Tuesday, November 04, 2008

This is the day

This is MY flag, OUR flag...

I am proud to be an American today. Very, very proud. And happy.

Now if I can just stop that tear in my eye from welling up...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bubba: a retrospective

This week it occurred to me that I have not posted any photos of my family for a while… in fact since Simon was born last year. It’s time for a retrospective of Du Bubs, as Wendi affectionately calls him. I tend to call him Bubba. Whatever you call him, he’s a great guy and so much fun to be around! Usually, anyway ;-)

In December of last year, Don Vito Corleone made us an offer we couldn't refuse.

"Daddy, your fly is down." I have had this problem most of my life, but now I have this little guy to help me out.

This is how Wendi looks at me if I forget to take out the trash. Truly, he is his mother's son. Great.

Next are a few pics from his first birthday party at Mark's house. Those of you who were there probably remember that it didn't go to well. It started out happily enough...

"I want a cool slide like this of my own, Dad!" "Kid, we live in an apartment... sorry."

Simon and Justin, buddies (except if Sy has one of Justin's toys).

Ask not for whom the baby comes... he comes for Daddy.

All dads know that a major portion of their duties involves imitating a jungle gym.

I have my revenge!

Well, shortly after dinner, Simon fell off his chair and landed squarely on his forehead with a resonant *THWACK*. No real harm done, but he wasn't too happy even when we sang "Happy Birthday" to him later:

Poor little guy. We all felt bad for him. He cheered up a little when it was time for cake...

More or less, ha ha! He even shared some cake with his mommy...

Wendi finds the fingers and toes of young children to be tender and delicious -- and even more delectable with some frosting on top.

Well, the birthday party wasn't the best of times for our little guy. I guess birthday parties aren't really his idea of a good time right now. He does seem to enjoy beeing outside though. A few weeks later we went for a short hike near Kenosha pass:

The crisp autumn mountain air and peaceful stillness of the wilderness... rudely interrupted by the continual shrieking and jabbering in my ear of the little boy on my back!

Finally, Wendi's mom was in town to help after Wendi's surgery last week, which went perfectly BTW. We strolled around downtown Littleton and snapped a few pictures in the park:

I believe this is the most recent photo I have of our bubba at the moment.

Being a parent is demanding, tiring and expensive. It is also a lot of fun! I am learning more about how to do it every day. Simon is an intelligent, good natured kid, somewhat cautious in nature -- though he loves all kinds of foods, even broccoli! We have enjoyed getting to know him and watching his personality develop over the past year. I think I can safely speak for Wendi also when I say that we wouldn't trade this sweet little boy for anything in the world.

Friday, September 26, 2008

And the wheels came off

Some are already calling it "Black September".

If you’ve been following what’s been happening in the economy and markets, as I have, you are probably shaking your head in dismay. Even I, the eternal doom-and-gloom pessimist, didn’t expect that what happened over the past 3 weeks would snowball so quickly.

Events in the markets and the financial sector are moving faster than the reactions from the government and public can keep up. There doesn’t seem to be any real leadership about how to deal with multiple converging crises either. That light at the end of the tunnel is looking more and more like a train. Insert your own disastrous metaphor or cliché here.

To recap: the worlds largest mortgage insurers and buyers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have been effectively nationalized. One of the biggest and oldest investment banks, Lehman Bros., went belly up. Another, Merrill Lynch, would have too had it not been swallowed at the last second by the Death Star, otherwise known as Bank Of America. The only remaining Wall Street investment banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, had to desperately change their business model and get permission to reorganize as commercial banks. Washington Mutual collapsed last night and is now the largest bank failure in American history. Other banks such as Wachovia are looking increasingly fragile. Credit markets have frozen.

AIG was bailed out at the last minute by the government after agreeing to giving the government an equity stake. It was the first-ever government bailout of an insurance company. Wendi’s mom works for AIG, but now she effectively works for Uncle Sam.

Some of you may recall that I work for a wholly-owned subsidiary of Morgan Stanley. I do not know what the future holds, only that I have a personal stake now in what is happening. This week Morgan Stanley was courting the sickly Wachovia for a potential marriage. This did not make me feel good inside, but I laughed anyway when I heard it. This is getting more and more absurd by the day.

And, biggest of all, our fine, upstanding elected leaders are furiously debating how to force the rest of us to pay for the mistakes of guys who make more in a week than I do in a year, by throwing $700 billion of new debt into their begging hands. After basically denying for almost a year that there was any systemic problem, Secretary of the Treasury Hank “the shank” Paulson now says that financial catastrophe is imminent unless we do whatever he says. This is such a repulsive idea to some Republicans that even they balked at the price tag – and they have never been shy about spending money that they didn’t have.

