January 28, 2016

So here's the thing about the Joker. (Nerd alert?) The Joker was easily the most indelible of the bad guys created by Bob Kane (or as some would say, Bill Finger) as punching bags for his late 30s character Batman. And he was creepy! Clowns are creepy. And sure he was homicidal, at least to start, because all the bad guys were homicidal, at least to start, at the time, but somehow the super-power of "looks like a clown, laughs a lot" caught in the minds of the kids, and stayed in the minds as the kids became not so much kids.

And by the 1980s, when the kids were creeping past their 30s and all of a sudden funny books had to have a little psychology to stay relevant, a bunch of very very smart creators found a fulcrum for the whole men-wearing-underwear-on-the-outside genre in the Joker, a blank clown-shaped canvas on which to project a pathology. So then, is he insane? Misspent youth? Brain-damage? Actually, no &emdash; he is some sort of ultra-sane person, a creation of the passage of time as evinced by the late 20th Century. Does the world make less and less sense? The Joker is what happens when you focus that senselessness, that disassociative, dislocating modern world, into a human morality structure you get the Joker.

That's just a rough sketch, and if that's interesting give a shout and I'll post a bibliography, but all I'm trying to say is that if you want a contemporaneous phenomenon, then take this current version of naked greed and cynicism and oily ickyness and you get Ted Cruz. Whomst I hate. And I'm ankles-deep in this last debate before Iowa and mildly cheered that he is being roundly ganged up on so I just wanted to say hi.

Posted at 9:02 PM

January 15, 2016

At the risk of repeating myself every four years, the GOP debate last night was a truly astonishing display of willful ignorance, cynical and naked divisiveness and a complete disregard for how government works. And either you watched it (or are reading about it this morning) and the litany of complaints is one shared by us and nothing new to you, or you've had a bellyful of this noxious pap and are swearing it off at least until the general. So let's let the professionals do the point-by-point rebuttals in the interest of economy.

But! Two things.

First of all, of course I'm predisposed to not be easily charmed by the men and women who have the necessary beliefs at their heart to run for president on the Republican ticket, but holy smokes is Ted Cruz one unlikable dude. That oily smugness permeates every thing he does and you can tell that in his head he is smirking at his own perceived brilliance, even though four out of five sentences out of his mouth are cynical gotchas that only work in Model U.N. (or college debate team, natch). That he can dog-whistle New York City while his (one would assume long-suffering) wife is a lifer at The Banks just shows you how dumb every person not Ted Cruz is, and his version of foreign policy is clearly the idea of a man who thinks that the best way to appeal to voters is to cosplay a Tom Clancy novel. And he looks like someone wearing a Ted Cruz mask.

Shorter version: Ted Cruz is a real piece of shit.

But more materially, and speaking of which, the more that time passes and the older (and hopefully wiser) I get, the more and more convinced I am that the primary issue affecting the Republican Party influence over Congress, and this nomination race we are withstanding currently, is stupidity. For all the talk of antipathy towards non-GOP voters, of apprehension of the new and of a righteous me-firstism that the Republican base exhibits, they really are just not that bright. And as a result they are so easily manipulated into all sorts of misdeeds, electoral and otherwise. The fact that any demographic cannot ID Donald Trump as a glaring Exhibit A in the DSM 5 for Narcissistic Personality Disorder after about three minutes does not speak well of the smartness of this demo, whether emotional intelligence or book-learnin'. Take also for example one of the more indelible themes from the most recent debate (one specifically hit, in characteristically not-answering-the-question fashion, by Cruz), the visuals of American sailors in Iranian custody. I'm sure it's an outrage and all, but, guys, the sailors — and this was known at the time of these sentiments — were nothing but freaking lost, and the Iranian military gave them food and cots and promptly returned them, and the vessels and the equipment. I mean, if you're the kind of sap that views the world through Axis of Evil lenses, then maybe there's some outrage here, but for fuck's sake, come on.

And I have seen progressive thinkers wringing hands that to call dumb voters dumb only angers them further, and that there are two sides and try listening to the other, etc. Well, I'm all for listening, except when the two sides are dumb and not dumb. In that case, listening is silly. And the more that you dance around the fact, you become no better than oily Ted Cruz, trying to figure out how best to get one over on the rubes.

Posted at 11:13 AM

January 11, 2016

The mourning for David Bowie is of course taking place in public. It is 2016, and even though 2016 is not preventing anyone from mourning David Bowie in private, away from social media, if you are at all connected to social media (privileged enough to be so?) you will have noticed that there is a lot of public signifiers of grief for David Bowie — a shared Youtube video, a gif of Bowie style over the years, a screenshot of a memorable quote, like the one about the OED.

These moments range from the sharing of a private moment from a friend of Bowie's, such as his final email to Brian Eno, to a quick RIP or a "thoughts and prayers." From the monumental to the banal, from the wrenching to the inane.

