The default of Stuyvesant Town gives consumers another reason to walk away from underwater homes.

The New York Times continued its campaign to get the average Jane-and-Joe to adopt the questionable ethics of investment or mortgage bankers this weekend with an article by Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago wondering why more of the millions of homeowners who owe more on their homes than the places are worth don’t just walk away from their mortgages, and their homes.  Thaler assumes that people are going to finally get with the program and start abandoning underwater homes in waves, and therefore proposes a big idea to stop this theoretical rush to default.

As I said in my January 11 blog entry about another New York Times article that explicitly advocated walking away from underwater mortgage, these economic experts propose that instead of passing regulations to restrain bankers and business operators from actions that common sense tells us are unethical (such as making loans to people with no means and then selling the loans in packages to investors), people should instead adopt the faulty ethics of the business world. 

It’s shameful that in this country freedom has been reduced to meaning that everyone can behave at the lowest common ethical denominator in a dog-eat-dog winner-take-all economic struggle.  It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to figure out that if we have minimum rules restraining economic actions, the rich will get richer at the expense of everyone else, because the lack of constraints creates an environment in which the possession of money gives the possessor an enormous edge. 

The rationale behind campaign contribution limits has always been to level the playing field by creating rules that limit the naked power of money.  Of course, the Supreme Court recently used the principle of “freedom of speech” as its rationale for declaring unconstitutional this attempt to create more real freedom of speech (the narrow margin of victory provided in advance by the Democrat’s decision not to filibuster the Roberts and Alito nominations several years back).

In yesterday’s news was an announcement that exemplified the kind of unethical behavior which unfortunately is quite common in the business world:  Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty, two of the very biggest financial players, have defaulted on $4.4 billion in loans they used to buy Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, two vibrant middle class apartment complexes in Manhattan.  Each will lose $112 million, not pennies by any means, but as yesterday’s New York Times detailed, Tishman Speyer manages a $33.5 billion portfolio.  They’ll be nicked, but not hurt much.

The default will cost much, much more to the investors that Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty brought into the deal when it purchased the two large apartment complexes for $5.4 billion at the top of the market in 2007.  For example, the pension fund for California public employees is losing $500 million and the Singapore government is losing $575 million.  Those who rent the apartments—completely innocent victims—are also suffering; for one thing, the company that is negotiating with Tishman Speyer and BlackRock is still looking for someone to manage the apartments now that Tishman Speyer is no longer doing so.

The investment went bad so these financial behemoths just walked away.  And these economic theorists are telling us that the average person should do the same.  Trust is the basic fabric which holds together every economic system.  Without appropriate regulation, we are allowing and enabling the actions of the big players and the words of many economic right-wingers continue to rip this basic fabric to shreds.

My small study may demonstrate that ads for shady products dominate talk radio.

Every media outlet has its share of advertising for shady products that don’t perform as promised.  Colon treatments, male enhancement treatments, hair loss treatments, speculative investments, Internet business ventures that don’t require you to work, companies claiming to help people get out of debt, lump-sum structured settlement companies, companies that sell you incorporation materials or other information readily available for free—these are some of the shady products and services most frequently advertised in print, TV, radio and Internet media.

Now I’m not talking about legitimate products or services for which deceptive claims are made, but those which have no inherent value, are harmful, or for which the value is much less than the inflated price.  Sometimes it’s a fine line: for example, as much as I dislike most of the products for sale on home shopping programs and infomercials, they mostly inhabit the world of the legitimate.  So do ambulance-chasing attorneys, since they perform a legitimate function (except for those whose practice is solely based on taking a third of the client’s money for doing nothing but filing papers and settling with the insurance company).

No, I’m talking about the out-and-out scam products, although some are legal, or at least legal enough.

My perception as a mass media critic is that while the ads for shady products pockmark all media, it is only a big problem for one, and it’s not the Internet! The Internet is a vast unregulated garden of both delights and deceptions, which means you can find just about any and every scam online, but they’re drowning along with everything else in an endless ocean of web pages.  And ads for shady products are also really at the margin of programming in television and print media.

