Sunday, September 29, 2013

Giving up brinkmanship

I am feeling quite chirpy about my chances of buying some artificially depressed stocks later this month.

The New York Times reports:

WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders said on Sunday that they still believed a government shutdown beginning on Tuesday could be averted if Democrats would accept at least some of their demands to scale back President Obama’s health care law.

“I think the House will get back together, in enough time, send another provision not to shut the government down but to fund it, and it will have a few other options in there for the Senate to look at,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican whip, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Right, because the Democrats would never, ever suspect that if they give away part of the health care law Monday, the Republicans will come back for the rest of it two weeks from now in the debt ceiling vote. No, that would never happen, because the Republicans are honest and sensible.

A former newspaper colleague expressed it more emotionally in a Facebook post (I have toned down his language a little):

The House GOP leadership reminds me of my biological father, a similar kind of bullying terrorist freak show who preyed on the most vulnerable. When my sisters and I were very small, he had a favorite method of winning heated arguments he was losing with my mom in our packed family vehicle as it hurtled down the San Bernardino Freeway near LA circa 1962. "If you say one more word, I'm driving this damn car right off the side of this damn freeway!" he would roar, and we kids had no doubt he was dead serious. "Mom, be quiet!!!" we would wail, gripped by a fear that only kids with a lunatic for a parent can relate to and share. Or the vulnerable in a nation led by Republican suicide bombers who hate poor people and seem intent on morally and spiritually bankrupt economic jihad and the politics of fear. Too bad my father is dead, he'd take these  cowardly creeps out for a Sunday drive down memory lane until they too wet their pants. Posers. Go ahead, make our day . . .
 It was a crazy Republican, John Dulles, who invented (or if he did not invent, personified) the term brinkmanship, but he wasn't crazy enough to actually take his country over the brink (or, at least, he never could carry the rest of the government along with him). The 21st-century Republicans have gotten beyond Dulles's timidity.

Or perhaps we should call not on politics but the movies for a working metaphor:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

An unworthy target

RtO must confess to a moral failing: It just loves poking fun at libertarians, although we know that making fun of the mentally handicapped is not cool.

But they make it so easy. Would a libertarian bend over to pick up  a nickel lost in the gutter? More to the point, if he saw someone drop the nickel, would he hurry to return the nickel?

Dumbesilleh. You can't be a libertarian if you go around throwing away money.

All this leading up to a satire on Part 3 of the Atlas Shrugged movie. I confess, I didn't know there had already been two parts released:

 Never mind what the free market said about the need for the third installment
They're out to make Part 3 anyway.

Be sure to read the comments which are much funnier than RtO could manage

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Civics lesson

Sure, this guy is not mentally ill (so far as the story goes), so what could possibly go wrong if he carries a loaded pistol to work at his state Capitol?

Let us count the ways.

A Missouri House staffer reportedly left a loaded gun in a public restroom in the state Capitol last week.
According to a Capitol Police incident report, a Kahr CM9 9mm pistol – later claimed by House Speaker Tim Jones’ legislative assistant Dave Evans – was found on top of the toilet paper dispenser in a men's restroom in the Capitol basement Friday. The incident report states that the gun “was fully loaded with one round in the chamber and six rounds in the magazine.”
Loaded with hollow-point bullets, according to another report because some of those Capitol rats can't be brought down with just one round.

No information about whether the safety was set to "on" or "gun nut," but Missourians will be comforted to know that "A law passed in 2011 allows Missouri legislators and their staffers to have guns in the Capitol if they have concealed gun permits."

The story does not say whether common or garden  variety Missouri citizens can pack heat on lobbying visits in order to protect themselves in case a deranged Republican solon (but we repeat ourselves) should crack and start shooting. 

It goes without saying, of course, that everyone needs to carry a pistol with a round racked in the chamber, at work or at home, in order to prevent tragedies like this. Even out in the countryside, it is important to have a firearm, in case you are attacked by a bear.

Because as Dave Evans can testify, you can't be too careful.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Obamacare fallout

Remember those predictions that Obamacare would result in lost jobs; or reduction of full-time jobs to part-time; or to ditching company medical plans?

