August 24, 2015

Those of you that care about this already know about it. Isn't that always the case? But it is yet another example of one of the scary ways that the world is changing around us as we rise each morning, go to work, care for our loved ones and generally persist.

It's about science fiction! (It's okay, I'll see most of you guys back here later.) To sum up, the same portion of humanity that got all upset about non-bro viewpoints in video games and harassed a bunch of women into hiding (y'know, the dingbats who pop up in threads with "Actually it's about ethics in video game journalism) decided that the Hugo Awards, the primary awards ceremony for the sci-fi writers out there, were being controlled in some sense by non-bros. So, led by a couple of decidedly-bro authors of the white-dudes-with-big-guns-variety, they decided to rig the balloting process for this year's Hugos. And they were successful! All categories were bro-heavy, and some categories were bro-exclusive. (For some reason the bros became known as the Puppy movement, divided, of course, into two factions: Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. This is only important because it is ridiculous.)

So many thousands of words were written and there was actual concern in the air: would this brazen subversion of the process actually result in junk sci-fi winning awards?

Well, and here is what you should walk away with, the Hugos were last weekend, and the Puppies got beat like a drum:

The evening began with an appearance by a fan cosplaying as the Grim Reaper, and it turned out he was there for the Puppies. Not a single Puppy-endorsed candidate took home a rocket. In the five categories that had only Puppy-provided nominees on the ballot--Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, and Best Editor for Short and for Long Form--voters instead preferred "No Award." (Here's the full list.)

But as you run off to read the (really good) Wired piece, you can't not have at least have a taste of the specific complaints of the Puppies factions. This is a strangely triumphal piece by one of the fellow travelers of the Puppies movement about how the Hugo Awards was in fact a victory for the Puppies. The author sums up:

Emboldened by the success of GamerGate in resisting cultural meddlers and authoritarians in video gaming, sci-fi fans resistant to identitarian politics are fighting back. Every year their numbers are growing, and they are more disciplined, more relentless and more determined than their social justice foes.

The real moral of this story is that the Puppies lost, in the same way that the GamerGaters lost, in the same way that this very vocal minority always will because for the time being actually good people outnumber them. There's no success to be emboldened with. There's just a sad little circle jerk of dramatically aggrieved men who could use therapy a lot more than this self-reinforcing crusade against whatever windmills took all their privilege away.

I only share this bit of verbiage because it's fascinating how these splinter cells of culture warriors quickly develop this argot that is dripping with seriousness and intent but really just a bunch of whiny rot. Fascinating like mildly diverting. Fascinating like just in case you were tempted to empathize.

But the Hugos were saved! And the next time these mistakes of history want to try to culture-jam some other damn thing, they'll lose that too.

Posted at 12:23 PM

August 19, 2015

This is the eighth presidential election that I paid anything resembling attention to (yes, little kid me thought the idea of the independent candidacy of John Anderson as neat) and the fifth one to happen as I've had access to this mechanism of instantly publishing my thoughts to the known universe. And for the last four, I did devote a dedicated if not compulsive attention to the matter, and yammered on and on in ways that sometimes bordered on comedy and other in outright advocacy.

I'm not hinting that this is about to change; oh no, you don't give this shit up any more than you give up doing the crossword every day. But there is a certain amount of jadedness and resignation that I'll admit too, even now, already, still fourteen or so months out. This might be the function of age. Hell, it might even be the function of me being smarter than I used to be (also because of age). Whichever!

I just wanted to chime in real briefly and say, Oh yeah, I'm paying attention, and I observe that if there's any one thing this election tells us is that having lived through a bunch of elections does not mean that you'll be better to predict what will happen any better than someone whose lived through none, because prior results in this instance are not indicative of future outcomes.

By way of illustration, I totally agree with Josh Marshall on this point:

We've gone far enough now with the Trump political phenomenon to know that it is no mere or momentary matter of name recognition which has placed him as the top contender for the Republican nomination, as bizarre an eventuality as that might appear. He now leads all national polls and all polls in the key early primary and caucus states - and by significant margins. We've also witnessed key GOP stakeholder Fox News try to derail Trump's campaign and fail miserably at it. Lots of top Republicans jumped on that bum-rush Trump bandwagon only to be damaged in turn when it collapsed. We're now in a categorically different phase. Trump is now defining the GOP policy agenda. And that makes him far more than a top candidate or even a nominee.

Show me anyone, working in the media, a Sunday morning talking head, or the loudmouth knowitall at the corner store, that saw that coming. And while you're at it, show me anyone else that sees how this is going to end.

Oh it doesn't bode well at all. The know-nothings are now an actual sweeping movement.

But at least it's not boring.

Posted at 3:11 PM

August 17, 2015

I want to be careful of this, because I know that I am too susceptible to stumbling upon an idea or a concept in one article or essay and then going nuts for it like it's the God's honest truth, but I stumbled upon a concept in one essay and I'm going nuts for it like it's the God's honest truth.