But listening to talk-oriented radio over the past 25 years has always given me the impression that the shady product dominates this media segment to such a degree that if radio stations did what they should, which is to raise the standard of the ads they accept for commercial products and services, then talk radio could not raise enough advertising dollars to support continued broadcast.

To test this hypothesis, I asked my assistant Colette to listen to three local talk radio stations in Pittsburgh for a three-hour period and record all the commercials.  I asked her to listen to the three types of programming that dominate talk radio:

  • Sports talk:  “Mike & Mike,” an immensely popular national morning sports talk show on ESPN.
  • Conservative talk show hosts: The “Rush Limbaugh” show.
  • All-news: An all news radio station that does not broadcast National Public Radio during drive time.

Colette surfed back and forth between the three programming formats, listening to each a total of 60 minutes, so we could get a randomized sense of advertising on talk radio.  To really be sure of the results, though, we would have to listen for many more hours and in more than one market.  And to really drill down into the reality of talk radio advertising, we would have to record the data by type or programming and time of day.

The results of our small test, however, are so stunning, that they just about demonstrate the enormous importance of the scam product to talk radio:

Colette recorded 31 ads during the three hours of listening of which 16 were for scam products and 15 were for legitimate products.  Thus, slightly more than 50% of the revenues produced during this three-hour randomized spin around the universe of talk radio came from scam products and services, including:

  • Debt settlement company #1
  • Debt settlement company #2
  • Debt settlement company #3
  • Unpaid tax settlement  firm #1
  • Unpaid tax settlement firm #2
  • Stock tips by email
  • Lump sum payment for a structured settlement
  • Investing in gold #1
  • Investing in gold #2 (the company with which Glen Beck is associated)
  • Personal identity protection (the company that has been in the news for its shady claims)

What surprised me is that during this listening period, Colette heard no spots making health claims.  My anecdotal memory tells me that those spots mostly run on afternoons, weekends and overnight, but we would have to extend the study to test that hypothesis.

The triumph once again of the politics of selfishness

We’ve now learned that Scott Brown voted for the Massachusetts universal healthcare legislation when he was a state senator, but intends to vote against the current federal legislation in its current form.  Senator Brown gave his reasoning in a sound bite that National Public Radio ran for a few hours after his election victory over Martha Coakley last week.  (Note that I have been unable to find the bite in the NPR online archive and since the initial coverage, Brown has made a number of more conciliatory statements on the issue of healthcare reform that suggest that he already tacking back to the center.)

What Brown said, and this quote is not exact but rather an accurate recreation of his meaning most of his words, is that Massachusetts citizens have healthcare now and so why would he vote for a bill to cover others since it would likely cost the citizens of Massachusetts more money.

In other words, “I’ve got mine.  Screw everyone else.”  Once again, the politics of selfishness rears its ugly head and stares down the utilitarian notion that we as a people and our elected officials should care about the well-being of the country and our human community.  Freedom in the U.S. has grown to mean the freedom not to contribute to the common weal. 

Changing the topic: In the January 25 issue of The Nation (which was posted on the Nation website on January 7), William Greider reminds us that Social Security is not in as grave danger as its critics suggest, as long as the U.S. government pays back the money it has borrowed from the Social Security system to offset the U.S. budget’s deficit since the Reagan administration changed the bookkeeping rules for Social Security in the 80s. 

Now the U.S. has consistently paid off all the money it has ever borrowed from any source, but Greider details his fear that that it will renege on its debt obligation to Social Security if so-called “reformers” like Pete Peterson get their way.  I highly recommend that you read this article, and after doing so, please send a steady stream of correspondence to your Senators, Congressional representative and the President that you want the federal government to pay back what it owes the Social Security system and that no reform of Social Security should entail any plans to write off this debt.

There was more than one cause leading to Scott Brown’s Senate win, but the media did its share to set the stage.

There were many elements that led to Scott Brown defeating Martha Coakley to fill Ted Kennedy’s senate seat:

  • The attractiveness of the candidate as a person: NPR has already discussed his viability as a presidential candidate.
  • The uninspired campaign run by the Democrats until they were in trouble.
  • The dumb luck and/or inspired planning to peak at the right moment.
  • General anger at economic conditions.
  • Displeasure because of the healthcare bill.
  • Dislike of Obama.

