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March 26, 2011

charlie engle shouldn't be in prison

Joe Nocera's final "Talking Business" column for the NYT should be read by everybody: it's the story of a man in prison for mortgage fraud.

Charlie Engle, an ultramarathoner, attracted the attention of an IRS agent by virtue of being the subject of a a documentary.  The agent sifted through his garbage and sent an undercover tax agent to flirt something barely incriminating out of Engle — that he had taken out two stated-income mortgages (or, "liar loans" as they are popularly known).  Which is something that a sizable number of Americans have done, at the behest of The Banks.

The point made by Nocera:

“The Department of Justice has made prosecuting financial crimes, including mortgage fraud, a high priority,” said Neil H. MacBride, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in a statement. (Mr. MacBride, whose office prosecuted Mr. Engle, declined to be interviewed.)

Apparently, though, it’s only a high priority if the target is a borrower. [Angelo] Mozilo’s company [Countrywide Financial] made billions in profit, some of it on liar loans that he acknowledged at the time were likely to be fraudulent and which did untold damage to the economy. And he personally was paid hundreds of millions of dollars. Though he agreed last year to a $67.5 million fine to settle fraud charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, it was a small fraction of what he earned. Otherwise, he walked. Thus does the Justice Department display its priorities in the aftermath of the crisis.

Not only should Charlie Engle not be in prison (unless Justice wants to imprison every other American who took out a liar loan, even those who have not defaulted), but Mozillo should.

To be fair, the picture that Nocera paints is that Engle was targeted by an oddly vengeful T-man more than edict from the Attorney General.  But the authors of the financial crisis should be doing time.

Nocera, BTW, is headed to the Op-Ed page of the NYT, which could be a pretty good fit.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:20 AM

March 25, 2011

too bad, coffee party

Here's a small bright spot in a for-some-reason ugh day: remember the Coffee Party?  The supposed antidote to the Tea Party that was devoted to a post-partisan solution?  It's riven by strife as its founder struggles to retain control:
The Coffee Party, which launched last year to mild public curiosity in reaction to the Tea Party wave, has receded from public view -- in part because of a schism between its centrist leadership and some left-leaning grassroots.

The movement, co-founded by filmmaker named Annabel Park, was initially seen as a progressive alternative to the Tea Party.... Park, however, says she intended the group to be centrist and non-partisan. She at one point weighed legal action to prevent the left-leaning faction from using their copyrighted logo after Darrell Bouldin, a Tennessee-based activist, started an offshoot called "Coffee Party Progressives."

Why take pleasure in the misfortune of others?  First of all, when Park was all over the airwaves in the initial round of publicity for the Coffee Party, she struck me as someone that might be more in the Annabel Park business than in the political advocacy business.  That's just the impression I got, never having met the person, but he apparent control issues do not disprove this impression.

But more importantly, there is no such thing as a "post-partisan" solution.  People disagree for a reason, and there is nothing wrong with that.  The gulf between what I believe and what, say, Gov. Scott Walker believes cannot be bridged by concession: he wants to destroy the things I believe in, and I want to see the things I believe in not destroyed.  The question is not finding the middle ground, but rather a struggle between conflicting ideologies that cannot be implemented simultaneously.  To wish for some magical world, in which heels are clicked and everyone agrees is just D-U-M dumb.  (Or at least, a naked bid for a career as a public figure.)

Sick of the bombast?  The problem is not partisanship, it is manners.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:52 PM

i'm not afraid of no strawmen

A letters-to-the-editor/comments-thread meme I'm seeing goes something like this: "President Bush invades countries and you liberals get all upset, and YOUR GUY invades countries and it's no problem!"

This is an easy one!

Dear strawman: The reason that we liberals were upset by the invasion of Iraq is that the reason given for the invasion was an obvious pack of lies, and everyone knew it at the time.  We also thought that it was not a war of necessity, and I think that hindsight comes down on our side.  Also, remember that we did not so much oppose the (at the time, small) invasion of Afghanistan, because the goal stated was to break the Taliban and acquire bin Laden, which we all generally supported at the time.

