voter's permission to try.

And, as the letter says, I also wrote Senator Gillibrand and Cong. Rangel. Slight wording changes to reflect their chambers, committees, etc., but otherwise, the same proposal.

I'm not stupid, and I've seen Congressional staffers up close. I fully expect that one or all three of these letters will get summarized as "public option: yes; Medicare expansion: yes" and the rest trashed. But given that at least two of the three people who represent me in Congress carry some weight there, despite the fact that I fully expect them to vote for the betterment of the country whether I write them or not, I figured it couldn't hurt and, if they want yet another letter to wave on the floor of the House or Senate, they had it.

Oh, and I printed those three letters, personalized by address, salutation, and detail for each recipient, in Courier New, and handwrote the envelopes. Given that I'm legitimately an individual constituent and no one prompted me to write these letters, I figures it doesn't hurt to make it obvious that I'm a lone wolf (albeit regular voter and occasional contributor). If others take my letters as a format for their own activism, I would consider it an honor, but they'd do just as well to write their own version. Form letters count for less than constituent engagement, anger, and a threat to spread the word to neighbors.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

 

A Few Comparative Facts

Nationalized Healthcare Kicks Our Butt



S
ome people have asked three questions which, taken at face value, are legitimate questions. What would the public option do to (a) reduce the overall cost of healthcare, and (b) improve the quality of my healthcare; and (c) what will the effect be on the deficit? The Congressional Budget Office estimates $1 trillion-plus. So how do we pay for that?

To take the last item first, the CBO analysis didn't factor in what could be saved by the public option, or by best-practice incentives, or by competitive price pressure on the private insurers. By the same rationale, fluorescent lightbulbs make no sense, because they're so much more expensive than incandescents. Except, of course, that they use less energy, so electricity bills go down, and they last much longer before needing to be replaced.

And in terms of cost going down (a), this is exactly what the insurance companies are fearful of: that an affordable, public alternative will prove a competitive cost pressure on their own premium prices. In fact, the insurance companies are so convinced that these would be the economics of their industry with a public option, they are fighting tooth and nail (and campaign contribution) to keep it from happening. So maybe we should ask them?

Also in terms of cost going down: the cat is out of the bag in terms of doctor-owned medical facilities and the scam that is pay-per-service medical care. The New Yorker article by Atul Gawande helped a great deal there, especially the examination of how some of the most successful (in terms of health, not necessarily profit) healthcare institutions are less expensive than most of the less successful ones. Add this to the efficiencies of electronic healthcare records, best practice education and incentives, and other cost-savings that we could implement today, without a single new drug or device being invented, and you've got a huge amount of savings.

As an aside, it's worth pointing out that the people screaming that a public option will be too competitive against private options should be screaming instead at the people who think the public option will be too slow and incompetent, a la the DMV. They can't both be true, after all. But cynically, the insurance companies, with the first fear, are financing much of the "outrage" over the second fear.

In terms of quality with the public option (b): the short answer is that it won't affect it, because you'll still have the same doctors and specialists you use today. But in truth, I can't answer that about the quality of YOUR healthcare. That's because I don't know what the quality of your healthcare currently is. You could have a gold-plated healthcare plan provided by your employer, and there is no reason why you can't continue to have such quality, just as today, when wealthy people will pay out-of-pocket for elective surgery or high-end specialists.

The real question therefore is: Would it improve the health of the nation overall, and thereby be the rising tide to raise all our boats? The evidence indicates that it would. Or, at least, that a public option has no connection with decline in quality, at any rate, so that there is no real economic argument against it and there IS a moral argument in favor it.

The U.S. currently spends more as a percentage of its GDP than any other country on healthcare (13.7%) -- but ranks 37th in the world in terms of its health system's performance (e.g., life expectancy, responsiveness, etc etc), and ranks 54th in the world in terms of the "fairness" (i.e., a closer relationshp between an individual's costs and an individual's income) -- behind Australia (7.8% GDP, 32nd in performance, 12th in fairness), Canada (8.6% GDP, 30th in performance, 17th in fairness), and the UK (5.8% GDP, 18th in performance, 8th in fairness).

I picked those three countries as comparisons because they're the ones that get mentioned most often, probably due to English as a common language. But among all the countries whose healthcare systems outperform the U.S.'s, 92% have more government contribution toward healthcare than we do (only Cyprus, UAE, and Morocco have less); 78% are more "fair" (e.g., fraction of average household spending minus food that goes to healthcare); and as already stated, 100% spend less overall as a percentage of GDP on healthcare than the U.S. does.

All of which is to demonstrate that we have the most expensive (than even France, Switzerland or Germany, yet all still outpeform us), among the more unfair (Oman and Portugal are only slightly less fair, yet again, still outperform the U.S. overall in healthcare), and among the less efficient (we're behind Costa Rica in performance, but, hey, we outrank Slovenia!) systems.

Now, will making our healthcare system look even marginally closer to that of the more developed countries among the 36 whose systems outperform ours mean that it will automatically bring costs down and quality up? No, there isn't a simple formula that will show that. And it's important to say that the public option ALONE won't accomplish this. That, I think, is where the question (how will the public option bring my costs down and my quality up?) ultimately fails in its sincere attempt to find some clarity in all this noise. It's asking for a 1-to-1, arithmetic relationship between the public option and personal cost or personal quality, and that will be different for each individual. If you get great medical care today, you probably won't see a lot of improvement in the quality; if you get bad or no care, you should see an improvement. If you or your employer spend a lot of money now on healthcare compared to others, you should end up paying less. If you or your employer spend very little now but you (somehow) get great care -- I dunno, maybe your sister is an internist -- then it'll probably end up costing you more.

But I would also turn it around on those who say the public option will make health care more expensive or less effective: What is the proof, math or argument that keeping the public option off the table will "keep costs down" (even though ours are higher than anyone's) or "keep quality high" (even though 36 other countries do a better job there, too)?

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Monday, August 17, 2009

 

An Unhealthy Debate

Lies, Damned Lies, Yet No Statistics


I keep trying to start a blog post that aims to refute all the lies, idiocy and misinformation that the right-wing (Grassley, Boehner), ignorant ("Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!"), and downright evil (Palin, Beck, etc. etc. etc.) are putting out there about health insurance reform and health coverage. But every time, I end up realizing it would be full-time job that should have started over a month ago. And then, today, I read two column that help put a lot of the bad information out there into perspective.