At the risk of blockquoting the entirety of the piece, let's let the author, Adam Davidson, do the talking. Background!

Forget the global fight against terrorism or the Internet and globalization: When historians come to write of our age, the time we are living through now, they may well call it the age of bonds. This age began in 1944, near the end of World War II, when sober men in suits gathered in Bretton Woods, N.H., to prevent future wars. What they wound up creating was the basic architecture of a new global financial system, in which rational economic calculus, not military and political power or ancient prejudices, would determine where money flows.

That, for me, is a Whoa if true! moment. It is something that I've known intuitively but never actively thought about. In fact in the last ten years I do remember thinking that, in light of the banking/austerity crises stretching from Cyprus to Spain, there was a certain bellicosity in the rhetoric of the IMF and the EU that seemed pretty close to sabre-rattling to me, and maybe this bickering over sovereign debt is something that totally supplanted the regional skirmishes that blossomed into either of the World Wars? Of course I had no idea that something like that was even remotely true let alone traceable to the Bretton Woods conference that we all learned about in high school but never really understood.

And how could we have understood? The premise of government bonds as the mechanism that actually controls how geopolitics works, forget the UN and diplomacy and all that stuffy stuff, is hard enough for a grown-up to wrap their mind around, let alone some impudent pup awash in an unimaginable hormonal avalanche. I mean, did the history professors get it, or were they mostly there for the military history and reading the boring stuff straight out of the book just like the students?

So yes, mind is at least preliminarily blown, and obviously, I have a couple wheelbarrows of research to do.

Moving right along! Now, the column is primarily concerning Greece, and the sovereign debt of Greece, and how possibly the poor judgment of those purchasing bonds issued by Greece are as much at fault as anyone else when it comes to the slow strangulation of Greece by austerity, that maybe its the dumb investors who should be taking it on the chin and not the people of Greece. This is a good point! But this is not why I'm writing this.

I'm writing this because of the following section:

The very nature of stock markets inclines them to collapse every decade or so, and when they do, it can be painful. But a stock-market collapse is not debilitating. If the world bond market were to collapse, our way of life would be over.

On Sept. 17, 2008, in the late afternoon, this almost happened. For a few dramatic days, prominent economists and other financial experts -- serious, unemotional people who had never before said anything shocking in their lives -- talked privately, if not publicly, about the real possibility of the end of the United States, the end of electricity and industry and democracy. When the bailout money flowed to save the banks, that was just the fastest way to accomplish the real goal: to save the bond market.

So my mind is already blown concerning the nature of government bonds and how they are the financial black blood of the earth and then there is this casual aside concerning 9/17/08 and how it was nearly the end of everything because of, yes, government bonds. (For the record, the 17th was a Wednesday, and the previous weekend the furious and lengthy meetings between Sec. Treasury Geithner and Lehman Bros. principals, the meetings that resulting in the Monday announcement of Lehman's bankruptcy filing, happened.)

I am very curious about this, because I can still to this day the first time I read about the various times that the U.S. actually nearly opened the silos on the USSR and/or vice versa, and it's a feeling that I recall without much in the way of pleasure. Obviously none of these events were publicly known at the time, and, even though you can find some old-timers that will tell you that many people were going to bed during the Cuban Missile Crisis unsure whether they would be waking up in the morning, the crises we've lived through (especially up to about fifteen years ago) were polite and mannered and nothing to keep you up at night. The concept that everything was very nearly irretrievably fucked up and no one knew about it is a sharp concept, and once you wrap your mind around it you realize that that is how the near-endings of the world operate, in the shadows, and further that should the world ever be irretrievably fucked up it will happen in the shadows and none of us will know about it until that particular wave breaks right on our heads.

So yes, I would like to know more, both about how government bonds are the actual Trilateral Commission-level shit we were always told about, and about how we came thiiiiis close to the Big One and no one knew about it other than a buncha damn bankers.

Posted at 12:30 PM

August 7, 2015

I'm beginning to think that the tide is turning a bit? For the past five years or so (George Packer notwithstanding), there seems to have grown an aura of invincibility and Utopian do-gooding around the tech sector, and those start-ups that move fast and break things and get movies made about them. I personally have been a bit dubious of this, given that these businesses are actually just that — businesses, with no more imperative to save humanity from itself than a ham sandwich. But I have been in the minority, as this cult of the disruptor has grown into a small army of people who shout louder than the rest of us.

But in the last few weeks it seems to me that there have been published a number of pieces that question this orthodoxy, and not always politely. In fact, it seems to me that maybe the skepticism of Silicon Valley/Alley is becoming less of a rearguard action and more of a consensus position.

Of course, examples! Well, there is this Mic piece which is spurred by some Silicon Valley type asserting that things like laundromats are no longer needed because there's an app for that. Ha ha ha really! Silly millionaire, since your app does not actually wash clothes but induces other people to wash clothes for you, actually then laundromats are as needed as ever.

