Monday, December 22, 2008

The Bermuda Triangle of Humanity

Many people know that, in addition to my day job, I drive a limousine on Saturdays, a gig I picked up during grad school and an easy way to make extra money for the "little things" (holidays, birthdays, vacations, etc.) while catching up on reading and paperwork during the inevitable waiting periods. I gas up my ride at a particular gas station in downtown Oklahoma City near our garage for a couple of reasons: it's near the interstate access point that takes me to most jobs, and it carries 100% gasoline (a requirement for our limousines per the owner; my feeling about that is irrelevant to this story). This particular gas station is located in an area that attracts a lot of destitute foot traffic. It's near several missions and not for profits, as well as the bus station.

A couple of months ago, I stopped at the gas station in a particular hurry. My limo had been left with virtually no gas (a big no-no by whoever drove it before me), and I was feeling pretty rushed due to demands from my other commitments (at the time, I was also holding down an adjunct teaching spot at a local university in addition to my day job and outside service positions). As I'm gassing up, a man approached me and asked me for money. I don't usually carry cash (for a number of reasons) and told him I didn't have anything. He started badgering me, and for the first time in a long time, I lost my cool. After discovering (by his own admission) that he was perfectly able to work, but was unwilling to do so because his time was worth more than the wages he was offered, I left him have it. As we separated and I drove off to my job, I felt like the biggest hypocrite in the world. I tend to be a pretty vocal supporter of the less fortunate, but I got my comeuppance that day.

Last month, I visited several OKC service organizations as part of Social Services Day with Leadership OKC. It's absolutely amazing the levels of support that exist to help people in my city, and I left feeling so hopeful. One of the things I took away from the day, as a gift from the Homeless Alliance, was a book of vouchers to share with those who panhandle on the street. The vouchers provide them with bus fare to three different shelters, where they can get the help they need. I used one Friday night, and the man accepted it. Later that night at the gas station, I saw the same man trying to panhandle someone else and then get "shooed" away by a police officer (the city's frontline intervention system with the indigent population; they're truly heroes in every sense of the word for the thankless work they perform day in and day out).

On Saturday, back at the same gas station, another man approached me looking for money. I gave him a voucher, but he continued to ask for money (I believe there was a language barrier as well), even showing me his hospital bracelet with a recent release date with his blood-stained fingers. After I reiterated his need to go to the mission, where they were equipped to help, he then moved on to another car sitting at the pump across from me. As the man began his pitch again, I heard the driver tell him that he had run out of gas, and didn't have money for himself. I shouted to the driver not to give anything, as I'd already given the panhandler his "ticket". The driver said thanks, and the panhandler left in search of green pastures (or at least somewhere I wasn't). I looked back over at the other car, and saw that the driver had buried his head in his hands and started crying. A young boy (my best guess was seven years old) was in the car watching with a worried look on his face.

I walked over and asked the man if I heard correctly that he'd run out of gas. He said yes, that the last two weeks had been pretty bad and he was trying to get his son back to his mother in Duncan. I asked if he'd let me buy him some gas, and he said yes, I'd appreciate it. I went inside the gas station and paid for what I thought was enough gas to get him where he needed to go. As I was inside, the man came in with the little boy to go to the restroom. When he came out, I told him that the gas was purchased. He thanked me and started to cry again. I asked the two of them if they were hungry, and the man responded that he'd bought the boy some food earlier with the four dollars that he'd had.

As we walked out to our cars, the man told me that he'd discovered earlier that he had a tumor on his prostate, and had been notified this week that it was cancerous. He'd persuaded the boy's mother to let them spend the weekend together, and he was trying to get the boy home. I wished him a safe trip, and heard him extend me a blessing and a "Merry Christmas." I got in the limo, and watched as the father and son clung to each other as he started pumping the gas into his beat-up sedan. I drove away, hoping for the best but not knowing what the future would hold for the indigent, the father, or the little boy.

The reason I tell you this story is the same reason that I love downtown and the streets. It keeps me connected with my humanity and the concepts of Grace and Redemption. There's probably not a lot of difference between the indigent and the father. There's also not a lot of difference between me and you and the other two. Whether you believe in Christmas, Jesus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or absolutely nothing, believe in this: there are people who hurt everywhere we look. Some have damaged themselves, and some simply draw a difficult hand from Fate. It's not our place to judge, but merely to show Love in a conscientious and compassionate manner. Let somebody else judge whether the recipients are deserving. Give what you can, even if it's only a kind word, a wise suggestion, or merely respect to a fellow human being. Just don't ignore the world outside.