The first three reasons have to do with politics, and mean nothing to the great ideological struggles in this country right now. 

So let’s consider the general anger over the economic conditions.  The media has fomented this anger in four distinct ways:

  1. The need to come up with startling or awe-inspiring economic and business news every hour of every day creates an impatient and panicked public, one that sees its economic fortunes bouncing constantly from pillar to post.
  2. The mainstream news media gives frequent voice to the false assumptions mouthed by many on the right that the recession belongs to Obama, despite the fact that Obama assumed office after the meltdown of the financial system because of the securitization of bad mortgages and after most of the massive layoffs had already occurred.
  3. The ideological subtext of instant gratification—so necessary to keeping people buying goods and services— that imbues most non-news reporting makes people believe that all desires can be gratified instantly, including the desire for economic hard times to disappear.
  4. The ideological subtext of much economic and business reporting that it’s always a good time to invest in stocks influenced both the news media and the government to declare the recession over while millions of people were still out of work or severely underemployed.  That might have pissed some people off, you think?

Interestingly enough, some of those who are angry over economic conditions want more government regulation and job stimulus programs, while others want fewer regulations and less government spending.  It is only the view of this second group that the mainstream news media insists on featuring.

When it comes to healthcare reform, it’s the same story as the economy: some people are angry because the likely bill doesn’t go far enough and others don’t want any bill at all.  In this case, I’m reasonably sure, though, that people angry because the bill doesn’t go far enough probably voted for Coakley, because they had nowhere else to go.

The news media played a role in creating anger over the health care bill, to be sure:

  • The mix of sound bites from the “person in the street” interviews gave credence to incorrect information that reporters must have known was incorrect. 
  • The entire phalanx of right-wing media repeated a series of lies, the biggest of which was the biggie that our health care system is better than those of other industrial and post-industrial states. 
  • Perhaps the most pernicious act of the news media in the healthcare reform debate was the complete abdication of its responsibility to educate the public on what health care insurance is and does; for example, never presenting the fact that any public system in the United States would contract with insurance companies to process claims and provide oversight.

But I won’t blame the news media for the attitudes people currently have about healthcare reform: the management of the legislative process by the Democrats was so inept that it probably had the old Senate Master Lyndon Johnson turning in his grave.

I’m sure that some people voted for Brown because they dislike Obama, but I’m also fairly confident that most of them would have voted for Brown in any case. 

Unless dislike of Obama was the only reason they voted, that is, that the turnout on the right increased, while turnout of the poor, minorities and the young decreased (as compared to the Presidential election).  In fact, the Boston Globe reported that voting was heavy in the suburbs and light in the cities.

So at the end of the day, perhaps the real reason Brown won is that his people voted and Coakley’s (Obama’s) did not.  That of course points a finger at the political explanations listed at the beginning of this post.

Are we really fated to die away like the dinosaurs?

I’m reading a wonderfully insightful book on the extinction of species by Richard Ellis titled No Turning Back.  He describes in easy-to-understand language the details of all the mass extinctions that have occurred on the earth, relates the story of how many individual creatures may have gone extinct, and makes an objective presentation of current extinction theories. 

Ellis tells us, for example, that by the time the Chicxulub meteor hit the Yucatan 65 million years ago, probably killing all the non-avian dinosaurs, most of the dinosaur species had already died out and that the only ones left that couldn’t fly were in North America.  Ellis calls them non-avian dinosaurs, since most scientists now consider birds to be the last of the dinosaurs, surviving because, this theory goes, they were living on the continents less affected by the meteor crash.  Ellis also presents the theory that microbial disease may have caused some of the extinction of the dinosaurs that took place in the tens of millions of years before the meteor hit.

While I highly recommend No Turning Back I want to take exception to one statement that Ellis keeps repeating: that human beings, like all earths creatures, are doomed to extinction.  He also quotes a number of scientists giving the same view.

There’s no disputing that one of the main story lines of the natural history of the earth is the extinction of species.  Virtually all species that have existed on the earth have perished, either individually or during one of the mass extinctions that Ellis reports come about every 26 million years. 