Not at the nation's biggest retailer. Bloomberg News sez:

 Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is moving 35,000 part-time workers to full-time status and is elevating another 35,000 to part-time from temporary after struggling to keep shelves stocked with too few employees in the past year.
Reading further, it seems the geniuses in Bentonville (who don't even trust their managers to turn on the lights) cut payrolls by 10% while adding 500 stores. But it turns out workers are valuable to businesses after all.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


JONESBORO, Arkansas — A planned march in downtown Jonesboro that organizers say is intended to educate people about openly carrying firearms in Arkansas has been postponed because of the shooting death of a 17-year-old boy.
I'd say the Jonesboroites already learned one lesson.

Arkansas Carry member Scott Vaughn told The Jonesboro Sun ( ) that the march is being postponed "out of respect for the family." He said the march would have gone forward if the shooting had been an act of violence.
Presumably he meant "criminal violence" and not "stupid violence." But the boy is just as dead.

The NRA: Not caring who gets hurt for over 100 years.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

One Saturday at the mall

Remarkable report from a New York Times photographer who went into the Nairobi mall during the terrorist attack. Be sure to read his comments below the photographs.

I was struck, as so often these days, by the vast range of lifestyles in what I grew up thinking of as backward places. Some years ago, I read a report on a researcher who was trying to develop a veterinary vaccine against sleeping sickness.

He did, but it was impractical as it had to be refrigerated. This was a problem even at his research farm, which was 10 miles outside Nairobi.  Even then, which was about 30 years ago, Nairobi had skyscrapers and looked, from a distance, like a modern city; but a short walk away there wasn't even electricity.

In its way, I suppose, it was and is a modern city, complete with atavistic medievalisms. This struck me even more since this weekend I have been reading a history of the violent dockyards culture of New York City in the first half of the 20th century.

Also, from Tyler Hicks's commentary, it sounds as if the Nairobi police and soldiers performed in a skilled and experienced fashion.

Rather better than I can imagine our Maui flatfoots doing, even with their armored car. The Nairobi coppers went inside, putting themselves in harm's way, which is more than our American cops like to do.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Life is strange

Who was talking crazier in the past week, Aaron Alexis, or John Boehner?

If Tom DeLay, a famous, powerful, rich white guy, can be wrongly convicted in a court in Texas, what do you think of the chances of a poor, unknown Mexican wetback?

Shouldn't the Greenpeace protesters trying to get out to the Russian petroleum rig have used a sailboat? Or a rowboat? Kayak? Surely not an outboard-powered Zodiac?

If something is on the front pages of the papers for day after day, can you really say "nobody is talking about" it? Are they letting just anybody into Harvard these days?

Isn't this funny?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Book Review 297: The Generals

THE GENERALS: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks. 558 pages, illustrated. Penguin, $32.95

The late infantry officer David Hackworth quit the Army in disgust over what he called its “no-fault” leadership. It was obvious something was wrong because America, despite all its resources, kept losing wars.

In “The Generals,” Thomas Ricks takes a very narrow approach to explaining defeat, and is persuasive, so far as he goes. Like Hackworth, he finds that failure is not only tolerated but rewarded. And he finds an origin story to explain why: Since 1945, the Army’s high commanders have stopped relieving non-performing combat officers.

While Hackworth called for drastic reforms such as restoring conscription, Ricks limits himself to structural  changes, like better training and, of course, a return to the habit of saying, “I relieve you” when a crisis arises.

The Navy, he notes, still does this, removing commanders frequently. But relief almost always results in the end of a naval officer’s career, even if the crisis (like having your anchored ship beached by a tsunami) was beyond the commander’s control. (Although there was a famous exception: Chester Nimitz grounded a destroyer, usually the end, but was not run out; luckily for the Navy.)

The Army, up to ’45, sometimes gave relieved combat commanders another chance; and some of the most valuable parts of “The Generals” explains how that came about. Ricks calls for  a relief ethos that recognizes that some commanders who don’t fit in one slot can do well in another: his favorite example is Maj. Gen. “Terrible” Terry Allen.

