Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Necktie Tale

Every few decades around the holiday season we go through the closet to cull unfashionable neckties. It's a thankless job, but federal law requires men to do it. (This is part of the same statutory scheme making it a felony to rip that tag off your mattress.)

"What's a necktie?" the young'uns are asking. Well, it's a piece of cloth with no known practical function this side of Alex Comfort's Joy of Sex. In the Dark Ages, about 30 years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, every male in America was required to wrap a tie around his neck in the morning before heading off for work, in case he needed a napkin at lunch or suddenly had to sneeze.

There was a time when all fathers, husbands, and uncles could count on getting at least one new necktie for Christmas. Some unfortunate wretches even received two or three. Of course, this was before T-shirts were invented.

The tie almost always came wrapped in a shallow, rectangular box that left no doubt about its contents. Nothing else could fit inside that distinctively shaped box except the dreaded Christmas Necktie. Certainly not the tackle box or that new sand wedge you really wanted.

"Oh, what a surprise," the man was expected to exclaim as he opened it. To lend verisimilitude to this fib he would add, as if the thought had just occurred to him, "You know, I really needed a new tie." Men of a certain age know these words better than the lyrics to Deck the Halls.

At the first opportunity, all new neckties would be transferred to the deepest recesses of a storage closet never to be seen again. Before that, however, Emily Post or some other government official mandated that every adult male in the nation had to wear his new Christmas tie at least once -- no matter how hideous it might be.

We were reminded of those ancient customs the other day when we noticed by the neolithic calendar on our wall that it was time once again to sort through our neckties and see how many we could safely throw away. For most men, every excursion of this kind into the necktie closet is like a bad trip on the dangerous drug of nostalgia. What we found this time brought flooding back memories of someone else's very special Christmas tie.

Back in the '70s, after the Watergate scandal when Gerald Ford was serving out Nixon's remaining term as president, the only U.S. president never elected to national office made an otherwise-routine appearance before the White House press corps during the holidays. It must have been in late December or early January of 1975 or '76.

The next day's news reports mentioned that Ford stepped up to the presidential podium wearing a "predominately" brown necktie he had received for Christmas. One sharp-eyed reporter immediately noticed that the brown swatch hanging down Ford's shirt-front was, in fact, a joke tie cleverly masking a blatant obscenity.

Remember, this was the 1970's, a decade known to modern historians as "the '60s." Blatant obscenities were the order of the day.

According to our mental transcript of the event the reporter asked, 'Where did you get that tie, Mr. President?'

'It was a gift from my children,'
President Ford replied proudly.

'Sir, did you notice what the tie says?'

This puzzled the president. 'What it says?' he asked doubtfully, looking down his chest. 'It's just a design. Nice, don't you think?'

The reporter doggedly persisted. "Mr. President, isn't that an obscene word woven into your tie?"

"Not that I know of,"
the president replied.

The press corps twittered. A few guffawed.

This may strike the modern reader as unkind and disrespectful of the White House Press Corps, but you must remember the times. It was before Fox Cable News. Beltway journalists were still flushed with their success in ferreting out the ugly truths behind that "third rate burglary" at the Watergate. They had not yet learned the avuncular art of dutifully transcribing any ol' thing a president might say, regardless of its patent ridiculousness, and repeating it in print or on television with utter credulity.

How times have changed. The press back then recognized reality even when the president wouldn't. They knew what all men at home that day knew, too, and probably for the same reason. That particular Christmas season every man in America, even professional journalists, had received the same damn gift tie.

Having thoroughly confounded the president -- though it must be admitted he was an easily bewildered man -- the White House reporters moved on to a different topic, and that was the end of that.

Newspapers the next day reported on the press conference. Several mentioned that President Ford had worn "a Christmas tie" his children had given him. Many published photos of the president, although taken at such a distance that the only thing to be seen clearly was the faint suggestion of squiggly diagonal lines. But a number of more intrepid reporters, as we recall, went so far as to add that embedded in the tie was "a common four letter word" about which the president seemed oblivious.

There are perhaps ten thousand web sites that offer old neckties for sale. Google them and you will be astounded. Amazingly, however, none -- at least, none that we could find -- displays President Ford's Christmas joke tie. Perhaps it's now hanging in the back of some archival closet at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library.

Our own copy of the same tie inexplicably surfaced the other day while we were rummaging through a rarely used closet at home. It's a good guess that all over the United States this Christmas season other men will be doing the same. After all, it's that time of the century: get rid of those vintage neckties, men. Make room for new.

Click the tie to read it, if you dare. But don't take it personally. Soon, you'll be seeing thousands of them for sale on Ebay.


Dispatch from the Culture War Front

Stephen Colbert has won the Associated Press' annual editors' award for "Celebrity of the Year." He beat out J.K. Rowling and Al Gore for the honor of being named the person who "had the biggest impact on pop culture in 2007."

It's a dead certainty that Al Gore is relieved, although he probably did draw more votes than Brittney and Kynne Spears combined.

The news was announced in a globe-spanning dispatch by the AP's culture beat reporter, Jake Coyle. But guess who's quoted to explain that vote to the rest of the world? Pensacola's own Julio Diaz, editor of the Pensacola News Journal's Weekender magazine and Santa Claus fan.
"Colbert is more than an entertainer, he's a force of nature," said Diaz. "He's influenced the way we look at the news and even the way we speak. Whenever a major news story breaks, one of my first thoughts is what Colbert's spin on the story will be."
Now, the Florida Panhandle is just about as far as you can get from the center of the Cultural Universe. So you have to wonder: How it is that New York City's Jake Coyle turned to Pensacola, Florida's Julio Diaz for an explanation?

Could it be that whenever a major cultural happening occurs in America, one of Jake Coyle's first thoughts is, "I wonder what Julio Diaz is thinking about this?"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bah, Humbug Day

This was bound to happen. And it did -- yesterday.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Circuit City Breaker

Firing the most experienced sales employees and hiring new ones at minimum wage didn't quite work out like they expected, did it?

But that's okay. The executives still will be rewarded with "millions of dollars" in cash incentives and bonuses:
Executive vice presidents could claim retention awards of $1 million each, and senior vice presidents could get $600,000, provided they stay with the company until 2011, according to a filing late Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
* * *
"The purpose of the award is to ensure the stability of the company's leadership team," the company said.

You see, money is a necessary incentive for white collar execs. Not so much for those worker bees who deal with the customers and actually sell things. Pay them the same as a burger-flipper.

Heads, the executives win. Tails, the workers lose.

Birthday for Zappa

Today would have been the 77th 67th birthday of the eminently quotable father of Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeenay. [Thanbks to a commentator for the correction on age]. His family's home page is celebrating the day here.

Who other than he could have composed serious classical pieces about a vacuum cleaner salesman and Naval aviation art, and reaped great reviews nearly 20 years after his death?

Give a listen.

Sex, Lies and Parent Tapes

Bill Clinton drew his definitional lines in the sand over "sex." George W. Bush draws his over the word "torture" to exclude Torquemada's tortura del agua. But Mitt Romney is unique: he has parent tapes playing in his head that re-define the infinitive "to see," as in "I saw the Patriots win the World Series."

Is it possible anymore for Americans to elect a president who isn't delusional?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Annals of Privatization - Chapter XXVIII


From Florida's Annals of Privatization-No-Matter-What:

The headline:

The lede:
"As an audit committee attempts to unravel how Florida became so heavily invested in subprime-tainted securities, the state's new investment chief is considering leaving such future decisions to professionals."
The story:
"Bob Milligan, interim director for the State Board of Administration, told Cabinet members Tuesday he believes all of Florida's short-term investments -- from hurricane insurance to operating cash for the state's prepaid college program -- might be better handled by private managers."
The context: Privately owned Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers on its own buys billions of dollars of high-risk mortgage derivatives, expecting to make a killing. So do JP Morgan Chase and Bear Stearns, among other Wall Street gurus.