Yes that’s right. Socialism, economic disaster, higher taxes and big government brought to you on a platter by the party of small government, low taxes and business. Wow. Choke it down and like it, it’s for your own good, they say.

Hypocrites, liars and thieves – are those words too strong? I don’t think so.

Not that the Democrats are much better – in many ways I have more problems with them than I do the GOP. The point is that the old paradigms are useless and the failure of leadership, laziness and corruption of our corporate-controlled government, combined with the unsustainable and fantasy-based economic model that it promoted, have brought us to this point. History is being made these past few days, keep watch on what happens next because it's going to be interesting... in the ancient Chinese sense.

I do not have the answers, just a few ideas that maybe I’ll write about some other time. For now, one of my favorite blogs about economics says it much better than I can.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

New linkz, peeps!

I have posted new links to other pages I have been maintaining. Check them out and let me know what you think!

I finally got a MySpace music page up and running for some of my older tunes. So now you can listen to my music any time you want! Isn't that awesome? The page only holds 6 songs but you can download any of them you want. This newfangled Internet thing is da bomb, yo.

Because my Flashback: 1980s series last year ended up being much longer than I meant it to be, and I love writing about music but don't feel like cluttering up this blog with every thought about music that pops into my head, I have begun posting some music reveiws on my Amazon profile. Amazon is nice that way because they let anyone post reviews of music or whatever, and the interface is pretty easy to use. It's almost like a blog in that you can network with people and join discussions about anything on their site -- which, as everyone knows, is a lot of stuff.

So if you are interested in what I have to say about this or that album or artist or what makes me tick musically (and who isn't interested, really?), take a peek.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The eternal student

Skool is back in season. We started a week early this year, but had this pre-Labor Day week off, due to the DNC.

I am enjoying my new classes much more this semester than last. While my finance class was great (I really dig business classes involving number-crunching), the Organizational Management class which I took last semester really sucked. One would imagine from the name of the class that one would learn things about managing a business in a dynamic, globalized, competitive environment.

No. I spent $185 on the textbook and the teacher did not crack the book for three weeks. He instead used his own text in that time. We had to write papers about the merits of capitalism vs. communism. He reveled in repeating standard, tired right-wing talking points in nearly every class: “Reagan defeated communism”, “the most evil words ever written was the communist creed ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’” with zero context or historical exposition. He never wrote a single note on the dry erase board, and when he did get around to using the textbook, he merely used key topics as jumping-off points for aimless and rather dumb class discussions.

Towards the end of the semester, I hadn’t been staying current on the text (didn’t relate much to the essay tests he gave!) so one evening I made a halfhearted attempt to catch up on about 4 chapters of reading, each chapter about 30 or so pages of dense text. After about half an your I threw the textbook down in disgust. I just didn’t care, and reading the text was a waste of time for the class. I got an A, but felt like I had wasted my time and money. I have little enough of either!

I am happy to report that this semester is looking much better on the teacher front. I am taking Cost Accounting and Business Ethics.

Cost accounting is another of these number-crunching classes that I enjoy. Most people who do not work in accounting or are not accounting majors would find the subject hideously boring, so I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say, do you ever wonder how companies can keep track of how much it costs to produce a single item or service? Do you ever wonder how they calculate what profit margin they need to have on said item or service in order to stay in business?

That’s cost accounting, and it is distinct from financial accounting in that it is not required to conform to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP as we call them (pronounced “gap). It has wide implications in the fields of marketing and finance as well. I’m pretty interested in this class, not least because we will be doing quite a bit of pretty advanced stuff with Excel. I happen to love working with Excel (unusually good for Microsoft software, they got it right for once), and it is pretty much the standard spreadsheet software for business, and accounting in particular. My teacher seems pretty knowledgeable too, which is a nice change of pace from that egotistical Reaganite last semester.

The other class is Business Ethics. This class is a required one but actually falls into the category of philosophy at Metro State. The running joke about Business Ethics is that the term is itself an oxymoron. Whether or not that’s true, I am very interested in this class. It’s another subject that is very important in this day and age, with the accounting scandals that seem to still be surfacing in the business world with depressing regularity, the current economic downturn caused by reckless financial speculation that I have extensively written about elsewhere, the sometimes exploitative economics of globalization, and so forth. This teacher as well seems to know his stuff and he is very good at leading focused classroom discussions about various topics.

The only problem is that because I’ve had this week off, I have been ultra lazy and haven’t studied at all! I’m planning to do some tomorrow since I have the day off from work. It’s good that I have some interesting looking classes this semester because it keeps me motivated.