What he never addresses, though, is what so often has happened: A commander fails for lack of resources, is fired, then a new commander is given the right tools and succeeds.

Perhaps this is justified. Although he covers each of his examples briefly, there are so many that the book is long.  And besides, there are no recent instances of American Army commanders who failed for lack of resources, except in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the failures were their own fault for not understanding that they needed a lot more infantry than they had.

It is hard to understand why Ricks gives no attention (just one sentence) to the warning by Eric Shinseki, the only competent chief of staff since the early ‘50s, that the 2003 Iraq war could not be concluded successfully without infantry.

Incurious George fired Shinseki, so that would have been a marvelous opening to explore the failures of civilian high command. It isn’t only our generals who do not know what they are doing.

Most of “The Generals” is analysis of facts more or less known, but I did learn one important piece of information I had not seen before. In the earlier Gulf War, apparently Colin Powell was also concerned about lack of infantry, although not enough to lose his job over it.

It is noteworthy that Ricks, a newspaperman, uses almost no journalistic sources, instead mining a huge trove of military studies, plus some interviews done for this book.

This should make his conclusions more appealing to Pentagon power brokers, who have a long history of disdaining newspaper reporters who, it so often turns out, were right after all. But I have seen no evidence that Ricks’ book has had any effect. His book “Fiasco” about how we lost the second Iraq and Afghanistan wars was devastating about the failures of Ray Odierno (which were almost exactly the failures of William Westmoreland in Vietnam), but Odierno is now chief of staff. (He comes off better in this book than in “Fiasco,” for reasons not evident to me.)

I admire Ricks for his intense focus but do not think either his analysis nor his proposed remedies are anywhere near the whole story. He does not, for example, spend any time at all on corruption, which was rampant when I was an officer trainee 50 years ago and, as your daily newspaper will tell you, still is.

On the other hand, Ricks really knows his Army. He is the first historian or analyst I have encountered who understands that the Army ran out of platoon leaders during Tet, something that was obvious to us trainees at the time. (He places the beginning of that failure too late, but at least he recognizes failure when he sees it.) He throws that observation in casually, as if it were something everyone understands. It isn’t; it is something that deserves a book in itself.

Ah, well, that is part of the disappointment of reading a really good book. It is always too short.

Out of the market

Although I was a business reporter for most of my 45 years in newspapers, I was not much concerned with big issues; I covered local doings. When people asked, as they often did, for my thoughts on markets, I would usually say, "I'm 6,000 miles from Wall Street. You should read Barron's."

That was not particularly an endorsement of Barron's, just a way of saying I wasn't keeping up with day-to-day market gossip. That also did not mean that I didn't think I understood markets. I think I do.

When RtO started early in 2008, its constant theme was that the "rescue" of Bear Strearns was really a suspension and market failure, papered over in the interests of Wall Street, not of ordinary investors. I dated the market failure to August 2007, which I believe is pretty generally agreed by historians now, though I do not recall many other people saying so at the time. (The concept of a concealed market collapse is, I think, novel; it is an outcome of effective central banking, which can keep paper levitated for a surprisingly long time, but not forever.)

Anyhow, all through the summer of 2008 I broke my habit of not giving market advice to the extent of repeatedly advising followers of RtO to conserve cash, which meant cashing in securities -- funny word, that, in the context.

I didn't cash my own securities because I didn't have any and as far as I know, nobody else did on my suggestion either.

It wasn't the first time during my reporting life that I foresaw a capitalist coup but missed getting rich because I didn't have any capital. My heart is with the working man.

Now I do, and I've been waiting for a chance to sell short. This morning I dumped almost all my equities.

One of the brokerages  I use published a roundup of expert opinion that the federal fiscal crisis should not unduly disturb markets. I think otherwise. I anticipate a correction -- marvelous Freudian word! -- by the end of October, after which I will repurchase most of the securities I held until yesterday.

Just more of them.

That's the plan anyway.

