Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good People Worked Down There

G.M. shut down its factory in Janesville, Wisconsin on Tuesday, it had been in service for 90 years employing generation after generation of local workers. As with any other job, the employees here became lifelong friends, not colleagues. Job security had been high for decades, as this factory was responsible for manufacturing S.U.V.s (Chevy Tahoes), at a clip of 20,000 a month, producing over 3.7 million since the early ‘90s. With a 40 percent drop in S.U.V. sales nationally, G.M. decided it couldn’t sustain this production, it had starved it off as long as possible. 5,000 workers, who had various jobs in that factory, good paying jobs, jobs they knew how to do better than anything else they did in life, we’re taken away.

Most of the plant’s 1,100 remaining workers were not scheduled to work the final day, but many showed up for an emotional closing ceremony. Dan Doubleday, who had 22 years on the job, broke down in the plant’s snowy parking lot afterward.  “I was a fork lift driver,” he said, glancing at his watch through welling tears. “Until about seven minutes ago.”…

“It’s been a good ride, man,” said Frank Hereford, a body shop worker, as he left the plant with a microwave oven that heated up countless lunches during many of his 38 years with G.M. “Good people worked down here.”

Its hard for a majority of young people (millennials) to imagine what that feels like. There are many arguments on both sides of whether these companies deserve to be helped by the government. Free market advocates are outraged at government spending to ‘bailout’ mis-managed corporations that were passive to innovation and adaptation in changes within the global automobile industry. But every analysis and decision needs both sides of the argument to be heard without bias. Letting these companies fail, falling into bankruptcy would erase debts (payables) of the GM's, Ford's, and Chrysler's to thousands of suppliers who employee even more people just like those in Janesville, that took those supplier’s parts and put the S.U.V.s together. It’s a domino effect that starts on the showroom floor, trickles down to the production line, which trickles down to the sheet metal factory. These factories are the epitomes of these towns; they become the social and economic foundations of the thousands of Janesville’s across the country.

So that same domino effect within the auto industry begins to filtrate in the Janesville’s of our nation. The family that doesn’t have a paycheck coming in Friday anymore doesn’t shop at the corner store or dine at the diner anymore. The franchisee or local entrepreneur won’t start that new small business downtown anymore.

The Janesville plant once employed more than 5,000 workers and turned out 20,000 Tahoes, Yukons and Suburbans each month. With its closing, residents worried about the future of this city of 64,000 people, about 75 miles southwest of Milwaukee. “Janesville will lose a lot,” said Patti Homan, as she finished a strawberry-topped waffle at the nearby Eagle Inn restaurant. “I expect my electricity to go up, water rates to go up, property taxes to go up, and the value of my home to go down.”

These are the ruins recessions procure and they are a dynamic and a contagious force in so many aspects of communities and lifestyles. While the drama of this bailout brings hyped congressional hearings, over blown transistions from private jet travel to photo-op hybrid roadtrips, and the endless loop of elitist speaker panels, to the people of Janesville it’s a lot simpler than that…they just want a place to show up to next year.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Breaking it Down

Two good articles from The New York Times this week on the intricacies within the world's financial crisis; how they all worked indirectly, some more malicious and ill-advised than others, but all interwoven, unable to escape this globalized economic downturn:

The first is from Paul Krugman , equating what happened in the Madoff scheme to what happened in the financial services sector as a whole. Money quote:

Consider the hypothetical example of a money manager who leverages up his clients' money with lots of debt, then invests the bulked-up total in high-yielding but risky assets, such as dubious mortgage-backed securities. For a while — say, as long as a housing bubble continues to inflate — he (it's almost always a he) will make big profits and receive big bonuses. Then, when the bubble bursts and his investments turn into toxic waste, his investors will lose big — but he'll keep those bonuses. O.K., maybe my example wasn't hypothetical after all. So, how different is what Wall Street in general did from the Madoff affair?