The first was Steven Pearlstein's look back at the 20th century and how the right-wing loses its mind every time a liberal (even a nominal liberal) gets into power. It froths at the mouth. It takes two opposing thoughts ("socialism! fascist!") and says they're the same thing. It basically makes stuff up, and the more bizarre the better. That's what gets attention, at least.

The second was Paul Krugman's column about the "Swiss menace." In it, he lays it out more clearly than anyone has yet so far. (This is why he wins Nobel Prizes, and I start blog posts only to abandon them in a sputtering mess of exasperated fury.) The summary of his summary is this:



To be clear: the "public option" that, until the last couple of days, was the stated goal of the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress (and hopefully will be again), exists between the Medicare model and the Massachusetts model. Rather than the government being the sole payer of medical bills, the government would provide an insurance option for people who can't afford or don't want to buy private insurance -- though they and their employers would still be able buy private insurance if that was what they wanted.

This is the extent of the "socialism," the "fascism," and the "un-Americanism" behind the public option, and public health insurance and public healthcare in general. That's it. And yet, all that lying and distortion now looks like it will keep the Blue Dog Democrats from supporting a public option.

I just called my congressman's office (Charlie Rangel, definitely not a "Blue Dog") to urge him to vote against any final healthcare proposal that doesn't include a public option. Because America's healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, but ranks 37th in terms of its effectiveness (World Health Organization). Not coincidentally, U.S. citizens receive less government support for their health than any of the other industrialized countries ahead of us. Perhaps more on this later.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

 

Charles Rangel, Wrangler

That Ol' Country Bumpkin

I
n looking for some other kind of information on his site, I happened to see that my congressman, Charlie Rangel, lists something like 30 congressional "caucuses" he's a member of. He's a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He's a member of the Progessive Caucus. He's a member of the Army Caucus and the Navy/Marine Caucus. (He was a staff sergeant in the Army and earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Korea, by the way.) He's a member of the Caribbean Caucus, which takes some chutzpah, given the trouble he's gotten into with unreported rental income on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. (Which may explain why he's also a member of the Real Estate Caucus.) He's a member of several caucuses that don't reflect his own history but rather the causes he chooses to support: the Caucus for Women's Issues, the Caucus for Armenian Issues, the Fire Services Caucus, etc., etc.

One caucus he belongs to, however, just cracked me up: the Rural Housing Caucus. Now, sure, he can be interested in the issue of rural housing, and let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say he is. But still it seems strange. Rangel represents the densest Congressional district in the United States. That is to say, each member of the House of Representatives represents approximately 600,000 people, but Rangel's district is geographically the smallest, covering just a little over 10 square miles of northern Manhattan, Rikers Island (definitely not a rural population there), and a tiny part of Queens that is, true, very lightly populated — because it mostly consists of a Con Ed power plant.

But, hey, good for him if he's interested in rural housing. Just so long as it doesn't take away from his work with the Kidney and Glaucoma caucuses, for example. Or the Caucus on Hellenic Issues. Or the Boating Caucus. Or... .

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

 

Oh, Puh-leeze!

Laying it on with a trowel



I
f all the following are true...

...then why am I feeling so profoundly embarrassed by Brian Williams's fawning hagiography of the Obamas in this special? Are there still, somewhere in the mists, the faint fumes of ink from my diploma for a B.A. in journalism wafting somehow in my direction? I doubt it, but I'm still embarrassed for him, nonetheless.

(And yet: I'm also still watching it.)

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Monday, April 20, 2009

 

Hello? Anybody still there?

If it updates quarterly, can it really be called a blog?

Gosh, has it been over three months already? Time flies when you're being dunned.

And I haven't had the intellectual capacity to add much more here that seemed worth adding, after a bunch of work stuff and a bunch of church stuff and some other stuff that's been taking up all my mental space.

But today's readings during Morning Prayer gave me pause, following as they did so soon after I finished The Canon, by the New York Times writer Natalie Angier. (A great book, by the way, although she's sometimes too clever and too heavy with the wordplay for her own good.) One of the things that make the book brilliant is the way it's organized. It's not original with her, but still a good idea. To give an overview of basic science, it should build up, rather than work the way it does in our elementary and high school educations. Start first with the scientific method, then explore probability, then measurement, and then, in this order: physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, geology, and astronomy. What you learn in each of the fields helps inform what you learn later.

Angier (properly) doesn't give any quarter to scriptural views of "creation" when discussing biology, but much of what she writes -- about evolution, but also about physics, astronomy and cosmology -- had, for me, very religious overtones. I intend to do some more thinking and maybe even writing about this, but today I was struck by what seems a very modern scientific experiment, and that from a book in the Hebrew scriptures, the Book of Daniel. This was the Old Testament lesson for today's Daily Office. It's the beginning of the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (which is strange we remember them by those names, since those were the names given them by the Babylonians, whereas their real names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah). The Babylonian king wants the best and brightest of Israel at his court, and so orders that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah be fed the best food (presumably meat) and the best wine. Daniel says this will defile them, if they take these gifts from the king, but their refusing makes the palace master nervous:


The palace master said to Daniel, "I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king." Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: "Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe." So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.
— Daniel 1:10:16



A couple of things about that this pericope brings to mind:

  1. Daniel proposes a test

  2. The test will yield measurable results

  3. He proposes a control for the test (the young men of the same age, on a diet of royal rations instead of vegetables and water)

  4. The Babylonians did not have much of an ethical standard for clinical trials. While we don't know how much the control group knew about this test ("informed consent"?), they are still conducting tests on prisoners for one thing, and for another, after the test group showed better health than the control group, shouldn't they have offered the same diet to the control group?

  5. Interesting early evidence of the health benefits of vegetarian/vegan diets (and alcohol-free, at that) in scripture. However, it also backs up what a lot of people say, which is that a vegetarian diet, alone, may not help you lose weight.



I'm partly joking in those last two points, especially, but those are exactly the kind of issues that get discussed around clinical trials in diet and medicine even today.