I am no longer as gung-ho about finishing my degree ASAP, as I was a couple years back. I am nearing the end and therefore would rather have the least stressful time of it as possible. To put it in perspective, if I graduate as planned in Spring of 2010, I will have spent nearly 8 years on a 4 year degree. Sometimes I feel like an eternal student but the end is in sight...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

God bless America!

Wow. Nearly nine months since my last post. This blog really keeps you on the edge of your seat, huh? This time lag was indeed an egregious violation of my numerous, previous pledges to keep the dang thing timely. So what happened, you ask?

I think the biggest reason is that I was discouraged by the somewhat ugly direction the discussion in the comments went. I didn’t mean for things to get so heated. I blame myself.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to link to the inflammatory video. Though I still agree with every word of James McMurtry’s powerful protest song and the sentiments it conveys, I intended it as a kind of punctuation, like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence, to drive home the points made by the linked articles and blogs that I posted.

As it turned out, seems like most of the people who read the post didn’t pay too much attention to the links. Some (one of whom will remain nameless, Dad) got the impression I was cackling maniacally as I gleefully set fire to Old Glory, and cheering for a Communist overthrow of the US government as I congratulated Osama Bin Laden for his efforts over the phone.

That was not quite the case.

It was a stimulating discussion, but an exhausting one. I guess I deserve it for bringing up politics and economics in the first place. I mean, really what did I expect would happen? It’s now been the better part of a year since that controversial post. My interest in the issues I wrote about and linked too has only grown since then – I just haven’t blogged about it.

If you check out the first link in the last post (the official White House “Jobs & Economic Growth” page), you may notice a change from last year. Last October, it was trumpeting the strong economy, proclaiming a new era of prosperity and opportunity and thanking George W. Bush’s economic genius at every opportunity; now we get a fact sheet “Charting A Clear Course For The Economy”.

It’s pretty funny. Here we have a great example of your tax dollars at work to bamboozle you with cherry-picked statistics and economic initiatives of dubious merit, but what is really striking is how the narrative has changed since last year. Exactly what happened to that strong economy? Gotta love propaganda.

The reality is that since last year events have moved on. Nobody can predict the future but it ain’t looking too bright to me. I think what really disturbs me is that we seem to have lost what once made us great as a nation: the ability to govern ourselves. This is the country that once produced great leaders such as Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK. We saved the world from the Nazis and American ideas of freedom enraptured the world. What happened?

As a nation, we have never before seen such confluence of political decay, erosion of freedoms, corporatism and economic exploitation. Our country has been sold off to the highest bidder, and democracy is now considered more or less an obstacle to the global flow of capital and corresponding transfer of wealth from the lower to the upper classes.

This is happening via a number of conduits, lax government monetary policy and the globalization of the flow of capital without regard to the needs of human beings being two of them. Overshadowing everything like the Sword of Damocles is the looming specter of peak oil, which I am personally more and more convinced will be the number one nightmare for humanity for the foreseeable future. Oil hit $145 a barrel yesterday, and the national average price for a gallon of regular 87 octane gasoline was at $4.10.

That sucks huh? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There may be temporary drops here and there in prices, but the overall trend line is clear. Gasoline prices will never again be $1.15 a gallon. They won’t even be double that. I personally think that by the end of the year, the price will be around $5. If we go to war with Iran, double that.

Sounds pretty bleak huh? I don’t have any surefire solutions. I think there can only be treatments to mitigate the pain, not a cure for the disease. Unfortunately, I think that our culture, economy and government are incapable at this time of doing even the minimum necessary, thereby ensuring even greater pain down the road. This is a second reason I feel so pessimistic about our future. Believe me, nobody would be happier than myself if I was wrong.

So, I'll bet you're thinking: "Wow, what a crank Matt is! Why does he rant like that? How did it come to this?" Two books I have read over the past few months have profoundly influenced my thinking about these issues. They make me look like Pollyanna by comparison, but they make their cases more solidly than my "ranting" ever will. If you are at all interested in issues like peak oil or problems with globalization and the capitalist model to which we are accustomed, please check them out.

Jim Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency makes some dire predictions about our prospects for grappling with converging crises such as peak oil, global warming, and their effects on the economies of not just the United States’, but that of the world. The central thesis is that we are woefully unprepared to live in a world whose entire economy rests upon the premise of cheap fossil fuels. Simply put, in Kunstler’s view there is no possible way to avert the coming catastrophe.

Kunstler is a longtime critic of the post-war suburban housing pattern that now is the dominant form of development in the US, which he calls the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. He predicts (and I am inclined to agree) that this pattern of development, with its big box stores, shopping malls, freeways and parking lots has no future in a world of scarce oil.

Though the amount of investment in mass transit over the past fifty years has varied greatly from place to place, most places in the United States have given little thought to the long term and in some areas such as the deep South, there is next to no chance that any kind of mass transit will realistically come on line.