The second is from Tom Friedman on U.S. China trade and how the downturn in the U.S. housing sector is effecting China exports related to new home-buying. Money quote:

This division of labor not only nourished our respective economies, but also shaped our politics. It enabled China's ruling Communist Party to say to its people: "We will guarantee you ever-higher standards of living and in return you will stay out of politics and let us rule." So China's leaders could enjoy double-digit growth without political reform. And it enabled successive U.S. administrations, particularly the current one, to tell Americans: "You can have guns and butter — subprime mortgages with nothing down and nothing to pay for two years, ever-higher consumption and two wars, without tax increases!" It all worked — until it didn't.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Leverage on Ice

A fascinating look into the rapid rise and fall of Iceland's financial system and its perils from exploiting an addiction to leverage in both its commercial banking system and by consumer's accessibility to cheap and easy credit. For our more visual learners there is the chart below which outlines the epidemic in a simple elementary style flow chart. 

The innocence of the chart by no means should undermine the seriousness of what has been lost. The complications of this rise and fall are intricate and involve billions of dollars in investments by regular working people mostly within the U.K. but also throughout the world (in the form of pension funds and retirement accounts); all of which took advantage of the flatness of our globalized financial system.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How We Got Here

Understanding how our economy got where it is today can be analyzed in many different ways, spreading blame and pointing fingers at many different people. But I think the overall analysis, the simplistic themes that resonate whenever anything is written to this analysis, comes back to two factors: Greed & Risk. You can take greed and you can take risk, you can break them down and apply them to the different financial instruments that were created that in the end have proved to be at the crux of the collapse - subprime loans, credit default swaps, Commercial Mortgage Backed Securities, etc.  These instruments were created 20 years ago and exploited throughout the system throughout the years; they are the cliches of blame. 

Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker  nearly 20 years ago as a guidebook to understanding how Wall Street was exploiting these themes and how it would set it up for an epic collapse, what he didn't envision was it taking another 18 years to happen. Most recently he wrote the lead story for the December 2008 edition of Conde Nast titled 'The End'.  It is the best written narrative on the perils of our current economic condition, the story behind it. Its not an outline of events and statistics that brought down the boom of Wall Street; its the human story of the people involved, how they saw it coming and reflections to it all in hindsight. 

A snippet:

What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA. But he couldn't figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. "I didn't understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold," he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. "We always asked the same question," says Eisman. "Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I'd always get the same reaction. It was a smirk." 

"You have to understand this," he says. "This was the engine of doom." Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a "particularly egregious" C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. 

The cause of the financial crisis was "simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers." …Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed. 
Michael Lewis was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal recently.

Money Quote:

We have entered a period of risk aversion unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime. Investors will be too wary for a while. You'll read stories about people who got rich betting against subprime mortgages and then about people who combed through the wreckage and found bargains. The next rich wave will be those who figure out where the value is. As for the average American investor, he'll be a deer in the headlights for years. It will be a while until greed gets comfortable again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Quote for the Day/Year/Recession

I have absolutely no idea how the intricacies of the global financial system function. I had previously taken solace in believing that ‘the other guys’ did understand. What we all now realize is that nobody understands and nobody ever understood.
Thomas Barrack Jr., founder and CEO, Colony Capital

Monday, November 17, 2008

Has the GOP Hit Bottom?

A good reason the Democrats won these elections (2006,2008) - Presidential and Congressional - was because they won independents and disenfranchised moderate republicans. That would be because republicans were not republicans anymore, they had no identity. I think Bobby Jindal gets it, and I think he's one to watch over the next four to eight years in the republican party. He was asked on Face The Nation yesterday about the future coarse of the republican party and very simply, nailed it:

As Republicans, we need to do three things to get back on track. Number one, we have got to stop defending the kind of spending and out-of-control spending that we would never tolerate in the other side. You know, when voters tell us that they trust Democrats more to cut their taxes [and] control spending, that tells you something is wrong with the Republican Party. We've got to match our actions with our rhetoric. 

Number two, we've got to stop defending the kinds of corruption we would rightfully criticize in the other party. The week before the election, our most senior senator is convicted on federal charges - and that's only the latest example. 

Number three, we have got to be the party that offers real solutions to the problems that American voters, American families are worried about. We don't need to abandon our conservative principles; we can't just be the 'party of no.' We need to offer real solutions on making health care more affordable, on the economic challenges facing families, on the international threats.