Let me be clear here, which is the kind of thing I want to explore more, later, at some point: I'm not saying that the Bible is scientific evidence of anything. Or that the story in Daniel is a factual, historical account -- whether it had been informed by historical events or not beyond the accepted historical fact of the Jewish exile in what is today Iraq (and there's a whole subject worth a little more discussion, probably) I don't know. But for this particular reading, it is interesting that the scientific method has a long position in Jewish history, if we take this experiment as evidence. Which makes sense, since the Greeks and the Babylonians themselves were exploring scientific methods around the time that Israel was exiled in Babylon, or soon thereafter.

I'd never noticed this use of the scientific method in this story before in reading it in the past, but it stood out to me this morning, particularly in light of my last post, about the woman with the hemorrhage who asks Jesus to heal her. I guess you could say, if there's anything theological to these observations in these readings, it's not that "a Biblical viewpoint is scientific," but rather the opposite: "a scientific viewpoint is (or can be) Biblical." That's where I would differ most profoundly, I suppose, with the literalists. By positing science as anathema to religion, or religious faith as the opposite of scientific inquiry, they insult Christianity and the Bible's relationship to it far more than any scientific rationalist ever did.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

 

Little Girl, Get Up!

Get Up, Stand Up. Stand Up for Your Rights.


I
had emergency surgery recently. (It was caused by a hernia that I already had another surgery scheduled to fix, but a strangulated small bowel turned an elective surgery into an emergency surgery, and they had to remove about 6-7" of my small intestine and resection back the healthy parts, leading to a week in the hospital and another week at T's, recovering.) As I still don't have a lot of energy -- and a cold is now sapping whatever brain activity I was capable of to begin with -- I pretty much manage to do some light reading every day, but can't concentrate for long before I find myself getting tired. But one thing I've been trying to stick to is the Daily Office (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or both) in the Book of Common Prayer. This has become a highlight of my day, to be honest, and I was rewarded today with a Gospel reading that seemed so applicable to feeling so under the weather as I currently do. It was Mark 5:21-43 for Monday in the 3rd week of Epiphany today:


When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'." He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.


Now, of course, the two healing narratives in this passage are what made the strongest impression on me. I've read this passage many times, I know, but I'm not sure I've ever read it when I was myself was sick -- certainly never when I was recovering from a cold and major abdominal surgery. So it's a comforting Gospel lesson in Epiphanytide for that reason alone.

But I was also struck by a couple of things. For one, it's interesting to me to see that, once again, Christ's divinity is demonstrated through his interactions with women. This happens so frequently -- from his birth to his death to his resurrection -- that we don't think much about it these days. But in 1st century Palestine, I understand, it was rather radical for a teacher and a healer to devote as much time -- including, in this story, travel time -- and (literally) energy to women. Or for a strange woman to touch a man and vice versa. Some part of this openness may be due to the fact that, in Judaism, one traces one's Jewish ancestry through the mother, which itself was a novel concept for the religions of the region and is literally more "feminist" than the paternal line of determining who does and doesn't belong. But it also shows that in Christ, there really isn't "male or female, Jew or Greek." (Or "gay or straight," I would add.) Instead, all are welcome to his grace, even (or especially) a 12-year-old girl.

It heartens me also that the leader of the synagogue was so concerned about his daughter that he sought out this healer he'd heard about and begged him to attend to her. How different a story is that from what we hear how women, and especially girls, are treated in so many parts of the world even today! Here, however, two thousand years ago, was a little girl, a "talitha" in Aramaic, who was loved by her father Jairus and the people in her life as much as any boy might have been. That may not seem amazing to us today -- in fact, anything otherwise is hateful to us -- but I imagine this story has far more resonance in those parts of the world where girls still aren't valued as much as boys and where religious leadership is still solely the province of men.

The other thing that struck me as very modern is the description of the woman's ordeal with her hemorrhage: "Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse."

In other words, our healthcare system, which today continues to bankrupt sick people, hasn't much improved in 2,000 years in how its delivered, only perhaps in the science behind it.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

 

What the Bleep Is Up with the Illinois 5th District?

Language, Please!

Chicago's Fox News outlet (so take it FWIW) is apparently reporting that Obama's incoming chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, did in fact have multiple conversations with Governor Rod Blagojevich about the successor to Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. There's no intimation that they were looking to make a deal, only that Emanuel may have provided the governor with a list of names that would be be seen as "acceptable" to the Obama administration.

Given the transcripts reported by Patrick Fitzgerald's office from the wiretap of Blagojevich's other phone conversations, and given the reputation of Rahm Emanuel for expressing himself in ways that could make a longshoreman blush, it makes you wonder what's up with the folks in the Fifth Congressional District of Illinois? Are they all a bunch of swearing pottymouths? Or, as someone elsewhere has said, can you imagine the number of F-bombs dropped in a conversation between Emanuel and Blagojevich?

Emanuel is the current representative of the 5th District, until the inauguration, when he'll assume his new job. Blagojevich was his predecessor in that seat, before he became governor. And two before Blago, they had Dan Rostenkowski, who served 15 months in prison for his role in the House post office scandal. I can't find evidence online that Rostenkowski also punctuated his sentences with profanity, but I'm willing to go out on a limb here and bet that he wasn't the most reticent of inmates.

So, if you travel through the Fifth District in Illinois, does it just sound like an episode of the Sopranos? Do, like, grandmothers and clergy in Elmwood Park and Northlake talk that way?

I should point out that my own Congressman (Charlie Rangel) has his own history of saying some pretty salty stuff (he called Vice President Cheney a "real son of a bitch," but I can't say I disagree with him there), not to mention some ethical questions that have been raised about his rent (or lack thereof) on some apartments and not reporting income from some other apartments. But we like 'em salty in New York. I guess they do in Chicago, as well. Especially in that Fifth District. Bleep yeah!

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

 

Let's Do Something Big and Simple about the Economy

Cash Ebb and Flows

H
ere's a simple idea that just occurred to me. Why don't we get rid of the idea of a free market?

I'm only partly joking there, but the idea that just occurred is actually not a joke. Given that we're seeing a kind of state-financed economy already, with a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, proposed bailouts of Detroit, etc., and that companies everywhere are experiencing fast-occuring, acute pain in their balance sheets, why don't we first of all agree that there is a role for government in stabilizing the "free" market?