There seems to be a disconnect between newspapermen and financial men. For example, this morning Greg Sargent had this to say in the Washington Post:
 * YEP: WE’RE HEADED FOR CHAOS THIS FALL: Norman Ornstein lays out the reasons he thinks a government shutdown and/or debt ceiling default are genuinely possible this time around. If anything, John Boehner is exerting even less control over the Tea Party wing than in 2011, while Mitch McConnell — facing a challenge from the right — has less of an incentive to step in and fill the vacuum. Meanwhile, the hope that a few GOP Senators splitting with party leaders and dragging their party towards sanity has waned. Utter chaos.
I can't lose. Should sanity break out and I lose money (more precisely, fail to gain), my country would gain.

I'm still rankled that I couldn't buy Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel C bonds at 190 in 1970, though. They paid off at par. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How stupid can intelligence be?

NPR today confirms something I had read much earlier in the Snowden affair but could hardly credit; although I was keeping an open mind, because my reading of the history of intelligence agencies is that the term is the all-time oxymoron.

Snowden just downloaded America's secrets onto thumb drives. This is the digital-age equivalent of the great investigator I.F. Stone's comment that the government publishes everything it knows, somewhere, and all a reporter has to do is find it.

I am no expert on computer security, but long ago (about 30 years) I spoke to a consultant that the newspaper I was working on had hired to make our computers secure. (He didn't, at least not from the kinds of hijinks that go on in newsrooms. I could tell you stories.)

We were just shooting the breeze, it wasn't an interview, and I mentioned that I had read somewhere that secure computers had their USB-ports epoxied so no one could use them.

"Not any more," he told me."We have digital locks that are more secure."

I was more polite than people in those days were accustomed to find me, so I didn't tell him he was an idiot, but I did mention to the boss that I didn't believe the guy was reliable enough to pay.

A lot has happened since then, but intelligence experts are still leaving thumb drives open. Can you say Stuxnet?

Monday, September 16, 2013

How to wreck a financial system

This one is especially for Skipper and others who insist that the CRA caused the crash of '08. The key words in this piece about credit default swaps are "completely unregulated."

Allow me to repeat that: COMPLETELY UNREGULATED.

Although Brenton Smith does not say so, the Lehman CDS deals were so opaque that today, five years after its bankruptcy, some of them are still  unsettled.

Nobody knows the total of CDS obligations, because -- wait for it! -- they were COMPLETELY UNREGULATED. But a common estimate was $55 trillion, or several times the cumulative economic activity of humans since the first caveman traded a rabbit skin for a pretty shell.

Should you click through to the Smith piece and then click through to Smith's link about what he calls Bill Ackman's lies, allow me to commend your attention to the date of the story about that: July 2008. (That summer, RtO, a new blog, was constantly repeating financial advice: conserve cash. It was no secret, at least to me, that a crash had been engineered.)

Should you think Ackman's name is familiar, he is known around here for -- until recently -- holding a big stake in A&B, and, more broadly, for being wrong about his bets on business about as often as he is right.

In other words, the people who devised the system that crashed didn't understand it. They were just shooting crap, and if they won, they collected billions. And the way it was set up, even when they guessed wrong, they collected millions. The key word here is GUESSED.


Courtesy of a Facebook friend, this morning I was presented with the following support for the last paragraph of this post.

Funny thing.When rightwingers bitch about income redistribution, they always point to people who are doing their jobs competently, even if the job is no more complicated than restocking shelves at Wal-Mart. I have never, ever heard one of them complain about the massive income redistribution to business management (doubling under Reaganomics) despite the obvious fact that management is, on average, incompetent.

CEO pay has, on average, doubled when  compared to worker-bee pay. I doubt anyone will be bold enough to propose that CEO's have doubled their relative productivity.

Arguments that market forces bring us the best achievable distribution of economic assets sound really silly when you think of "management skills" as an asset.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A fine mess

It would have been a fine thing if the rightwingers had welcomed America's cost-free victory in Syria -- the first time American diplomacy has gotten something for nothing since Jimmy Carter got us out of Panama -- but of course they did not. This was to be expected: People who still haven't recognized our huge and costly defeat in Iraq can hardly be expected to recognize a small victory in Syria (assuming the deal works out).

