Thursday Observations

December 1, 2016

The Trump Administration will be for Ethics lawyers what Dodd-Frank was for compliance departments in banks. Full employment opportunities await.

In a short time, Consititutional lawyers will feel exactly like the guys I knew who got their graduate degrees in tax in 1985, just before the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was passed, negated vast sections of their knowledge. The constitutional principles they’ve spent their lives studying will be quaint and historical and mostly worthless.

The quadrennial Harvard forum featuring the managers from both presidential campaigns tonight served to highlight not just the ugly bitterness of those on the Clinton side, but the unattractive smugitude of Trump’s team. Read about it here.

I’ve worked in an environment that was totally disrupted–the mortgage finance business in 2005-6. My boss at the time told me that there were about 10 things that would always be true about the business. As the financial crisis unfolded, one by one, the rules that he told me to count on fell away, leaving behind complete uncertainty as to what would happen next. It was as if the Law of Gravity had been repealed. It took a while to adjust to, but once you started asking yourself, “Why can’t that happen?,” it became easier to handle. The mental linkage to the old rules proved the biggest obstacle to navigating the disrupted environment. Once you got your head wrapped around the fact that those rules no longer applied, it was much easier to let your mind wander to what might happen next and how to prepare and protect yourself (or the firm) from it. I’ve got the same feeling right now as I did then, as we watch the Trump Administration form and communicate with the public. The old rules don’t apply. Up is down; we’re in a zero G environment. For example: Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes said yesterday on WAMU’s Diane Rehm Show “Facts no longer exist.” I tried to listen to this three separate times, unable to continue the first two time, becoming sickened by the implications of the statement and the fervor of believe from its speaker.


The Trump Kleptocracy

November 29, 2016

Can those of us worried about the direction that the PEOTUS is leading us with his appointments, his choice of family members invited into diplomatic meetings, and his obvious lack of concern for conflicts and corruption keep the volume on the Outrage Meter at 11 for each and every event that provokes such emotion? Won’t the clapper on the Alarm Bell of Injustice simply wear out at some point? Won’t people simply stop hearing it?

Conservative writer Ben Shapiro thinks so. He recently appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources and said as much. Conservative writer and Twitter must-follow David Frum has repeatedly said that the little outrages are all a plot to distract people from the gigantic outrage of Trump’s use of the office to enrich himself. Keep your eyes off @realdonaldtrump and on the money.

We’re still just learning how to deal with this. It’s all new, but it’s going to get old very quickly.

There’s much to be concerned about, but the most egregious thing isn’t the railing against the cast of Hamilton. It’s the blatant shaking down of foreign governments, both where Trump has properties and where he doesn’t. It’s already been made quite clear to foreign leaders that Trump’s Washington and New York hotels are the places to stay when visiting the Administration. They do so for the same reason that I make sure I drink MillerCoors products when I’m out with their distributors, why I rented from Hertz when calling on Ford, and why I pick the hotel I do when calling on my hotelier clients. The fact that we know that the PEOTUS has already asked Argentina and Scotland for favors for his properties, and the Indian owners of a Trump-affiliated property are making much of their connection to Trump only make this worse.

Those Trump supporters concerned before the election about the potential for corruption with the Clinton Foundation remain strangely silent about these troubling facts.

At this point, all I’ve heard from my Trump-supporting friends is that I should, “Calm down. The Dow is up 3% and your taxes are going to be cut and companies will be repatriating billions in cash and everything’s going to be fine. Besides, he hasn’t done anything yet!” They offer no substantive defense of the (grossly inexperienced) nominees, his thin-skinned disposition, the social media distractions, the shakedowns, or the personal benefits being lined up.

On the plus side, I’ve learned the name of the clause in the Constitution relating to the personal enrichment of federal employees. It’s called the “Emoluments Clause.” Expect to hear more about this over the next little while.

I wonder if Trump’s strategy is the lay the ground rules now while still technically a private citizen so that everyone knows how to play the game, so that he doesn’t have to do anything shaking down after he takes the oath at Noon on January 20. Accrue all the benefits now, and harvest the rewards later. The damage is done. I doubt he’s thought it through that thoroughly. Based on his decision making pattern thus far, I’m expecting President Trump will govern by the “Seat of His Pants Doctrine.”

The League of Ordinary Nations has a new member. The Trump Kleptocracy reigns.


Undeserved Victories

November 23, 2016

Two stories in the news over the last 48 hours, which have a common theme. The Undeserved Victory.