When these investment geniuses at the privately owned Wall Street firms finally figure out they've made a whopper of a mistake -- so huge, in fact, they might lose everything -- what do they do? They hire recently-become private investment consultant Jeb Bush to help them palm off all that bad paper on the Florida Local Government Investment pool so it will take the loss, not them.

Even after the crap privately-owned Lehman Brothers palmed off on Florida was headed firmly south, the Wall Street firm had the temerity, or greed, to try sinking their hands deeper into the state's pockets. "
It suggested that Florida could buy more structured finance commercial paper from Lehman Brothers for the state pension fund, " Bloomberg reports.

But not all Florida local governments
were fooled. Salaried money managers who work for local governments like Orange County and Pompano Beach saw what was happening and promptly withdrew their money from the state fund.

The conclusion: Florida's new governor and his minions say, 'To avoid debacles like this in the future, let's turn over all of our money to Wall Street gurus like Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan.'

What's the thinking here? To avoid burglaries, hire a thief?

Nonsense. Hire those bureaucrats in Orange County and Pompano Beach. They know how to protect public money.

12-20 am

A correspondent asks how our own local governments did during the run on the state fund.

The answer is better than those investment geniuses at Bear Stearns, Morgan-Stanley, and Merrill Lynch & Co. And, a lot better than the state of Florida. As Michael Stewart reported late last month --
Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and the Escambia School Board are among scores of local government agencies statewide that have withdrawn more than $16 billion from Florida's Local Government Investment Pool over the past three weeks because of qualms about its stake in mortgage-backed investments.
* * *
The Escambia School District had $165 million invested in the fund and withdrew $30 million last week and another $100 million on Wednesday — the maximum amount allowed.
As for the City of Pensacola and Pensacola Junior College, not so much:
The City of Pensacola and Pensacola Junior College are among the entities whose investments were frozen after Thursday's action. The city has more than $3.9 million invested in the fund, and PJC's stake tops $5 million.
On the other hand, Lehman Bros. did pretty well, too. The old fashioned way: by screwing their customers.
Lehman, the fourth-biggest U.S. securities firm by market value, boosted 2007 revenue by limiting losses from subprime mortgage-related securities and lifting income from fund management, equities and investment banking. The firm said earlier this week that Richard Fuld, Lehman's chairman and chief executive officer, was granted a $35 million stock bonus for 2007, up 4 percent from last year.
If there was any justice, Patty Sheldon and Ernie Magaha also would have gotten a $35 million bonus.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Unboxing the XO

The XO computers, first made available in the U.S. a few weeks ago with the "Buy One, Give One" program, have begun arriving at the homes of early buyers. Take a look.

There's still time to order -- one for you and one for some child in a third world village, though not time for Christmas. This worthy program has been extended through December 31. Check it out right here.

Superficial Campaign Coverage

It's no secret that journalists are scared to death their jobs may be headed in the same direction as bicycle repairmen after the horseless carriage was invented. One reason may be that so many readers frequently have to ask, 'Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?'

Eric Boehlert has some thoughts.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Bad Bush Brother

Neil Bush has always been considered the "bad" Bush brother. Now it looks like he wasn't the only one.

Even Forbes Magazine, hardly a Bush-bashing fish-wrapper, wants to know "Where Was Jeb?"

Jeb Bush Shagged Florida

Atrios has what looks very much like the goods on Jeb Bush, courtesy of Bloomberg News:
What Stipanovich, 58, hadn't told his boss, Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, was that Lehman Brothers was the same firm that had sold the state fund $842 million of mortgage- backed debt in July and August. Those securities defaulted within four months, and totaled more failing debt than any other bank sold the state, Florida records show. "At the time, I never knew it was Lehman Brothers that actually sold us these investments,'' Sink says.

Sink also was unaware that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who incorporated Jeb Bush & Associates in February 2007, a month after completing his second term, had been hired as a consultant to Lehman Brothers in June. Bush is the brother of President George W. Bush.
* * *
"Lehman and the other big players in the market decided they didn't like this stuff in their own accounts,'' Sink says. "Where did they drop it and who did they dump it to? It looks questionable to me.''

Joseph Mason, a former U.S. Treasury official and now a finance professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, says Wall Street had few takers for its subprime-tainted debt. "When they couldn't sell it to more-sophisticated investors, they found less-sophisticated investors like local government investment pools,'' he says.
More from the Bloomberg article:
Stipanovich, who ran the State Board of Administration which manages $184 billion, was hired in 2000. Two of his three personal references came from then-Governor Bush's top aides.

"An outstanding individual capable of significant contributions to the board,'' Sally Bradshaw, Bush's chief of staff, wrote about Stipanovich.
* * *
On June 14, Bear Stearns announced it would liquidate two of its hedge funds, holding more than $4 billion in assets, because their subprime holdings were collapsing. * * *

At about the same time, Bush and his new company won a consulting contract from Lehman Brothers, according to Lehman spokesman Randall Whitestone, who declined to say how much Bush is being paid.
* * *
On July 2, Lehman Brothers sold Lombardi $250 million of one-month commercial paper from a structured finance company called KKR Atlantic Funding Trust yielding 5.37 percent, state records show. KKR Atlantic was rated A-1+ by Standard & Poor's and Prime-1 by Moody's.

It matured, and on Aug. 2, Lehman Brothers sold Lombardi $200 million of one-month KKR Atlantic paper yielding 5.53 percent. It was downgraded to default by Fitch Ratings on Oct. 8, and Not Prime, or junk, by Moody's on Oct. 29.

From July 3 to July 9, Lehman Brothers sold the pool $153 million of commercial paper from another structured finance company called Ottimo Funding yielding 5.36-5.38 percent.

Lehman Brothers spokeswoman Cohen says there's no link between Bush and Lehman's sale of debt to Florida. "Bush is a member of the Lehman Brothers private equity advisory board and his company has been retained by the firm for consulting and advisory services,'' she says. The former governor declined to comment.
* * *
Craig Holman, of Washington-based nonprofit public interest group Public Citizen, disputes Lehman Brothers' view. "That defies credibility,'' says Holman, who lobbies for ethics in government. "It's a clear conflict of interest. Bush is a consultant to the company selling bad investments to the same agency on which he served as a trustee until January.''

It's past time for Mr. Jeb Bush to disclose the details of his contract with Lehman Brothers.


Dodd's Thank-you

Florida First in Nation!

"Florida held the No. 4 spot last year, but vaulted over Georgia, Michigan and Illinois to claim the lead."

But it's not what you think.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Telecom Consumer Question

Tom Ferrero's news dispatch for Reuters about Chris Dodd's success in forcing Democrats to reconsider their position on the FISA telecom immunity bill includes this handy summary:
Nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed accusing AT&T, Verizon and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating U.S. privacy rights.
Which inspires us to wonder, Is there any alternative for Northwest Florida residents to one of the above-named tele-com corps, when it comes to a land line and cell phone?

Because all things considered, we'd rather not do business with any of them.

Dodd Prevails on Telecom Immunity

Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid late tonight confirmed he will "pull" from the Senate floor the FISA bill that grants retroactive immunity to telecom companies like ATT. Firedog Lake has an early take on the courageous stance of Senator Dodd.