Also, you should keep in mind that a good portion of liberals (nearly half?) are very very upset with President Obama and his unilateral commitment to action in Libya, which they see as a clear violation of the War Powers Act.  It's true!  Some of the liberals do not like President Obama!

So you see, the assertion that liberals instinctively opposed President Bush and support President Obama is factually incorrect.  In fact, it is an assertion the inverse of which is true for the accuser.  Right, strawman?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:40 AM

March 24, 2011

not a show that rhymes with 'the phrakewaway'

So there's that morning radio news show that I have a conflicted relationship with?  With that one host who is the worst interviewer ever, sometimes asking only answers, sometimes pulling off the secret-double-reverse devil's advocate?

Well, yesterday he was interviewing someone about the earthquake/tsunami/meltdown (which I think should be called "the Unfolding"), and they were talking about how the fishing industry was wiped out entirely in affected regions and the host remarked (remarked! during an interview!) that this must be a crisis especially felt by the Japanese given their relationship with fresh fish.

Now, that might or might not have been with a straight face.  I don't know.  It's radio.  But that show has these sudden and precipitous plunges into parody.  It's mystifying.

But why am I listening?  I guess, at the end of the day, for the sudden and precipitous plunges into parody.  Plus also the non-interview news coverage is pretty good.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:12 AM

March 23, 2011

mortgaging ohio's future

Frequently, the concept of "mortgaging our future" is invoked by Deficit Hawks and those sympathetic to them, the idea being that enormous budget deficits, basically borrowing money to cover costs not covered by tax revenue, is a burden that will be borne by our children and their children, etc.

This is not untrue, though the degree of the menace is argued endlessly, Milton Friedman locked in battle with John Maynard Keynes well after both their deaths.

Though I would argue that a more direct and tangible example of "mortgaging our future" would be something like this, buried in Gov. John Kasich's proposed budget for the state of Ohio.  He suggests that the job of selling liquor to the people of the state of Ohio be leased out to private enterprise.  The kicker:

Whether Ohio’s best “natural” asset is its booze intake is up for debate. But all jokes about Ohio’s increasing drunkenness aside, a deeper look at the numbers indicates that Ohio is getting the short end of the stick on this deal. As Ohio Budget Watch found, Kasich’s plan involves the state selling about $7 billion in expected revenue from state liquor stores to JobsOhio for just $1.5 billion.

So Ohio, in the short term, gets $1.5 billion that wasn't previously expected in the budget for the year, which is a plus — closes budget gaps, etc.  The price for this is a little less than five times that amount over the span of the lease.

It is nothing less than an entire state resorting to payday lending.  Naturally, the private enterprise that takes over booze-selling will make a mint off this deal, without even resorting to the privileges that having literally no competition that running a state business grants them.  I'd assume that this private enterprise has a pretty healthy lobbying budget, and that not much of this budget was devoted to Kasich's opponent.

It stinks.  It's 21st Century patronage.  If I were a resident of the state of Ohio, I'd be pretty cheesed off.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:12 AM

good morning 3.23.11

Two arbitrary but useful things I learned on the last leg of the morning commute:

There is a bus driver on the M23 route that says, "Good morning," to each and every passenger as they climb on the bus.  Not super peppy, maybe even resolute, but it is a day-changer.  I need to learn that dudes name so next time I can be all like, "Good morning, [Dan][Jake][Whatever].  You yourself should take the M23 bus in Manhattan just in hopes of getting this driver.

There is a deli on West 23rd Street, right before you get to Ninth Avenue, that has a scrolling LED sign in the window.  This is the message that it scrolls, repeatedly:

BALLOON BALLON 69¢ [pause] CIGAR CIGAR BEER BEER BEER BEER

From now on that is what I'm going to chant to myself in those near moments.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:12 AM

March 22, 2011

what the american people want

Here's a thing I learned reading the NYT's piece on the Incredible Shrinking Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi who will be or will not be running for president.  The passage that struck me is this:
He dismissed a suggestion that voters could reach a different conclusion once they had a full sense of his clients and the type of work his firm provided, which included representing the government of Mexico, military contractors and drug companies. He said voters were more concerned about the economy, job creation and the country’s debt rather than hearing old recitations of his business dealings.