Having done that, now let's agree that if companies can raid the Treasury when times get tough, they need to help build it back up when times are flush.

So, once we get through this immediate crisis, let's, yes, raise corporate taxes by getting rid of the loopholes (and, once those are gone, maybe even lower the rate a few points, to bring it more in line with other countries'). But let's use some of that increase in money -- maybe half of it? -- to set aside in a pool that earns interest and goes untouched until the economic data tanks again. Say, two consecutive quarters of unemployement increases, or GDP contractions, or some simple but intelligent combination of economic indicators as reported by the Commerce Department. At whatever point that is, the money automatically becomes available for low- or no-interest loans to businesses that have filed taxes in the previous year.

Do we concurrently suspend or lower the corporate tax rate in the rough times? Are there certain other loan application requirements a company has to meet in order to borrow from this fund? That's for other people to figure out, people who understand how the current commercial paper market works and how a liquidity crisis brought us to a bigger economic crisis.

But the larger point is this: companies pay into a collective fund in profitable times so that they can get easy credit in tight times. Think of it as an old-fashioned, neighborhood thrift or credit union for Wall Street, Main Street and all the other business districts around the country. Put the money in one of Al Gore's lockboxes. And make the program's availability predictable, based on the generally accepted economic indicators, so that there's less chance of lobbying to game the system.

It's so crazy, it just might work.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

 

For The Ages

Mostly? Loved It!


T
he good news: at this point, it doesn't even need to be said, but that never stopped me. Talk about history. Someone pointed out that very, very few countries have elected or appointed someone of a racial minority to lead the country. The most obvious, prior to this, was Peru electing a man of Japanese descent (which didn't actually turn out too great for them). But no country near the size, power, or economy of the United States — well, there isn't one, but you know what I mean -- has done so. And yet I see something like this happen and I'm actually reminded of something Ronald Reagan quoted at the groundbreaking of his presidential library in Simi, California, from a letter someone had written to him not long before: "He said, you can go to live in another land — you can go to live in France, but you can't become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany, but you can't become a German. You can go to live in Japan or Turkey, and you cannot become Japanese or Turkish. But anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American."

Leaving aside the Constitutional requirement that someone be born a citizen to become president, I'm still stunned at what it will say to the world on January 20 when, walking into any U.S. embassy anywhere in the world, visitors will see a photographic portrait of a son a Kenyan and a Kansan as America's president. Not only that, a man who still has relatives living today in both places. And yet, far from being born to a life of privilege, grew up to be elected the most powerful person in the world. That, to me, says more about what America means in the world as much as anything else we might say or write about our country or our history.

Thomas Friedman's article today was particularly excellent: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/05/opinion/05friedman.html
...in which he says that "on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States."

Of course, not everyone is of the same mind. Paul Krugman's blog pointed out that some people (at least among those who write op-eds for the WSJ) think how President Bush has been treated by Americans only shows that we didn't deserve this great, great man: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/05/meanwhile-in-an-alternative-universe/

On a more serious note, my excitement at yesterday's election results were tempered today to learn:

The Oklahoma state legislature is now controlled in both chambers by Republicans. (In this election, no less.) That is the first time since statehood that has been true. And in a state that is 11th out of 51 (including DC) in the percentage of people living in poverty and 8th in the nation for teenage pregnancies. (Not to mention 15th in the country for babies born to teenage and unwed mothers overall.) Of course, the reason I bring all this up about Oklahoma is because no state voted more firmly for McCain this election than Oklahoma. The one (admittedly lame) saving grace I can find in this fact is that Obama didn't lose Oklahoma any worse than Kerry did. Which means, maybe, that Oklahomans are against progress more than they're against black people? Yay, progress! Or, rather...yay, anti-progress?

More importantly—because I mostly (but sadly) expected those results from Oklahoma—I'm really bummed about the results on constitutional propositions in California, Arizona and Florida about marriage—with California the most prominent. Enshrining bigotry into the state constitutions of California, Arizona and Florida definitely felt like a slap in the face, hard enough to draw blood. Arizona was one thing; but that California and Florida could turn their back on racism but still vote for homophobia is kind of a tough thing to accept. I understand that these things improve over decades and even generations. But that didn't make those votes any less a slap and spit in the face. They weren't the first states to vote that way, but I'd hoped they wouldn't be the last. Now I guess I have to hope they are the last.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

 

Here We Go...

Signs of Hope and Change


H
ere, on the eve of Election Day, it all comes down to this:

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

 

October Surprises

A Roundup of News that Mattered to Me


It's strange what catches your attention in the news. For me, it's sometimes the same stuff that's on the 30-minute roundup that's considered "news" by the networks. Or the goofy points brought up by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who I swear has the same take as I do so often that I may just quit watching her, because even what she finds outrageous or amusing is exactly what I find amusing across the TV, Web and blogosphere regarding this election.

But herewith, in lieu of actual insight or thought (which I could never claim, anyway, for this blog, I fear) a collection of things I've noticed, shared on Facebook or in e-mail, or posted elsewhere.

For one thing, starting with today, Obama held a rally under the Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, which drew an estimated 100,000 people.



Yesterday, I ran across a link posted on a blog for an article The Onion ran back in January 2001, a satirical look ahead at the Bush Administration just getting ready to take office. It's downright eerie how prescient the gang of comedy writers who put this together was...and downright scary how closely the Bush Administration hewed to a plan that was supposed to be a satire.

Thursday night, both John McCain and Barack Obama put down the gloves and donned white tie just long enough to crack wise about themselves and their opponent at the Al Smith Dinner here in New York. (Al Smith was the Governor of New York who was the first Roman Catholic to run for president as the nominee of a major party in 1928. He lost to Herbert Hoover, so Smith obviously became a cultural favorite in hindsight, even though he also later opposed Roosevelt's New Deal program.) The dinner is sponsored by the Catholic diocese of New York and raises money for Catholic charities, who do a lot of work in this city. By tradition, the two presidential candidates address the dinner every four years (unless abortion politics intervene, as happened in 1996 and 2004).