The first scolds that came were the predictable ones. Given that there was a high volume of feelings shared, there were those that were skeptical of the seemliness of the whole venture and questioned in some case the authenticity of the feelings shared. These specific scolds were a bit on the basic side, and it is noted that if one's quiet enjoyment is spoiled by the ceaseless rending of garments, then maybe just stay off the social media for a little bit, but then again it is a free country and one is allowed to agitate in favor of one's favored version of this free country, as long as one is prepared to encounter the reciprocal thoughts aimed back at the original opinion.

And the back-atcha was not long behind.

The next wave of scolds were those scolding the sentiment that any display of grief should be criticized. Don't Be Scolding, the original scolds are told. The phrase "grief-shaming" is copiously used, defending the right of the person in 2016 to exist free and clear from any implied judgment of the person's actions, behaviors and thoughts, and confirming that mean people continue to suck. In fact, scolding is generally a useless and negative thing to do, scolded the scold-leery.

Of course not everyone is involved in this Gnip-Gnop of scold-shaming. Many in fact are quietly mourning to themselves, or talking about other topics like the Packers game last night, or El Chapo's taste in shirts. But they don't stick out as much, because they are not using spoken thoughts that could possibly be enjoyed just by thinking to tell others that maybe their spoken thoughts could be enjoyed just by thinking.

And the touchy part of this venture is the resulting brief non-social media piece that purports to ruminate on these events and make some over-arching sense of the whole thing. Sometimes these pieces are as prescriptive as all the precipitating scolds: No scolding! Only scold in a certain way! And others — and these guys are the worst! — are some iteration of a Pox on Both Your Houses! Everyone is guilty of exactly the behavior they are scolding! Please God make it stop.

Well, if there was ever a person that never had a problem finding a compelling new iteration, it was David Bowie.

Posted at 2:00 PM

January 7, 2016

If 2015 was the year that I solidified a weird interest in business news (and exactly what that sort of news means for non-business people like you and me), then this story from the last day of the year concerning the unending ubiquity of Amazon and how it sells a lot of stuff and no one else sells very much nyah nyah is emblematic of the facet of this business culture — the facet of business even — that most fascinates me.

It's a story hiding in plain sight. I know that I certainly give a disproportionate portion of my retail dollars to Amazon, and the ways that we've changed in how we shop (which we put at the feet of Amazon pretty much because it's the online retailer that made it) is certainly worth the discussion, a discussion that make Amazon canary and coal mine simultaneously.

But How We Shop Now is not the source of my fascination. What I am mildly obsessed with is how Amazon is considered a business success story — and not in terms of its arguably terrible employment conditions, though that's fair game too, whether perm or temp, but on a very basic "What do companies do?" basis:

Amazon's strong results have led to a meteoric rise in its share price, which has more than doubled this year. Its market capitalization of about $325 billion now dwarfs that of Walmart, which shrank by a quarter to just below $200 billion.

Despite that dominance, Amazon's actual profits are still tiny -- or at least they were in the company's most recent quarterly report in October. The company earned just $79 million on $24.5 billion in total revenue in the quarter, and leaned heavily on its surging cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, for profit.

Profit may not be tiny in the sense of you and I having spent a hundred bucks on a nice meal, but the profit margin is tiny indeed. Cue caveats concerning corporate accounting, etc., but from the back of the envelope, Amazon's simple old profit margin (i.e., how much of the revenue that comes in that Amazon gets to keep) for the quarter referenced above is three tenths of one percent. That's a shockingly low number on the face of it, but illustrations are fun: in order for Amazon to have made one crisp dollar in profit for that quarter, they had to take in $300 in consumer money. So I'm not sure at what point the optimism/regard for Amazon is based on its ubiquity instead of its actual financial prospects.

As usual, this is a longer conversation, but the tenor of business here in 2016, particularly in the tech sector, is a perverse fetishization of innovation and enormity in ways that do not so much glaze over capitalism as they do ignore it completely. This is to say that, in this case, Amazon is doing something (well, among cloud and other digital services) that has been done on a more small-scale hands-on basis, selling stuff to people who want stuff, for centuries. And Amazon is at least on the surface very good at doing so, as consumers all over are opting to fiddle around on a website or an app and wait by the door in lieu of running down to the corner, or to the mall. And the companies that sold stuff on the corner or at the mall (and the people that work for them) have seen markedly better days.

That's all pretty inarguable. The question I have is, is this really what we want success to look like in the 21st Century? I highly-valuated, market-share-devouring, one-stop everything that makes no profits and makes no one even marginally wealthy other than Jeff Bezos and his contemporaries? If the benchmark for success is lowered to "sells the most stuff." where does that leave us?