I do not think Obama's "red line" statement was well-thought-out (see below for some reasons), but it did put Assad in play in American politics, which he had not been before. If Assad had had much sense, he'd have cottoned on to the probability that Obama's warning meant he could not use gas weapons at no cost, and he would not have used them. Obama would have scored a cheap advantage. (The cost would have come in making it that much harder to intervene more strongly against Assad later, inasmuch as he could say he had "behaved" per international norms and American wishes.)

I do not suspect that Obama is so devious that he was trying to forestall demands for a forward policy in Syria. Those demands were already around, and he had resisted them. I suspect he just hoped that a warning could put some limits on a deteriorating situation. It used to work sometimes in the days of gunboat diplomacy when Hillaire Belloc could take comfort that "we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not," although that was in the 1890s and "they" have had Maxim guns, and worse, since roughly 1945.

I also do not think that Obama is so deft that he calculated that Russia would decide it was in its interest to corral Assad. (See "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," June 23) Until a couple of weeks ago, Russia had blocked every move against Syria at the UN, which probably means Obama knew when he made the "red line" statement that it implied military action, more or less unilateral, on his part.

We know, at least, that he was willing to take that course.

Up to that point, Obama's moves were not unlike Incurious George's in the runup to the 2003 disaster, with the significant exception that Joe Biden didn't fake the intel or freeze out the regular policy apparatus. This president's military intentions were surely less grandiose than that president's, but that might not have mattered a great deal; once the shooting starts, there is always a strong temptation to send in (more) Marines. 

The idea -- so ingrained in John McCain -- that a few cruise missiles would have made a difference is certainly a rightwing delusion (but note the commenters, who sussed Eliot Cohen's disingenuous political subtext).

The dissent, from both left and right, was both a rebuke and an opportunity for Obama. (I wish I could believe the rightwing dissent had been a rare example of realism, but it was just a mixture of traditional isolationism and Obama-hatred). Unlike Iraq, where Incurious George was going to have war no matter what, and his Texas yahoos approached the issue in complete ignorance (and left the same way), Obama was flexible in thinking and methods and able to listen and learn.

I have to think that Parliament's vote was a shock that made him rethink, and it may be that Putin, too, saw the delay as an opening he could use to back away from a client whose recklessness portended even greater headaches for Russia. Whatever Putin's motives -- and they remain as mysterious to me as his earlier support; the idea that he was protecting his eastern Mediterranean base for his useless navy is the kind of rightwing delusion that lost us the Iraq war -- Obama showed the kind of suppleness combined with a focus on the original goal that is exactly what you want in a diplomat and a commander.

Watching the rightwingers and the Obama-haters immediately start worrying that Putin was gaming Obama, and some leftwingers' deluding themselvess that somehow Putin had wrested the moral high ground from Obama confirms that Obama is a strategist and they are mere tacticians (and not even good at that).

If eliminating gas weapons is so important it justifies intervening in a remarkably stupid and mixed up civil war (and I don't think it is, see below), then Obama is now on the way to complete success without a shot fired -- a rare and precious accomplishment. 

The sour grapes heard from the rebels -- the ones all this effort was undertaken to protect, remember -- proves that Obama, if he had not been cautious and focused, could have been dragged into taking part in a no-win civil war; that was what the rebels (or some of them) wanted, and no number of gassed children would have been too many for them if they could have tricked America into that. They could have done it, too; they tricked Lindsey Graham easily enough.

And now, time to restate some obvious things about gas warfare.

First, it is not effective. Every big army has played with gas, but since World War I, none has bothered to use it. Hitler had sarin, too, and he didn't use it.

Poison gas has been used only a few times: by the Italians in Abyssinia, by the Japanese in China, by America in Vietnam, by Russia in Afghanistan, perhaps by Russian surrogates in Cambodia, by Iraq against Kurds and Iranians, by Assad against Syrians and (in a very minor, kitchen-sink kind of way) by the Russians against the Germans.