Both candidates did an exceptional job, especially considering how tense things were between them the night before at the third debate. Definitely worth watching...


John McCain, Part 1

John McCain, Part 2

Barack Obama, Part 1

Barack Obama, Part 2


Speaking of that debate, like all of Barack Obama's supporters and none of John McCain's supporters, I thought the senator from Illinois won it (in a three-peat) over the senator from Arizona. Given this shot that came from the end of the debate, perhaps the gentleman from Arizona even agreed.



Of course, this led to all sorts of Photoshop resourcefulness on the part of many people...









Two other articles that are worth considering: In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz had a few good suggestions about where we go, economically, from here (and what got us here in the first place). Read it here.

And, finally, the notion of an October surprise is, actually, a very real threat, and not a very amusing one. It could be that, with the September meltdown of the financial sector, the October surprise came a month early for everyone. Or it could mean that the one person who wants desperately for the Muslim world to be at war with America will do whatever he can and needs to do to swing Americans in as bellicose a direction as possible to further that war. This article reminds us that George Bush is the best thing that ever happened to Osama bin Laden's career. Read it here. What the article doesn't really address, is the equally true obverse: at least as far as George W. Bush's re-election was concerned, Osama bin Laden was the best thing to happen to him, as well. Despite seven years of neglecting bin Laden, not finding him, letting him slip out of our close clutches, and a spate of other al-Qaida action and videos, Republican presidents are still imagined by too many Americans as bin Laden's worst enemy. But given the way they approach international conflict, the most recent or the next possible Republican president continues to be bin Laden's best hope for his goal of total global warfare.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

 

A Warning

Getting Downright Apocalyptic on You


W
ith all the panic over a credit freeze and the climbing London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), it seems increasingly clear that something is broken here. Not only is the shadow economy of investment banking threatening to bring down the real economy of labor, production, sales, and profit margin, it's now clear that the shadow economy is now the primary organism and the real economy merely survives to feed it. (A grisly picture, but it's starting to look that way.)

That's probably a result of lax regulation — old-fashioned greed isn't the culprit here so much as a get-rich-quick, quarterly horizon is — and maybe in the longer term it can be fixed. But for the last two weeks I knew there was something I'd read somewhere that was stuck in my mind from way back when. I've read a few analyses from the 40,000-foot view of how this financial crisis came about, but I was thinking of something I'd read that was more like the 40,000-year view. I finally found it:
"There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest: and lending money at interest — what we call investment — is the basis of our whole system. Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong. Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or "usury" as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only thinking of the private moneylender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said. This is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not. This is where we want the Christian economist. But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilizations had agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life."
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.

Yeah, that was what I was trying to remember. Thanks, Jack.

An interesting twist on this, where the meta-issues in our domestic policy meet the meta-issues in our foreign policy meet issues of faith, is the realization that, under Islam's Shariah law, charging interest is still illegal.

I'm not sure what the implications of that comparison are, and it certainly isn't a prescription for an economic rescue package that a majority of House members can vote to pass. But I find it an interesting commentary on this crisis from the perspective of religious history, nonetheless.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

 

My First "Quote of the Day"

I'm So Proud


T
his from the wayback machine seems priceless, given the news:


More recently, instruments that are more complex and less transparent--such as credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and credit-linked notes—have been developed and their use has grown very rapidly in recent years. The result? Improved credit-risk management together with more and better risk-management tools appear to have significantly reduced loan concentrations in telecommunications and, indeed, other areas and the associated stress on banks and other financial institutions.

Remarks by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan
Before the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.
November 19, 2002

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

 

Financial Meltdown, Cont'd

Like It or Lump It


C
ongressional Democrats hold the cards in many ways on this. Paulson's objection to imposing CEO pay limits on takers of the bailout? Fine. They don't have to take the bailout. Don't like bankruptcy judges rewriting mortgage terms? Fine -- if the federal government owns those mortgages, the federal government becomes the other party to the mortgage, with the homeowner. It can do it without judges at all.

The Democrats' plans are mostly in line with each other, whether that's Chris Dodd's proposal, Barack Obama's four principles for any bailout, or Hillary Clinton's proposals (though several of hers don't seem to address the immediate crisis quite so well, but are all good mid-range proposals). All are related, all have good ideas — Obama was making these same points back in March, for example — and fortunately, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd seem to be on the same page here, so Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — and even Barack Obama — need to take their cues from them.

But beyond that, here's what the Congressional Democrats need to say to the Bush administration, including Henry Paulson: "You people and your approach got us into this mess, so now you'll take what we give you to fix it, and you'll like it. Or else, if you veto this, we're starting impeachment proceedings." Because, really, with the worst attack on American soil on their watch, a war we didn't need, gross violations of the Constitution and abuse of power, and now a meltdown of the financial sector, again on their watch, do we really need further evidence that Bush, Cheney and the whole crew headed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is anything other than incompetent, dishonest, lazy and unconstitutional? If these aren't "high crimes and misdemeanors" then what, pray tell, is?

[SFX: *crickets*]


 

Fire Sale

Everyone Must Go!


L
ast week's financial sector meltdown certainly feels like a game changer to me. For one thing, capitalists are now on record as no longer believing in the power of the free market — or, rather, admitting it has an awesome power, greater than they expected, and therefore it needs some care and feeding — and tacitly admitting that needs to come with oversight.

The Tom Toles cartoon said it best. It showed a fireman, dressed sorta like Uncle Sam, pulling a Wall Street fatcat from a burning building, who is saying, "Wait! Let me go back and save my needlepoint 'Government isn't the solution, government is the problem' inspirational wall hanging."

I have no doubt that the Republicans, as adept as they are at self- and other kinds of deception will choose to remember this crisis differently, and much will depend on what happens over the next two weeks or so. But I for most people the meltdown last week demonstrated, once and for all, that unbridled market forces, "the invisible hand of the market," cannot, by itself, bring about all the good things that we want — especially if that includes stability.

Although I have a standard disclaimer on my site that "My thoughts/opinions ≠ My employer's thoughts/opinions," I also rarely post about anything related to business or technology, so that disclaimer should be fairly obvious. But in this case, I'm going to wonder aloud about some financial and business principles that I should restate clearly are just my own musings, and not at all the opinions of my employer.