And for the record, I just renewed my Prime account. None of us have clean hands on this one.

Posted at 7:35 AM

December 30, 2015

I would be more excited about putting a stake through the heart of 2015 if I were not sensing the trend of geometrically increasing shittiness as the years progress. That is to say, that 2012 was as bad as 2013 multiplied by x, 2014 was as bad as 2013 multiplied by X squared, etc.

That may be a misstatement. Maybe more arithmetic, with the shittiness increasing by the addition of the fixed increment X. However the case may be, perhaps it's time we all brushed up on our maths.

This year, publishing was sporadic! Life gets all sporadic sometimes. Especially when you look back to that time not too long ago when publishing was absolutely not sporadic, sigh, eat a peach, etc. Sometimes you take a break, and sometimes the break takes you. And other times you take a break and the entire industry, if you can think of it as such any longer, is all changed, everyone's a couple years older, the background-noise emotional tenor changed to something a bit more cloying, a bit more scolding, a bit more fraught.

Blather and bother! There's a whole rest of our lives to talk about that (and a respected website or two, while they last), and by the time we're even a quarter of the way there, everything will be all different all over again. So in 2016, while of course we will be as firmly focused on our navels as usual, maybe a couple more grace notes, a bit more tree and a bit less forest. Like, maybe if we swarm out and not in we can cover more ground.

I'm very grateful for all the content providers out there, and the peculiar affinity groups that I've weaseled my way into. Yes it's an awful lot of deep wading, but so much of it is some high quality shit, and when we look back that is what we will remember, and not the Martin Shkrelis or the Affluenza Teens or even that old clinical psychopath Donald Trump.

Happy New Year! Love your loved ones, honor those you lost, and let's get back to setting the good example in the fullness of time.

Posted at 11:02 AM

December 15, 2015

It is of course great rollicking fun to sit back and just make all kinds of fun of Martin Shkreli on social media. Sure, he rocketed to fame for being the poster boy for Big Pharma's amoral greed, but o ho! He's the dude that bought that Wu Tang album! He has comically inflated self-regard when it comes to the ladies! Ha ha! He's icky! Whee!

But in between the headlines and the transparent stabs at maintaining his dubious celebrity is this bit of unethical chicanery. The story is seemingly another of Shkreli's company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, acquiring another drug and jacking up the price (the polite term for this is "profiteering"). But the real scam is not about the retail price at all:

"The only reason for [Shkreli] to do this is to get the voucher and turn around and sell it," said Dr. Caryn Bern, a Chagas disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Under a program created by Congress in 2007, companies that get drugs approved for qualifying tropical diseases receive a voucher that entitles the holder to an expedited review by the F.D.A. of another drug, shaving four months off the process. A similar program was created for rare pediatric diseases. For a company with a drug for diabetes or arthritis with expected sales of billions of dollars a year, an extra four months on the market before patents expire could be valuable. So companies that earn the vouchers typically sell them to other drug companies for prices that have reached $350 million.

So not content to merely rip off insurers by inflating the price of a rarely-used but important (and currently free) drug, Turing/Shkreli wants to exploit a program designed to encourage the development of drugs for which there are not "markets" and walk away with a couple hundred million dollars for his trouble. Yeah yeah yeah, all of this is "increasing shareholder value" and technically not illegal. But we're human beings and not corporations and as such we are entitled if not obligated to make value judgments. "Profiteering" does not arbitrarily have negative connotations. Shkreli is an amoral prick, and that he's enjoying his notoriety makes him a sociopath to boot.

And seriously, if you want to ignore all the actually repugnant things Shkreli is doing (which things are an indictment not only of Big Pharma and blithe capitalism but also of assholes everywhere) and focus on the foibles of Shkreli the person, please do not forget that deep down he is a garden variety piece of shit.

[In between starting this and finishing this, the little piece of shit actually got arrested, for a ponzi scheme so dumb that it defies belief. It could not have happened to a nicer guy.]

Posted at 10:43 AM

December 7, 2015

I forced myself to watch the President address the nation on broadcast television last night. I tried to pay attention, as one does, to what he was saying: word choice, tone, etc. He was not up there just to hear the sound of his own voice, or to audition for a slot as a cable news host. Mr. President had something on his mind with regard to the mindset of the American people, and so he was there to communicate.

And this morning there is of course reaction to what he had to say. Some thought he was being presidential and laying out a rational case for everyone calming the fuck down. Some thought that he was lily-livered for not beheading a Jihadist on national television, like President Chuck Norris would. All of this was somewhat predictable, watching the speech. I was eating a chili, a vegetarian chili, the preparation of which involved a mishap with a dried arbol and a kitchen full of wholly organic tear gas. It was a really good chili, though I was still coughing a bit. The president was reasonable. He was "Islamic" and "extremist" and "terrorist" but not in the desired order. I guess it was a thumb nosed at those who not only believe in a "war on terror" but also think it can be fought with grammar and syntax.