“The American people,” Mr. Barbour said, “want a strong hand at the tiller to give them more confidence.”

Which made me realize that when you run for president, most of your job is telling reporters what the American people want.  If you are asked about those two years you spent up the river for inappropriate touching, you say, "Now Reporter, the American people don't want to talk about that, the American people want to know about their cheese and who moved it, etc."

And it's a good thing too, because if there's one thing the American people don't know it's what they want.  Health care reform?  Webisodes?  A chalupa?  They have no freaking clue, and that is why they watch the evening news, because they have a little itch, an echo of a memory that they're supposed to know what they want, and so they seek out the only possible source of this information: an old white Southern millionaire guy who is probably nice enough to his immediate family but also wouldn't care either way if he kissed your baby or ate it as long as you caucused for him next spring.

And if Barbour has the time while hitting the campaign trail, maybe he can also tell the American people where happiness went?  As an American person, I'd like to know.

(I know, all candidates of both parties are guilty of this — I just have a particular dislike for Barbour and his deep south cryptoracist dogwhistles.)

Posted by mrbrent at 10:56 AM

danny stiles

Further to this brief double-barreled obit, this is the personal recollection that I could not fit in because I was keepin' it newsy — years ago, my now-wife talked me into committing to extensively renovating our apartment.  Yes, apartment.  I'm not not handy, but I'm not exactly a professional, and this gig was pretty time-consuming, ripping out an apartment-wide drop ceiling, dry-walling, painting, etc.  So most of the work was done on weekends, as the dayjob doesn't exactly go away because you're working on your apartment.  And my fondest memory of the weeks we spent on that is Saturday nights, because we'd work all day and then order-in something good and listen to Danny Stiles on the radio.  I think it was my wife who stumbled across it, but his smoooooth reminiscences and old-timey sounds was something we both agreed on, and started to look forward to.  We never did make a habit of it, sadly, but if there was a weekend night that left room for the radio, it was Danny Stiles we looked for.

So Danny Stiles was someone I was enormously fond of even though the aggregate number of hours I spent listening to him is not a big number.

And Warren Christopher I have no personal memories of, though I did leave out the terrible job he did on both Rwanda and the Bush/Gore recount in the interests of not speaking ill of the dead.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:23 AM

March 21, 2011

chris lehmann: an accelerated grimace

Here is a long thing you would do well to read: Chris Lehmann on cyper-utopianism.  It's a reaction to Clay Shirky's latest book, Cognitive Surplus, and it winds its way around the interactions between the Internet and us old flesh and bloods in a very thoughtful and satisfying manner.

This is one of those that's hard to find a single pullquote, but this should be enough to wet your whistle:

As for crowdsourcing being a “labor of love” (Shirky primly reminds us that the term “amateur” “derives from the Latin amare—‘to love’”), the governing metaphor here wouldn’t seem to be digital sharecropping so much as the digital plantation. For all too transparent reasons of guilt sublimation, patrician apologists for antebellum slavery also insisted that their uncompensated workers loved their work, and likewise embraced their overseers as virtual family members. This is not, I should caution, to brand Shirky as a latter-day apologist for slavery but rather to note that it’s an exceptionally arrogant tic of privilege to tell one’s economic inferiors, online or off, what they do and do not love, and what the extra-material wellsprings of their motivation are supposed to be. To use an old-fashioned Enlightenment construct, it’s at minimum an intrusion into a digital contributor’s private life—even in the barrier-breaking world of Web 2.0 oversharing and friending. The just and proper rejoinder to any propagandist urging the virtues of uncompensated labor from an empyrean somewhere far above mere “society” is, “You try it, pal.”

And it is not just about content farming!  It's about digital evangelism and misconceptions about Internet-fueled revolutions and other discrete issues of how the Internet changed or did not change everything.

It's a couple thousand words of very very good, and you should make it yours.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:39 AM