Perhaps even more importantly, I should add the warning that I understand the financial world just enough to be dangerous to myself, but don't have the capital behind me to be very dangerous to too many others. So chalk up my ignorant statements here to just that, ignorance.

But my basic, overall take is that the financial industry got completely divorced from reality. "Wall Street got drunk," as George W. Bush famously said when he thought all the cameras were off. Got drunk and started have hallucinations is more like it. This quote, from David Leonhardt's excellent piece "Bubblenomics" in this past Sunday's Week in Review section of the Times, sums it up perfectly:
Benjamin M. Friedman, author of "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth," recalled that when he worked at Morgan Stanley in the early 1970s, the firm’s annual reports were filled with photographs of factories and other tangible businesses. More recently, Wall Street’s annual reports tend to highlight not the businesses that firms were advising so much as finance for the sake of finance, showing upward-sloping graphs and photographs of traders.

"I have the sense that in many of these firms," Mr. Friedman said, "the activity has become further and further divorced from actual economic activity."

Exactly. The actual banking system — where we deposit money in a bank for some small interest and banks make money by loaning it out to other people at higher interest — and the actual economy for that matter — the stuff of balance sheets and income statements — needs to be the primary means of wealth building for the country or, frankly, we're doomed.

I don't know if short-selling, for example, is a bad thing or a good thing. Or a morally neutral thing. I've heard people say that it provides liquidity in the market — increases what's out there to be bought and sold, in other words. And everyone points out that it was short sellers who first clued in that Enron's finances were a house of cards, and their selling Enron short led to deeper examinations of its financial health and ultimately, uncovered, the mess. That may be. But it's also investing merely as gambling. It allows you to sell a stock you don't yet own. If the price drops, you make money; if it goes up, you lose money. (Basically the opposite of going "long" as an investor.) But unlike going long — buying a stock because you expect its value to increase — short selling allows you to play the market with that stock but not own it until the transactions are totaled up.

Short selling is a headache for companies — who, admittedly, only want their stock to go up, even when it probably shouldn't. But my problem with it is that it further divorces the investment from the thing being invested in. It's like "Beginning Derivatives 101," with the "investment" merely being a prediction and a bet to make money on it. And that, I think, is the overall problem with our financial house today.

Another example: a lot companies don't pay dividends. Now, that alone wouldn't have saved us from this crisis, although a company that can't or won't pay the owners may not have all its ducks in a line, either. I know, I know: many companies, like Berkshire Hathaway, don't pay dividends, they reinvest the profits back into the company, and people who got in early there have made fortunes with the rise of their value of their stock. But at some level I have to ask: is there anything tangible connected to the ownership of the stock, or is it merely the perceived value that someone is willing to buy it for that makes it of value?

I know the answer to that. Gold has no intrinsic value, and yet we've still got survivalist whackjobs out there who want our currency tied to it. And the money that's been made (and now lost) in the stock market for so many people has not primarily come from dividend payouts, not by a long shot.

All of that is probably okay. As long as, theoretically, a payout could be made, or if we sold all the assets I'd get some small part of the proceeds, then that's as good as an actual dividend. And gold may not be "worth" any more than granite except because someone else says it is, but at least it's a thing. What worries me about what's happened to the financial system is that we've flopped the importance of the actual economy with a shadow economy of placing bets on the actual economy. We look at balance sheets and cash flows and buy stock in a company — even though there is absolutely no connection to the activities or even income of the company and the rise or fall of its stock.

Here's a modest proposal. But first, some background, again from that excellent article by Leonhardt:
The classic measure of whether the stock market is overvalued is the price-earnings ratio, which divides stock prices by annual corporate earnings. At the height of the bubble, in 2000, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index were trading at 36 times their average earnings over the previous five years. It was the highest valuation since at least the 1880s, according to the economist Robert Shiller.

By 2004, surprisingly enough, the ratio had dropped only to about 26, still higher than at any point since the 1930s. At the start of last year, it was still 26.

But after the market closed on Friday, the ratio was down to roughly 17, which happens to be about its post-World War II average. At least by this one measure, stocks are no longer blatantly overvalued.

So here's my proposal, or call it a musing:
What would be the downside of establishing price floors and ceilings for a stock based on its P/E ratio? Say (for the sake of the argument) a 5/1 floor and a 25/1 ceiling? That would leave the vast majority of stocks unaffected. Checking the Google Finance stock screener, I see that it lists 141 stocks (out of 3,606) with a P/E ratio of 5 or less — and 17 of those have a negative P/E ratio. So maybe something has to be in place to account for those, for whatever reason they're trading so low. On the other hand, it shows 855 stocks with P/E ratios above 25 (one solar-related company as high as 4900.) In fact, Google, the providers of the stock screener, show a current P/E of 28.27.

In theory, a high P/E ratio is investor's confidence that a firm will make a lot more money in the long run, hence making this stock of such value. But given the way we've changed "investing" into "gambling," it's now really only investor confidence that the price will keep going up, and the "E" part of the equation be damned, or at least ignored.

If we had a floor and ceiling on P/E ratios, I don't know what the impact would be, to be honest. Nor what the correct such floors and ceilings should be: 0 and 30? -5 and 40? The stock market would be far less exciting, I'm sure. There'd be a whole lot less volume traded. IPOs would have to be rethought and reconfigured.

Or make it a further ratio to volume, and let the companies themselves decide on an annual basis by a vote of shareholders? If you choose a -10 to 50 range for your P/E ratio, 24-hour trading volume for your stock is held at a smaller number than if you opt for a relatively tight 5 to 20 range. Once it hits its allowable number of trades on the exchange, trading on that stock is halted for the day.

Or maybe we don't worry about P/E ratios, but we worry about day traders and those turning the stock market into a casino. That would mean getting rid of short selling and, probably, also requiring that a stock be held for one bell closing before it can be sold. Or maybe we do both. Maybe we find a way to outlaw — or at least outlaw public companies — from tradiing in investments that are two, three, and five or more steps removed from actual things — real estate, shares in companies, metals, bonds, commodities, etc.