Personally, I was mostly struck by how it did not actually matter one way or the other what he said. The people that hate the president hate the president, and they cannot be reasoned with. It's tempting to do so, of course, and I think the president is most tempted of all. But my distant relatives who share viral Breitbart nuggets of hateful jaw-clenched know-nothingism on Facebook don't care what the president says. They will hate him just the same. It's like that Gary Larson two-panel: "What the Tea Party actually hears: bla bla bla bla socialism bla bla bla I love terrorists bla bla." Obama could name Ted Cruz as Special Liason For Nuking Brown Terrorists and the Tea Party would still find some way to hate the president, and turn on Cruz in the process.

Then there was the "God bless the United States of America" bit, which still strikes me as such a forced and cynical behavior. Not that our presidents are not Christian — they are, without fail — and not that I find the sentiment offensive. Hell, wish me the blessings of Scooby Doo and I'm fine, no need to spurn some prospective blessings just on account that they may or may not actually be in the mail. But the closing statement is singularly hokey, and the most predictable trapping of the Oval Office, one that is only repeated because the electorate is so retrograde that the omission would make so many people shoot up so many more newspapers and who really needs that.

And the picture faded and NBC's Sunday Night Football commenced, a few minutes late. Thank you, football fans, for waiting a couple extra commercial cycles before tucking in to Pittsburgh's demolition of the Colts. All that unpalatable shit, the uncomfortable truths and the requisite kneejerk response of watching a president all your AM radio hosts tell football fans to hate, that was in the rearview mirror, get on with the coin toss. It might be counter-intuitive to get all filled with abject fear over a couple thousand zealots who want to shoot up some soft targets and then go down in a crossfire, but everyone else is doing it, and the buffalo wings are getting cold! Carrie Underwood is singing, "Hey, Jack/ It's a fact!" May Football Night in America bless the United States of America.

Posted at 11:02 AM

December 1, 2015

Here's a nice long read from yesterday that you should have read, or at least skimmed the first/last paragraphs so you can pretend that you have read, concerning how the state of Illinois was bought and paid for. I know, I'm a silly progressive and always exaggerating to make a point and probably a violent criminal, but no, this case could not be more clear if someone found a check written for a couple hundred million dollars with "Buying State of Illinois" in the memo line:
...[Billionaire Kenneth C.] Griffin and a small group of rich supporters -- not just from Chicago, but also from New York City and Los Angeles, southern Florida and Texas -- have poured tens of millions of dollars into the state, a concentration of political money without precedent in Illinois history.

Their wealth has forcefully shifted the state's balance of power. Last year, the families helped elect as governor Bruce Rauner, a Griffin friend and former private equity executive from the Chicago suburbs, who estimates his own fortune at more than $500 million. Now they are rallying behind Mr. Rauner's agenda: to cut spending and overhaul the state's pension system, impose term limits and weaken public employee unions.

This actually got a little play out there in the world (and it's a world crowded with takes that border on atrocity these days), but there's an aspect of this that is a little discrete that I want to emphasize. There's a shorthand that these billionaires that are buying up governments are "conservative Republicans," and that is not entirely the case. These Gilded Age Patriarchs are most certainly conservative, in the Nelson Rockefeller sense, but they are not necessary long-time, Chamber-of-Commerce Republicans:

Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.

They're not poli-sci ideologues as much as they are greedy one-percenters who don't believe in the function of government. They bitch about their taxes, they think of employee-negotiated pensions as some unfunded obligation on the backs of taxpayers, they don't think that workers should be protected, etc. They're robber barons, and they're no more beholden to the Republican Party (or whatever will be left of it after Donald Trump is done with it) than they are beholden to Santa Claus.

The piece is worth a read.

And ancillary to all of this is the very interesting sidebar of whether we live in a plutocracy or an oligarchy, and as it is interesting and a binary choice, let's step on the neck of this sidebar before it metastasizes into yet another facile disagreement ripping social media in twain. The unseen hands that control the government are both few and wealthy; either term will do, as long as your intent is to demonstrate how basically powerless everyone in this representative democracy is these days.

Posted at 11:51 AM

November 19, 2015

So in light of last week's vote on the odious Syrian refugee bill yesterday in the House, I am hitting the ceiling anger-wise. Oh I was angry before, as a big swath of the U.S. revealed itself to be exactly the kind of patsies that terrorists depend on us to be: "We will make them afraid and then they will do stupid things." "We're afraid! Let's show those mean ol' terrorists by doing stupid things!" Nativist, know-nothing, xenophobic, etc. But mostly chicken-shit, as a whole bunch of erstwhile stand-up people decided that a little empathy cannot stand in the way of cowardice.