In times like these, I tend to revert back to the cynicism of my favorite comedic scholar, Lewis Black, in his assessment of the America Political Party system, as he eloquently opines:

The Republicans are the party of bad ideas and the Democrats are the party... of no ideas. And the way it works is a Republican stands up in Congress and yells “I got a really bad idea”. And then a Democrat yells “and I can make it even shittier!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Well Done Keith

A Special Comment from Keith Olbermann, on the passing of Proposition 8 in California last week. Proposition 8 overturns the ruling by the Supreme Court that had allowed any couple the right to marry in the state. The fierce campaign to pass the Proposition, that specifically would amend the state constitution to strip same-sex couples of this right passed by a narrow margin. The Morman church largely funded the campaign to pass this proposition donating over $20 million, mostly from the state of Utah, which had no part or voice in this legislation.

Keith relents in trying to understand how anyone, so selfishly, could voice a vote to restrict this freedom, I couldn't have said it any better myself. My hope is that as millennials, as a generation that grew up in an era that saw this issue with a more open mind than generations before, we will take this campaign for social justice seriously. I have no concerns that Proposition 8 and all that it stands for will be overturned in the future. But I struggle to understand how 6 million people could vote in favor of a restriction on other people. I don't understand their motivations and determinations in voicing their opinion with those specific intentions, that they felt so strongly against this sort of freedom to equality. I guess I don't understand their fears...because that is the only way I can see it, that they were afraid. It will be overturned. The right ideology will prevail in the end; it just has to ask for patience. I'm sure that is not easy to ask for, or acceptable to those effected in California, but it’s the conclusion you have to live with sometimes when you adhere to a democracy.

Money Quote:
If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not... understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want
Please visit Courage Campaign to learn more and sign the "Repeal Prop 8" petition. Its free and it needs more voices.

America The Illiterate

A well crafted argument from Chris Hedges on the dissemination and decline of literacy, narrative and the general culture within American society. 

Money Quote:

The change from a print-based to an image-based society has transformed our nation. 

In our post-literate world, because ideas are inaccessible, there is a need for constant stimulus. News, political debate, theater, art and books are judged not on the power of their ideas but on their ability to entertain.

The core values of our open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying. 


A fascinating study here:

The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. During the 2000 debates, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6). In the 1992 debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while George H.W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did H. Ross Perot (6.3). In the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the candidates spoke in language used by 10th-graders. In the debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas the scores were respectively 11.2 and 12.0. In short, today’s political rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a 10-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. It is fitted to this level of comprehension because most Americans speak, think and are entertained at this level.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hope won, Fear Lost

"The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." Abraham Lincoln

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Moment

Simple, prudent and spot on...From CNN:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

You Can Vote However You Like

Millennials... they get it.

with a nod to T.I.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Clean Energy Capitalism

Engineering and innovation in clean energy technologies will define our generation. Much the same way that the World Wars defined our grandparents generation ('The Greatest Generation") and the way they built up America in the 20th Century. The way in which we approach, handle and solve the problems associated with finding renewable energy sources, and in utilizing them to their fullest extent, will define our generation. Millennials grew up in an age where oil (energy) was always cheap, it was so cheap and abundant (and paid for by our parents) that we never thought too much about it. It was a commodity, like any commodity, milk, bread, etc. We never thought, as we sat and watched Mom or Dad fill up the tank every week that this would come to define us. And yet we have begun to grow into this environment where everyone has started telling us we can't fill up that tank the same way Mom and Dad used to, indefinitely. Its not an option, something has to change, we need to find another way to harvest energy. We will all, at some point, be asked to invest in this sacrifice. Its a little like 'telling us what we don't want to hear" but within the sense of motivation rather than deviation. Unlike the cloud of gloom associated with the staggering rise of the national deficit put on the shoulders of our generation, I believe we can shed and fight the cynicism of that crisis with the optimism in the opportunity that lies within this crisis. If we are cognisant to the idea that the clean energy revolution will come to define the sacrifice and accomplishment of our generation, why not commit to embracing the power it could give us and our country, when we put a tag on it and sell it to the rest of the world. 