So does TPM Election Central:
Senator Chris Dodd had planned to filibuster the bill this evening, and it didn't look as if the other Senators running for President -- Hillary, Obama, Biden -- would lend support for the filibuster in person. Now the question's moot -- until January.

Why did Reid pull the bill now? "Sen. Reid refused to jam this bill through the Senate because he believes it’s an important bill that deserves to be debated thoroughly," a Reid aide told us.

But Dodd aides expressed satisfaction, saying that the Connecticut Senator's filibuster threat was what stopped the bill for the time being. They vowed that he'd be back to fight it again in January.

Some politicians waffle. Some just talk a good game. Some actually get up, leave the campaign trail, and do good for the Nation. Smart voters discern the difference.

Contribute to Dodd as we did? Click here.

Rule of Law In Senate Trial


In many ways that matter, the rule of law is on trial in the U.S. Senate today. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) explains in TPM Cafe.

This morning, another U.S. Senator, Chris Dodd (D-CT), interrupted his Iowa presidential caucus campaign to address the Senate in straight-forward, candid terms not often heard inside the Beltway much less in media available to the public at large. Immediately at stake is whether retroactive immunity will be granted for giant telecom companies for helping the Bush administration violate the Constitution by secretly invading the privacy of tens of thousands if not millions of private citizens.

In the event the Bush administration prevails in today's vote, Sen. Dodd has promised an old-fashioned "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" filibuster. Think of it as an early Christmas present to those who value our Constitution -- now, in the past, and most especially in the future.

Concerned citizens want to know -- where is Hillary? And is Obama still dawdling in Iowa?

You should go here, too.

12-17 noon

Lawyer Christy Hardin Smith at Firedog Lake has the transcript of Sen. Dodd's "barnburner" opening speech.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Good Scout

What the hey..... He made Eagle Scout! That makes it all okay, right?

Torture Always Works

Digby had last week's post most worth remembering: "Torture Works":
Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how come you here?" I answer, "Through falsehood, through misfortune."

"Hear, you," he says, "you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily? If not, we'll bring in witnesses and the executioner for you." I said "I am no witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I'll gladly hear the witnesses."

Now the chancellor's son was set before me . . . and afterward Hoppfen Elss. She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor. . . . I answered: "I have never renounced God, and will never do it--God graciously keep me from it. I'll rather bear whatever I must." And then came also--God in highest Heaven have mercy--the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing. . . .

Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. [2] Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony. . . .
And so I made my confession, as follows; but it was all a lie.
Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something; be he never so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though... .

Scott Horton brings us up to date about America's Torturer-in-Chief.
We should be very clear about this. * * * Real moral and legal culpability lies with those in leadership positions who sanction and approve this system. The use of torture—waterboarding, hypothermia, long-time standing, and other extreme practices—is a criminal act. If the Justice Department has blessed it—and we now know this for a fact—then figures in the Justice Department, including the Attorney General, have made themselves accessories to a serious crime. Since the end of World War II at least, the use of these torture practices has been universally recognized as a criminal act subject to the most severe sanction.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Swift on Steroids

Jon Swift: "The problem with American baseball players is that they don't take enough steroids." Read "When Steroids Are Banned, Only Cheaters Will Have Steroids."

Friday, December 14, 2007

The One Sentence Solution for the Housing Crisis

The Housing Crisis

Every day new foreclosure suits are being filed in Northwest Florida -- not to mention harder-hit areas like Tampa Bay and, for that matter, across the nation. Anyone who subscribes to a courthouse filings service or foreclosure-watch web site can attest to the trend.

The daily mortality toll already is approaching bloodbath proportions. According to investment banker Peter Siris, "In 1982, foreclosures represented 3.6% of all homes for sale. Now they represent a staggering 38%."

At the moment it looks like "'at least' 1.4 million homeowners will lose their properties to foreclosure in 2008, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And that's the optimistic view.

The Phony Solution

But George Bush has a plan called "Hope Now", right? It might save as many as a hundred thousand or so (less than 10%) of those unfortunates, right? Not.

Via Digby, we were directed earlier this week to an article by San Mateo, Cal. attorney Sean Orlender in the San Francisco Chronicle:
It sounds good: For five years, mortgage lenders will freeze interest rates on a limited number of "teaser" subprime loans. Other homeowners facing foreclosure will be offered assistance from the Federal Housing Administration.

But unfortunately, the "freeze" is just another fraud -- and like the other bailout proposals, it has nothing to do with U.S. house prices, with "working families," keeping people in their homes or any of that nonsense.

The sole goal of the freeze is to prevent owners of mortgage-backed securities, many of them foreigners, from suing U.S. banks and forcing them to buy back worthless mortgage securities at face value -- right now almost 10 times their market worth.

The ticking time bomb in the U.S. banking system is not resetting subprime mortgage rates. The real problem is the contractual ability of investors in mortgage bonds to require banks to buy back the loans at face value if there was fraud in the origination process.

And, to be sure, fraud is everywhere. It's in the loan application documents, and it's in the appraisals. There are e-mails and memos floating around showing that many people in banks, investment banks and appraisal companies - all the way up to senior management - knew about it.

Economics professor Paul Krugman made much the same point a few days ago when he wrote that the Bush administration's plan --
is entirely focused on reducing investor losses. Any minor relief it might provide to troubled borrowers is clearly incidental. And it is does nothing for the victims of predatory lending.
Disaggregating Mortgages to Create New Markets

What led to this crisis in the first place was the effort by investment bankers to create a brand new trading market for what is called "mortgage-backed derivate securities." In a nutshell, investment banks began to buy up multiple mortgages from disparate lending banks and locales. Then, they cross-cut these mortgages, as you might cut a steak across the grain, to subdivide them into smaller bits of commercial paper consisting of, say, the sweetest meat, some tougher slices, a little gristle and a lot of unwanted fat.

But we're talking mortgages here, not meat. In reality, when you disaggregate a mortgage what you are doing is separating some of the rights in a mortgage contract from others -- say, for example, the right to collect all interest payments, or all principle payments, or some other "right" that derives from an original mortgage. When you take those separate bits and re-aggregate, you have new packages of "rights," each a different bundle consisting of "derivative" rights ready to be sold to others.

Ultimately, as we know now, the investment banks got carried away by their own greed. They diced and sliced mortgage-based derivatives into subordinate rights, "rated" the new bundle of rights for investment purposes, then re-diced and re-sliced those derivatives again into yet another kind of commercial paper... and sometimes again... and even again. Each time, the newly created "mortgage-based derivatives" were sold and re-sold and re-re-sold until even the bankers couldn't be sure who owned what, which of the investors (if any) had the right to negotiate with the borrowers, and even who had the right to foreclose if homeowners stopped making payments. Now, many of those bundled securities are nearly worthless.

Hair of the Dog

So, the Bush administration's "Hope Now" program is nothing more than a mirage for most homeowners. And, the investment banks have made such a cocked-up mess of things that no one can be sure just what, if anything, their little share of the once-whole steak is worth, if anything.

However, there is something Congress could do that would bring immediate relief to millions of distressed homeowners and at the same time renew hope that the most troubled mortgages retain value. We call it a "hair of the dog that bit you" solution.

Like the famous nostrum for curing a hangover, it mimics to a degree the original cause of distress. Just as the root of today's crisis lies in the efforts of investment bankers to create a whole new trading market into which they could sell bundled mortgage-based derivatives , so now the solution is to create another housing market.