But while humans are of nature, we also have the ability to rise above nature, that is, to mute or bend parts of our nature in different ways to our benefit.

Although we seem headed for self-destruction currently, we could change that by continuing to grow beyond our natural origins as hunters living in caves.   But to do so, I believe we have to replace natural laws with what I call human laws.  I am not saying that we can ignore the laws of nature, but that the customs and laws of society and economics—our human laws —should reflect our mission to overcome nature and survive (which eventually will mean leaving the planet before the sun explodes in some 90 million years).   By the way, by human laws I do not necessarily mean legal codes and regulations; although it includes legal prescriptions, human laws also comprise customs, mores and ideology.

Natural laws lead to extinction, whereas human laws should lead to our survival, which I believe begins by removing the motives for working solely and selfishly in favor of the individual and instead putting the stress on helping all people achieve a minimum standard of living.  In other words, guaranteeing basic human rights and a decent living standard for all are as important as cleaning up the environment and slowing down global warming.  Currently our human laws do not place enough constraints on the behaviors that lead to the extinction of the species, e.g., war, pollution, destruction of ecologies, land misuse, lifestyles that consume too many resources, overemphasis on the accumulation of material possessions.  Let’s hope that changes.

Ellis himself points out that not all species have gone extinct.  There are some survivors from former epochs, but statistically the number is insignificant.  So what!  Statistically there are very few species with large brains, and of those, only one that has a sophisticated language and thumbs that oppose the rest of the fingers.  While I have no faith in religion, I do have faith in the ability of man to keep transcending nature and learn how to clean up the mess we’ve made.

I know I’m repeating or rebranding the thoughts of some long-gone social philosopher(s), but I can’t remember which one(s).  It’s also likely that some contemporary philosopher has also dipped into these waters.  If any reader can enlighten me on others with the same or similar view, please let me hear from you.

To claim that one cold year disproves global warming is to ignore a heap of scientific evidence.

I asked my assistant Colette to look for any articles online or in print that claim that the current cold winter disproves global warming.  She found a number of such claims made; here are some examples:

To say that the weather this year or this week disproves mountains of data about warming trends in the world over the past few centuries is a kind of arguing by anecdote, the anecdote being the weather you are experiencing today. 

What you see of course always makes a more powerful impression than what you read about, but in this case I think the writers are using immediate experience because they want to ignore, and they want the public to ignore, a preponderance of evidence that represents the immediate experience of literally billions of people for hundreds of years.

Weather will fluctuate from hour to hour, from day to day, from year to year, and even from decade to decade, but global warming is about a general tendency that is decades old and is now rapidly changing the ecosystems of most living things.  If we ignore it, we lose the ability to slow it down and to insulate humans and other living things from what could be devastating effects.

If you ask the questions a certain way, you can use the answer to prove what you want to prove.

Over the past few weeks, the news media have been full of reports of surveys from The New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac University which reveal that President Obama’s approval ratings have sunk to new lows, especially among whites.  The Times and CBS polls both report that Obama ended his first year in office with the lowest approval rating of any president among whites in the years that these surveys have asked the question.

Let’s not question the results of these surveys, but rather look at how they were constructed and what they don’t tell us.  The survey questions ask specifically about how Obama has handled key issues, e.g., health care, the economy and terrorism (on which the president gets his top scores).  But the survey does not ask why people don’t approve of the job President Obama is doing in any given area.  How many don’t like Obama because his economic stimulus plan represents government intervention and how many don’t like it because he didn’t invest enough in job-producing activities? 

This approach allows the mainstream news media to continue tacking right in setting the agenda for discourse, helped by Quinnipiac’s spokesperson who asserts that the main reason for Obama’s low ratings is that he has lost the support of the moderate white male, moderate in this case meaning right of the decidedly centrist president.  Yet the survey offers no proof of this assertion, because the survey does not go deep enough into the reason people oppose the president. 

Take for example Charles Blow’s article titled Lady Blahblah on the January 16 Op/Ed page of the New York Times, which discusses the surveys in connection with Sarah Palin taking a commentator’s job at Fox News.  Blow assumes that many if not most of the white disapproving of Obama are waiting to watch Palin on Fox. 