Free marketeers who fancy themselves "innovators" believe that by cannibalizing other services, they can prove that these old industries are clunky. They want to break apart the existing structure and start reassembling it into their own ideal. But in that world, not everyone benefits equally.

If we stop sharing risk and responsibility, only those who already hold wealth and privilege will benefit. Let's think about health insurance for a moment. We all buy into it by sharing risk, knowing that at some point it may be us whose number comes up and who needs medical attention.

And, more pointedly, the creation and smarts behind these "innovations" belie a deep and intractable dumbness. For example, a running theme in all the press coverage of the ride-sharing apps, the Lyfts and the Ubers and what-not, is the wide-eyed founders of these concerns asserting that, by bringing people together and with the eventual advent of driverless cars, these apps will someday replace public transportation!

Which is just idiocy if you think of it, given that one of the purposes of public transportation is to get cars off the fucking road.

Moving along! If this small dollop of trenchancy from Warren Ellis is not indicative of a disturbance in the Zeitgeist then I don't know what is:

It is that time in the cycle where the Libertarian App Future Brothers start living off the grid, buying guns and getting good and weird out there alone in the dark. I wonder how we'll look back at this whole period of the last five or ten years. At how the digital gold rush and the strange pressures of a new, yet accelerated, period of cultural invention cooked a whole new set of mental wounds out of the people swept up in it.

Well, I'm of the opinion that we'll look back at the period as some sort of Asshole Supervillain Incubator, but that's just me, waiting for the bubble to pop but good.

I mean of course the battle is not yet won or anything, but I think that the bloom is coming off the rose a bit as far as the lock-step hagiographies of the tech billionaires and those that worship them. Or at least the default position on these dingbat capitalists is no longer Virtuous Hero, and the voices that question such default position are rising.

Posted at 10:38 AM

July 31, 2015

This is just a brief not-for-nothing post, but a couple days ago over on Medium I published an interview I had with author Sarah Stodola, who wrote the book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. I know what you're going to say before you say it: "Why, Brent, based on the past eleven years or so of writing on this website, you've given the impression that a book like that is exactly the kind of book that would 'gag you with a spoon,' as it were."

Reader: I did not gag! On a spoon, or any other inconvenient thing!

I found it thoughtful and informative and not a little bit deft, and it left me with a lot of big thoughts, which big thoughts got batted back and forth by me and Sarah.

So maybe a long-ish interview about writing and the ineffabilities thereof (with an awful lot of Old Brooklyn nostalgia, most of which did not make the cut, as I recall) is not exactly what your own personal doctor order on a sweltery TGIF, but maybe it is!

In fact, you'll never know until you try.

Posted at 11:08 AM

July 30, 2015

Possibly the most interesting thing about the conflict between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and $40bn taxi pimp Uber is that it went from What are you talking about? to Please do shut up in about three business days. And it was as divisive as it was quickly-escalating, with people who thought that private companies shouldn't try to strong-arm municipalities on the one side, and people who think Uber is "neat", have been bought and paid for by Uber and/or Ayn Rand fans on the other side.

And already too much has been written about this, like this story on reverse race-baiting or this shrill bit of triumphalism or even this blast from the past on what it really means to have one of those capital-J jobs that Uber keeps bragging about, but I personally received two pieces of direct mail from Uber (pictured), and as annoying as the endless promoted Tweets and targeted webvertising, that was the last straw. I look forward to receiving mail, dammit, and I do not need such poison tainting all the other good mail.

I think that a lobbying plan aimed at voters is just as insidious as any lobbying, but three times as unethical, and even more galling than Uber (impotently!) threatening the electoral chances of city councilmen was the mantle assumed by Uber, as the creator of jobs and the protector of the outer-boroughs (which is, as we know, a load of crap).

So then, some rhetorical questions that I would love to see answered by Travis Kalanick or David Plouffe:

If Uber is so focused on the well-being of outer-borough car service patrons, why does Uber insist on charging money for the service?

Further to that, considering that a credit card is needed to access Uber's services, they're helping the outer-borough, low income patron exactly how again? The consumers you're talking about are marginalized out of bank accounts, let alone credit cards. So you're somehow disrupting dollar vans?

Is Uber organized as a not-for-profit entity or B corporation (or any other entity that is by formation intended to take into account the public good)? And if not then is there a provision in the by-laws, operating agreement or other organizational document that actually impels Uber to act in any public way intended to do anything other than increasing shareholder value?

Or are you just pretty much spewing bullshit and hoping that we're stupid?

How much did Uber spend in its campaign to intimidate the de Blasio administration? For that matter, how much (and in what form) did Uber compensate Kate Upton, Ashton Kutcher and (sadly) Neil Patrick Harris to publicly endorse Uber's extortion campaign?