Check that. Not "create," exactly, and not a "new" market. More accurately, we mean re-create. And it wouldn't be a "new" market, but an old and honorable one that worked exceedingly well until Congress, itself, killed it a few decades ago at the behest of the banking industry.

Creating a 'New' Contract Market

What we are thinking of is the private contract housing market. Time was, in many states, that home owners with an outstanding mortgage could freely sell to willing and able buyers via a private contract. In at least 14 states, local law prohibited the courts from enforcing any "due on sale" clause in a mortgage on the grounds that it interfered with freedom of contract rights and was in any event against public policy.

In those states that either barred "due on sale clauses" or refused to enforce them, instead of requiring every buyer of a mortgaged home to take out a new mortgage loan, the seller and buyer were free (if they wished) to negotiate their own deal. Sometimes, those deals involved the buyer making agreed-upon payments to the seller while the seller continued to make mortgage payments to the bank. Other times, the parties might agree that the buyer would formally "assume" the mortgage and make the monthly payments himself.

For most of our nation's history, private contracts for home sales with freely-assignable mortgages sustained a healthy and vigorous housing market in many states. But then something happened to kill that entire market insofar as homes with outstanding mortgages are concerned. As Robin Paul from California explains on his web site
One trend in the mortgage industry has been the virtual disappearance of assumable mortgages. This is unfortunate for homebuyers, since an assumable mortgage allows them to retain a below-market interest rate and avoid many closing costs, such as a credit check and appraisal. Except for certain FHA and VA loans, almost all mortgages now contain a “due-on-sale” clause which require that the mortgage be paid if there is a change in ownership.

Typical “due-on-sale” language states that, “the Lender may, at its option, declare immediately due and payable all sums secured by the Mortgage upon the sale or transfer, without the Lender’s prior written consent, of all or any part of the Real Property, or any interest in the Real Property.” A reading of the language shows that the term, “due-on-sale” is misleading. In fact, the mortgage may be called in if there is any transfer of any interest in the real estate, and not just a sale of the property.
Back to the Future: Reviving an Old Law as the Solution

The "disappearance" of the assumable mortgage was the direct result of a one-sided piece of legislation engineered in 1982 by the Reagan administration and a cowed (or bought and paid for Congress.) A banking industry-friendly federal law was enacted that effectively killed the "freedom of private contract" rights of mortgagor-homeowners nationwide.

12 U.S. C. 1701j-3 states in pertinent part:
Notwithstanding any provision of the constitution or laws (including the judicial decisions) of any State to the contrary, a lender may, subject to subsection (c) of this section, enter into or enforce a contract containing a due-on-sale clause with respect to a real property loan.
What Congress hath taken away it can grant again. It only remains for some courageous congressman, senator, or presidential candidate to propose a one-sentence solution.

Due on sale clauses are contracts of "adhesion," as the lawyers would say. They are forced on mortgage debtors, not genuinely bargained for. Whatever should it matter to a lending bank (or holders of the mortgage-based derivatives) who makes the mortgage payments as long as they are made? Besides, as Atrios has explained, "
The people who actually own the loans aren't in the mortgage business anymore than stockholders in Apple are in the IPod business."

As a matter of economics, due-on-sale clauses also unreasonably restrict the housing market available to sellers. Now we know, too, that they only exacerbate a credit crunch like those we're seeing now.

In the new era of "mortgage-based derivate investments" when the lender you owe is not the lender you know, due-on-sale clauses have outlived their usefulness, if they ever had any. They should be declared unenforceable as a matter of national policy.

12/14 PM

Email responses from some readers point out that making due on sale clauses unenforceable (once again) would not completely solve the credit crisis brought on by imprudent mortgage lending or borrowing practices. Nor does it directly address the problem some homeowners are facing if they've already paid the mortgage but want to sell in the present market.

True enough, as far as that goes. But eliminating due on sale clauses would significantly expand the market of potential home buyers. That's the point. More buyers means greater demand. To that extent, every homeowner benefits whether he has a mortgage or not.

Another reader points out that "due on sale" reform does nothing for foreign or domestic inventors -- like the Florida Local Government Surplus Fund or the city of Narvik, Norway -- who are already stuck with bad commercial paper sliced-and-diced into existence by careless investment banks.

That's only partly true. As and when demand for homes rises, the portfolios of investor institutions like Florida's LGS Fund and Narvik should improve. In any event, it should be plain enough by now that the Bush administration is not principally interested in benefiting homeowners. It's the investment banks they want to protect from the consequences of palming off bad paper on unsuspecting customers.

Finally, another reader grumbles that the real winners of due on sale reform would be wealthy speculators seeking to invest in home purchases on the cheap. They wouldn't necessarily have to go through a bank; the seller becomes their 'lender.'

Our answer to that is those speculators are out there now. Like the poor, we shall always have them with us. Indeed, a good many seem to be gathering at the Canadian border, strongly-appreciated loonies in hand, just waiting for the U.S. housing market to bottom out.

They'll be buying, sooner or later. Wouldn't it be some relief to distressed homeowners if it was sooner, rather than later?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Coming Tempest

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

-- Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Until 1968 -- 1968!! -- when a new one was adopted, Section 24 of the Constitution of Florida prohibited "forever" --
All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation... .
Now, the knuckle-draggers want to do it all over again to some other people. What is it, exactly, that turns some folk so nasty when they see someone who has found love in this life?

A Whitehead Christmas

Looks like Pensacola's county commissioner, Mike ("The Deer Hunter") Whitehead won't be killing for trophies in Wisconsin any time soon.

Friends and loved ones, if he has any, may want to do their Christmas shopping for him here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Vote for Darwin by Friday

Every time someone tries to drag Florida's miserably vague educational science standards into the 20th century -- never mind the 21st century -- the creationist lunkheads rise up to drag it back again to Bishop Usher's famously bogus date of 4004 B.C.

Any and every hominid in the world has through Friday, October 14 to cast his or her vote for the newly proposed Florida science standards at this polling place. A vote for the new standards is a vote proving that Florida at long last has evolved. Darwin would be proud.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

David Brooks Ends Iraq War

Now that the insipid David Brooks has declared the Iraq war over, do you suppose he'll be vacationing in Baghdad this holiday season?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Al Gore's Nobel Speech (Video and Text)

(22 min.)

(prepared text)
DECEMBER 10, 2007

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Honorable members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen.

I have a purpose here today. It is a purpose I have tried to serve for many years. I have prayed that God would show me a way to accomplish it.

Sometimes, without warning, the future knocks on our door with a precious and painful vision of what might be. One hundred and nineteen years ago, a wealthy inventor read his own obituary, mistakenly published years before his death. Wrongly believing the inventor had just died, a newspaper printed a harsh judgment of his life's work, unfairly labeling him "The Merchant of Death" because of his invention -- dynamite. Shaken by this condemnation, the inventor made a fateful choice to serve the cause of peace.

Seven years later, Alfred Nobel created this prize and the others that bear his name.

Seven years ago tomorrow, I read my own political obituary in a judgment that seemed to me harsh and mistaken -- if not premature. But that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose.

Unexpectedly, that quest has brought me here. Even though I fear my words cannot match this moment, I pray what I am feeling in my heart will be communicated clearly enough that those who hear me will say, "We must act."

The distinguished scientists with whom it is the greatest honor of my life to share this award have laid before us a choice between two different futures -- a choice that to my ears echoes the words of an ancient prophet: "Life or death, blessings or curses. Therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live."

We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency -- a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst -- though not all -- of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly.

However, despite a growing number of honorable exceptions, too many of the world's leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler's threat: "They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent."