Obviously, I don't really know. And none of my goofy proposals around P/E ratios and trading volumes would have solved this particular problem. And do I know what the floor or ceiling rules for P/E ratios should be? Of course I don't. And the primary philosophical objection would be that "no one can know, so we should let the free market decide." Except, as we've seen now in the past few weeks, the free market doesn't know either. So — and here's the actual proposal — why don't we let democracy decide?

Or is that exactly how we got to this problem? I'm not sure. Fortunately, Barney Frank is far smarter about this stuff than I am.


In the political realm of all this, I have to point out the difference between these two candidates, based on their remarks on the economy last Friday, September 19:

I found these two examples very enlightening. For one thing, one of them is laying out four principles that any bailout should include, but said he'd withhold details of any plan to keep from politicizing what was being worked out between the Treasury Secretary and the Congress. (Now that we've heard the details of Paulson's plan, all three pages of 'em, Obama could probably be allowed to let loose with his commentary on it, if he hasn't already.)

The other (that would be McCain) bounced all over the map, making up new regulatory agencies even while he complains about the number of regulatory agencies. And, as part of that, he thinks a good "generalist" regulatory agency would be far more effective than the "specialist" agencies. I guess, by that line of thinking, there's really no need for all those cabinet positions, either, is there? Let's have the Treasury Department manage our federal prosecutors, the Navy, public forests, and gun licenses. (Oh, wait: they actually did do that last one for decades, until the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002.)

And he yet again yelled for the head of the head of the SEC, Christopher Cox — basically for no reason other than wanting to blame someone and look "mavericky."

But more importantly, look at how McCain took this opportunity to basically campaign against Obama, blaming him for the crisis (somehow). Obama, on the other hand, took this speech as an opportunity to say that he, John McCain, President Bush, and the Democrats and Republicans need to come together to come up with a workable plan to this financial crisis. And that was essentially the extent of his remarks about John McCain.

Now which of these two men exhibited leadership?


Finally, are we seeing a trend here? The Bush Administration ignores a warning — "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S." — and Al Qaeda attacks the United States. George Bush then says the only way to address this crisis of vulnerability is to give his administration sweeping powers, and Congress must act immediately to provide those powers. From that we get the Patriot Act.

Then Saddam Hussein — who was provided financing, agriculture credits, dual-use technology, chemicals, weapons and intelligency by the Reagan and Bush I administrations — was deemed a growing threat following the US-Iraq war (see "yellowcake"), and George W. Bush again demanded sweeping powers, a blank check that would total hundreds of billions of dollars, and no oversight from Congress so he could prosecute a "preventive war" (see "Bush Doctrine").

Now we're facing the worst financial crisis in 80 years, brought on by the deregulating glee with which the Republican administrations of the past three decades treated matters economic and financial. And the solution is yet again to give the Bush Administration a blank check totaling hundreds of billions of dollars and refusal of any oversight (or it will ignore the oversight).

There really wasn't any question before last week, but last week will add at least another two decades (to the at least five decades we were already guaranteed) to any kind of historical reassessment of George W. Bush:

Worst. President. Ever.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

 

A Black Hole

Oops

T
om made a good observation tonight: You know how they turned on the Large Hadron Collider last week in Switzerland, but people are worried it will create tiny black holes that will start sucking things into them, and they'll grow larger and larger? So who would have thought that it would have started with U.S. financial firms? Stephen Hawking, please call your office.




Today's financial news is pretty scary, and could get much scarier. It's one thing to have a Dow meltdown or a Black Monday. But when it's the actual financial firms that loan money to, fund, invest, broker, insure, collateralize, etc., all the other companies on the stock market, what happens then? Or, more to the point, what happens next?

Can someone ask John McCain if he still wants to privatize Social Security? He's pretty firmly on record for wanting to do so, but perhaps he'd like to rethink that.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

 

What Passes for Leadership

But...Leaders Don't Lie, Do They?


I
'm sure many Republicans are happy to be back to normal "us versus them" politics. It seems the convention -- and Sarah Palin's nomination as VP in particular -- has energized the people who felt they otherwise would need to sit this party out, having brought us eight years of failure, incompetence, and -- not that they objected to this one -- deep partisanship. The whole point of the culture wars is to play the "us versus them" game.

Their whole approach since the convention has been to lie, only to be cheered on further by the people who like to win elections, rather than govern.

This has been the case since the 2000 election, but it's appearing in its purist form yet so far. The reason is simple: far more than than any other election in my memory, the Republican candidates are on the wrong side of the electorate on almost every issue. So they have nothing to run on except personal attacks and personal narratives.

And it works. We really are a divided country, and becoming more so with this election. I've written about this before, when I said there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think "clarity" is the same things as "truth" -- and those who think there are more than two kinds of people in the world.

It gets even simpler than that, however. Because a lot of voters basically just want to vote for someone who will go on the offensive. They misinterpret attacks, even (or especially) lies and distortions, as "leadership." They see McCain as willing to fight dirty and think: that's the kind of leadership I want to vote for.

That's what a slim majority voted for in 2004 and what slim minority voted for in 2000. One wouldn't have thought it possible based on the 2000 primaries, but given the McCain claims that Obama wanted to teach kindergarteners about sex or called Sarah Palin a pig, I have to say that this time around, McCain has managed to out-Bush Bush. Giving a new understanding to the tag line "more of the same." At this point, it's looking like "much more."




Despite the latest, post-RNC convention bounce for McCain, I'm still hopeful.
For one thing, I think this year voters may be more willing to vote based on the issues rather than the distraction tactics of the Republicans.
And I think there's still a lot more energy behind voting for Obama than there is for voting for McCain, Sarah Palin's nomination notwithstanding.

And I think McCain has been such a heinous liar of late -- approaching the levels of the less official but no less welcomed e-mail and rumor campaigns that are so patently false (faith; citizenship; raising taxes...) -- that a lot of people will wake up and decide not to elect another administration in the same mold as the one we've had for the past seven-plus years. But on that I'm obviously being hopeful, not predictive.