And finally, these thousands of jobs that Uber is threatening to create, are these like, actual jobs? As defined by the NYS Labor Department? Do they get unemployment insurance, do you pay social security for them? And, if not, why the fuck are you calling it a job?

I guess mostly I want to ask what sort of monster feels the need to fuck with an entire city so that their taxi pimp business takes off and everyone sees that Ayn Rand was right all along, but that answer is self-evident: Travis Kalanick and his mouthpiece, David Plouffe.

At the end of the day this is just one more useless half- rant of a not universally-held conviction. But for a clear and cogent explanation of the actual ways Uber is no better than a drug cartel, I recommend this brief piece by Frank Pasquale and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

I mean it's fun to get all mad and say mean things, but this issue, the greater issue that includes "gig economy" entities that aren't exactly the remorseless assholes that people Uber, is an important one in determining what the employment playing field is going to look like in the next couple decades.

Posted at 9:41 AM

July 22, 2015

I've been meaning to jot this down for about a month, and it was news of this rally last week in Union Square that goosed me into actually getting this done. The rally was one of those things that I probably wouldn't have gone to even had I heard of it, because the goal of the rally is one of those ephemeral things that raised voices and placards (and yellow roses) can't really affect:
A day after a cyclist was fatally struck by an SUV driver near Barclays Center in Brooklyn, hundreds of safe streets advocates gathered for a vigil at the north end of Union Square, and pledged to stop referring to traffic collisions as "accidents."

Many of last night's attendees wore bright-yellow Families for Safe Streets t-shirts on which "accident" had been scribbled out with thick lines, and replaced with the word "CRASH." More than 23,500 single-stem yellow roses, piled at the base of a podium and distributed throughout the crowd, represented the 23,463 New Yorkers who have been injured, and 123 who have been killed, in traffic collisions this year to date.

Myself, I'm famously cautious when driving. I have been called "Gramma" more than once by the friends and family in the passenger seat. And the only goal of this was that I wanted to never, ever be in an automobile accident. Just too dumb of a way to go. So I basically drive in line with advice given to bicyclists who drive in traffic: act like every single vehicle in and out of the line of sight is actively trying to kill you.

And it worked for a long long time. Up until the middle of last month, as a matter of fact. The linked photo is not the car I was in, for the record. Long story short, some friends and I were returning from a very pleasant wedding weekend up in Ogunquit, ME on a Monday afternoon. We were on a surface road in Hartford, CT, in the left-hand turn lane, in fact, trying to get back onto the Interstate, waiting at the red. And we heard it — it sounded like an avalanche but made of metal — but we only had time to maybe furrow our brows and the car slammed forward ten feet. What had happened is that a car was coming down the hill towards the traffic light, doing about 50 mph, and never even touched the brakes. The car in the photo is his car. The first car he hit was sent clear across the intersection, about twenty yards, after which we were the second car hit, obviously with much less force.

Me and my passengers were fine. The driver in the car that got launched was wearing his sealtbelt and his airbags deployed. He was up and around, but the EMTs decided that based on the condition of his car, he was getting a trip to the hospital anyway. The driver who never stopped was not wearing a seatbelt, and yes, the impression in his windshield is from his head. When my friend checked on him immediately after, he was conscious, and muttered, "I musta fallen asleep." He too went to the hospital, once an ambulance with the proper equipment to transport him arrived. As far as I know both of them were not in mortal danger.

So that's how I got to be in a traffic accident that was very nearly a very big problem: not because of lack of concern on my part, but because of the three hundred million people that live here there is never a shortage of people who are more than happy to endanger everyone else because they're drunk or sleep-depped or just careless and staring at their phone.

And that's why I agree with the rally referenced above, but yet, as useless as I think rallies are, they did not go far enough. Traffic Accidents should not be renamed as Traffic Crashes. The word Crash does not go far enough in imputing responsibility. These are Traffic Mistakes, and only in the rarest cases are these tragedies entirely blameless. As in, if you were texting and you clip a bicyclist? That wasn't an accident. You made a mistake. You fucked up.

I might feel pretty strongly about this because of the residual rage at the man whose negligence threatened my life and the lives of my friends. But at the same time there are so many small episodes of the same lack of regard, usually resulting in annoyance or minor hindrances. People who stop at the top of a flight of stairs, people who talk loudly in ATM lines, that sort of stuff. It's like a race to the bottom, species-wise.

Yeah yeah yeah.

But the bottom line for me, aside from hugging your loved ones as frequently as possible, is not to be that guy, that guy who was unable to understand that a consequence of his actions would be plowing into sitting target cars at an excessive speed. It'd be a start, and maybe just as an example to the rest of everyone (and I'm pretty sure that putting strangers in the hospital is the last thing you want to do).

Posted at 10:14 AM

July 10, 2015

Donald Trump is obviously a problem.