So today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.

As a result, the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.

We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.

Last September 21, as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is "falling off a cliff." One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

Seven years from now.

In the last few months, it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter. Major cities in North and South America, Asia and Australia are nearly out of water due to massive droughts and melting glaciers. Desperate farmers are losing their livelihoods. Peoples in the frozen Arctic and on low-lying Pacific islands are planning evacuations of places they have long called home. Unprecedented wildfires have forced a half million people from their homes in one country and caused a national emergency that almost brought down the government in another. Climate refugees have migrated into areas already inhabited by people with different cultures, religions, and traditions, increasing the potential for conflict. Stronger storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have threatened whole cities. Millions have been displaced by massive flooding in South Asia, Mexico, and 18 countries in Africa. As temperature extremes have increased, tens of thousands have lost their lives. We are recklessly burning and clearing our forests and driving more and more species into extinction. The very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed.

We never intended to cause all this destruction, just as Alfred Nobel never intended that dynamite be used for waging war. He had hoped his invention would promote human progress. We shared that same worthy goal when we began burning massive quantities of coal, then oil and methane.

Even in Nobel's time, there were a few warnings of the likely consequences. One of the very first winners of the Prize in chemistry worried that, "We are evaporating our coal mines into the air." After performing 10,000 equations by hand, Svante Arrhenius calculated that the earth's average temperature would increase by many degrees if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Seventy years later, my teacher, Roger Revelle, and his colleague, Dave Keeling, began to precisely document the increasing CO2 levels day by day.

But unlike most other forms of pollution, CO2 is invisible, tasteless, and odorless -- which has helped keep the truth about what it is doing to our climate out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, the catastrophe now threatening us is unprecedented -- and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.

We also find it hard to imagine making the massive changes that are now necessary to solve the crisis. And when large truths are genuinely inconvenient, whole societies can, at least for a time, ignore them. Yet as George Orwell reminds us: "Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."

In the years since this prize was first awarded, the entire relationship between humankind and the earth has been radically transformed. And still, we have remained largely oblivious to the impact of our cumulative actions.

Indeed, without realizing it, we have begun to wage war on the earth itself. Now, we and the earth's climate are locked in a relationship familiar to war planners: "Mutually assured destruction."

More than two decades ago, scientists calculated that nuclear war could throw so much debris and smoke into the air that it would block life-giving sunlight from our atmosphere, causing a "nuclear winter." Their eloquent warnings here in Oslo helped galvanize the world's resolve to halt the nuclear arms race.

Now science is warning us that if we do not quickly reduce the global warming pollution that is trapping so much of the heat our planet normally radiates back out of the atmosphere, we are in danger of creating a permanent "carbon summer."

As the American poet Robert Frost wrote, "Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice."
Either, he notes, "would suffice."

But neither need be our fate. It is time to make peace with the planet.

We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war. These prior struggles for survival were won when leaders found words at the 11th hour that released a mighty surge of courage, hope and readiness to sacrifice for a protracted and mortal challenge.

These were not comforting and misleading assurances that the threat was not real or imminent; that it would affect others but not ourselves; that ordinary life might be lived even in the presence of extraordinary threat; that Providence could be trusted to do for us what we would not do for ourselves.

No, these were calls to come to the defense of the common future. They were calls upon the courage, generosity and strength of entire peoples, citizens of every class and condition who were ready to stand against the threat once asked to do so. Our enemies in those times calculated that free people would not rise to the challenge; they were, of course, catastrophically wrong.

Now comes the threat of climate crisis -- a threat that is real, rising, imminent, and universal. Once again, it is the 11th hour. The penalties for ignoring this challenge are immense and growing, and at some near point would be unsustainable and unrecoverable. For now we still have the power to choose our fate, and the remaining question is only this: Have we the will to act vigorously and in time, or will we remain imprisoned by a dangerous illusion?

Mahatma Gandhi awakened the largest democracy on earth and forged a shared resolve with what he called "Satyagraha" -- or "truth force."

In every land, the truth -- once known -- has the power to set us free.

Truth also has the power to unite us and bridge the distance between "me" and "we," creating the basis for common effort and shared responsibility.

There is an African proverb that says, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." We need to go far, quickly.

We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action. At the same time, we must ensure that in mobilizing globally, we do not invite the establishment of ideological conformity and a new lock-step 'ism.'

That means adopting principles, values, laws, and treaties that release creativity and initiative at every level of society in multifold responses originating concurrently and spontaneously.

This new consciousness requires expanding the possibilities inherent in all humanity. The innovators who will devise a new way to harness the sun's energy for pennies or invent an engine that's carbon negative may live in Lagos or Mumbai or Montevideo. We must ensure that entrepreneurs and inventors everywhere on the globe have the chance to change the world.

When we unite for a moral purpose that is manifestly good and true, the spiritual energy unleashed can transform us. The generation that defeated fascism throughout the world in the 1940s found, in rising to meet their awesome challenge, that they had gained the moral authority and long-term vision to launch the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and a new level of global cooperation and foresight that unified Europe and facilitated the emergence of democracy and prosperity in Germany, Japan, Italy and much of the world. One of their visionary leaders said, "It is time we steered by the stars and not by the lights of every passing ship."

In the last year of that war, you gave the Peace Prize to a man from my hometown of 2000 people, Carthage, Tennessee. Cordell Hull was described by Franklin Roosevelt as the "Father of the United Nations." He was an inspiration and hero to my own father, who followed Hull in the Congress and the U.S. Senate and in his commitment to world peace and global cooperation.

My parents spoke often of Hull, always in tones of reverence and admiration. Eight weeks ago, when you announced this prize, the deepest emotion I felt was when I saw the headline in my hometown paper that simply noted I had won the same prize that Cordell Hull had won. In that moment, I knew what my father and mother would have felt were they alive.

Just as Hull's generation found moral authority in rising to solve the world crisis caused by fascism, so too can we find our greatest opportunity in rising to solve the climate crisis. In the Kanji characters used in both Chinese and Japanese, "crisis" is written with two symbols, the first meaning "danger," the second "opportunity." By facing and removing the danger of the climate crisis, we have the opportunity to gain the moral authority and vision to vastly increase our own capacity to solve other crises that have been too long ignored.

We must understand the connections between the climate crisis and the afflictions of poverty, hunger, HIV-Aids and other pandemics. As these problems are linked, so too must be their solutions. We must begin by making the common rescue of the global environment the central organizing principle of the world community.

Fifteen years ago, I made that case at the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro. Ten years ago, I presented it in Kyoto. This week, I will urge the delegates in Bali to adopt a bold mandate for a treaty that establishes a universal global cap on emissions and uses the market in emissions trading to efficiently allocate resources to the most effective opportunities for speedy reductions.

This treaty should be ratified and brought into effect everywhere in the world by the beginning of 2010 -- two years sooner than presently contemplated. The pace of our response must be accelerated to match the accelerating pace of the crisis itself.

Heads of state should meet early next year to review what was accomplished in Bali and take personal responsibility for addressing this crisis. It is not unreasonable to ask, given the gravity of our circumstances, that these heads of state meet every three months until the treaty is completed.

We also need a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store carbon dioxide.

And most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon -- with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution. This is by far the most effective and simplest way to accelerate solutions to this crisis.

The world needs an alliance -- especially of those nations that weigh heaviest in the scales where earth is in the balance. I salute Europe and Japan for the steps they've taken in recent years to meet the challenge, and the new government in Australia, which has made solving the climate crisis its first priority.

