Taiwan Weekend

December 5, 2016

First came Friday and word that PEOTUS Trump had phoned the leader of Taiwan, in contravention of four decades of U.S. policy. My initial reaction was something short of shock and dismay. I braced for the inevitable adverse reaction from old foreign policy hands both here and overseas. It was the kind of thing I had feared might happen.

The more I thought about it, though, the more comfortable I became with it–up to a point. I was not unhappy that the Chinese had been tweaked, for they’ve been tweaking the West with increasing frequency and seriousness over the last few years. Building islands as naval bases in the South China Sea, among other things, is not the act of a docile partner. As I have very little comfort with his decision-making process, finding it impulsive and prone to the advice of the last person he speaks with, I feared that the call had come without real understanding of the prior policy he’d just breached and the implications of his action. Did he even know he’d tweaked Beijing? If such behavior were to be continually repeated, the potential chaos in its wake would create a level of instability that may make it hard for the world to function (the business world and the governing world).

That was Friday and into Saturday. As Sunday dawned and newspaper consumption started, I actually felt much better. The NYT reported that the returned call was no accident, and that the PEOTUS was aware of the novelty of his actions. The desire to disrupt isn’t limited to domestic issues, and that’s not by definition bad. It’s just different. So long as it’s been thought through (which is where my concerns about the incoming Administration really start), I’m fine with different. While there will likely be plenty of things I disagree with this Administration about, this is not one of them, based on what we know about the episode.

More on Redistribution and Voting Patterns

February 18, 2012

Having previously written about the subsidization of red states by blue states, I was interested to read last Sunday’s NYTimes article on the seemingly paradoxical, some would say hypocritical, attitudes of people who receive aid and their support of a candidate who advocates reductions to the social safety net. The piece highlights Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, an area with little poverty but plenty of people who receive government benefits.

Many people [in Chisago County] say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.


But the reality of life here is that [residents of Chisago County] continue to take as much help from the government as they can get. When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs.

“How do you tell someone that you deserve to have heart surgery and you can’t?” Mr. Gulbranson said.

He paused.

“You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”

He paused again, unable to resolve the dilemma.

“I feel bad for my children.”


The government helps Matt Falk and his wife care for their disabled 14-year-old daughter. It pays for extra assistance at school and for trained attendants to stay with her at home while they work. It pays much of the cost of her regular visits to the hospital. Mr. Falk, 42, would like the government to do less.

“She doesn’t need some of the stuff that we’re doing for her,” said Mr. Falk, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in North Branch. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing if society can afford it, but given the situation that our society is facing, we just have to say that we can’t offer as much resources at school or that we need to pay a higher premium” for her medical care.

Mr. Falk, who voted for [upset winner over long-serving Congressman Jim Oberstar, GOP Representative “Chip”] Cravaack, said he did not want to pay higher taxes and did not want the government to impose higher taxes on anyone else. He said that his family appreciated the government’s help and that living with less would be painful for them and many other families. But he said the government could not continue to operate on borrowed money.

“They’re going to have to reduce benefits,” he said. “We’re going to have to accept it, and we’re going to have to suffer.”


Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates. [Minnesota, it should be noted, is not one of those states. It contributes more to the federal treasury than its residents receive. –ed.]

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates [like Minnesota does –ed.]. And [Dartmouth political science professor Dean P.] Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues.

Chisago has shifted over 30 years from dependably Democratic to reliably Republican. Support for the Republican presidential candidate has increased relative to the national vote in each election since 1984. Senator John McCain won 55 percent of the vote here in 2008.

Residents say social issues play a role, but in recent years concerns about spending and taxes have predominated.

Some of the fiercest advocates for spending cuts have drawn public benefits. Many, like Mr. Falk, have family members who rely on the government. They often cite that personal experience as the reason they want to cut government spending.

Paul Krugman devotes his column today to the Sunday Times article and points out the seeming contradiction of residents of states and communities that receive more aid than they contribute being the most aggressive and adamant in their desire to elect representatives dedicated to cutting benefits.  He offers three theories as to why that might be:

…working-class Americans are induced to vote against their own interests by the G.O.P.’s exploitation of social issues. And it’s true that, for example, Americans who regularly attend church are much more likely to vote Republican, at any given level of income, than those who don’t.