But Thursday, we went above and beyond your standard man-on-the-street Ugly Americanism, as a couple dozen Democrats defied the barest grasp of American principles and voted for this dogshit bill, this Pre-Interment Act of 2015. Before there was already this baseline state of anger, a bit more livid than usual, but then the moment passes when an idea calcifies: there existed this quiet but persistent strain of ugliness, this funneling of the fears and nightmares onto first an entire faith and then more recently onto a specific subset of this faith consisting of refugees from a civil war that's already killed a cool million people, and then we blinked and this pernicious tendency crossed over from Dark Underbelly to Consensus. A bunch of sober-eyed appeals to comity masked base intimidation and hysteria, and Democrats who crossed the aisle issued confusing explanations that read like This Is The Worst Bill Ever, and As I Vote For It, Keep In Mind etc. etc. Which is where we remain.

Setting aside, for a moment, the cravenness of those we elect to represent us, and considering that this is a popularly held position, there are glaring reasons to despise this sentiment on pure principal— for the mean-spirited selfishness of it, for the cynicism of it, for its cruel bigotry, etc. But what I really, really hate about it is that it is inexcusably stupid.

So. A reason cited that we are no longer welcoming the tired/poor/hungry refugees from Syria, here to undergo a two-freaking-year vetting process, is because we are concerned that some of them might be a terrorist pretending to be a refugee. Right. The mere idea that ISIS, sneaky and deadly as usual, can only get into the country by sneaking in as refugees from Syria is the dumbest most patronizing thing. Is that how backward these savages are, that we can anticipate their resort to the path of least resistance? Somehow we are life-alteringly terrified of them, but they are so thick- headed that any plot to enter into the U.S. will have been figured out in detail by the keyboard wing of our security analysts, and their plot amounts to basically grabbing a refugee right before they cross the border, pulling them behind a shrub, and emerging in their their refugee uniforms. There are too many ways to enter the U.S. to list, so many easier ways to defeat our counter-intelligence, and we're quaking because we might be foiled if they put on a fake mustache? We're reenacting an episode of "F Troop."

And that criminal idiocy is just the surface. The inciting event, the murder of scores of innocents in Paris, was committed by not-Syrian not-refugees, but French/Belgian citizens. (And that passport? Not only is the passport duh, a fake, but it is now thought to be a red flag.) So, in response, we're amping up our paranoia aimed at exactly the people who did not commit the atrocity. And this scattershot antipathy pointed in the direction of all Muslims everywhere is exactly what ISIS wants. As in, it is their explicitly stated goal. ISIS is not trying to invade Paris. ISIS is trying to provoke, to terrorize. It is not that discrete of a concept. And maybe in some quarters it is a sign of virility and masculinity and American-ness to do exactly what the bad guys want you to do, but in saner environs it is a sign that the person in question should not be trusted with anything more dangerous than a sharpened pencil.

And yet, despite these Howard-Beale levels of things worth shouting about from the rooftops to the choir, there has been a deliberate pushback from writers who would generally be considered as identifying with progressives, which generally goes: Stop making fun! This issue is polling in ways that you might be on the wrong side of!

Specifically, check Kevin Drum (referring to a similar piece by Chris Cillizza):

Cillizza has some poll numbers to back this up, but he's right in more ways than just that. Here's the thing: to the average person, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of admitting Syrian refugees to the country. We know that ISIS would like to attack the US. We know that ISIS probably has the wherewithal to infiltrate a few of its people into the flood of refugees. And most voters have no idea how easy it is to get past US screening. They probably figure it's pretty easy.

So to them it doesn't seem xenophobic or crazy to call for an end to accepting Syrian refugees. It seems like simple common sense. After all, things changed after Paris.

"Seems perfectly reasonable" is a light-weight metric to be swinging over one's head in this particular situation. The list of other things that "seemed perfectly reasonable," not just in American history, but in the past ten years, is not a list that anyone stands proudly over and cites as an example of how good and decent the average people are. The government wanting to physically take all guns, recessions caused by the poors and the various libels heaped upon Barack Obama, those also were conceits that "seemed perfectly reasonable." It now makes more sense as short-hand for something despicable than it does as something reasonable.

And yes, the phrase is modified by, "to the average person." That's terrifying, but certainly not an exaggeration.

Ultimately, I'm not sure why it's my job to be nice because people who respond to polls are stupid, and furthermore easily whipped into a frenzy by a political party only marginally smarter that the poll-takers. I guess there's some sort of expediency I'm glossing over, some bridge-building effort that I'm shrugging off. But frankly, I don't see the use in tricking stupid people with lazy evil ideas into voting for my candidates or my party. Actually, the main thing that I care about is that the country I was raised in doesn't turn into some flag-waving, fascism-with-a-smile dystopia. Or I should say turn into such a thing to an even greater extent than it is now.