But the outcome will be decisively influenced by two nations that are now failing to do enough: the United States and China. While India is also growing fast in importance, it should be absolutely clear that it is the two largest CO2 emitters -- most of all, my own country -- that will need to make the boldest moves, or stand accountable before history for their failure to act.

Both countries should stop using the other's behavior as an excuse for stalemate and instead develop an agenda for mutual survival in a shared global environment.

These are the last few years of decision, but they can be the first years of a bright and hopeful future if we do what we must. No one should believe a solution will be found without effort, without cost, without change. Let us acknowledge that if we wish to redeem squandered time and speak again with moral authority, then these are the hard truths:

The way ahead is difficult. The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do. Moreover, between here and there, across the unknown, falls the shadow.

That is just another way of saying that we have to expand the boundaries of what is possible. In the words of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, "Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk."

We are standing at the most fateful fork in that path. So I want to end as I began, with a vision of two futures -- each a palpable possibility -- and with a prayer that we will see with vivid clarity the necessity of choosing between those two futures, and the urgency of making the right choice now.

The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, wrote, "One of these days, the younger generation will come knocking at my door."

The future is knocking at our door right now. Make no mistake, the next generation will ask us one of two questions. Either they will ask: "What were you thinking; why didn't you act?"

Or they will ask instead: "How did you find the moral courage to rise and successfully resolve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve?"

We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource.

So let us renew it, and say together: "We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise, and we will act."

Early Mardi Gras in Pensacola

Good grief! Mardi Gras comes early this year. Chicago's suburban Daily Herald already is promoting Pensacola area parades and other celebratory activities.

Time was, folk complained about Christmas decorations going up before Labor Day. Now, it's Mardi Gras promotions before Christmas!

Want to mark your calendar? Here's a nearly impenetrable explanation of how to do it, courtesy of Mardi Gras New Orleans:
You'll find the big day can fall on any Tuesday between February 3 and March 9. Carnival celebration starts on January 6, the Twelfth Night (feast of Epiphany); and picks up speed until Midnight on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.

How will you know which Tuesday it will be? Ash Wednesday is always 40 days before Easter (not including Sundays) and Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday. Easter can fall on any Sunday from March 23 to April 25 with the exact date to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon following a Spring Equinox! There you have it!
Got that? Pop quiz before the end of class.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What's Sauce for the Goose...

Gracie Allen once said, or maybe she just thought it: "What's sauce for the goose is grease for the gander." NBC television gives that malaprop new meaning. TPM explains.

Choice Words for Democrats

Lambert over at Corrente Wire nails the Democratic congressional leadership, more specifically Nancy Pelosi, Jay Rockefeller, and Jane Harman. They deserve it:
Since the voters put them back in power, the Democrats have taken impeachment off the table, punted on the war, never figured out a way to hold Republicans accountable for filibusters and obstructionism, so legislation is in the toilet, and never managed to use oversight power to do anything more than chip away around the edges of the Bush regime—though they have written a great number of Sternly Worded Letters.

And now, top Democrats turn out to be enablers of war crimes by our lawless executive. What a surprise. Harry, Nancy, nice work.

For a few choice four-letter words, if you're not easily offended, read the rest. Or, give Glenn Greenwald a read. He makes the same point in lawyer-like multi-syllables:
Torture didn't become an American policy despite the best efforts of a righteous Democratic leadership to stop that. Torture became an American policy precisely because a meek and often outright supportive Democratic leadership continuously allowed it.
* * *
I wish none of this were true. I wish we had a genuine, vibrant opposition party. It would be indescribably beneficial if the rare, isolated and usually marginalized voices within the Democratic Party (and the even rarer and more marginalized voices in the GOP) were predominant. But they just aren't. That's just a fact that can't be ignored. The Democratic Party in Congress is largely controlled and led by those who have enabled and affirmatively supported the worst aspects of the Bush foreign policy and the most severe abuses of our country's political values.
* * *
Whether it's the war in Iraq or illegal surveillance or the abolition of habeas corpus and now the systematic use of torture, it's the Bush administration that conceived of the policies, implemented them and presided over their corrupt application. But it's Congressional Democrats at the leadership level who were the key allies and enablers, never getting their hands dirty with implementation -- and thus feigning theatrical, impotent outrage once each abuse was publicly exposed -- but nonetheless working feverishly the entire time to enable all of it every step of the way.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

'Stumbling Through the Looking Glass'

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times acutely observes today that the political press "has sent us all stumbling right through the looking glass" in the wake of Mitt Romney's speech this week. Along the way, he offers a quick run-down of the numerous and weighty differences between Mitt Romney's pandering to the religious right-wing this week and John Kennedy's defense of the non-establishment clause.

The list is instructive:
Kennedy was straightforward; Romney was clever.

Kennedy spoke to a hostile audience of Protestant clergymen and took their questions afterward; Romney spoke to a hand-picked crowd at a Republican presidential library and took no questions.

Kennedy defended -- indeed, insisted on -- sepa
ration of church and state; Romney simply asked that what is essentially a religious test for office be expanded to include his religion.

Kennedy and his advisors
sought the advice of one of American-style religious liberty's foremost defenders -- the great Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray; Romney sought the counsel of political handlers skilled in stage managing the religious right.
Rutten also identifies more differences:
  • Kennedy used the word Catholic 14 times in his speech. Romney "used the word Mormon only once."
  • Kennedy affirmed his commitment to "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." Romney urged a joinder of the two.
  • Kennedy reminded his audience that he had a voting record opposes to government subsidies for parochial schools. Romney was silent on the issue.
  • Kennedy expressly included secular humanists within his America. Romney derided them for "seeking to establish a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism." (Pretty bold for someone who subscribes to a faith that began in upstate New York in the 1820's during the "treasure hunting" craze.)
To be sure, every religion professes articles of faith that do not stand up well to objective examination. Mormonism in that regard is no different. So, when a political candidate for the highest office in the land insists that it's "appropriate to question candidates about their religious beliefs" he throws open a door that will reveal some very peculiar things. Among them is the distinct danger, repeatedly proven throughout human history, of divisive religious wars.

Romney should not be rejected as a candidate because he's a Mormon. He should be rejected because he openly advocates establishing religion in "the public square" -- precisely where our Founding Fathers did not want it because, inevitably, the next question always becomes "whose religion?"

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tropical Poker Game

Living on the thin thread of sand known as Pensacola Beach is a gamble. Or, as locals often say, "It's like rolling the dice."

Predicting future hurricanes for a tropical season more than six months away is no less a gamble, as Dr. William Gray and his un-doctorate successor-in-waiting, Phil Klotzbach, openly admit in their traditional December release of predictions for the next hurricane season.

"Why issue 6-11 month extended-range forecasts for next year’s hurricane activity?" they ask rhetorically. The short version of the answer is -- because you want it; besides, it's fun to see our names in print.
Everyone should realize that it is impossible to precisely predict next season’s hurricane activity at such an extended range. We issue these forecasts to satisfy the curiosity of the general public and to bring attention to the hurricane problem. There is a curiosity in knowing what the odds are for an active or inactive season next year. * * * The probability of landfall for any one location along the coast is very low and reflects the fact that, in any one season, most U.S. coastal areas will not feel the effects of a hurricane no matter how active the individual season is.
* * *
[W]e have yet to demonstrate real-time forecast skill for our early December forecasts that have been issued for the last 16 years (1992-2007).
In other words, you want to pretend you aren't gambling? OK, here comes your opening hand. Statistically, we might be wrong, we might be right. But don't fret. We'll be making the rounds later with discards, new card draws, and wholly new deals on a regular schedule.