Still, as Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman points out, the really striking red-blue voting divide is among the affluent: High-income residents of red states are overwhelmingly Republican; high-income residents of blue states only mildly more Republican than their poorer neighbors. Like Mr. Frank, Mr. Gelman invokes social issues, but in the opposite direction. Affluent voters in the Northeast tend to be social liberals who would benefit from tax cuts but are repelled by things like the G.O.P.’s war on contraception.

Finally, Cornell University’s Suzanne Mettler points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system. She tells us that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government program.”

I agree with much of Krugman’s analysis, but I have a fourth theory. Back to the initial Times article that is the basis for Krugman’s commentary:

Brian Qualley, 49, has a sister who survived a brain tumor but was disabled by its removal. The government pays for her care at an assisted-living facility. Their mother scrapes by on Social Security.

Mr. Qualley said that the government should provide for those who need help, but that too much money was being wasted. Mr. Qualley, who owns a tattoo parlor in Harris, north of North Branch, said some of his customers paid with money from government disability checks.

“They’re getting $300 or $400 tattoos, and they’re wearing nice new Nike shoes that I can’t afford,” he said, looking up from working a complicated design into the left leg of a middle-aged woman. “I guess I shouldn’t say it because it’s my business, but I think a tattoo is a little too extravagant.”

From time to time during my time in Chicago, I have worked with professionals who live among those receiving federal benefits like food stamps and welfare. Yes, I know I live among those receiving federal benefits like Social Security and Medicare, but stay with me on this. Never have I met people more uniformly ticked off about how that aid is used and how it affects their communities. They were in pretty much every case quite adamant about the dangers and perverse incentives of the federal safety net, its unfairness with people getting it that don’t deserve it, and the need to reduce benefits. (The reference to welfare should tip you off about how long ago these days were.) So, like Mr. Qualley, I think that those that see the effects of federal aid on a regular basis and experience it in their own lives understand it in a slightly different way than the rest of us do.* It’s more visceral; they live it on a daily basis.  And as cited throughout the article, residents of Chisago County recognize the untenable position that they and the federal government are in with the generosity of the aid. They know the flow must, at some point slow. They’re doing their part to slow it by electing a budget cutter. Like many an addict, they can’t wean themselves from it so long as it’s offered. Some of them show discomfort for taking it and see what it’s doing to them, but so long as you show up with the score, they’ll take it.

*This was not true of my experience with the safety net. I received thirty-nine weeks of unemployment insurance during my sixteen months without work. It was enough to put groceries on the table, gas in the car, and keep the lights and heat on but not much more. Contrary to the popular argument against unemployment insurance, I was under no illusion that I should hold off on getting a job because of the generosity of the federal largess being directed at me. I was fortunate to have built my own safety net; I could get by without it, though not indefinitely. I wasn’t embarrassed to take it. I don’t believe my receipt of the aid was undeserved. My employer had paid into the system for that purpose and was going to extract everything owed to me from them. I felt that they got much more than they paid for in terms of my efforts versus their “lovely parting gift” to me. In the long run, the aid was a gift, but not a monetary one. It changed the way I think about being poor and nearly poor and those who, haven’t won the Birth Lottery, as I have and as those that have surrounded me for my entire life have. Those people who have to figure out life without the good schools and the caring parents and role models and ambitious friends and the ability to afford college and all those other innumerable advantages that have accrued to me and those around me. The process has made me more empathetic–a word rarely associated with me in the past–and appreciative.

The New York Times iPad App Stinks

November 20, 2011

Duplicative, Disorganized and some other negative word beginning with D.

Oh how I hate their app.  Stories appear in multiple places.  Stories that are days old don’t go away. There’s no “stop”; no resting place.  It’s whatever is on Safari when you open the app.  And that stinks.  I want to read the day’s newspaper in an electronic form.  The Wall Street Journal’s app is perfect.  It gives you both that day’s printed paper in an electronic form and it uploads the website in a separate and distinct place, so that you can check what’s happening now (or the last time you accessed the app).