Two anecdotal bits of evidence added to my hope, however. For one, this article from August that Obama is outpacing McCain 6-to-1 in campaign contributions from currently deployed troops. That could change, become closer, even flop -- but it certainly implies something going on among military families. Especially when you consider that the Disabled American Vets gave Obama a 92% rating for voting with them, but gave McCain only 28%. Or that the Vietnam Vets of America also gave Obama a 92%, but gave McCain a 37%. And the Iraq and Afghanistan Vets of America gave McCain a rating of "D" but gave Obama a B-plus. Or why the same contributions analysis shows Obama with $335,536 from 859 service personnel (deployed or not), whereas McCain had only $280,513 from 558 such personnel. The point of the number or amount of contributions is far less important than what it may say about what active duty members are saying to their families, in-laws, and friends, who in turn influence others around them.

And then there was this I found out myself. In looking through the FEC data for donations this political cycle from the ZIP code in Oklahoma I grew up in (mostly upper middle class, mostly white, safely Republican, and did I mention it's in Oklahoma?), I found that through July, there was more money given to Democratic candidates than Republican candidates (Democrats: $81,178 vs. Republicans $72,586). More importantly, Obama recieved $46,300 in donations in this ZIP code from 52 people, whereas McCain received only $41,768 from 30 people. (As a proof point, Hillary Clinton received $30,945 from 39 people.)

These (military contributions and donations from a Republican Oklahoma ZIP code) are just two examples, and only reflect data through July. But as I say, they give me hope.




Finally, a few worthwhile points about this race:

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

 

Embarrased to Admit: Liveblogging Thursday's DNC

Yes, I Can

I
have no pretensions that anyone is going to bother reading my blog while this Thursday night of the Democratic National Convention is going on. But I want to do this for myself, as a sort of journal entry, because I want to be able to go back to remember what is a historic night. Not as historic as Obama's inauguration will be, obviously -- yes, there's a huge assumption I just slid right past -- but still historic, nonetheless.

And I've never done this before, and there's little likelihood I'll get myself too far from the TV while it's going on, so I might as record what I'm thinking while I'm thinking it. Natalie Goldberg, author of "Wild Mind," call your office.



The Mile High Stadium looks less like the Lincoln Memorial than I expected, hearing there would be "columns" -- marking the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Instead, it looks more like Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Really. (And someone will no doubt make an Albert Speer reference to all this, if they haven't already, but seriously: it's the Shops at the Forum, not the Nuremburg Rally.)



Al Gore is currently speaking. Very quickly. Someone obviously told him they were running over time, to speed it up. Or else he's not used to speaking to 75,000 people. I don't know. But this is the old Al Gore, the same one who didn't get a (large enough) majority of votes to win the 2000 election. He's now making an analogy between Barack Obama with Abraham Lincoln. I like it, but half the people hearing this will find it presumptuous, as they find anything Obama does (or is done on his behalf) to make the case that he's qualified to be president. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation for him, annoying half the people with what you do, and half the people with what you don't.

Overall, a very lame speech by Al. I'm sure a lot of people hearing that are saying, "Oh, yeah: maybe it's not so bad he decided not to run this time around after all."




I'm flipping mostly between C-SPAN and PBS tonight. I've mostly watched C-SPAN and MSNBC all week, but MSNBC has become such a train wreck over the course of the week (as evidenced by this, this, this and especially this, which were cited on Salon for the same reason), I decided I wanted the sober demeanor of Jim Lehrer, the professorial frumpiness of Mark Shields, and even the innocuous David Brooks -- who's a pompous tool, but I have to give him credit for the public Biden plug, it even makes me wonder if he had an inside track.




Following Al Gore was the musician (not my friend by the same name) Michael McDonald, reprising (not nearly as well) Ray Charles's performance of "America the Beautiful" at the 1984 Republican (yes, Republican) convention. They should have gone with Keb' Mo's version.




Susan Eisenhower (Ike's granddaughter) also rushed through her speech -- but she's definitely not used to speaking to a stadium of people. I can't tell if the stiffness so far tonight of the speakers is a factor of the time they're trying for, to get Obama's own "segment" teed up for right at 10pm, or if the venue is intimidating (and how could it not be?) or...what.

Actually, Joe Biden just came out to speak, and this wasn't in the original schedule, so maybe that's why they rushed people through, to make room for him.

He just made a Floyd Little (Denver Broncos) reference. Why do I suspect Democrats between now and November are going to be saying several times, "Good ol' Joe"?

He needs to find a fresh formulation of "the cops and the firefighters, the teachers and the assembly line workers." Twice, exactly like that, is okay, but after three times, it's going to start to sound like interest groups, not careers of regular Americans.




These speeches by the "American Voices" are classic fare: members of the other party who are voting for the other party's candidate, hard-luck tales (from Democrats) or success stories (from Republicans). For the partisans, like the conventions overall, they give you a lift -- "yes, we can!" -- but then afterward you read the distanced, jaundiced commentary and the cynical, sophisticated tone of the pundits (even from your own side, usually, if you're a Democrat), and learn that it didn't earn the candidate that big of a bump in the polls, and you wonder if you were watching the same convention as everyone else, or maybe you're just more gullible than other people.

That's okay. I'll have the gullibility hangover tomorrow. Tonight, I'm enjoying the spectacle and, just as I did four years ago, I'm hoping Americans have moved enough beyond cynicism and really would like to believe in something other than the dark vision of the Republican Party that's been the prevailing message these past 7+ years.




9:56pm: With Dick Durbin up now, this is where it really begins. It's turning 7pm on the West Coast. The East Coast is still up. This is the moment they built this whole week up to. Man, I love political theater!




Obama's bio video was pretty understated, as these things go. And now he's getting ready to speak. Of course, this would be when my laundry needs to come out of the dryer...




The second round of applause I've heard this week from the Democratic convention for John McCain's service. Remains to be seen if there's any applause for Obama's achievement as the first African-American presidential nominee at the GOP convention.




Michelle Obama: that is one fantabulous dress!




Okay, I loved that speech. Apparently, the AP already has a story out there that says, basically, "ho hum." But I think it was a pretty great speech. Who knows how far these move people along in making up their mind? It's telling that Barack Obama had something like 80,000 people in attendance (not counting the millions like me, by television), whereas John McCain is apparently having problems giving away tickets to tomorrow's announcement of his running mate.

And now to bed -- and tomorrow, to Dallas for a few days of interconvention vacation with friends. Happy Labor Day!








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