Daily Archives: March 7, 2010

Animals lose big in Switzerland

Proposal to appoint them lawyers trounced at the polls. Maybe they can persuade some of those Great Whites to migrate their way.

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Obama setting up a health care sucker punch for Democrat reps?

The WSH sets up a plausible scenario where he does just that.

Last week President Obama sanctioned “reconciliation,” a complex tactic that would jam ObamaCare into law on sheer power politics. But what if this gambit is really a false-flag operation, meant to lure House Democrats into voting for a bill that they would otherwise oppose? That’s the question many rank-and-file Members are now asking themselves, and they’re right to be worried.

The cleanest option for Democrats would be for the House to pass the Senate’s Christmas Eve bill word for word, thereby bypassing a Senate filibuster under the normal rules and forwarding ObamaCare directly to the Rose Garden signing ceremony. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said the votes simply don’t exist for the Senate bill as is.


Thus the convoluted scheme the White House has mapped out. The House would first pass the Senate bill, and then pass a reconciliation bill that addresses these objections—in effect converting the process into a makeshift and unprecedented vehicle for amendments. Mrs. Pelosi can’t rope in the 216 votes she needs without an iron-clad promise of another round of Senate action.

Iron-clad promise—or double-cross? After all, the White House would much prefer the Senate bill, because by its lights the cost-control programs are tougher than what the House prefers. And from a political perspective, a bill that can be signed immediately and that the press will portray as an historic achievement is far better than the drawn-out and gory battle that would be reconciliation. Republican Senators will have many procedural knives at their disposal, and the process will force Democrats to cast further votes and spend more months debating a deeply unpopular bill.

In other words, perhaps Mr. Obama has embraced this reconciliation two-step only to renege as soon as the House gives him what he wants. While some House Democrats would be furious, they’d soon be defending the Senate bill by necessity against the GOP. The moderates who vote for it might be collateral damage, but the White House has already concluded that this is the price of building its cradle-to-grave entitlement citadel.

Mr. Obama’s closing arguments are lending credence to rank-and-file fears that they’re getting played. Democrats are telling reporters that Mr. Obama has been telling them in private meetings that his Presidency, and the party’s claim to any achievement, rests on passing a bill. With barely any mention of substance, the right bill is any bill, by any political means necessary.


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Great White Sharks may migrate to dine on giant squid

National Geographic photo

Cool article here in the Los Angeles Times.

In what could be the ultimate marine smack-down, great white sharks off the California coast may be migrating 1,600 miles west to do battle with creatures that rival their star power: giant squids.

A series of studies tracking this mysterious migration has scientists rethinking not just what the big shark does with its time but also what sort of creature it is.

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Banks to be forced to write-down 2nd mortgages?

That’s what the WSJ is reporting.

Pressure is growing on U.S. banks to ease terms for distressed homeowners on home-equity loans and other second-lien mortgages.

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, last week sent a letter to the four biggest U.S. banks demanding “immediate steps to write down second mortgages.” The Massachusetts Democrat sent the letter to the chief executive officers of Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is preparing to launch long-planned initiatives aimed at addressing these obstacles.

Many second liens have little value because of the plunge in home prices, Rep. Frank wrote, adding: “Yet because accounting rules allow holders of these seconds to carry the loans at artificially high values, many refuse to acknowledge the losses and write down the loans.”

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Chile gets back on its feet

After a slow start, it sounds like things are improving in Chile. I was struck, reading this report in the Ties, that DHL actually has a “director of humanitarian affairs” – that’s sort of neat.

Some disaster veterans say Chile’s disaster response has been remarkable, largely avoiding bureaucratic infighting and quickly patching up the international airport and main north-south highway to keep aid flowing.

”Could FEMA have done that?” said Chris Weeks, director of humanitarian affairs for the DHL delivery company, referring to the U.S. government’s disaster agency.

Weeks, the leader of a group of DHL volunteers who organize airport aid deliveries in major disasters worldwide, said, ”These Chileans are such can-do people. … I’ve seen damaged bridges with big metal slabs covering the gaps. If that were the States they would close the bridges for two months while structural engineers figured out if you could cross.”

Chileans also are helping themselves: Complementing Chile’s intensive military aid, volunteers have appeared all over to deliver clothes and food, and a national telethon collected $58 million Saturday — twice what organizers hoped for.


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The headlines emphasize bombs and mortars – reality sounds better

BBC reports on Iraq’s vote today . The print version doesn’t dwell on the huge turnout of citizens who have defied the terrorists but I’m listening to their reporter on the scene, Hugh Sykes, on the radio now and he is much, much more positive. It sounds like a great success, which is a relief. Here’s a bit of Mr. Syke’s report:

In a small village near Ramadi in Anbar province west of Baghdad, 300 of the 400 people on the electoral roll had already cast their vote by mid-morning.