He's not a problem for you and me, of course. For us, he's a freak looking for a sideshow, a vain, vain man with a nasty case of early-onset megalomania, an incurious chump who is just stupid enough to have absolutely no idea how stupid he is. And he's not only running for president, but he's doing quite well! And that may be problematic — in all honesty, it is problematic for me, in the same sense of when you serve jury duty and realize "These are my peers?" — but he's not a candidate we'd ever vote for and as such he is somebody else's problem.

And that problem belongs to the Republican Party.

Since the start of Mr. Trump's presidential campaign, a vexing question has hovered over his candidacy: Why have so many party leaders -- privately appalled by Mr. Trump's remarks about immigrants from Mexico -- not renounced him?

It turns out, interviews show, that the mathematical delicacy of a Republican victory in 2016 -- and its dependence on aging, anxious white voters -- make it exceedingly perilous for the Republican Party to treat Mr. Trump as the pariah many of its leaders now wish he would become.

And then the terrible outcomes are contemplated: Trump could last long enough to throw the debates into utter (racist!) disarray, or the eventual rebuke of Trump could irk these "aging, anxious white voters" or, and even worse, irk Trump himself to the point where he takes his voters and runs a third party candidacy. None of these are attractive outcomes for the GOP.

It is cute to speak of this in the language of politics, of candidates and campaigns, of potential voters and the Base and all the rest of that. It's clean, almost surgical. But the greater, greasy truth behind this, the invisible elephant in the room, if you will, is that the "aging, anxious white voters" are noxious in their entirety, picking toxic elements of each of the past six or seven decades to blithely wield as if they were virtues: the Red-hunting of the 50s, the overt racism of the 60s, the self-obsession of the 70s, the poor-shaming of the 80s, etc. Sadly, these voters, the regular folks pouring in to watch Donald Trump cuss, fuss and compare running a nation-state to building a golf course or licensing one's name for a line of steaks, are monsters. And yes, I'm speaking plainly, and, as one Twitter buddy (who is also a very practiced troll) puts it, that's no way for me to understand the motives of these voters, by calling them stupid.

But the thing of it is, they're stupid. And retrograde and a-scaired of any people that don't look just like them. Furthermore, I'm not actually here to understand them, any more than the Republican establishment is. The Republican Party also doesn't particularly care about what could cause people to believe for a hot second that Donald Trump is qualified to be state flower let alone President of the United States of America; they only care that these people vote, reliably. And when they vote, unless there's a Ross Perot or a Ron Paul there to muck it up, they vote GOP, in such numbers, in fact, that it's hard to imagine a path to electoral victory without them.

And that is the problem. This bloc of voters is indistinguishable from the stalwart souls who saw the backlash on the Confederate battle flag as some sort of pitched battle against white people and were so moved as to march around waving such flag in front of TV cameras, saying words that they had memorized without learning the meaning, like "heritage." Oh sure they vote, but their optics are terrible, and no one wants to be painted with that brush of oafish-yet-still-evil by association.

So then the quandary for the smart guys running the greater Republican effort is not just some academic electoral problem. Actually, the trick is how to give the impression of distance from the know-nothing dumb-asses that normal Americans dislike without actually convincing the dumb-asses that their support of GOP candidates is unwelcome. And I don't know if this reluctance is on some moral grounds, as there are an awful lot of near-hateful positions that are planks of the GOP campaign. But I do know that to publicly admit that this bloc of (awful) voters is integral to the success to the GOP would be to admit that the GOP is the party that nine out of ten know-nothing dumb-asses support, the party of bigotry and sexism and naked, very un-Christlike greed. Which it is, of course, but part of the self-delusion of this particular ideology is that as long as you never admit it out loud, you get to imagine yourself virtuous.

So sure, the temporary ascendancy of Donald Trump is an intriguing little labyrinth of pitfalls to be navigated by the Republican Party during this election season. But the real issue with the Donald is not that he's making a unholy mess of these well-laid plans (which plans largely consist of demonizing Hillary Clinton, but whatever). What Trump is doing is dog-whistling too loudly, and when the normal people can start hearing it, there's a whole bunch of very uncomfortable party-wide explaining to do.

Posted at 10:36 AM

July 8, 2015

There's really no other way to read this than as an epic burn, or as we used to say in junior high, "FACE!" The NYT, intrepid as ever in its coverage of the '16 presidential race (and also judicious considering the sheer number of candidates wandering across Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina) runs a very by-the-numbers story of Sen. Marco Rubio on the trail, rolling out some thoughts on education reform. Let's go to the videotape:
As part of his higher education plan, Mr. Rubio has proposed two innovations that are aimed at making student loans more affordable. First, he said, he would put into effect an income-based payment system to allow graduates earning lower salaries to repay creditors on a timetable that he said would cause "less strain." Those who earned more would have to repay their loans at a faster rate.

A form of income-based repayment plans for student loans already exists.

Not so by-the-numbers after all!