I think in this case, Blow blew it. 

I live in a city that’s more than 70% Democratic in a blue state and most of the white people I know are disappointed with Obama, but for these reasons:

  • He has not pulled enough troops out of Iraq.
  • He is sending more troops to Afghanistan.
  • Guantanamo prison is still open.
  • He is not doing enough to help victims of the recession and create new jobs.
  • He has not aggressively pursued more regulation of the real estate and banking industries.
  • He has not more aggressively pursued health care reform.

None of these people are going to listen to Palin.  But none of these surveys distinguish this group from whites to the right of Obama.

Understand that I am arguing by anecdote, but I do it not to prove that the disaffected are left of President Obama, but to suggest that no one has yet proved that the disaffected are right of the president and ripe for picking by the Tea and Republican parties.  The media and most public forums just make this assumption in their analysis of the polls and for one reason: to keep moving the terms of discourse rightward.

There’s far too much conflating of the fictional with the real in nonfiction prose these days.

I keep running across examples of nonfiction writers using fiction as examples or proofs of trends in the real world.  Now there are some occasions when a discussion of aspects of one or more pieces of fiction or works of art can illuminate a real-world trend.  For example, what people are wearing and eating in paintings can reveal a lot about the worlds in which the painters lived.  And there can be no doubt that the themes of novels (at least those not about writers) often reflect the social and economic trends of the moment in which they are written.

What I’m talking about is quite different, however, and involves passing off the fiction as a piece of fact that vitiates the need for supplying real ones.  I talked about one example a few months back in a blog entry on one writer’s attempt to compare the Polanski arrest to a fictional film to blame the 60s for licentiousness in society.

Here are the two recent examples I have run across of this rhetorical device of saying fictions are facts:

First from the feature story on the fact that women are approaching more than 50% of the U.S. workforce titled “Female Power” in the January 2nd-8th issue of The Economist: “A generation ago working women performed menial jobs and were routinely subjected to casual sexism—as “Mad Men,” a television drama about advertising executives in the early 1960s, demonstrates brilliantly.”

Let’s not argue over if it’s true or not that women performed menial jobs and encountered sexism in the early 60s.  It’s true.  But “Mad Men” does not “demonstrate” the sexism, rather it does what art is supposed to do, reflect it and exaggerate it. 

To use fiction to demonstrate sexism and glass ceilings existed in the early 1960s, you would have to give the example of many fictions, all of that age although not necessarily just about that age.  In the case of the role of women in the workforce, you might start with movies from 1955-1965 starring Jack Lemmon.  Better yet would be to point to surveys and studies or accumulate newspaper articles from that time. 

My second example is on page 64 of James McManus’ Cowboys Full.  I won’t bore you with the entire paragraph.  It’s an assertion that there was a lot of money floating around riverboats in the pre-Civil War South that card sharpies were only too happy to take in card games, typically from ultra-wealthy plantation owners.  McManus is probably right, but his sole proof are two fictional characters from a novel about the “Old South” written decades later in the industrialized society of the 1920s.  The novel is Gone with the Wind and the characters are Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s father.

McManus makes exactly the same mistake as The Economist does, for not only are his examples fictional only, but they are fictions created in a later age, and without doubt reflecting that later age’s attitudes more than they reflect the age under discussion.

I don’t think those who use this false rhetorical device are trying to be devious.  Rather, they are merely thinking and writing in a sloppy fashion.

UPDATE: A January 19 National Public Radio story on women in the workforce stated (correctly, I think) that women wanting to join the workforce in the 60s and early 70s faced resistance from many men. But instead of quoting a survey or study, or even providing a number of mass culture manifestations of this attitude, the reporter instead gives a 10-second snippet of dialogue from the situation comedy, “All in the Family.” At least the reporter selected something from the age under discussion, but what she selected was a satire of the very attitudes she said were prevalent, which begs the question: does a satire in mainstream programming demonstrate that the attitudes existed or that the attitudes were dying? Only an accumulation of detail (which occurs in a good study) could answer the question.


The likely healthcare bill reminds me of Al Gore in 2000. If it fails, we’ll regret the alternative for decades.