The reason that this is so important to me is best described by David Carr, the media writer for the Times (and star of the excellent documentary on the Times “Page One“)  in his recent interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air.  Speaking of his media diet (which resembles mine so close a way as to be somewhat uncomfortable for me because he’s in the media criticism business and I am not), he said:

When I wake up in the morning and the gun goes off, I’m checking Twitter. I’m checking RSS feeds, and I get four newspapers at my house every day. I get the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Star Ledger – because I live in New Jersey – and, of course, the New York Times.

And the reason I do is because the day before this, all this stuff has gone whizzing past me, and I seem to know a lot. But I don’t really know which part of it is important. And I used to think it was so silly that newspapers would – like, I’d go to our page one meeting, and they’d be organizing the hierarchy of the six or seven most important stories in Western civilization. Meanwhile, the Web is above them, pivoting and alighting, and all these stories are morphing and changing. And I thought: Well, how silly is this?

But you know what? I came to want that resting place, where someone yelled stop and decided, look, this is stuff you need to know about going forward. So there’s both real-time news and then newspapers have become a kind of magazine experience for me, where they’re – where it’s a way to look back at what has happened.

The Times app just gives me the “whizzing by” and not the stop, before you even get to my complaints about its (lack of) organization and repetition.

Policy Changes Under Two Presidents

July 25, 2011

Republicans get defensive when comparisons are made between President Obama and President Bush.  That is understandable.  The chart below appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, accompanied by an article entitled “How the Deficit Got This Big” by Teresa Trich.  Ezra Klein today points out today that much of what appears on President Obama’s side of the ledger represent temporary expenditures (g., e.the $711 billion of “stimulus spending” and the $425 billion of “stimulus tax cuts”) where as the largest items on President Bush’s side of the ledger (and what at least 2o sitting GOP senators and 100 GOP House members voted for) represent recurring expenditures (e.g., the wars, the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare Part D drug benefit which will go on in perpetuity).

Klein notes, “To relate this specifically to the debt-ceiling debate, we’re not raising the debt ceiling because of the new policies passed in the past two years. We’re raising the debt ceiling because of the accumulated effect of policies passed in recent decades, many of them under Republicans. It’s convenient for whichever side isn’t in power, or wasn’t recently in power, to blame the debt ceiling on the other party. But it isn’t true.”

Sad, especially given the behavior of the GOP during the debt ceiling crisis, but true.

The DSK Case and its Message to Sexual Predators

July 2, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been released on his own recognizance and is, according to the The New York Times much closer to have the most serious charges against him dropped.  But this turn of events is not because prosecutors no longer believe the woman wasn’t attacked.  Oh no, the Times reports,

“Prosecutors said they still believed Mr. Strauss-Kahn had forced the woman into sex… “

According to the sources, the victim is alleged to have not told the truth about her life leading up to the attack and what happened in the immediate aftermath of it:

“Prosecutors disclosed that the woman had admitted lying in her application for asylum from Guinea; according to the letter, she ‘fabricated the statement with the assistance of a male who provided her with a cassette recording’ that she memorized. She also said that her claim that she had been the victim of a gang rape in Guinea was also a lie.

The woman also acknowledged that she had misrepresented her income to qualify for her housing, and had declared a friend’s child — in addition to her own daughter — as a dependent on tax returns to increase her tax refund.

 Her asylum application is inconsistent with the story she told police; she had hundreds of thousands of dollars deposited into her bank account, making her appear to be a go between for laundering drug money, etc.)”

Lying to the police about this sort of thing is without question a bad strategy.  I understand that these inconsistencies and her association with an incarcerated drug dealer leave her credibility in tatters, making it easy for the defense to turn the case into “Whom do you believe? The former head of the IMF or a lying  chambermaid who associates with convicted drug dealers?”  The defense will have a field day with this information at trial in raising reasonable doubt.  The prosecutors don’t want to lose–it would look bad for them at election time–so they’ll blame the victim and walk away from this as quickly as possible, hoping that none of it sticks to them for very long.  Good luck with that.