And I read that on the train in to the office (sorry, B train, I was the dude who went, "Whoa!" somewhere over the Manhattan Bridge), but looking it up to share with you I discover that this epic burn is now a titanically epic burn, because in the online version, the phrase "income-based repayment plans" is a hyperlink to an independent summary of student loan repayment, reduction and forgiveness programs. Which is makes it then a titanically epic servicey burn.

Between you and me, I don't know why Rubio doesn't suspend the campaign right now, if not for his general lightweightedness, then for the prospect of coming in third behind Donald Trump in endless polls for the next couple months.

Posted at 10:52 AM

June 29, 2015

I have unfortunately specific enthusiasms when it comes to the news stories that I choose to follow, and one of my favorites is back on the front page! Well, page three. Of the business section.

So this story broke earlier this month:

For years, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the country's biggest state pension fund, paid Wall Street billions of dollars to help finance the retirement plans of teachers, firefighters, police and other state employees.

Now Calpers, which has just more than $300 billion of assets under management, plans to cut back drastically on those fees by severing its ties with half of the external investment managers of its funds, according to Ted Eliopoulos, the chief investment officer.

This is important for this reason: pension funds, and Calpers is a big one in dollar amount and in reputation, are a very reliable source of capital for your basic financial services industry players — the hedge funds, venture capital, private equity, etc. Pension funds have billions and billions of dollars just sitting around, and the managers try to manipulate the different ways you can apply money sitting around, interest-bearing accounts, stocks and bonds, index funds, etc., in such away that the pension funds is hopefully earning scads of money, or at least outperforming inflation.

Hedge funds love this, as pension funds are as close to a fish in a barrel as you can get. And the hedge funds get paid not only in the form of a management fee (a set annual percentage of the fund), but also in the form of a performance fee, a big old chunk of the net gains of the fund. The latter fee is also known as "the carry," as it is treating as carried interest by the IRS and taxed more favorably as a capital gain and not as income.

So, a couple weeks later, it is revealed that (from information from last April) that in the review of the management of Calpers funds, the fee structure of the third party managers hired by Calpers was a little less than transparent:

Earlier this year, a senior executive of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the country's biggest state pension fund, made a surprising statement: The fund did not know what it was paying some of its Wall Street managers.

Wylie A. Tollette, the chief operating investment officer, told an investment committee in April that the fees Calpers paid to private equity firms were "not explicitly disclosed or accounted for. We can't track it today."

If you read the story, you see that investigators are on the case, which is what it is, depending on your faith in such efforts, but the important aspect of this is, for those of you that are not weirdly fascinated with pension funds, is that the hedge funds, PE firms, etc. have a rapacious need for dumb money for the myriad ways they have devised to subject such dumb money to dedicatedly opaque fees. And, this dumb money — and not to say that pension funds, in this example, are actually dumb but rather duped by fast-talking Wall Street types — is basically helpless when it comes to monitoring the arrays of fees charged by the financial services actors.

It's a tiny little story buried in the business section, but just with Calpers alone, we're talking about billions not millions that may or may not have been paid as fees spuriously linked to performance. And the financial services industry is banking on the fact that stories like this will fly under the radar.

Posted at 10:38 AM

June 23, 2015

Sometimes David Brooks is wrong in a very personal way, as in, Oh that poor David Brooks, trapped in some alternate universe of beigeness in which he can only long to wear a novelty T-shirt. And other times, David Brooks is wrong in a way that (accidentally, I presume) is illustrative of some greater flaw in our culture. Usually, when David Brooks inadvertently aligns with the Zeitgeist, it concerns a specifically David Brooks-ian topic, like punctuality, or hygiene.

But this week, in a column characteristically bizzaro, he accidentally strings two sentences together that are a big part of why we're doomed:

Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation.

Now, the premise of the column is that the Pope is just too dour in his recent encyclical, which basically indicts technology and free market capitalism, which is why a whole lot of people who wear a suit and tie while they write their think-pieces are bent out of shape.

But those thoughts, intended to show (I guess?) that all of that nasty sin that the Pope is all down on can actually have positive effects, instead show that David Brooks, and those that think like/agree with David Brooks, have some really really twisted ideas about virtue and vice. The target here is greed, as the Pope is talking about the free market economy, and, well, we're grownups here, but duh. But David Brooks still has his VCR so he can rewatch "Wall Street" once a year, and is not about to take lightly anyone clamping down on greed, even if it is God's single representative on earth. Surely there must be some equivalency, David Brooks thought, that I can employ rhetorically. But David Brooks needs another sin, one to compare greed to! But it's gotta be a good one, a sin that ranks right up there with greed! Oh, David Brooks has got it!

Lust.

Of course we all agree that lust is one of the Seven Deadlies, and sure there's a doctrinal prohibition of carnal concupiscence in the Catholic Church, but, really? As far as walking around the world, trying to deal with people as the planet actually burns, lust is maybe about the last bad thing that I or anyone I know am worried about. But you and I and everyone we know are not David Brooks.