If you need more faux science, check your horoscope or take a biology lesson from Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, or Tom Tancredo.

Question for the Candidates

"I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives.... It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. * * * The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolt those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Mrs. M. Harrison Smith, August 6, 1816.
From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds.,
The Harper Book of American Quotations
(New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 492.

Now that Mitt Romney has answered that one, we have another qualifying question for all the presidential candidates: Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap your hands.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Coctelera de la Arena II

Uh-oh. Sandshaker Redux.

Looks like it's back to burgers and fries for Northwest Florida residents. Cancun's, 7 Mares, El Vallarta, Monterrey's Mexican Grill..... Is there a Mexican restaurant that hasn't been emptied by Immigration agents?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cuisine Concerns

One trouble with today's version of the Know Nothing movement to enforce our racist immigration laws is that it would lead to closing all the good restaurants in the Pensacola area:
Federal agents conducted an unspecified investigation Monday at a Gulf Breeze restaurant. Cancun's Mexican Grill on Shoreline Drive was closed Monday afternoon.
Another one is, who would American delinquents have left to rob?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hillary Threatens Hari-Kari

The Washington Post says it. So, after Perry Bacon Jr.'s boner we have to admit it might not be true. But an AP dispatch to the New York Times says it, too. So does yesterday's Des Moines Register.

Hillary Clinton, who is now trailing Barack Obama in the latest Iowa Poll, is going on the attack against Barack Obama 's "character" just one month before the Iowa caucuses.

That is a mistake of historic proportions. Political hari-kari. If she follows through on the threat, Hillary likely will finish third in Iowa -- not second and certainly not first.

Iowa Democrats on the whole do not like attack ads. They especially do not like attack ads in the last few weeks or days of a campaign. The political landscape of Iowa is littered with the corpses of candidates who didn't know that -- or forgot it -- starting with Evan Hultman's weekend-before-election-day smear of Harold Hughes back in 1964 and going right up to the surprise victory of Tom Vilsack over the execrable Jim Ross Lightfoot in the 1998 race for governor.

To be sure, those were general elections in which the mud-slinger was (of course) a Republican. But the same rule holds when it comes to primary caucus contests, too. That's one of the top reasons why Jimmy Carter did so well in Iowa in 1976. For some reason, mud-slinging energizes Iowa Democrats -- either to go out and vote for the victim or to vote against the slinger.

Until now, many Iowa Democrats have been uncertain about both Obama and Clinton, to judge from the polls and reporters' campaign tales. Iowa Democrats seem to have found a lot to like about Barack Obama. But they worry he may be too young and inexperienced right now.

They have liked Hillary too. But one worry some voice is that she is too clever by half and can't see past her own ambition to arrive at the moral center of things. Case in point: her votes in favor of the Bush administration's Iraq war resolution and more recently what many fear eventually will be known as the Iran 'war' resolution.

That's almost exactly the way Evan Hultman and Harold Hughes were viewed by Iowans right up to the Friday before the 1964 election of a new state governor. When Hultman unleashed his dogs on Hughes, the backlash was so ferocious Hultman's political career ended. Abruptly, permanently.

If Hillary persists in the new strategy as reported, the all-but-certain loss she'll suffer in the January 3 Iowa caucuses will set her back in many other early primary states as well. She might be able to stop the bleeding elsewhere, say on Super Tuesday, but it will take more time, more effort, and quite likely more primaries than she is counting on.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Shag Ad

Florida Fraud Files


Only in Florida would you find State government stupidly investing local school board money in high-risk mortgage derivatives, then coldy cheating the teachers when things go sour:
The state froze a $14 billion investment fund Thursday, leaving one Panhandle district searching for nearly $1 million to make good today on payroll for the county’s 220 teachers.
* * *
The fund began October with $27 billion in investments. By Thursday, it was down to $14 billion, including $3.5 billion in withdrawals made before 11 a.m.
* * *
“We’ve got every dime of our cash in that pool,” said Hal Wilson, chief financial officer for Jefferson County schools. “What were they thinking?”

He is now short $850,000 for today’s payroll and spent Thursday afternoon alternately pleading with state officials for relief and negotiating with a local bank to cover the overdraft.

Wilson’s only other option: leave the small county’s 220 teachers and staff without money to pay their own bills.
Well, maybe there are other governments -- like Narvik, Norway. The New York Times helpfully explains Narvik is so "far north of Arctic circle" that the suns isn't rising at all there right now.

What those Norvik night-crawlers are thinking about is the Sunshine State -- for a very different reason than you might suppose:
Karen Margrethe Kuvaas says she has not been able to sleep well for days.

What is keeping her awake are the far-reaching ripple effects of the troubled housing market in sunny Florida, California and other parts of the United States.

Ms. Kuvaas is the mayor of Narvik, a remote seaport where the season’s perpetual gloom deepened even further in recent days after news that the town — along with three other Norwegian municipalities — had lost about $64 million, and potentially much more, in complex securities investments that went sour.

"I think about it every minute,” Ms. Kuvaas, 60, said in an interview, her manner polite but harried. “Because of this, we can’t focus on things that matter, like schools or care for the elderly."

Mayor Kuvaas adds, "We’re not especially stupid because we live so far in the north."

Now, just what is the mayor implying? Are we "especially stupid" because we don't live so far north? Well, if we won't pay our school teachers, maybe she has a point.

12-2 pm
Atrios over at Eschaton repeatedly refers to the growing Wall Street scandal involving mortgage derivatives as a "shitpile." Can you guess who laid that shitpile on Florida's doorstep?

Forbes is reporting former governor Jeb Bush had a large hand in gambling away Florida's education money:
A government money market debacle unfolding in Florida is raising questions about former governor and presidential brother Jeb Bush's possible involvement in the mess.
* * *
In the past few days, municipalities have withdrawn roughly $9 billion, nearly a third of the $28 billion fund (which is similar to a money market fund) controlled by the Florida's State Board of Administration (SBA). The run on the fund was triggered by worries that a percentage of the portfolio contained debt that had defaulted.

A majority of this paper was sold to SBA by Lehman Brothers. Bush, as the state's top elected official, served on a three-member board that oversaw the SBA until he retired as governor in January.

Here's the rub: After trading away all that money in exchange for Lehman Brothers' bad paper, Bush was rewarded with a "consultant contract" with Lehman Brothers!

In August, Bush was hired as a consultant to the bank. Lehman spokesperson Kerrie Cohen, speaking on behalf of Bush, said they had no comment and would not say when the bank had sold Florida the paper. SBA did not return calls.
If you're a large brokerage like Lehman Bros., normally you wouldn't even think of hiring some lightly educated moron who just lost several hundred million dollars buying bad paper. You wouldn't, that is, unless you sort of, kind of, maybe owed him for something. Something big he did for you.

Something like relieving you of all that bad paper and sticking it to someone else.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Presidential Preferences

Bob Herbert today calls down the Republican Rambo Wannabes running for president.
I don’t know if children should be allowed to watch the Republican presidential debates.

The candidates seem so eager to flex their muscles and engage the nation in conflict: Let’s continue the war in Iraq. Let’s show them what we’re made of in Iran. Let’s round up those immigrants and ship ’em back where they came from.

It’s like watching adolescent boys playing the ultimate video game, with no regard for the consequences. Rudy, the crime-fighter and terror maven, says he’s tougher than Mitt, who actually had illegals working on his property. Mitt begs to differ and says he’d like to double the size of the Guantánamo prison.

Are we electing a president or a sheriff?