The physical evidence is said to support the crux of what the housekeeper has alleged:  She was set upon by a naked DSK against her will and sexually assaulted.  So we’re left with a victim of an attack and a predator (alleged predator?) out walking the streets.

One is left to think that Monsieur Strauss-Kahn was extremely fortunate in his choice of victims.  The failure to bring DSK to justice on those charges will leave those looking to perpetrate similar crimes advised to find equally untrustworthy victims for themselves.

Sadly, ’twas was ever thus.

Man On Fire

January 22, 2011

Thursday’s New York Times led with an article about the riots in Tunisia and the sudden overthrow of their government.  It opened with the following:

TUNIS — Passions unleashed by the revolution in Tunisia resonated throughout the region on Monday as an Egyptian and a Mauritanian became the latest of six North Africans to set themselves on fire in an imitation of the self-immolation that set off the uprising here a month ago.

In Egypt, Abdo Abdel Moneim, a 50-year-old restaurant owner, poured a gallon of gasoline over his head and set himself ablaze outside the Parliament building on Monday morning in downtown Cairo. Around the same time in Mauritania, Yacoub Ould Dahoud was setting fire to himself in his parked car near Parliament in Nouakchott.

Self-immolation; the act of trying to kill yourself by setting yourself on fire.  While this practice has gone on for centuries, most of the 533 recorded (successful) cases of it since 1960 have been political protests like the ones mentioned above.

This isn’t my first time thinking about self-immolation.  I think about it almost every day. Back in 1998 in the midst of the troubles in Bosnia and the twin Russian and Asian financial crises, the front page of the New York Times ran the picture posted here of a Parisian protesting the treatment of the Bosnians at the hands of the Serbs.  Now (obviously) yellowed with time, the photo sits framed on my desk for daily contemplation.  (Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the actual photo in the Times’ online archive.  If anyone can find it, I’d appreciate seeing it.)

I'll never have a day so bad that this seems like a good idea.

I was facing some particularly tough days back in 1998.  The international financial crisis had hit one of my clients and their deal particularly hard and it posed questions that none of us had ever faced before.  There were long nights, tense conversations and a lack of clarity on what was likely to happen next and what we should do about it.  But that particular morning, I looked at the picture and wondered, “How bad of a day must you be having when lighting yourself on fire is the preferred course of action?”  The guy figured that all the other forms of protest were somehow inadequate to buying the gasoline and matches (and not wearing his fire-resistant jammies). I have never been that pissed off and pray that I never will.

It made me realize something that has since become something of a mantra for me.

No matter how bad of a day I have, it will never be so bad that lighting myself on fire will seem like a good alternative.

Kristof on Selfish Choices

May 24, 2010

Nick Kristof reports from the Congo Republic in the NYTimes on the choices that parents make.

“if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.”


The incendiary nature of the conclusion above is supported by an enlightening discussion with a local Congolese man whose kids have repeated first grade five time for lack of a few dollars of school fees.  Kristof’s conclusion is the only one possible, harsh or not.

Banking is not a simple business

April 28, 2010

We're trying to handle the truth, but it doesn't conform to our desire for a simple answer

An admittedly overly simple example. I’m sure that my trading desk friends and others that read this with greater knowledge than I on this topic will laugh at my “crayon-like” simplicity.

There’s obviously lots of attention, anger and frustration being directed at Goldman Sachs, who had their senior mortgage staff and CEO testify before Congress yesterday. There was frustration on all sides, since the lawmakers don’t understand the business and the attempts by Goldman to try to explain it struck many as evasive. The example I’ve concocted below does not speak directly to the conflicts Goldman had in selling “shitty” CDO bonds to investors because they had a bigger fish on the other end of the trade who wanted to short the deal. My purpose in providing this elementary example is to show that this is all not as simple as people would like.

Let’s look at a major bank. They have one of the largest originators of loans in their Home Finance unit. This unit reports up through their Retail division. They don’t sell of all of their loans (i.e., they don’t securitize them or sell them all to the GSEs—you can see them on their balance sheet), so they are naturally “long” housing risk. They’re making loans and retaining the risk.