And of course there is the question: are all of these people really as bad as that? Are they really so short-sighted that they can pretend to be offended that the notional Statue of Liberty might fucking weep at these turn of events? There has been this mechanism, this weird myopia, wherein the holder of a sentiment identifies the sentiment as virtuous along the reasoning that the holder identifies self as virtuous, and therefore the work-product of the heart/mind of the holder can be nothing but virtuous. We're most familiar with this as it relates to racism, that weird line of thought that goes, My racism cannot be racism because racism is bad and I am good (and I had a black roommate in college). Seemingly, a pollable majority of Americans are weak-kneed and more than willing to controvert one of the most basic tenets of this American experiment, but are unable to take a long look in the mirror.

Which I guess makes the short answer: yes.

So I have no intention of shutting up, no matter what Chris Cillizza and Kevin Drum say. And I sincerely hope this passes, and becomes one of those times that we look back on and get the willies, because, ho boy, that was a close one.

Posted at 5:48 PM

November 11, 2015

Boring awesome stuff!

NYT's Gretchen Morgenson took another whack at hedge funds and their relationships with public pensions over the weekend, and there's some good stuff in there worth repeating, as well as a noteworthy elision. The premise of the piece is that, even though the country's leading public pension investment fund, Calpers, has elected to divest from hedge funds on account of them being a bit sneaky about fee structures and generally an investment vehicle with performance analogous to that of the stock market (thus obviating the hedge aspect, i.e. performing well when stock market performs poorly, etc.) other public unions are not following Calpers's lead. Which deserves some exclamation points and some question marks.

The state of Utah has one of the funds reluctant to rein in hedge funds:

Some data is emerging, though, that raises serious doubts about the benefit of hedge funds for big investors with a long-term perspective. Utah, for example, increased its holdings in hedge funds and private equity in recent years. By 2013, those allocations at the Utah Retirement Systems had reached 40 percent of assets under management, up from 16 percent in 2005.

Have its hedge funds helped the Utah pension's investment performance? A May 2015 report to the Utah Legislature suggests not. Prepared by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, the report concluded that if the state's retirement system had maintained its 2004 allocation with fewer alternative assets and no hedge funds, the pension fund would have gained $1.35 billion in additional assets by 2013.

Now, I know a billion and a third sounds like chicken feed to you and me, but to the roughly 200,000 members of Utah Retirement Systems (active, retired and terminated), 4% of total assets, which would have been a pretty nice return had the system not been so loaded in alternative assets, which those fat/undisclosed fees to hedge fund managers.

But there had to have been some rationalization for public pension investment funds to have started to dance with hedge funds in the first place? Maybe something related to the return on investment overseen by hedge funds? In answer to that, the piece looks at a United Federation of Teachers report (.pdf) on the performance of hedge funds utilized by the larger pension funds in America, looking at a total of 88 fiscal years:

In slightly more than one-quarter of the years analyzed, the hedge funds outperformed a same-size total fund's returns, but that failed to make up for lower returns in other years. This lackluster performance translated to $8 billion in lost investment revenue at these funds, the report said.

Hedge fund managers, meanwhile, collected an estimated $7.1 billion in fees from the pensions, it said. That averages out to 57 cents of every dollar in net returns earned by the funds.

So, big picture: regardless of the performance of hedge funds, the opaque fee structure sucks a little more than have of the potential gain from clients. Which would seem to be a pretty dear price to pay, were you someone whose post-retirement future was tied up in one of these funds.

But the noteworthy omission in this little survey of how this specific financial services sausage is made is not the What but the Why. So even with Calpers leading the way and the supporting research and reports that hedge funds might not be the smartest place for retiree investment funds (well, for anyone other than for hedge fund managers), why is it that none of the other funds are falling in line? Could it maybe be that the managers and other representatives of the hedge funds are somehow incentivizing the people whose job it is to decide whom to trust with investing state pension funds to select hedge funds despite any apparent downside?

Of course, the slang for this process is "kickbacks," which range from dinner, drink and a show (considered OK and even a legit business expense) to paper sacks of small bills with nonconsecutive serial numbers (against regulation and criminal law). And I don't bring this up because I have an active imagination, but rather because it's not very hard to find recent examples of the shadier sort of such incentivization as it impacts investments in hedge funds. Hell, it was only five years ago that the Comptroller of the State of New York plead out on charges that he had directed investment by NY State's $125mm pension fund in exchange for a cool million bucks in travel and fees. It is not a possibility of great novelty.

The absence of another plausible explanation, evidential or anecdotal, for such heedless reliance on hedge funds suggests that closer scrutiny is warranted. Naturally, incompetence is another plausible explanation, but no one has ever let their incompetence get in the way of a little greed. But there are a whole bunch of otherwise voiceless public employees who should be taking up the issue with their plan administrators and local regulatory/law authorities.