Ideas that could seriously change the landscape:

Clean Energy 2030 - Google, on October 1st released its $4.4 trillion clean energy proposal they have named "Clean Energy 2030". It has some bold benchmarks and fascinating statistics you can find more on here

Coskata -  Coskata, Inc. is a Warrenville, Illinois based energy company researching the production of cellulosic ethanol from woodchips (or any variety of items found in trash). The estimated cost of production via this technology is under $1 per gallon, as opposed to corn-based ethanol costing approximately $1.40 per gallon. Video that explains it all Here.  More here:

Architecture 2030 The ChallengeThe built environment is entirely based on buildings that ignore the environment. Instead of passive solar and insulation we have chosen buildings that require huge inputs of cheap energy. Today, buildings use 76% of all the energy produced at coal plants. By implementing The 2030 Challenge* to reduce building energy use by a minimum of 50%, we negate the need for new coal plants. Buildings are responsiblee for about half (48%) of all energy consumptionn and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US annually, and they use 76% of all the energy produced by the nation's power plants. If you are serious about energy Independence and climate change, you must tackle the Building Sector. Here is some hope from architect Ed Mazria 

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers - The world's most renowned venture capitalists (funding most notably - Netscape, Genentech, and Google) have committed over $1 billion to green innovation. By the beginning of autumn, Kleiner had financed 40 different green-tech companies and raised a total of about $1 billion to that end. Some of the firm’s fledging green ventures were evolutionary improvements on current technologies that would soon hit the market, others promised to revolutionize various aspects of the energy economy in solor power and bio fuels. Kleiner, who typically had seen a dozen business plans a year related to new green tech companies, now sees over 100 every month. Kleiner partner, Randy Komisar, said the firm’s green-tech investments didn’t seem terribly risky to him because the energy market was so large and outdated. “I’m so dead certain that we’re solving the next huge problem for the planet,” he said. “I’m not very good at hitting the bull’s-eye. I need a big target. And this is the biggest target I’ve ever seen in my life.” More on green within capitalism here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Telling Us What We Don't Want to Hear

This has been something that I have thought about quite a bit and used to defend my case for Barack Obama. These 'conservatives' that ran on fiscal responsibility and foreign policy prudence, and have lead us into this insurmountable budget deficit the last 8 years never challenged the American public to do anything, or to sacrifice anything. Coming from a generation that doesn't know what this experience feels like, but hearing stories of the sacrifices of the greatest generation (WWI-II) makes me wonder if we are a nation that could be told what we don't want to hear anymore. The politicians love preaching to the toughness of the American people, but are we really? Joe Biden hinted at this last week saying that it was a patriotic duty to pay taxes, that caused uproar, but it was a hint at the challenge. The challenge we have begun to shoulder under the Bush administration is a budget deficit that has swollen to $10.6 Trillion. If that seems hard to grasp it looks like this:


With all that has gone on within the credit markets and the proposed bailout plan from the government, that will ratchet up to approximately $11.3 Trillion.


Someone needs to tell us what we don't want to hear. Someone, preferably a politician, that holds, or will hold the power to do something about it, needs to tell us we have to start paying for this. Someone has to tell us that if we don't start paying for it and restoring the confidence in our government's financial standing and worthiness of our economy in the view of the rest of the world (i.e. international investors), it will continue to decay. Except it won't decay quickly, it will slowly decline and diminish, like a small leak in a tire, while different economic sectors/industries eat away at each other (retail, energy, housing, auto, health care). Only then, when the Gaps, Home Depots, and Chilis, become a lot harder to find, will we be told that something is wrong and a lifestyle change may be coming. As Allen Greenspan said last week, our nation absolutely cannot afford John McCain's tax policy (continuing Bush tax cuts without any significant cuts in spending) We have to start paying soon. Its hard to understand how anyone could logically come to the conclusion that a country could spend $410 Million a day on a war and somehow think that it could cut taxes, while letting a deficit balloon out of control. Maybe this is a start, Tom Friedman goes further, he knows its no laughing matter.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Dean Kamen - Scientist Role Model