The Investment Banking division includes the loan trading and derivatives trading desks. It’s here that bonds, swaps, foreign exchange, loans and other securities are sold to clients. The Desk buys and sells these instruments based on client demand. The Desk is constantly buying and selling assets—positioning them—so that they have access to the assets that their clients want to buy and sell.  In addition, the Desk is responsible for selling those assets that are underwritten by the Firm. For purposes of our example, let’s say that some of those underwritten assets are bonds backed by home mortgages.

Management, housed in the “Corporate” segment, looks at the risks in the portfolio and has a choice: a) they can either sell the loans outright and forego the interest income on the ones that are going to pay in full, b) they can wait for those that are going to go bad to default and charge them off dollar-for-dollar or c) they can buy insurance on the portion of the portfolio that they think might go bad. This insurance doesn’t cost them 100 cents on the loan dollar (in the same way your car insurance premium is less than the cost of your car). They get many benefits from choice (c): loss protection at a fraction of the cost (it reduces the earnings drag on the firm as a whole with respect to charge-offs; it’s providing the funds used for reserves instead of having them come out of other earnings) and increases the stability of earnings to name just two. This process protects their shareholders.

What form does this insurance take? It can come from shorting the ABX index. This index is in layman’s terms the mortgage-backed securities equivalent of the S&P 500. They sell the ABX to someone who, for their own portfolio reasons, wants exposure to the US housing market but can’t buy individual loans and wants the diversity of an index as opposed to a single MBS issue. Foreign banks, insurance companies, pension funds, etc. might represent some typical buyers.

Home Finance is long housing. One part of the Desk is selling mortgage-backed bonds to clients, while another part is executing short trades on behalf of the Corporate segment. But if you look solely at the Desk as the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations did yesterday, you see a firm that is “selling bonds to clients while betting against the very same bonds”.

My question is: What should they do? Only be long housing and selling bonds? If that’s the case, they will reach the point where they don’t want any more housing risk and will stop making mortgage loans. This will raise the “why can’t I get a mortgage?” complaint from consumers. We don’t want that.  If they don’t manage their portfolioexposure in some way–by shorting or in the vernacular, “flattening the book”–they’re exposing their shareholders (and it need be said, the FDIC and ultimately the taxpayers) to more risk than they want to take. This increased risk is almost the opposite of the moral hazard.

What Goldman and the other Wall Street firms do is much more intricate and complicated than this example and much more complicated that they can explain when confronted with loaded questions, but looking only at one part of the picture is both unfair and disingenuous. But then again, no one said that the purpose of these investigations was to get to what’s fair or ingenuous. None of this excuses what the SEC alleges Goldman did wrong in the Abacus trades. That part of the story—the “who should have told whom about who else was involved in the deal” stuff, will all be aired in court. I’m not capable of judging whether Goldman violated the law or ethical treatment of their multiple clients.

The point of all this is that these firms are all engaged in multiple activities across their different platforms, and looking at only one part of a firm’s business can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions and bad legislation to try to “fix” the problem.  It is likely that any legislation that comes out of this will likely activate my favorite law, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

To those who say that there was no incremental economic activity associated with the synthetic trades at the heart of the Goldman deals, I ask, “How is that different from the secondary trading on the stock exchange?” The companies that have issued the stock already have the money, it’s just a transfer of wealth from one party to another; one that thinks that the value will go down and one that thinks that the value will go up. The firms that make markets in equities—that trade them off of their own book to facilitate client transactions aren’t telling their client that “someone else thinks the value of the stock you’re buying is going to go down—that’s why they’re selling it while you buy it.” No one seems to complain about that.

I fear that people take advantage of the fact that these activities happen beyond their normal sight. They’d rather not consider on a regular basis with the messy details of what makes markets work, of who gets and who is denied credit and for what reason. They reap the benefits of a vibrant capital market (and yes, on balance we’ve reaped much greater benefit from these markets and these activities than the events of the last two years have cost us) but once these practices are out in the open people are shocked (shocked!) and dismayed that such things happen.* The Wall Street Journal on Monday provided an email of unknown authorship that mashed up Colonel Jessup’s famous “You want me on that wall,” testimony from “A Few Good Men” in with the concept of the allocation of capital that the banking industry provides. I won’t dwell on it here, because it’s an overdrawn example (pardon the pun). But this letter to the New York Times printed today is worth reading and considering. In essence, the author says that had there been more John Paulsons out there, more people who wanted to “sell” and not “buy” exposure to the US housing market, the end would have come sooner and the damage less dramatic.