In no case did gas warfare accomplish anything. Its biggest succcess was against the Kurds, it helped chase them away but it did not break their resistance permanently.

Gas is hard to manage -- impossible after it is released -- and it cannot do do anything other weapons cannot.

Second, although it inspires a particular horror or revulsion, at least among peoples who were shocked by its introduction in 1915, this is a tribute to PR not to effects. Gas has never been used to kill or injure any considerable number of people; and while the prospect of choking sounds a particularly awful way to die (to me anyway), it is not demonstrably worse than being raped and  bayoneted, to take one example.

Third, if the goal is to forestall atrocious cruelty and murder, there are places where you could get a much bigger return for your effort than Syrian cities -- central Africa, for example.

A fourth point about the Syrian crisis, not related to gas, but obvious to anyone who knows the history of Syria: the French pose to intervene to save Syrian civilians is as phony -- RtO is tempted to also say, as typically phony -- as French offers to help usually are. The French care so little for Syrians that they killed 300,000 of them to enforce their mandate in 1920, a mandate that, like Russian interests in Syria, had little to support it except sentimentalism, in the French case for the crusades and in opposition to the English.

A fifth point, very obvious, is that no sense or decency can be expected out of the Muslims in all this.  Not only is the war about one kind of Muslim killing another kind as much as it is about anything -- the very last thing it is about is democracy -- the non-Syrian Muslims see it mostly as a hammer to crush Jews. The state of Israel, although nearly concerned about the outcome of events, has been careful not to meddle in Syrian affairs, but numbers of "Arab leaders" had promised that if America took steps, they would retaliate by killing Jews.

It is only restating the obvious to say that anybody whose default reaction to any sort of trouble is, kill the Jews, is more dangerous than all the poison gas in Syria. 

Guns in the home. For defense

I'll bet that, today, Officer Kittrick wishes that woman had been in the NRA and had had a gun handy so she could have shot the scary black dude herself, instead of leaving him to do it.

A modest proposal from RtO: In debates about the 2nd Amendment, can we abandon the one-to-one calculus of "bad guys shot" compared to "good guys shot"? I propose that when people in trouble seeking a Good Samaritan are shot to death, we should apply a multiplier (say, 3) to the total.

That is, when exercising your 2nd Amendment rights and shooting one traffic accident victim or little kid asking for a drink of water in the night, those deaths should NOT be treated as equivalent to shooting a carjacker. They should be treated as much worse. much more socially damaging.

(A personal prediction: A college friend who lived in that Tennessee Williamsian boarding house [precisely, its twin next door] I wrote about the other day ["Freedom, yeah," Sept.8] and today lives near the site of Kittrick's crime posts regular FB updates on gun safety courses he teaches, but I bet he won't mention this.)

A rightwinger with a good idea

It doesn't happen often, so RtO should seize the moment.

Key idea:

If scientists are wrong about evolution, try convincing them, not high-school students.
The author, Kevin Williamson, went to a public high school in Texas which just goes to show that even in Texas some people can think clearly despite being brought up in an environment where almost ll the role models are ignorant boobs.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rightwing redefines 'irony'

From The Washington Post:

“Wouldn’t it be ironic if the government shuts down because our leadership won’t offer a bill that Republicans will vote for? That’s what happened this week,” said freshman Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of the leading agitators pushing to defund the health-care law, even if it means shutting down the government.
Well, no. That isn't what irony means. 

But referring to "Republican leadership" is delusional.

The New York Times has a short blog comment, which seems inadequate to the occasion, but, after all, it is Fashion Week in Manhattan. Still, it doesn't take many words to describe the situation:

Some senior Republican aides say that as long as House Republicans remain united in opposition, they don’t see how the package can pass. But House leadership aides expressed confidence that the revolt could be cooled down by next week.
What would be ironic would be if Syria brings down the American national government by distracting everyone's attention to chemical weapons. I don't think that was the kind of regime change Incurious George intended to set in motion in 2003.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Danger from firearms

Nice to know that gunmakers care about the danger from their weapons to buyers. Too bad they don't care anything about the people around the buyers.