And then there is the good thing that is the unintended consequence of lust: childbearing. Some of us might call that a consequence of biology, but okay. But as bonkers as it is that David Brooks would say out loud that childbearing makes lust A-OK, it's even nuttier because in this rush to develop a moral argument that greed is good, it is revealed that David Brooks does not know what lust is. Biblically, lust is not, "Hey there, lawfully married wife, let's go smooch some and see if we accidentally procreate." Lust is not just the desire to get busy. Nope. As far as the Church is concerned, lust is interchangeable with covet. So basically when David Brooks brings up the miracle of conception, he is inadvertently implying the miracle of conception but with another man's wife. Which may be the opposite of the good thing that David Brooks was trying to invoke.

But the whole point of the exercise for David Brooks is not to reveal that he's got some pretty complicated feelings about getting busy and making babies, but rather to defend this free market economy that he loves so much, and so the unintentionally good byproduct of greed? That would be entrepreneurship and innovation. But here's the thing, and this is the thing that burns my grits not just about David Brooks but also the other free marketeers and very very specifically the technocapitalists of the alleys and valleys Silicon who think that "There's an app for that!" is somehow going to lift billions out of poverty. First of all, entrepreneurship and innovation are not actual tangible things. They are concepts, each a pretty little word signifying ineffable conceits. And if you break them down into actual descriptive English, it is a whole lot less impressive: "starting businesses" and "changing business practices."

And yet, and this would be the second of all, the words entrepreneurship and innovation are bandied about as intrinsically good and virtuous values almost as much as efficiency is, and it is markedly not the case. There are many many ways to measure and economy or an economic venture — gross profit, net profits, market capitalization, mean employee wage, median employee wage — take your pick, be you a University of Chicago Neoliberal or a pinko commie like me. But as you think to yourself, you will note that of all of the concrete and even whimsical metrics by which to measure a business, it is impossible to do so by "starting of new business" or "changing of business practice". Well, not impossible to do so, but ludicrous and silly to do so. But the pointlessness of the context of entrepreneurship and innovation has not stopped the fetishization of entrepreneurship and innovation in the least.

It's another case where deliberately opaque jargon becomes commonly accepted as axiomatic virtues because a bunch of privileged yo-yos with similar educations and backgrounds agreed that it would be so. And it is so, to the point that these terms are no longer used exclusively in incubators and the start-up conferences of the world, but to us rubes, as proof. Even as proof that the Pope is mean.

Of course we're used to David Brooks being solipsistic and sometimes obtuse and always living in some utopian Otherworld in which the wisdom of David Brooks (confusion about smooching notwithstanding) is accepted and admired, but it is not every day is which David Brooks is wrong is such a revelatory manner.

Posted at 10:35 AM

June 9, 2015

A month or so ago I was sputtering with rage because the Corinthian family of for-profit colleges are naked scams that bilks the Feds out of billions in guaranteed loans and then runs the business into the ground like a fucking Jart. Oddly enough, there appears to be a bit of good news concerning this, at least with regard to the students who got suckered into attending one of the Corinthian Colleges:
In a move against what he called "the ethics of payday lending" in higher education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Monday that the Education Department would forgive the federal loans of tens of thousands of students who attended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit college company that closed and filed for bankruptcy last month, amid widespread charges of fraud.

Mr. Duncan also said the department planned to develop a process to allow any student -- whether from Corinthian or elsewhere -- to be forgiven their loans if they had been defrauded by their colleges.

That's a good one, "the ethics of payday lending" — credit where credit is due.

So good for the students who were bilked and that will be repaid. But here's some questions: So sure, the great Corinthian experiment of for-profit education fell on its face. But before it did, exactly how much money did the owners, CEOs, management etc. make? And considering that it's a couple billion dollars of public money that's going to remedy this, shouldn't maybe the public try to get some of the money back from the criminals behind this fraud in the first place?

And second, it's great that the students who were enrolled at the time of Corinthian's failure are being bailed out from their student loans. But what about all the other students, the one who graduated with a useless degree, the ones who never finished but still have tens of thousands of dollars in loans, before Corinthian failed? What about them? Shouldn't they be bailed out too?

Posted at 11:33 AM

June 2, 2015

One of my explanations for the Slow Degradation of All Things is this theory that I think of as Institutional Incompetence. Basically, in any career or trade or activity, it is written in stone that some percentage of the practitioners will suck at it. And I'm not positing some set percentage across the board. For example, I'm guessing for the position of Walmart floor staff, it may well be pretty high. And for brain surgeon, we of course pray that the percentage is very very low, but be assured that there are at least a handful of them that are just not very good at brain surgery. Institutional Incompetence! Or, human beings have the tendency to fail themselves.

This story, in which Homeland Security conducts an audit of how good the TSA actually is at screening airplane passengers, is what brings the issue to mind. I mean:

According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General's report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.