I understand that people want a scapegoat. They want a villain. I hold no quarter for Goldman Sachs. But none of this is as simple to explain as people might like and all of it is critical to the future success of our economy. Getting this wrong will have long-lasting effects and we may pay a price for it in terms of economic growth for years to come. It may be a price worth paying, but I think that we’d be better off knowing that price ahead of time.

*  When you hear an entrepreneur lament that he can’t get a loan to start his business, ask them how much equity he’s putting into the venture versus how much he’s trying to borrow. Banks have never been good at venture capital—they’re good at lending to businesses with track records of performance. People that are trying to borrow money to start businesses are looking in the wrong place. They want to use the bank because the bank is cheaper than going to a venture capitalist who will likely demand a higher coupon and an equity interest in the deal, which the entrepreneur is loath to surrender. The fact that during the bubble banks made these loans is as much a testimony to the lack of lending standards that existed as all those poorly conceived mortgages. It’s not that “banks aren’t lending”. It’s that banks are trying to return to the underwriting standards that kept them safe  for so long without a giant spasm of failures. We shouldn’t want banks to do the same deals they did over 3 of the last 4 years. We should want something better. There’s money out there to be had, but it’s more expensive than it used to be.

    The Forty-Seven Percent Solution

    April 14, 2010

    If it's a small bag, keep it.

    David Leonhardt does a nice job today in the NYTimes writing about the recent dust-up over the mid-2009 study that claims that 47% of Americans owe no federal income taxes.

    All the attention being showered on “47 percent” is ultimately a distraction from that reality.

    The 47 percent number is not wrong. The stimulus programs of the last two years — the first one signed by President George W. Bush, the second and larger one by President Obama — have increased the number of households that receive enough of a tax credit to wipe out their federal income tax liability.

    But the modifiers here — federal and income — are important. Income taxes aren’t the only kind of federal taxes that people pay. There are also payroll taxes and capital gains taxes, among others. And, of course, people pay state and local taxes, too.

    Focusing on the statistical middle class — the middle 20 percent of households, as ranked by income — underlines this point. Households in this group made $35,400 to $52,100 in 2006, the last year for which the Congressional Budget Office has released data. That would describe a household with one full-time worker earning about $17 to $25 an hour. Such hourly pay is typical for firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Taking into account both taxes and tax credits, the average household in this group paid a total income tax rate of just 3 percent. A good number of people, in fact, paid no net income taxes. They are among the alleged free riders.

    But the picture starts to change when you look not just at income taxes but at all taxes. This average household would have paid 0.8 percent of its income in corporate taxes (through the stocks it owned), 0.9 percent in gas and other federal excise taxes, and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes. Add these up, and the family’s total federal tax rate was 14.2 percent.

    To those people who still find it offensive, I suggest they do two things:  1) Contemplate raising their family on $50,000 in gross income, and 2) Contemplate raising their family on $50,000 in gross income then paying $10,000 of it away in taxes.  Doesn’t leave much.  The system is (supposed to be) designed where those with the ability to pay, pay.

    Exxon Mobil paid no US federal income taxes last year and few seem disturbed by that. I am not, but then again, this 47% number doesn’t bother me, either.

    What I read

    March 28, 2010

    Probably Enough to Keep Me Busy

    My name is Mark and I am an addict.  My drug of choice is information, particularly on current events.

    I started really reading in junior high, but it got out of hand in high school.  At first it was two newspapers a day (Chicago Tribune and the Arlington Herald).  Sports first, then the other stuff.  My reading an article about a rape trial got me “the talk” from my dad. I was in Student Congress in high school and there wasn’t a current topic that was off-limits, so preparing meant covering a wide landscape.  The guy behind the periodical desk at the library came to dislike me.  That experience introduced me to the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as a broader range of general and not so general interest magazines.  Foreign Policy, anyone?  It was a gateway drug.