If you
own or have access to a Caracal Model C pistol,
YOUR PISTOL. Please contact
customer care
to arrange to have your
Model C pistol

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Freedom, yeah!

In Iowa, sheriffs issue carry permits for firearms to blind people, because what could possibly go wrong?

As it happens, the story does not relate any incidents in which blind people shot kids for playing in apple trees, which suggests something, I guess. Though perhaps not this:

The National Federation of the Blind generally opposes vision-related restrictions, because as its director of public relations Chris Danielsen points out, “presumably [blind people] are going to have enough sense not to use a weapon in a situation where they would endanger other people, just like we would expect other people to have that common sense.”

A bit of backstory here. Iowa has had a history of militant blindism which, despite its sometimes comical aspects, probably was a good thing for many blind people who are capable of more than traditional charitymongers were willing to allow. On the other hand, maybe shooting in public is not one of them.

Of course, the same objection can be made of sighted people. 

When I was in college I rented a room in a boarding house that had some aspects of a Tennessee Williams play. Each Sunday, the landlady, her sister and her sister's husband drank iced tea and played canasta on the front porch.

And each Sunday, the landlady made the same complaint, that her other sister (who did not attend) had thrown her life away by marrying a blind man.

In fact, her sister seemed to have a fine marriage to a man who made his living as an administrator in the state office for the blind and who was able to travel the country alone on business. The landlady's sighted husband, on the other hand, had been dead for over 30 years, and she was a secret lush.

Unregulated banks

In the New York Times, Gretchen Morgenstern has an interesting suggestion -- pierce the veil behind unregulated lenders (in this case, a financial corporation operating under Indian law on a reservation with, it is safe to say, no financial experts in its structure) to learn who's really behind it.

There's a lot of it going around. The Times is among several papers to have called attention to the way the biggest banks put money into questionable microlenders operating among the poorest of the poor, so while the Rez may not be implicated in the bulk of abusive lending, the problem is a big one.

Followers of RtO may want to read the whole thing, because, as so often happens in good print journalism, there's a nugget way, way down in the story. This goes to the phony claim that the CRA (and not a market failure) was behind the crash of '08. Morgenstern is an expert on the subject, one of a handful of reporters who saw it coming and published stories that were ignored in the frenzy to make easy money. So her passing remark carries weight:

The funding arrangements used by Western Sky and Cash Call are reminiscent of what occurred in the recent mortgage mania. The most egregious predatory lending wasn’t done, for the most part, by big national banks. It was done by smaller subprime mortgage companies like New Century, NovaStar and Fremont General, which made thousands upon thousands of loans.
But these companies wouldn’t have been able to make even 100 loans had they not gotten the money they needed from the big Wall Street banks. The warehouse lines of credit provided by those banks, therefore, enabled the underwriting of billions of dollars in dubious mortgages. Without access to that money, most of the worst loans would not have been written. When Wall Street cut off the credit spigot, these companies folded almost overnight.

Friday, September 6, 2013

War scare

I spent the lunch two hours today in the lobby of the Navy Exchange, babysitting my granddaughters while my daughter was shopping. After a while watching men and women in uniform and their families, and retirees; it occurred to me that no group in America looks less like today's Republican Party than our armed forces.

Even the officers from the Chinese navy looked more like our fighting men than the Republicans do.

You know what our armed forces look like? Like their gardeners.



Thank goodness we are a free country, where it is OK for people to do this.

Bad reporting

The New York Times has a remarkably bad story about minority visitors to national parks. Not as bad as anything in Style, but for the news columns really stupid. It cites a National Parks study worrying that only 1 in 5 visitors to our magnificent national parks is African-American -- not stated that this is about the same as the proportion of blacks in the whole population.

It certainly would not surprise me to discover that blacks are underrepresented at, say, Yellowstone, just as they are underrepresented at Bohemian Grove. It takes money to visit Yellowstone, and to the extent that blacks and browns have less money, I'd expect they'd go to Yellowstone less frequently.