One of the big discussions among liberals and lefties these days is whether or not to support the likely health care bill that will result from merging the House and Senate versions of health care reform.  In the most recent New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg lists some of the prominent lefties who have already come out against the likely bill.  I didn’t check his list of those advocating defeat of the likely bill, but it sounds right.  It includes Howard Dean, Arianna Huffington, Keith Olbermann and  Hertzberg goes on to tells why he thinks we should all support the likely bill. 

I agree that we should support the bill, flawed though it is in the number of additional people it will cover, the nature of standard coverage moving forward and how we as a society will pay for it. 

The flaws of the likely bill, however, are kind of like Al Gore’s were in his race against Bush the Second in 2000.  The difference between this bill and no bill at all are enormous, as were the real differences between Gore and Bush.

But the din of the debate on side issues, such as if the government has the right to promote a given religion by not including a safe and legal medical procedure in its coverage, makes it easy to forget what it will mean if no bill passes.  Just as in 2000, when the din of issues blurring the differences included Gore’s role in the creation of the Internet and Bush’ supposedly greater “likeability” (which turned out to be as much hokum as Bud Light’s “drinkability”!).

And as with the failure of Gore to win, if this health care bill fails, I guarantee that the majority of Americans will regret it for years to come.

I think to a large degree, too much is being made of leftist opposition to the likely bill.  I like, respect and often agree with all of the people who made Hertzberg’s list, which is why I’m wondering hopefully if perhaps one or more of the lions of the left are currently stating opposition to the likely bill for tactical reasons—to make certain that the final bill is as much to their liking as possible, to remind the Democratic leadership of its large left-of-center constituency.

Is it now in our national character to put a bandage on a foot when a hand is bleeding?

The way that the National Basketball Association and some NBA teams have reacted to the Gilbert Arenas controversy has me more convinced than ever that one characteristic of our age (and here again, we are similar to the court of Phillip II of Spain) is to attempt to solve a problem by ignoring it and instead working on a completely different issue, claiming that the other issue is what matters. 

In our pursuit of terrorists, this bizarre strategy of ignoring the real problem and doing something else involved attacking Iraq when Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan and then attacking Afghanistan after the terrorists had moved to Pakistan.

In alternative energy, this strategy resulted in the Bush Administration providing massive support to a biofuels technology proven to consume more energy than it produces—processing corn into electricity.  Not only was money taken from more promising technologies, but the new demand for corn sent the price of food soaring.

And let’s not forget  that some on the right have blamed the lending policies of the federal government and not the bad loans unethically made and securitized by mortgage lenders as the cause of the real estate bubble whose bursting exploded into the worst recession since the one we call a depression.

In all of these cases, we in effect put a bandage on a foot when a hand was bleeding!

The same type of thinking has prevailed in the Arenas situation, which began when reports spread that the basketball player had pulled a gun on a teammate in the locker room in an argument about a gambling debt.  A few days after the world responded with shock and disgust, a photo captured Arenas playfully aiming at his teammates with his pointer fingers extended from his fists.

Let me first state that I think that Arenas and anyone else who pulled a gun in the incident at the heart of the controversy should be suspended from the NBA for 82 games, with a second offense drawing a lifetime ban.  The NBA rightfully bans guns from its locker rooms and practice facilities and should continue to do so.

But who really cares if Arenas was making fun of what he did with his teammates a few days later?  If someone had been hurt, the jocular attitude would certainly be in extremely poor taste, but since no one was hurt, just let the guy be a doofus.  Yet NBA Commissioner David Stern’s twisted reasoning made him ban Arenas for the silly joking around and not the dangerous incident.

The really twisted thinking though comes from the Capitals, Nets and other teams now banning card games in flight and in the locker room.  What if the players had argued over the last piece of cake?  Would you outlaw food in the locker room?  Locker room card games go back a long way, to the very origins of major league baseball, and are quite popular among players.  Why punish the many players who enjoy a friendly game because of one or two trigger-happy bozos?  It’s like punishing the Iraqi people with destruction of their economic and social infrastructure followed by years of war because some vicious terrorists are hiding in the hills of Afghanistan.