First is Jared Kushner, First Son-in-Law-Elect and speculation that he might not have deserved his admission to Harvard. As you’ll read here, and here, it seems that Mr. Kushner’s grades and test scores were below the usual threshold for admission to that small school in Boston. This news leaves me just shocked, because I’m certain that each and every freshman before him met those standards and a school like Harvard would never, ever admit someone who didn’t meet their standards. Ahem. Right. This story should have fallen into the category of “dog bites man” and never made the “news,” but the public, never tires of a story of privilege and how they’ve been wronged by the rich and influential, even if that person is a Trump (by marriage). Since it reinforces the existing narrative, it gets airplay and column inches. An undeserved victory was achieved by Mr. Kushner. No doubt, the one of many.

Then we have the story of the Illinois state high school playoff game between Fenwick and Plainfield North. As you’ll read here, had the rules been correctly applied, Fenwick would have won the semifinal game and advanced to the final to play East St. Louis High. But it didn’t happen that way. PNHS was the beneficiary of the referee’s mistaken idea that the circumstances at the end of the period should result in an untimed down. There’s no such rule, but they gave PNHS such a play, and with it, they kicked the game-tying field goal, sending the game into overtime, which they eventually won. An undeserved victory.

In the week since this happened, there’s been much discussion here locally and later across sports-talk radio about how to resolve the situation. Fenwick has gone to court after the State’s high school sports ruling body, the IHSA said that there’s no provision for protest or reversal. It’s been suggested that Plainfield North simply admit that they unduly benefited and let Fenwick play in the championship game.

Without getting into the ethics of sports and whether a player in a game with outside officials has an obligation to correct an officials mistake (e.g., no Mr. Umpire, I was tagged before I got to the base and you missed it; No Ms. Referee, I last touched the basketball before it went out-of-bounds so it’s not our ball as you say), I have trouble with what’s been said and done. That Fenwick elected to take the case to a court of law suggests that a judicial remedy is the appropriate venue for a sports dispute. It’s high school football, for goodness sake, not a case involving the life or property of a citizen, which is what the court system is already overloaded handling. The law has long-ago established that clubs and organizations can establish their own rules and act accordingly and that the courts have no interest in injecting themselves into those disputes (see PGA Tour vs. Casey Martin, for example). Nevertheless, off goes the Fenwick high school administration, to get what glory there is to be had and right a most egregious wrong.

To suggest that PNHS relinquish its good fortune is to expect Jared Kushner to tell Harvard, “thanks, but no thanks.” Are we to assume that no child at Fenwick has ever received admission to a college based on a family connection or a sizable donation? Would Fenwick have suggested that such a child demur and reject the admission? Of course not. That’s not the way the world works.

Rightly or wrongly, our society is not a perfect meritocracy. LinkedIn exists for a reason; to help connect people to give them an advantage when seeking a job. This is how it is. It’s too bad that the officials screwed this up. They should lose their jobs over this–or be forced into some remedial rules education classes. It likely won’t be the last time these kids will be jobbed by The Man. The Plainfield North kids know they got away with something. As Luke said, “to whom much is given, much is required.” Let’s hope they take their good fortune and learn an appropriate lesson from it (especially when they inevitably end up on the receiving end).

One thing of which we are certain: Jared Kushner’s undeserved winning streak is just starting.


You think it’s cold now?

November 21, 2016

Today was about 40 degrees (Fahrenheit). It was the coldest day we’ve had since about last March. In walking around this morning, I saw many people with their giant coats on–the Canada Goose parkas were out in formation!–hats, scarves, and gloves were common, too.

It all made me wonder: What are these people going to wear when it really gets cold?


Cold Turkey Day 1

November 21, 2016

[An unedited stream of conscienceness]

I walked away from my Facebook account yesterday. It was something that had been building for a long time.

I had contemplated walking away from it in midsummer, then hung on through September, then reconciled myself to go through the election. I’d thought about how I was going to walk away from it, after almost exactly eight years of nearly daily posts. The “fade to black” theme came to me in September. The original concept was to just type those words over a picture of a fadeout and leave it at that. I should have known that there was going to be no way I could simply walk away, Dylan-esque without some kind of farewell address.

My participation in Facebook started when another phase of my writing life ended. I had been writing up two or three paragraphs on something that amused or concerned me and sending it via email to a small group of friends, some of whom would then respond and a nice, smart-assed discussion would take place. The address list inevitably grew and eventually numbered about twenty. At some point, I’d received enough “unsubscribe” messages and annoyed responses, that I knew I couldn’t continue. Facebook had been a growing presence among our kids and I’d been looking at it as a news source when I decided that posting on the site would accomplish my goal of writing something  without filling the inboxes of my friends. You could read it if you wanted, but unlike an email, you needn’t react to it.

It worked well from my standpoint, although it led to unanticipated friction at home about frequency and content (once a day; anything I found noteworthy). That led to one very memorable…discussion… on what turned out to be the worst and most humbling day of my life on which no one was injured or died.