I'm not blessed because I'm not in their situation. I'm blessed because I met them and tried to show them that they were loved, no matter what. In doing so, hopefully I remind myself of the same point.

A Christmas Story in the Making?

Huffington Post has a story today about the soon to be released HBO documentary, "The Trials of Ted Haggard". Now, full disclosure: the primary reason I left the Republican Party was because of the moral posturing of church leaders like Haggard and others (Rod Parsley, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, etc.). However, my initial schadenfreude over Haggard's fall from the graces of the religious right (for details, see here), I just can't bring myself to be happy about someone's misfortunes, especially when they're tied to intolerance (even their own). Here's hoping, if for no other reasons than the welfare of his children and the potential example it could set, Mr. Haggard experiences some level of redemption and grace that guides him to a deeper understanding of why we should be celebrating the ideal of Christmas, believers and non-believers alike.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Philosophy is Important

There's an article by the New York Times Magazine's James Ryerson about David Foster Wallace's undergrad thesis. It makes some nice points about the dialogue between intellectual argument and the authenticity of experience and feeling. That dialectic, Ryerson argues, went on to color Wallace's work in fiction.

I appreciate the struggle between the mind and the spirit (or soul or heart or emotions or chemical-based responses to sensory inputs, whatever). Philosophy and logic are necessary to call bullshit on all the times we get carried away by love or greed or fear or anger. However, sometimes a rose is a rose is a rose, and we need to simply enjoy that. Sometimes we need to receive love and kindness without analyzing the motive. Sometimes we need to simply allow ourselves to exist in the space that exists between experience and explanation. It's a delicate balancing act between understanding and appreciation. Maybe knowing how the sausage is made isn't the highest expression of humanity. And isn't humanity the point?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Train Train, Comin' Down, Down The Line

President-elect Obama faces numerous challenges as he enters office, not the least of which being the expectations of those who supported his candidacy as well as those who did not (see an example here). Putting aside the expectations of the rest of the world community for a moment, Obama faces a situation that bears an uncomfortable similarity to FDR's first term in office. Obama has acknowledged that, and has been (to his credit) studying FDR's moves to learn from both his successes and missteps.

Ira Chernus wrote a piece in Mother Jones about the depth and context Obama should consider applying to his study of FDR's presidency. The piece begins with a introduction that references Studs Terkel and the recent sit-in by workers at the now shuttered Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago over payment of wages and benefits by the bankrupt firm. The real meat (and the focus of this post) follows.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I'd be lying if I said I have no preference on how you vote today, but I'd rather you vote the other side than stay home.

Pulled up to my polling place this morning five minutes before the polls opened. Had to park a block and a half away, and the line circled the parking lot. Finished an hour later. The nuisance factor was mitigated by the warmth brought to my cynical heart by the turnout.

Please vote. PLEASE. VOTE.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Like Rabbits: The Current Social Media Master Lists

Guy Kawasaki points out a couple of omnibus-type social network lists. Distribution lists, meet steroids.

LinkedIn: Selling the Stream

BusinessWeek blogger Stephen Baker, after getting "scooped", if you will, by one of his magazine's other sections, asks the rhetorical question of why McGraw-Hill, SAP, and Goldman would want to invest in LinkedIn? Answer: the data. Baker probably gets this more than most, judging by what I've read so far in his book The Numerati. Data streams will continue to increase in value. How that value is measured depends upon the purchaser and what has to be provided to the data subject to obtain their data. I understand that I give up some privacy and potentially subject myself to some advertisement by providing LinkedIn with my data. However, the benefit of managing my network and mining opportunities from it is a worthwhile trade-off (to me and several million other users, at least).

What would it take to get YOUR data? What data wouldn't you give up?