Bobby Rivers makes the same point in a hilarious way:

Friday, November 30, 2007

Mississippi Blinding

It's been an eventful week for the Lott clan. On Monday, Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) announced that he'd be retiring late this year. The next day, FBI agents raided the law office of his brother-in-law, Richard "Dickie" Scruggs. Yesterday, Scruggs, his son, and three associates were indicted for bribery.
-- Paul Kiel atTPM Muckraker, Nov. 29, 2007

A search warrant was executed this week in the law office of Mississippi lawyer Dickie Scruggs. Barely a day later, he also was indicted on charges of bribing a state trial judge. Conservatives and liberals, alike, are chortling over what they imagine to be the imminent downfall of one of America's most successful, and richest, trial lawyers.

No surprise, really. Both sides see the event through partisan prisms that tend to blind one to the whole truth, whatever that turns out to be.

Republican neocom fanatics who reflexively side with corporate interests against individuals view "plaintiffs' lawyers" as bogeymen out to undermine America's capitalist foundation. As for Democratic Party liberals, it seems they can't see beyond the fact that the sister of Scruggs' wife is married to U.S. Senator Trent Lott, which makes the two men brothers-in-law. On no discernible evidence other than that, a good number of Lott critics are suggesting the Scruggs indictment explains why, just two days beforehand, the senior Mississippi senator announced that he intends to resign his seat before January rolls around.

Color us skeptical. It may be, as alleged, that a third man, also a lawyer, who supposedly offered a bribe to a Mississippi state judge was acting for Dickie Scruggs. Or, it may be that he wasn't. It may be that this other lawyer offered a bribe. Or, it may be the judge was fishing for a personal campaign contribution, as is the widespread practice among judges in that state.

With no proven facts to speak of yet, what we're left wondering is what does the known history of each side in this drama suggest about their motives and capabilities? On that score, we're ready to give more than the legal presumption of innocence to Scruggs. We give him the benefit of a doubt.

The most likely reason for Senator Lott's resignation, as it seems to us, has nothing to do with Scruggs or his family ties. It's more in harmony with Lott's character and political history that he simply doesn't want to wait an extra year to pig out on lobbyist fees.

It's the political ties we find more intriguing. Dickie Scruggs and his law firm, as we have noted before, are among the leading litigators battling property insurance companies over their penurious -- some juries would say, even fraudulent -- handling of Hurricane Katrina claims. Scruggs undertook to represent well over a thousand devastated hurricane victims in Mississippi -- including that self-same brother-in-law, Trent Lott, who was the scourge of trial lawyers himself until he needed one. The Scruggs firm also led the way in knitting together a number of other law firms to form what's now known as The Katrina Group.

As Newsweek noted a few years ago, Scruggs has a long history of representing the little guy against the insurance industry and their corporate clients. He made his bones suing tobacco companies, then represented thousands of blue collar ship-builders afflicted with asbestosis. More recently, the intrepid lawyer added the health insurance industry to his list of targets.

One can surmise there are plenty of huge, well financed corporations out there who would happily contribute whatever it takes to see Dickie Scruggs brought down. If that isn't reason enough to reserve judgment at the news of his indictment, consider this:
  • The indictment was engineered by U.S. Attorney Jim M. Greenlee in the Northern District of Mississippi. Greenlee has been a "loyal Bushie" U.S. attorney throughout the entire period Karl Rove Bush's lapdog, Alberto Gonzales, was busy politicizing the Justice Department.
  • Allegations of Justice Department "selective prosecution" and "targeting" of prominent Democratic party supporters across the nation have been at the heart of investigations by both the House Judiciary Committee and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • It's already a matter of record that the Justice Department has been using "criminal prosecutions to help Republicans win elections" in Mississippi by selectively prosecuting Democrats. Although he's given to both parties, Scruggs is best known for being one of the largest individual contributors to Mississippi Democratic Party candidates.
  • Barely three weeks ago, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and other news sources began reporting that Scruggs was funding "a new attack ad on Republican insurance commissioner hopeful Mike Chaney." Last July, he gave a quarter of a million dollars to "Mississippians for Fair Elections, a PAC 'created to raise awareness about the role the insurance commissioner plays'" in Mississippi government.
  • Last June, Scruggs filed a 100-plus page complaint in the Southern District of Mississippi, accusing State Farm Insurance Co. of a "racketeering enterprise" to suppress or destroy engineering reports it received from its own chosen expert evaluators that found insured homes had been damaged by high winds rather than flooding water. The allegation is the legal equivalent of nuclear war, potentially subjecting State Farm to treble damages and a host of other severe punishments.
  • Just one day before the indictment was made public, Scruggs filed an amended complaint [pdf format] in the ongoing litigation. As described by Biloxi reporter Anita Lee "a team of policyholders' attorneys led by Richard 'Dickie' Scruggs" added new allegations that State Farm had actually financed the start-up of an engineering firm which then wrote hurricane damage reports with conclusions dictated by State Farm:
    The owner of an engineering firm hoped to make up to $1.5 million over three months by adjusting Hurricane Katrina claims for State Farm, borrowing $150,000 and establishing a line of credit with State Farm Bank to set up shop on the Mississippi Coast in September 2005, according to records filed late Tuesday in federal court.

    Because of the arrangement, Forensic Analysis & Engineering Corp. was beholden to State Farm, which wanted to minimize its Hurricane Katrina losses for wind damage, the lawsuit says. Another vendor that adjusted Katrina claims, the independent adjusting firm E.A. Renfroe & Co. Inc., at times owed 80 percent of its income to State Farm, the court records say.

  • The 73-year old Calhoun County, Mississippi, judge, Henry Lackey, who claims a Scruggs intermediary tried to bribe him waited less than 48 hours before hitting the interview circuit to share his story with Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.
Not to mention (though we will) the indictment was handed down just a couple of weeks before Scruggs was scheduled to host a large fund raiser at his home for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

It may be difficult for folk living in a normal state, or even a politically subnormal state like Florida, to believe that the federal and state judicial systems in a place like Mississippi could be so bent that the weight of the law might be brought down on someone just because they belong to the wrong political party. But the erudite international lawyer and Harper's Magazine blogger, Scott Horton, has some familiarity with the depths to which his native South can sink.

He's been exposing the through-and-through corruption of Alabama's system for much of the past year, now. Here's a sampling. It isn't easy reading but it is eye opening.

Horton has occasionally remarked that things in neighboring Mississippi are much the same. As he wrote a few weeks ago:
In the last several months, we have looked in some detail at the prosecution of Democratic Governor Don E. Siegelman in Alabama. There is now substantial evidence that this prosecution was politically motivated, involving a number of key figures in the Alabama G.O.P., Karl Rove, U.S. attorneys in Birmingham and Montgomery, and political appointees at the Justice Department in Washington.
* * *
[W]hile studying the Siegelman case, I have been looking over a series of cases in Mississippi which are remarkably similar to the Siegelman case in many ways. At this point I believe, based on documents and evidence which have come to me, that the Mississippi prosecutions will also shortly be exposed as being politically motivated and directed. In any event it is clear that they were designed to, and did, have a key role in influencing elections in Mississippi for the benefit of the Republican Party.
"For five years Washington has had a Department of Political Persecutions where the Department of Justice used to stand," Horton also has written.

It is some measure of the damage done to the Justice Department under the Bush administration that one can even entertain the thought Scruggs' indictment may be politically inspired. But we know, now, that the Justice Department has perverted justice elesewhere for just that reason. The likelihood that's its happening again in Mississippi is too plausible to be dismissed.