At some point I noticed that when we were out around town, people were mentioning it to me, some mockingly, others appreciatively. By following my rule to first entertain myself, I’d developed a readership and something of a following. I’m happy to say that it was never about that, it just became that.

I’ve had this blog site for quite a while, too. I’d experimented with longer form writing during my extended period of hanging around the house, otherwise known as my 16-months of unemployment, also known as the Financial Crisis. I found that experience fun, but less pleasing than I thought it would be. I found myself being dragged down fact-checking alleys and eventually losing the part of the process I enjoyed most, the writing (and the editing, although I’m better at one than the other). I think the problem was that I was trying to throughly tackle topics that were too weighty–beyond my ability to lift them.

The more time I spent on FB, the more I liked it and the less time I spent on the blog. Facebook provided a nearly perfect vehicle for me, since it represented something of a “safe space.” I limited the people who could view the posts to my Friends, as opposed to the blog, which was there for the world to see, with its inherent risks to reputation and career.

My Facebook posts became “Things I’d like to write more about if I had time,” or “The thesis statements of blog posts I’ll never write.” Embedded in those comments is the root of why the blog didn’t work for me; I envisioned it as something only for in-depth pieces, and not quick hits for things that interest me. I was getting comments and compliments from thoughtful friends right up until the very end. It’s not been easy to walk away from, but it is time. 

Not any more. It’s my intention to reimagine this place and be both quicker and more frequent. I don’t know exactly what that means yet. The post that follows this will be something of a “daily digest,” a couple things I came across though the course of my day that merit comment. It’s all an experiment at this point.


Fade to Black; The End (?) of the Great Facebook Experiment

November 21, 2016

Having recently been accused on my Facebook page of not caring about the shooting of a police officer, I think I’ve reached the end of the road on the site.

I don’t think I have the energy to sustain the level of outrage required by the times, while at the same time fighting those who think that the threats are made up or exaggerated. I’ll just say this: It must be quite comforting for some to think that their team will never find themselves in the crosshairs of these groups. I think when one American is attacked or threatened, we are all at risk.

I don’t want to be *that guy,* the one whose only song is the Alarm Bell of Justice, clanging incessantly about the outrage of the day. My heroes, Churchill and Orwell, aren’t pleased with me tonight. I’ll have to live with that.

I have always worked at balancing a strong viewpoint on the day’s issues with the other things that I find entertaining and that make my life whole. (Sadly for some, none of this involves cats, so much of the internet is useless to me.) Finding things that make me laugh has always been my life’s work. Bringing others along on that ride has been an added bonus.

At the same time, I know I can’t ignore what’s happening around me and blithely post only about distractions. It’s increasingly hard for me to figure out how to fit these pieces together and to use this space in a way that is meaningful to me (i.e., to amuse myself and perhaps you; to enlighten the discussion and to perhaps prod you to think about something you’ve not yet considered) without falling into either trap (perhaps I already have). I don’t want to set people up to be hectored, nor do I want to be hectored and spend my day shooting down theories or having to defend myself from people who don’t really know me or my views, and whom I haven’t seen in several years and then only at cocktail parties. If only the site could have named “Acquaintences.”

So, off I go to try to figure out how to balance these things in a way that I can tolerate. Shoot me a note and I’ll give you my Twitter handle. This blog site has fallen into disuse, although that will likely change going forward. Being able to moderate comments is an under appreciated resource these days.

I’ve appreciated all the comments–well, most of them anyway–and positive reinforcement I’ve received about my Facebook posts. I’ve enjoyed finding my writing voice and where it’s led me.


The Facebook Reading List Challenge

September 8, 2014

I’ve dreaded the thought of being challenged to list the books that have meant the most to me through my life or that have stuck with me. Like many, my reading habits were shaped in high school. It’s when my addiction to news and history doused whatever small flame of interest I had in fiction. It’s when my habit of 2-3 newspapers a day and all three weekly news magazines started. To my regret, that news and current information habit hasn’t been broken, as anyone who has seen my Twitter “follows,” or Facebook pages periodicals I’ve “liked,” or my sixty Feedly subscriptions will vouch. A couple of years ago, I posted a list of my news and periodical intake; it deserves to be updated, but is still directionally correct.

The book reading I’ve done over the last few years has been dominated by first person accounts and analysis of the financial crisis or in preparation for the Ethics in Financial Markets classes I’ve taught. So when the  challenge came (thanks, Dennis), the thought of exposing my rather pedestrian list left me intimidated.