I am more and more fascinated, intruiged and inspired by what I hear from Dean Kamen (I realize I am probably a little late to this bandwagon). He truly is one of the greatest innovators of our time, there is little doubt, but he also has one of the greatest minds as well. You may argue those are one in the same, but what I think makes Dean different is that he not only has the intelligence and insight into solving the major problems and inadequacies of our world, he also has, in his heart, the desire to fix them, and the true understanding of the privilege and gift he has, and how he can use it (with stunning specificity) to make the world better. He takes every opportunity he has to spread that gift, and to tell others, of the minority - the educated/globally aware people of this world, the responsibility they have to give. The responsibility they have to give, what they have been given (access to quality education, jobs, income) back into the greater good of unselfishness. Its something I struggle with constantly, its finding that passion that makes you look at your life, not by what you made in the end, but what you may have given that's greater than you. I think if you can say you gave something that accounted for more than what the amount was on the paycheck, you can stand pretty strong in the strength of that mold of success. I guess my fascination and in turn, jealousy of Dean, comes from his ability to find his passion through solving problems within our world, and in his ability to utilize the integration of the two so effectively. He gets it, I think there are a lot of very intelligent and bright people in this world that don't get that relationship, or the potential they have to give, really without much effort or hardship, maybe if they just knew Dean and his cause a better... 

Dean addressed the commencement audience at Bates College in 2007, ending his intriguing address with this:
"So I would beg every educated person in this world, to remember every day when you get up that you are an incredibly small minority, of all of humanity, and with all the privileges I understand it gives us, I think it gives us an enormous responsibility, to be leaders that do the right things for the right reasons, and to remember you can be doing good, while you're doing well. You'll all go out and get good jobs, but you'll make you're living by what you do, in those jobs, you'll make you're life by what you give."
More on his work/passion:

On the image/role of innovation within our society:

Many know his name as the creator of the segway, which is a fascinating invention no doubt, but in its relation to changing/helping the world, making it more 'flat' in terms of the ability to access basic necessities of everyday life that all of us take for granted, its the more material tip of his sprawling creative ice burg.  He is, in some ways, at the helm of a potential innovation Renaissance. 

100,000 Garages

A great piece from Tom Friedman this weekend. 

Right now, we feel like a country in a very slow decline — in infrastructure, basic research and education — just slow enough to lull us into thinking that we have all the time and money to play around in Tbilisi, Georgia, more than Atlanta, Georgia...

Our competitiveness... is based on having a broadly educated work force, superb research universities, innovation-supportive taxes, immigration and regulatory policies, a productive physical and virtual infrastructure, and a culture that embraces hard work and the creation of new opportunities.

Alas, though, the Republicans just had a convention where abortion got vastly more attention than innovation, calls to buttress Tbilisi, Georgia, swamped any for Atlanta, Georgia, and “drill, baby, drill” was chanted instead of “innovate, baby, innovate.”

I think what is echoed here is the power of a renewed commitment to the middle class of America. To giving them the access and resources to break into to our creative class. We will always have innovation and technology flowing from the Ivy league schools, from big corporations, from the top talent in government agencies. But what if, instead of going on the path of the Manhattan Project, we invested and stimulated the path of the Apple and Microsoft project. The power of 100,000 innovators starting in 100,000 small garages across the country to generate new ideas and new technology to solve new problems and find a new way to fix old problems. The world needs more Dean Kamens, and his ideas

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rage against... Donkeys and Elephants

This NYT piece reports on Rage Against the Machine as they held concerts/protests/riots outside both conventions over the past two weeks. John has more pictures and recon from the scene here. Synopsis as follows:

“I hope you all leave peacefully, but you don’t have to be passive,” Mr. Morello said. “Don’t let anyone put their hands on you.”

Thousands took that advice, and a few took it a step further, refusing orders to disperse at Seventh Street and Second Avenue.

Arrests, a mainstay of the latest Rage shows, quickly ensued.

I have always been a casual Rage Against the Machine fan, and I use the word casual in all sincerity after experiencing the RATM concert experience this year. I managed to find myself in the second row at the Lollapalooza show where they stopped the set 4 times because the crowd was pushing through the front steel and concrete barriers. The security staff was hopeless to control the power and energy of this crowd and could only try to pull the vulnerable patrons from being smashed and trampled by the crowd. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, unlike any emotional or motivational response to music, or to any artform. The pull to this message and cause is understandable, especially with the unpopularity of this administration, but the combination of the message of the music and the intensity in which its delivered to massive crowds is something I can understand so much clearer after not only witnessing it, but truly being engulfed by it. 

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Contradiction? Yes. Suprised? No.

The Daily Show does a brilliant job of exposing the truth of those straight talk GOP Strategists, in the end you just want to know which way they want it...I guess its tough to walk the Hillary/Palin tight rope and stay consistent.