Posted at 12:10 PM

So I took a little time and tried to make it through as much of last night's debates as I could. Actually I had intended to watch at least all of the big kid's debate, but I just could not. I know that at a certain point in time, there is nothing I would have enjoyed more than watching the prelims, just for the sport of it, and then once we had social media so that we were MST3King it to each other on a potentially global platform, well, it was hard to beat that.

I didn't make it! At a certain point the glee of being snarky and Getting Off a Good One was subsumed with a bleak, bleak pessimism, not just at the caricatures that call themselves candidates or the utter untethered-ness of both the candidates and the moderators, but at the entirety of the thing. The reliance of blind references to exceptionalism, the barely-concealed contempt for the poor and the aged, the cynical attribution of the sins of planks of the GOP platform to the administration of power. Hell, even the fundamental misunderstanding of What Presidents Do, I'll throw that in as well (although that may be a failing of all candidates on all sides, dealing with the realities of political campaigns for an electorate about as smart and sophisticated as a bag of hammers).

Sure there were some misstatements! Some friction! Some inability to actually recite words that were memorized! Hoo boy! Remember how such things marginalized Sarah Palin into obscurity forever? Oh right. But this morning I did realize that I have an actual serious question, the answer to which I do not have a grasp on, and maybe some smart people will take this up in a considered dialogue.

Serious question: assuming that there is a certain amount of artifice to running for office, and that it has ever been thus, and that this artifice has always been a bit of a self-conscious endeavor (inasmuch as, say, a candidate knows that one must give lip service to being "tough on crime" while at the same time being entirely aware that the topic like all topics can no more be distilled into three words than one can have a war on a noun), are the current surviving crop of GOP candidates engaging in the normal amount (i.e., a lot) of self-consciousness with regard to the artifice, or are they actually somehow believing in full earnestness what they are saying? For example: that a no-fly zone imposed on everyone up to and including the Russians would be if not a 100-years-later reiteration of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at least a train-wreck of historic proportions? That the elimination of payroll tax will accomplish anything other than the drastic and sudden defunding of social security? That the capital requirements of Dodd-Frank are not keeping banks from being too big too fail because they are prohibiting banks from being too big too fail?

Because, and I have repeatedly committed the sin of naivety, it struck me for the first time that this might be the case.

(And of course if you need some old-timey woodshed recapping of last night's very boring events, there is no source better than Jeb Lund for Rolling Stone.)

Posted at 10:10 AM

November 4, 2015

I nearly made a joke yesterday about making sure to vote in precincts with nothing but unopposed candidates but I did not! Because voting is still real real important, and Americans lost their sense of humor somewhere around the turn of the century. (This century, not the last one.)

But the news here in the States is seemingly bad, as befitting a non-presidential, non-midterm year. Houston totally hates fags, and Kentucky elected a young version of Paul LePage, which version is evangelical and Tea Party. Here's Gov (Elect) Matt Bevin on the nuts and bolts of governance:

"I'm proud of the fact that this is a great night for Republicans in Kentucky and, more importantly, a great night for conservatives in Kentucky," Mr. Bevin told cheering supporters, who gathered at the Galt House Hotel overlooking the Ohio River. But, he added quickly, "we have a lot of work to do."

And to you other people of Kentucky... you're probably gay-marrying thugs who deserve to be flipped over in a school desk. That is, if Bevin can't find a way to excommunicate you somehow.

But, with a closer examination of the news, there is some good news out there, in fits in spurts, and in the kind of races only nerds like me follow. In Pennsylvania, yet another judicial race, for the PA Supreme Court, was stoked into a movement proxy race for national causes as more than $15mm poured into the campaign for three open seats. Aside from the mere fact that it's the Commonwealth's Supreme Court, the race is important because the Supreme Court has final say over redistricting. All three Democrats won, tipping the balance of the court. But of course we know that having judges subject to popular vote and all that unregulated money to support campaigns is stupid on its face, so maybe it's time to give judicial elections the old heave-ho.

And bestest, in Colorado, in the outskirts of Denver, yet another local race was turning into a battleground for the school reform movement and those that think the last thing the school reform movement cares about is education. Back in 2013 Jefferson County, CO, a school reform slate was voted in to control the school board. Since then the school board became a test laboratory for the movement: attacking tenure, proposing performance review, endowing charter schools and, most controversially, tinkering with curriculum deemed not patriotic enough. Another publicized money fight ensued in the form of a recall of the conservative members, with the Koch brothers on one side and unions on the other. The result? A bunch of school-privatization school board members updating their resumes.

So, some small consolations. And frankly, if progressives take a page from the Americans For Prosperity playbook and learn that local elections can have commensurate consequence with national elections, it would be a good thing.