I have what has been referred to as “one of America’s great collections of unread books.” I love having books around; real ones, with pages and bindings. The used bookstore and I are quite well acquainted. Despite what you’ve read above about my non-fiction habit, I often buy fiction–I just don’t read it. I know I should. The books that I pull down are skimmed them here and there for sections on something specific (see? all non-fiction), going back and re-reading sections in the way that I watch only selected scenes from the endless cable airings of Forrest Gump or Caddyshack.

I know there are more than ten items listed. I’m terrible at following directions.

Here we go (in no particular order after the first item):

bap_orwell.0Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
While not technically a book (it’s an essay that appears in a collection of essays called “Why I Write,” among other places) it is the single most important piece of paper in my life, next to my birth certificate and marriage license (which I show to my wife periodically to remind her that she’s stuck with me and it’s legally binding). Without being too dramatic, it changed the way I think about politics, those who run for office, government, and generally the way people speak to one another. I find myself reading it about once a year and several times a year during presidential election cycles. People who know me well and are familiar with the work will recognize that much of my commentary on politics, political advertising and the messages delivered by those who seek public office is driven by this piece.

Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus
I read this nearly book every day in high school study hall, which explains both my golf practice habits and poor academic performance. I was so obsessed with it–it’s the single best, most accessible golf instructional book ever produced–that when someone else would take it off the shelves, the Librarian would ask, “Does Mark know what you’re doing?” I still use it and think about its lessons.

The Modern Fundamentals of Golf by Ben Hogan
Originally five articles for Sports Illustrated, this exquisitely illustrated work is something of the Rosetta Stone for golf. It took me at least five readings to really start to grasp it. Unlike the Orwell article, those who know my golf game will argue that I still don’t get it. I agree.

The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate by Dan Jenkins
Also a series of Sports Illustrated articles accumulated in book form, Jenkins is among my favorite writers about anything, but his golf work is extraordinary. This book is doubly special for me because it provided me with a chance to meet and spend an hour with one of its subjects, Dave Marr, when he was broadcasting the US Senior Open, shortly before he died. I asked Marr to sign the book and we had a lovely visit. It was unfortunately back in the days before cell phone cameras. It’s a memory I treasure. I was also able to get Jenkins to sign it.

Brave New World by Cliff Huxtable
1984 by George Orwell

A great one-two punch on the post 9/11, Internet “future” that we’re living today. An eerily accurate view of our current time from 50+ years ago. Security theater and cameras on every street corner on one side, distracted driving and texting the person sitting next to you on the other.

I love Orwell’s work. One of the many reasons I have loved the work of Christopher Hitchens was his deep admiration for Orwell. Hitchens cranked out essays and books about Orwell that enhanced my appreciation for the work. New Yorker writer, George Packer also a Orwellian (!), produced two works of Orwell’s work: “Facing Unpleasant Facts” and “All Art Is Propaganda.”  They are among one of America’s great collections of unread books. Spend an hour with two Orwell scholars here.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s entirely possible that this is on the list only because of the joke: “At halftime, the score is Slaughterhouse 5, Cows 0.”

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
I really like Niebuhr. I think I found Niebuhr after the running joke on Night Court about “what kind of name is ‘Reinhold'” led us to talk about the unusual name and someone mentioned Niebuhr. This is a little bit like how I discovered opera through Bugs Bunny. Kill the wabbit.

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
I don’t know why I liked this book so much. Probably the words. I take that back. I know why. Though written in the 1950’s, it describes modern American in a profound way. It makes a nice companion piece with Neibuhr.

The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
Part one of Churchill’s five-part history of the Second World War, it is possibly my favorite history book. The period between the wars has always fascinated me and taught me much about diplomacy, realpolitik and the relationships that govern the world in which we live today.

cord dandlionCorduroy / Dandelion / Norman the Doorman (or anything by Don Freeman)
Brief children’s books, full of charm, burned into my memory from hundreds (thousands?) of readings with our kids who delighted in the stories.

All the President’s Men by Woodstein and Burnward
It could only have been better if it were a novel.

Anyone sense a theme yet? Orwell, Huxley, Neibuhr, Steinbeck, Woodward/Bernstein?

Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler / The Elements of Style by Strunk & White / A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Garner 

I love words.

The Complete Collection of Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
In terms of contributions to my intellectual life, this is high on the list. A wise-beyond-his years 6-year old and his foil, a stuffed tiger, their names chosen completely at random, of course (not). If there were Bugs Bunny books, they’d be listed here, too.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Meltdown
It reads like a crime novel. Oh. Wait.

Any list of books needs to include my brilliant and award-winning brother-in-law, Richard Powers. He’s a genius and has the paperwork to prove it!

So there it is, narrow as a two-lane road without a shoulder. There’s much I’ve left off that I’d love to add–books about Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, books by Calvin Trillin and David Sedaris among many others, but I will leave those for others to mention and discuss.


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