Backhanded Talking Points

This post from the online edition of Foreign Policy is actually titled "(Not Quite) 101 Things Sarah Palin Should Know About the World", but it's more important than that. As Americans, we often fail to see things through the eyes of other world citizens. That's the theme of The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria and Ron Suskind's The Way of the World, two excellent books I read within the last few months. Why is this so important? As we face an economic downturn and foreign hostilities, understanding your world neighbors is no different than understanding customers in business, or understanding voters in politics. Our ability to act in a unilateral manner as a nation has been, and will likely continue to be, greatly diminished due to a number of economic and geopolitical factors. Even if that were not the case, though, there are good arguments for being good neighbors. It increases demand for our involvement in affairs and markets. It decreases obstacles in our path that carry a number of costs. Perhaps most importantly, it revalidates our standing within the world community. I have no doubt that much of the world still sees the United States as a "city on a hill". Yet, our shine has lost some of its luster. It would be counter to our history as a nation to simply shine "bright enough". It's our obligation not to act to inspire other or outshine others, but to live up to the standards that we claim.

To quote A Bronx Tale, one of my favorite movies, "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent". Arguably, the greatest resources we have are the proliferate talent pool of our population, and the freedoms to use those talents. Here's hoping we start using our talents based on dialogue with others, not pre-conceived notions or senses of entitlement.

Monday, October 20, 2008

To Be, Or Not To Be...Libertarian

Most of my friends know that to associate with me entails catch the occasional hand grenade. This post is one of those weapons. Now, I will say that the author focuses strictly on the economic implications of libertarianism, or laissez-faire capitalism, and doesn't touch social libertarianism (which I find much more important, and infinitely easier to defend). While I'm most definitely a capitalist, I do appreciate anyone who's willing to recognize the dangers of being an ideologue. That means people will just have to deal with a little cognitive dissonance...including me.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How It All Got So Screwed Up: A Roadmap

A lot of people still seem to think that this crisis is merely a matter of simple bad assets or mispricing. Not by a long shot. The Deal has provided a great flowchart that lets you follow along and see how the toxins spread (and grew) throughout the system.

You can read the whole article here.

Smart Money Wants To Keep The "Free" In "Free Market"

A close friend of mine sent an email out yesterday to most of his address book. This person has been involved in GOP politics at substantial levels for quite awhile. He's a recognized authority on finance, and someone to whom I always listen whether I agree or not. With the exception of one identifiable remark that I've omitted, I'm reposting his email with his permission. Everyone regardless of political affinity should read it and consider his points.

With the exception of routinely voting against ***** *****, I don't think I have ever voted for a Democrat before, but I will be voting for Obama. The people in charge are the worst administration in history (with the possible exception of FDR). We are in fact looking at a Great Depression scenario.. and not the way that the pundits have described it for the last few months. It has nothing to do with a big bust must follow a big boom. Recessions have been getting shorter and milder as we have off-shored most of our cyclicality and our domestic markets are able to shift and reach equilibrium quicker and quicker.
The reason we now face a depression scenario is the petty dictator Paulson and the bumbling and corrupt GOP beaureacracy in Washington.

They are destroying the markets through policy decisions, or in some cases the uncertainty created by a lack of policy decisions. As in the depression, markets are freezing due to constantly changing rules and perverse incentives. The first article I link to below is one small example.

The other day, the petty dictator Paulson called in the heads of the largest banks and told them they must sign on the dotted line before they leave the room. This is unprecedented. Good banks.. bad banks.. good decisions.. bad decisions.. no longer mean anything in the marketplace.

Paulson is going to borrow ~750 billion from the credit markets: the very same credit markets that he claims are frozen, in order to prop up said credit markets. The credit markets are frozen due to uncertainty, that is all. If capital is available to loan to Paulson, then it is available to loan to these banks. It is not going to the banks because nobody wants to loan to a group of a**holes who pay out 50% of net revenues to employees while leverages up 30-1 on subprime mortgages. There is no free lunch. ~750 billion to bad credit risks is ~750 billion that will not go to good credit risks. It is a straight transfer of assets from productive centers of the economy to unproductive ones. The long term damage is huge.

No, I am not saying that the answer is a perfectly textbook Austrian approach. The reality is that markets don't adjust immediately as they do in textbooks. If all the banks are allowed to go under, it will hurt the economy as the structural difficulties in liquidating banking assets and passing them on to new owners would take a long time. The gov't does, however, have the power to effectuate one week
bankruptcies.. that is, when a bank goes under, take it over, prop it up for a few weeks, wipe out the equity, and sell off the ongoing business to the highest bidder (possibly wiping out the bondholders as well).