It was like a party – hugs, smiles and animated conversations. Many parents brought their children with them. No sign that anyone had been intimidated by threats from al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Far to the south, in the holy city of Najaf, a similarly festive – and defiant – mood. The corridors of a Najaf school echoed with a babble of happy chat.

Three small boys crowded round their dad as he cast his vote, and then – like him – they dipped their fingers in the purple ink.

And a student of English, Zaid Mirza, said he had voted “for change, and new faces”.


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If you think things can’t get worse in Zimbabwe, you’re likely wrong

Mugabe says he’ll run again. And new laws are finishing off the few white businesses still standing. My mother had friends who left South Africa forty years ago, declaring that there was no future for whites in Africa (they were ardently opposed to apartheid, by the way). I’m surprised there are still whites in Zimbabwe who haven’t made that same discovery.

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Azzam the American captured in Pakistan

Cool – we should be seeing our first trial for treason in a long time, unless Obama keeps him in Gitmo.

UPDATE: Dang  – probably an unfounded rumor.

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Rent, not buy? Yale’s Robert Shiller:

In fact, there is much more to the history of subsidizing housing. While the crisis in the housing market shows that our current approach is far from perfect, there is a certain wisdom behind it, related not only to economic stimulus but also to the preservation of a sense of national identity. It’s important to remember this as we consider re-engineering our institutions as the crisis ebbs.

Federal subsidies for housing essentially began in the Great Depression with, among other things, the creation of the F.H.A. in 1934 and Fannie Mae in 1938. It all started for a simple reason: more than a third of all the unemployed were identified, directly or indirectly, with the building trades. At the time, there seemed to be no way to reduce unemployment without stimulating housing, and much the same is true today.

But consider what will happen once the economy is again operating at full capacity. Basic economics tells us that when Americans, over all, spend more on housing, they must ultimately spend less on something else. Why should housing consumption be better than other consumption, or investments that people might choose?

This time, the best answer isn’t found in traditional economics but rather in American culture: a long-standing feeling that owning homes in healthy communities is connected to individual liberties that embody our national identity. Historically, homeownership has been associated with freedom, while renting — often in tenements or mill villages — has been linked to the oppression of a landlord.

In his classic 1985 book, “Crabgrass Frontier,” Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia Universitydelineated the complex train of thought that over the last two centuries has produced the American belief that homeownership encourages pride and good citizenship and, ultimately, preservation of liberty. These attitudes are enduring.

Back in 1899, in “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Thorstein Veblen described homeownership, particularly of large and expensive dwellings, as “conspicuous consumption.” By that, he meant that it was undertaken substantially for the purpose of impressing others by showing the amount of money one can afford to waste on space one doesn’t need.

What is specifically American here — though it’s increasingly seen in other countries, too — may be the modern sense of equal citizenship, engendered by the illusion that we can sustain conspicuous housing consumption even among a majority of the people.

In short, this all has a great deal to do with culture, and little to do with financial wisdom. After all, financial theory suggests that people should not own their own homes, at least not in the way that many do today. A cardinal tenet is that people should diversify — meaning they shouldn’t put nearly all of their financial eggs in one basket, which is what homeownership now means for so many people.

American mortgage institutions encourage people to take a leveraged position in the real estate market, which is quite risky because home prices can and do decline, as we have learned so painfully. Leverage a risky investment 10 to 1 and you can expect trouble — and we have plenty of it today. More than 16 million homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to Mark Zandi of Economy.com.

If we choose to keep subsidizing individual homeownership, we must also commit to adding safeguards so that homeowners are less financially vulnerable. Of course, that will require some creative finance.

But first, we should rethink the idea of renting, which could be a viable option for many more Americans and needn’t endanger the traditional values of individual liberty and good citizenship.

Switzerland, for example, is a country with strong patriotism, a fighting spirit of national defense, a commitment to freedom and tolerance, and a low crime rate. Yet its homeownership rate is just 34.6 percent, versus 66.2 percent for the United States, according to the two countries’ 2000 censuses.

Swiss national identity doesn’t depend on homeownership. Instead, Riccarda Torriani, a historian at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, links the country’s sense of identity to such things as its system of direct democracy, which enforces popular participation in government; the idea that its citizens are frontier people (living in or near the rugged Alps); and a history of collective courage in defense of freedom, even when outnumbered.