Posted at 10:47 AM

October 27, 2015

So I just watched the latest ad for the "X-Files" relaunch (revisit?) coming up in the next calendar year, and it did fill me with much Must Watch. Funny how excited one gets over such things. Did someone I know burst into tears when the Stars Wars teaser glimpsed Leia in the arms of Han Solo? I dare you not to.

But of course immediately following the brief period of intense longing to watch television comes the shame of the atemporality of the whole thing. My parents were my age in 1990, and I cannot imagine them or any of their affinity group jumping up and down because Jack Klugman and Tony Randall (in some alternate universe) coming back to continue their bickering as Oscar and Felix. Maybe they had more to worry about? Maybe the allure of 1990 was such that there was no need to keep recycling the Things We Used To Love?

That's all irrelevant, of course. Because, even though I watched this TV ad not on TV but rather on Facebook, in a post pushed by Fox from their X-Files page, I do intend to watch the shit out of the new "X-Files" and watch it live as it is initially broadcast.

Posted at 10:00 AM

October 21, 2015

All of those jokes on Twitter and Facebook and everywhere else about Joe Biden, and the will-he or won't-he and then the obvious deluge of the calling-outs of insiders who got it wrong? Predictable and yet still entertaining. Which is pretty much the world now, isn't it? A vocal social media minority, bumping around in the dark trying to get that Really Good One out there, rack up some RTs, gobble down some whuffie.

I am course am one of the idiots milling around like cattle, admittedly. And my sentiment on wishing that Joe could still get to participate in the debates, like a college kid audits a class, was not entirely a joke. Joe's light on his feet and has been pitying fools in debates for decades. And I wasn't even thinking of Joe against Hillary — no slouch herself — but more against whoever the GOP somehow finagles past Trump and Carson. Joe utterly destroyed Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, but both were in way over their heads. It's not fair (to us) that we won't get to see Joe debate circles around a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio. But then again I never really wanted to vote for Joe. I just wanted to keep him around, for his aura and his jolly loose-cannon speaking style, and mostly for his empathy. I can't think of a more magnetic retail politician, and I'm including Hillary's husband.

Ultimately, being Joe Biden may not be as cool as being the President of the United States, but it's pretty damn cool. There are a lot worse things to be.

Posted at 1:02 PM

October 7, 2015

After this, here's another thing you can do while you're wondering where it all went. So take a pivotal moment of your youth. For me, it's senior year of high school, but you could pick college, first kiss, first sexy-time, first time you read Nabokov or Joan Didion, first time you parallel-parked, whatever. Take that year. Mean age of my compatriots skews younger than I am, so let's say, "1995."

Good! Now take that year, and figure out how long ago that was. In the case of our hypothetical, the answer is twenty years. Long time!

Okay. Now take that interval of time, and, starting at the pivotal moment, go backwards instead of forwards. I know it seems like there's some maths involved with this, or at the very least some geometry, but it's time we're dealing with and no one has the faintest how that works, so rest easy. Where were we?

Right! So twenty years before that is 1975. So as you sit wherever you are, or stand, I hear that standing is good for you, and you reminisce as one does, for all the neat stuff 1995 had to offer, like the publishing of the Unabomber Manifesto, or "Clueless" and "Batman Forever" in the movie theaters and TLC and the Squirrel Nut Zippers on the radio, or Pedro Martinez pitching a perfect game for the Expos, if your pivotal young self were to, way back in 1995 reminisce about things that were as long back then as 1995 is now, you would be reminiscing about the premiere of "Barney Miller" of "SNL" or the debut of the Sex Pistols or seeing "Jaws" or "Escape To Witch Mountain" or "Rooster Cogburn" in a movie theater (which allowed smoking cigarettes) or the New York Daily News headline of "Ford To City: Drop Dead".

Another way to play this game: the movie "Dazed and Confused", which has been on my mind lately because there is an SUV that parks in my neighborhood with an "ASS CASH OR GRASS/NOBODY RIDES FOR FREE" decal on it, which I swear I can hear Matthew McConaughey saying from the movie, was released in 1993. It was set in the year 1976, a year seventeen years previous to the date of release. So, if a new contemporary version of "Dazed and Confused" was to be produced, in order to keep up the verisimilitude with the original, it would have to be set in 1998. Which would be a pretty boring version .

Usually the end result of this process is feeling old. I don't have a name for this yet, maybe something like the Comparative Nostalgia Ratio, though it's certainly not really a ratio but more like some sort of thought exercise. I guess the second version you could call the Dazed and Confused Index with some clarity. But! Once you clear, say, the age of 23, it never stops working! In fact, it works better the older you get. Well, "better" in the sense that you feel old, which is not really something that anyone should get hung up on although pretty much everyone does, including your author.

Even though the alternate to getting older is clearly worse.

Posted at 1:24 PM