    I went into remission in college, then resumed consuming thereafter.  It’s now really out of hand with both internet’s accessibility and my not having a job.  But even when I worked, I still always had about 40 pages of articles I’d reformatted into two-column, 10-point font to carry with me.  Walking to a meeting, waiting for a lunch partner, lunching by myself, on the train, and in other places appropriate or not, my appetite for news could be described as insatiable.  In the last couple years, I’ve fallen in love with podcasting, so now I’ve got news in through my ears and eyes, often at the same time.  If you see me with my headphones, chances are good that I’m tuned into Fresh Air or something similar, rather than Green Day.

    I don’t watch much TV; mostly sports and a few entertainment shows (Modern Family tops the list, Wednesdays at 9/8CT).  I only occasionally watch cable news, and that’s only because I like the way certain people write their material, not because it adds much to my knowledge or understanding of a topic.  Cable TV does all of us a disservice by conflating the ideas of “governing” and “politics” and treating both in the same way CNBC treats the stock market or ESPN treats the baseball season.  It’s not a game.  Policy-making, like history, happens over a long arc of time and does not change eight times within 24 hours. I couldn’t help but notice how the so-called conventional wisdom on President Obama turned 180 degrees in the moments following signing the health care bill (and publication of David Frum’s “Waterloo” analysis). One moment, he’s a political blunderer, the next a genius.  It was never either one and there wasn’t a switch magically flipped on Sunday.  While there are addition points made in this this NY Review of Books piece, it encapsulates my feelings on the topic pretty well.

    I used to have a business relationship with CNN and conversations with their executives taught me much about how they think and their need to “feed the monster”.  Essentially, their argument was:  We’re on for 24 hours and have to have something to talk about, so we take small things, small differences, highlight them and if we’re lucky, we’ll get a run of a couple days out of a story.  If that happens, it’s that many fewer other little stories that we’ll have to report. It was akin to taking crap and throwing it against the wall to see what would stick, then talking about it until it fell off the wall.  It works great at first (e.g., the first Gulf War), but with the proliferation of channels, the hosts of these shows have to continually come up with unique things to be outraged about, lest they lose their gigs (think Beck and Olbermann; Hannity and Ed).  If there’s nothing to be outraged about, what’s the point of having them on the air?  So outraged they are.  And we lose the concept of rational discourse in the process.

    But I digress.

    So, I read.  Don’t tell my business colleagues, but reading about business bores me.

    I occasionally get asked what I read.  Unlike someone who came to national prominence in the last couple years and was unprepared for that question, I have an answer.  It’s a long one.  I’m exhausted looking at it.  You’ll note that it doesn’t include Time, Newsweek or any of the other “general interest” magazines.  My sense has been that if they’re only going to publish weekly, their analysis had better be excellent because it comes so late; I find their websites generally uninteresting, too (too much celebrity coverage).  The last time I checked, I didn’t think it warranted the effort.

    It’s a habit I can’t kick.  I read the occasional book, but while doing that, I’m thinking of the other current things I could be reading about, so it sort of sucks the pleasure out of it.  The only exception is when I get my hands on a good history book, since I can put myself in the historical context and read it as if it was a current event.  It’s more confusing to explain than to do.

    So here’s the list.

    Physical media:

    Online – consistently (I pay for access to the WSJ.  I would pay for content at other providers, too.  The notion that this stuff all has to be free is flawed as far as I’m concerned):

    Online – occasional


    • PTI
    • C-SPAN After Words (from Book TV)
    • Fresh Air
    • NPR’s It’s All Politics
    • NPR’s Planet Money
    • PBS NewsHour
    • Slate’s Culture Gabfest
    • Slate’s Hang Up and Listen
    • Slate’s Political Gabfest
    • Countdown
    • This American Life
    • On The Media
    • Today in the Past

    No Politico, Talking Points Memo or Daily Beast.

    If I’m missing something, let me know.  There’s always room on the browser and in the stack of papers for another view.

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