I'm not sure places like Chickamauga hold any particular allure for black people, either.

But what struck me most strongly about this piece was the lack of recognition that Americans are a minority at our great national parks, or some of them.

I was at Grand Canyon in July. Only 1 in 5 visitors is American. That fits the profile of the group I went up with -- one American and five from Ulster.

And has anyone noticed that an unusually large proportion o Japanese visit the Arizona Memorial?
Non-white and white visitors at Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon
 The Times should investigate!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


I found this while wearing my other blogger hat (, and I have a few questions:

Investing fine print: Fox News analyst Tobin Smith was dropped by the network last week on the same day Marketwatch's Chuck Jaffe reported that Smith's company was getting paid to tout individual stocks via paid research. According to Jaffe:
"The people who contacted me considered buying the stock entirely based on Smith’s say-so, and the credibility he exudes in his Fox appearances. They didn’t appear to read the disclaimers of the campaign; had they bothered, they would have quickly found it was paid advertising for which Smith’s company pocketed $50,000."
Smith's research called one company, Petrosonic, “the investment opportunity of your lifetime,” according to Jaffe. Unfortunately the company has no profits, negative cash flow and a “going-concern letter” from auditors who think there is “substantial doubt” about its ability to stay in business.
The lesson: Do your own research, folks.

Good advice. And you know who should have taken it? Fox News. While at first blush, it seems to Fox's credit that it canned the tout once he was exposed, where was the network's vetting before putting him on in the first place?

Is Smith's behavior actionable by the regulators? After all, we are constantly being told (by Fox News, among others) that the regulators are too much with us.

I suspect Smith's behavior (assuming Jaffe reported it correctly) is not sanctionable. You can pretty much get away with financial murder as long as you disclose it in proxy material. (See "New meaning of 'stock market crash,' Aug. 22) Whether those disclosure rules extend to TV touting, I'm not sure. I would never, ever pay attention to financial advice I heard over the TV, so I've never thought about it.

Is a company sanctionable if it uses corporate funds to hire TV flacks to lie about its prospects on a show aimed at investors? How about if it also  tells the truth in its SEC filings? I've never heard of such a prosecution. It's stories like this that make me skeptical that over-regulation is the real source of our problems.

The other takeaway from this little story, though, applies to anybody planning to retire on his investments. The market is rigged to screw you. Not everybody, but you.. (I hope to find time to expand on this soon.)

Stock touting is only a minor aspect of that.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review 296: Pan American Clippers

PAN AMERICAN CLIPPERS: The Golden Age of Flying Boats, by James Trautman. 272 pages, illustrated. Boston Mills

“Pan American Clippers” is a coffee table book in the worst sense of that name. Lots of pictures, including plenty of advertisements, with an atrocious text.

James Trautman lifted a lot of it from company press releases. Too bad. It would have been an interesting story. (Some of that can be found -- with few and small pictures -- in Robert Gandt’s “China Clipper.”)

Trautman cannot even get straight how many “clippers” there were: 28, according to his list of frame numbers. That’s a very small number, but since Trautman is concerned only with America and Pan American, he doesn’t count other, similar planes.

So it is not true that Pan Am pioneered almost everything about long-distance air travel. Imperial Airways was running planes between England and Australia when Pan Am was just tentatively expanding beyond its Key West-Havana short hop.

Nevertheless, when Trautman dumped his notebooks into the word processor, a few curious items survived. One was a speech by designer Igor Sikorsky praising the S-42, the first big American seaplane.

Some had said that big planes were impractical. Sikorsky correctly disagreed, but his vision of the future was as far off base as most such predictions:

“Passenger comforts would increase with the size of the ship. In a seaplane of 100,000 pounds or more, it would be possible to have the individual cabins, dining rooms, smoking rooms, etcetera, entirely comparable in comfort and luxury to those of a modern ocean liner. . . .  Greater cruising speeds (than 200 miles an hour) are possible, but the size of the earth does not warrant greater speeds.

“The progress of air transportation will benefit more if designers will give more attention to increased passenger comfort and ways and means to lower transportation costs rather than greater speed.”