He is also dismisses the idea that renewable energy has any chance of preserving the post-war suburban lifestyle, and examines various schemes in detail to determine why exactly they cannot replace fossil fuels – solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, hydrogen, and even drilling for more oil are all looked at. Moreover, we are woefully unprepared for the coming shock.

This book was published in 2005, at the height of the last economic bubble when things were looking rosy, so to read it to day in the light of $145 per barrel oil is pretty scary. He goes so far as to doubt our ability to survive as a nation – “the long emergency” as he describes it a rather apocalyptic vision.

While even I am not quite so negative about the future as Kunstler, this book is a must read for anyone trying to understand the current economic gloom and the reasons why gasoline prices keep going through the roof. And don’t dismiss him as some radical leftist either – he supports drilling for oil in ANWR, investment in nuclear energy, and though he didn’t really support the second Iraq war, he regards it as having been pretty much inevitable.

Even if you don’t agree (as I don’t) with all of his predictions, this is an excellent resource that pulls a lot of loose threads together. Kunstler is also an engaging, witty writer – his gift for a pithy turn of phrase is on full display here, with a good dose of black humor. He also has a blog that he updates weekly here. In my opinion he’s one of the sharpest writers today covering this subject. Check it out if you’re interested in learning more.

The other book that has heavily influenced my thinking lately is The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This is a detailed account of how the so-called “Chicago school” of economics (the dominant school of economics worldwide since the late 1960s), with the late Milton Friedman as its champion and figurehead, came to preside over a series of economic disasters in dozens of countries around the world.

The Chicago School is known for its embrace of extreme principles of free markets without regard to the short-term human costs involved. And though we have been lead by the corporate media and various leaders to embrace so-called free markets as being synonymous with democracy, in most cases these “free market principles” have been imposed on other countries by force, with the explicit aim of causing such dire economic consequences that all resistance is rendered impotent by the sudden shock. Hence, the title of the book.

The Shock Doctrine describes in great detail events that took place in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, the Maldives, Poland, Russia, China, Mexico, Sri Lanka and other places when, after some kind of shock natural (the 2004 tsunami), man made (the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pinochet’s coup and dictatorship in 1970s Chile) or economic (the so-called “Asian Contagion” currency crisis of 1997, the free-market ideologues in various governments and institutions such as the World Bank or IMF sought to impose radical free-market reforms in very anti-Democratic ways.

In Chile’s case, this took the form of University of Chicago educated bureaucrats advising and abetting a brutal dictatorship that overthrew a left-leaning but democratically elected government. In the case of Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a fire sale of state assets to the many of the high-ranking officials of that oppressive state and created a new class of oligarchs, along with nearly a decade of spiraling organized crime and economic chaos.

And so on, with depressing regularity. None of these shocks were accidental, but rather were explicitly called for by the adherents of this “neoliberalism” (as it is known in the rest of the world). They sought a proverbial “clean slate” in which to impose their ideology, and to bring it about they advocated exploiting these kind of shocks, and in some cases actually brought them about through shady speculative practices.

This book pulls together a lot of threads and paints a very big canvas. What is really striking is the similarity of neoliberalism to Leninism, its diametric opposite and mortal enemy. Both systems explicitly advocated advancing their economic philosophies by use of anti-democratic means. Both systems sought to shape the world according to their ideological visions. And though both of them never succeeded in doing what they claimed to do, their adherents only redoubled their efforts to remake the world in their image -- even though in most cases what came about was economic hardship and oppressive government. Makes you think, hmmm?

I recommend this book to anyone who is trying to understand why many of the events since the end of the Soviet Union transpired as they did. It’s thoroughly researched, and a damning portrait of what capitalism has become under the radical philosophy of neoliberalism.

Sorry to ruin your day with my blog. I'm really not that unpleasant to be around. I just think that people aren't realizing the great danger we as a nation (and the planet too) are facing. I would just like to see people be more informed about what is going on in the world so that we at least don't make things worse than they already are. The past 40 or 50 years were a gilded age. It's time we realized that things are going to change and the old models won't get us very far. But the world won't end. At least, I hope not -- for all it's flaws, I'm pretty fond of it.

Ok, that’s probably enough about this stuff. I promise not to bore you with politics and economics so much anymore. Gotta start keeping people up to date on my boring life. I know you’ll want to read about that. Stay tuned... more soon.

UPDATE 7/9/08:

Not to beat a dead horse, but Naomi Klein has a very timely column on disaster capitalism's influence on current events. This is why I roll my eyes when I hear people bleat about “free markets”, which too often really means "free for multinational capital, expensive for regular people -- suck on it."