That obviously would be a very high degree of institutional incompetence. Takeawy: either the TSA auditors are really good at sneaking weapons, or no terrorist has actually tried to do so in the past 14 years. But why is the TSA so crappy at their jobs? Is a general lack of motivation? Is it indolence? Is sneaking stuff onto planes just so easy to do that the TSA inspections are just window dressing to make the public think that the government is doing all it can?

Or is it that if you give the average person the chance to fail, they will? Moreover, and this is where my interest lies, although I have absolutely no answer, is this institutional incompetence becoming more and more endemic as time progresses? As in, if there were such a thing as a TSA back in 1960, would they have been better at there jobs than they are now in 1960? And for that matter: do you maybe remember a time when Walmart, back when it was Wal-mart, as icky as it was, actually hummed with efficiency and a weirdly happy staff? As compared to today, when walking into a Walmart is like a peek into what happened between Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road.

And the other way to phrase this is: are people getting awfuller or am I just know realizing that people are actually awful?

Thinking out loud! As usual.

Posted at 10:07 AM

May 28, 2015

If you are not local to NYC this story might not be known to you. Thirty-five years or so ago, a little boy, Etan Patz, disappeared from Lower Manhattan, never to be heard from again. There have been a number of suspects over the years, but recently a man from New Jersey was charged and tried. No physical evidence existed. The prosecution argued purely on the strength of the suspect's confession. The trial ended in a hung jury, as one juror remained convinced that the state did not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Now I have no idea if the suspect did it or did not do it. I have a lot of hard time giving confessions a lot of evidential weight, first of all because they are factually meaningless. I can confess to killing JFK and it certainly does not mean that I did. And on top of that, I do have a hard time trusting cops when it comes to confessions. All of these are facets of human nature that are uncomfortable but true. But at the same time after three decades it is likely that there is no physical evidence at all, and someone surely did something terrible to Etan Patz, so it would be a good thing if someone was ever convicted.

Where I'm going with this is that Tuesday morning, I noticed a news item on the first page of the local section, with the headline Etan Patz Jurors, on Anniversary, Meet at Scene of Boy's Disappearance. Apparently some portion of the hung jury have taken the case on as a cause. And yes, there are some hard feelings towards the hold-out juror:

Many of the seven jurors and one alternate juror who gathered on Monday said that they were bitter about [holdout juror] Mr. Sirois's stand, which he has defended as a principled position based on what he saw as a lack of evidence.

"He had an agenda," Alia Dahhan, Juror No. 1, said. "He used this as an excuse to become famous."

Okay, so, this Juror No. 1, accusing someone of shirking their duties as a juror in order to seek fame, is doing this at some sort of organized photo opportunity that the news media somehow knew about, and her words are being spoken to somehow holding a microphone, while someone else is taking her picture.

I'm just saying that it turned my stomach a little bit, not just the hypocrisy, but the idea of the spurned members of a hung jury taking their case to the people in the most public way possible.  This is not the way juries are supposed to work, and the judgment being shown by these runaway jurors makes me seriously doubt their ability to come to a fair verdict.

It's all just so now, isn't it.

Posted at 10:30 AM

May 19, 2015

Okay, I know that it's a function of time, but things are changing.

Like, the really crushing one is my sister's dog passing away. The dog had a good long life (18 years!), and actually survived jumping off my friend's Brooklyn roof in 1999 (1999!), but as usually happens my sis sorely loved that dog, and eighteen years is such a long time that it really feels emblematic and not just an isolated experience.

As does the slow farewell that David Letterman is throwing. This is an actual big one for me as I starting watching that show when he first started on NBC. I was in junior high, and I'd stay up until 1:30a every night to watch and then haul my ashes to school six hours later. I haven't consistently watched for the entire run, but I stole my sense of humor from him, I guess I got used to him as almost a parental backdrop. It was reassuring to know that Dave was in the world (and I'm sure people a generation ahead of me felt the same way about Carson), and the fact that it's over — well, things are changing.

But worst of all: the news, my God the news. I've never not been a consumer of current events, but there is some shit happening these days that WE DO NOT BLINK AT that decades ago would have been International Crises. Say, ISIS taking the time to destroy antiquities in between beheading hostages? Say, counties sending out navies to push back starving boat people (in both the Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea)? Aww, I know, this kind of shit happens all the time?

But I picked up this morning's paper, and there on the front page on the right hand upper corner, right under the weather, was the story of what basically amounts to Boko Haram running rape camps in Nigeria. And this kind of knocked the wind out of me, because we live in a world where such a horror story, literally unimaginable, can sit next to less horrifying stories about biker brawls and currency-fixing as if it's just another day on the front page of the New York Times.

I dunno. It feels like a shift of some sort, a shift that will be more indelible in the rear view mirror.

And it also occurs to me that this could be a small case of me mistaking something happening to/with me for something happening in the world.

Posted at 11:07 AM