BUT America isn’t Switzerland. Our values and habits of thought are very different. Moreover, our homes are largely scattered in vast suburbs, often with distinct features. If many of these homes needed to be converted to rental units, home prices might well drop.

A stock of apartment buildings in central cities, of course, makes rental management much easier. This is true in Switzerland, as well as in American cities like New York, which aren’t typical of the rest of the United States. We need to consider a gradual transition toward new kinds of housing finance institutions — entities that may lead us to a different kind of housing, yet preserve our core values. Although such innovation isn’t likely to end subsidies, it should refocus them on enhancing the qualities of life that we really value.

We need to invent financial institutions that take into account the kinds of communities we want to build. And we need to base this innovation on an approach to economics that captures the richness of human experience — and not on efficient-market economics, which disregards human psychology and assumes that our basic institutions are already perfect.

Robert J. Shiller is professor of economics and finance at Yale and co-founder and chief economist of MacroMarkets LLC.


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No no no

Greenwich Time reporters may know how to use Wikipedia to look up phrases they haven’t encountered, but I expect them to read one sentence deeper and discover that Shakespeare was referring to a bomb.Or hell, they could read Hamlet.

“The leadership of the Republican Party ought to see that as being hoisted on their own petard,” said John Cooper, referring to a Shakespearean expression that means to fall into one’s own trap.

Here’s a much better definition:

A petard is not, as often thought, part of a ship. Rather, the petard is a small bomb, usually on the end of a stick, used to blow a hole into a wall or door. To be “hoisted by your own petard” means to be “hoisted” or thrown into the air, by your own bomb. The term gained notoriety from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which includes the line “Hoist with his own petar” in a letter from his pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There’s actually a fart joke in here, because petard is derived from the french word peter, which means to pass gas.

Hiram, I do appreciate your eagle eye that spots my own errors, but I’d be happy to treat you to a subscription to GT, if only to relieve the pressure on me!


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I don’t care about the Oscars but I want my Jeopardy!

ABC has gone dark on Cablevision as of 12:01. I’d like this resolved by Monday,7:00 p.m., please.


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Governor Paterson does the right thing (no, he didn’t resign)

Pardons Qing Hong Wu

Gov. David A. Paterson announced on Saturday that he had pardoned a man whose rise from poverty and street crime in Chinatown to success as an information technology executive was about to end in deportation.

And credit to the New York Times: its profile of the judge who had originally sentenced Qing when the boy was a 15-year-0ld thug and then interceded after his rehabilitation doubtless led to this result.

It’s a feel-good story with what seems to be having a happy ending, but our immigration laws are a mess, both too harsh in this case, too lenient in others, and one’s fate shouldn’t depend on gaining the attention of the New York Times. But in this case, I’m glad he did.

The teenager, a gifted student, was pleading guilty to a string of muggings committed at 15 with an eclectic crew in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The judge, who remembered the pitfalls of Little Italy in the 1950s, urged him to use his sentence — three to nine years in a reformatory — as a chance to turn his life around.

“If you do that, I am here to stand behind you,” the judge,Michael A. Corriero, promised. The youth, Qing Hong Wu, vowed to change.

Mr. Wu kept his word. He was a model inmate, earning release after three years. He became the main support of his immigrant mother, studying and working his way up from data entry clerk to vice president for Internet technology at a national company.

But almost 15 years after his crimes, by applying for citizenship, Mr. Wu, 29, came to the attention of immigration authorities in a parallel law enforcement system that makes no allowances for rehabilitation. He was abruptly locked up in November as a “criminal alien,” subject to mandatory deportation to China — the nation he left at 5, when his family immigrated legally to the United States.

Now Judge Corriero, 67, retired from the bench, is trying to keep his side of the bargain.

“Mr. Wu earned his second chance,” the judge wrote in a letter supporting a petition to Gov. David A. Paterson for a pardon that would erase Mr. Wu’s criminal record and stop the deportation proceedings. “He should have the opportunity to remain in this country.”

The letter is one of dozens of testimonials, including appeals from Mr. Wu’s fiancée, mother and sisters, who are all citizens; from the Police Benevolent Association, where Mr. Wu used to work; and from his employers at the Centerline Capital Group, a real estate financial and management company, where his boss, Tom Pope, calls Mr. Wu “a shining star.”

But under laws enacted in 1996, the same year Mr. Wu was sentenced, the immigration judge hearing the deportation case has no discretion to consider any of it. For Mr. Wu, who remains in a cell in the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in Freehold, N.J., the best hope may be that the Manhattan district attorney will retroactively allow him the “youthful offender” status that would scrub his record clean.


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