Meanwhile, while facing a lending crises, who does have the power and the structural ability to quickly adjust to conditions and lend to the sectors of the economy that need it most? The hedge funds do, yet Paulson is trying to wipe out the hedge funds, having put a scarlet letter H on their chests. (See the other link at bottom of page)

Let's be clear, the Democrats (as much as they suck) would never have gotten away with this. If John Kerry were President, he would probably would have proposed some dumbass Keynsian "pump priming" solution that would be bad, but it would not be shutting down our entire free enterprise system the way Paulson is.

The people in power must lose, and they must lose resoundingly and everything they have done must be rejected and repudiated, and I will do my small part in that.

."Utah foreclosure auction flops"
Grace Leong - DAILY HERALD
An auction that netted $7.5 million in bids on 56 distressed Utah
properties fell through last week after the owners -- three banks and
two private lenders -- decided they may get a better deal by holding
out for the government's bailout plan.

"There were buyers, but we couldn't sell the homes because free
enterprise has gone out of the market," said Eric Nelson, founder of
Las Vegas-based Eric Nelson Auctioneering.

An email from from Richard Fuld Jr., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.'s
chief executive to Lehman General Counsel Thomas Russo on April 12,
2008, shows why hedge funds are so worried. In the email, Mr. Fuld,
summarizing the points from a dinner with Treasury Secretary Henry
Paulson, said Mr. Paulson wants to "kill the bad Hedge Funds and
heavily regulate the rest.

This comment (while obviously not in favor of any presumptive Democratic policy suggestions) should underscore just how seriously financial professionals view the current economic situation and this administration's proposed fixes. The very fundamentals of the market are being diminished by Paulson's proposals. Those proposed measures provide yet another example of how so many people trumpet "free market" this and that, but expect an exemption when they make a mistake and face "punishment" by the very same market. You can have a free market, or you can have a proposed bailout that may or may not work. You CANNOT have both.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE Capital Market

Great post by Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson at A VC today. Because of the basic risk/reward ratio, private equity and particularly venture capital received compounded effects from market changes:

I guarantee that there are some financings happening right now that are getting done at valuations which would have made sense nine months ago but don't make sense right now, at least to the uninformed observer. I also guarantee that there are some financings happening right now that are getting done at valuations at half or even less of what they would have commanded nine months ago, even though the public markets have only gone down about 33% year to date.A VC, Oct 2008

Fred goes on to state that capital in general is more expensive now than it was last month (trending back to late last year). Companies need to tighten both their belts and their operating plans, while investors need to realize that we may have officially entered a buyer's market for early-stage companies.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Secret Comes Out in Palin Ethics Investigation?

Sources report that Sarah Palin's ethics investigation regarding her conduct in the dismissal of former public safety commissioner Walter Monegan is all for naught. Palin was reported to have removed Monegan for his failure to fire Trooper Mike Wooten, Gov. Palin's former brother-in-law for numerous infractions, including fraud and using a taser on his step-son.

Recently, however, it was discovered that Wooten has recently resurfaced after a mysterious moose-hunting accident. He now resides in New York City, and works for the NYPD. He has achieved the rank of detective, and is renowned for his insight into the criminal mind. His colleagues claim that Wooten, who now goes by the name Matt Parkman, is such a great partner that "it seems as though he's reading your mind, and projecting his thoughts inside your head." Wooten appears to have forsaken his times to the Palin family, and shows no signs of the injury that prompted the intial fraud accusations. He does appear to have lost some weight and received some type of hair transplant or regrowth. When asked about his resurgent hairline, Wooten cryptically answered, "Save the cheerleader, save the hair..."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

US Broadband's poster boy...?

First, a couple of disclosures:

  1. I'm a Democrat, and an Obama supporter, and
  2. I tend to side with free markets when questions of governmental industry regulation arise.
That being said, McCain, if this article is to believed, has been no friend to improving the U.S.'s broadband Internet service level or its spread. Obama gets the Internet, and understands how broadband levels the playing field for the distribution of many services (not the least of which being education).

How about this proposal: we force big telco and cable to grant access to their carrier lines for broadband services, and in return we grant school choice to rural districts with charter and private schools based on distance learning models? Decisions, decisions....

What are we thinking? Apparently, Some of Us Aren't

Jim Chanos, poster boy for the short-selling community, argues that we've got liquidity problems because people aren't being rational. Irrationality seems like it's a double-edged sword for Chanos and other short-sellers; they count on people "not getting it" to provide them with trading opportunities.

You can read the NYT article with Chanos' comments here.