“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Michael Lewis's sci fi fantasy

I’m a big fan of Michael Lewis. Coming home on the train from Amboise, I finally got to his article on Californin in Vanity Fair. And that's when I had my fan crash moment. Say it ain't so, Michael!

Business Insider dubbed the article a ‘love letter’ to Arnold Schwarzenegger – and unfortunately, this is true. Lewis’s Schwarzenegger bears an odd relation to the real Schwarzenegger, who, spectators of the first decade of the Bush era will recall, was the man who rode to power against Gray Davis by promising tax cuts for business and a tres Bushian solution to California’s debt problem, which I’ve commented on before:

“And now, of course, the bills for the fun filled political vacation come due. When Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, the first thing he did was Charge IT! – to a round of cheers from those scrimpin and savin’ burgermen, working all day, thinking of Jesus Christ all night. After all, why pay for the structures you need every day when – as Mr. Magician said in that beautiful Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Reagan-y Kinda Life, – the magic of the marketplace makes lower taxes bring in more revenue! We owe it to ourselves! We can’t surrender to terrorists! We can’t return to the days of tax and spend! Class warfare! As the man says:

Quelli che son dentro la merda fin qui, oh yeah
Quelli che con una bella dormita passa tutto anche il cancro, oh yeah
Quelli che, quelli che non possono crederci anche adesso che la terra e’ rotonda, oh yeah, oh yeah
Quelli che hanno paura del aeroplano, oh yeah
Quelli che non hanno mai avuto un incidente mortale, oh yeah
Quelli che non ci sentiamo
Quelli che a un certo punto della vita ci vorrebbe una arma segreta, ostia, oh yeah”

Or, in plain English, Gray Davis was dumped by voters who couldn’t stand that oatmeal-soul suit, and in his place Schwarzenegger played the part of a muscle toned Father Christmas, as outlined in a NYT article from 2005:

“The governor's budget relies on continued borrowing, using some of the proceeds of a $15 billion bond issue that Mr. Schwarzenegger won voter approval for last year. Although the bond proceeds helped to get the state through a severe fiscal crisis, the borrowing will have long-term consequences, said Fred Silva, a budget expert at the Public Policy Institute of California and a former fiscal aide in the state Legislature.
"The amount of borrowed money is going to be a budget overhang for many years," Mr. Silva said.
In years past, he said, state policy makers tried to keep the cost of debt service below 4 percent of state revenues. "Now it's going to be twice that," Mr. Silva said. "That's real money."

Hmm, a 15 billion dollar bond issue? And to think... the topic never came up in Michael Lewis’ article about our Good Gubernorator fighting the special interests to bring financial sanity to California. the topic of taxes, the taxes to, well, pay for things like increases in the cost of running the state, the taxes that Schwarzenegger ran against – these, too, never came up. The fact that Schwarzenegger was running against the Governor who wanted to actually pay for the goodies with taxes never came up.

Instead, Lewis’s idea is that the people, the grubby vulgarians whose income, over the 2000-2010 period, went down, somehow became addicted to all the good things of life and became… well, irresponsible.Not the good serfs of yore! Because the brain has a reptilian core, apparently, and can’t handle opulence. He's actually serious:

"The road out of Vallejo passes directly through the office of Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America’s society is a by-product of America’s success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. “Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,” he says cheerfully. “We’ve got the core of the average lizard.” Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. “The only problem,” he says, “is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.”

Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. “When faced with abundance, the brain’s ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress,” says Whybrow. “In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake.”

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. “What we’re doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don’t have,” says Whybrow. “We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded.”

So it goes. It used to be, in the roaring 2000s, that it is your money - and now it turns out that it is your debt, you little rat fuck with the reptilian brain? Oh, and that debt is so tasty!

The idea that the American people went on a terrible shopping spree that ruined the economy has now been so inscribed in the reptilian core of the elite brain that it has erased, well, 2001-2008. Remember remember - but it is so hard to remember! Still, as I dimly recall, we took care of the 2001 recession because householders could be just like big companies and unlock the liquidity in their houses through a variety of new and puppy friendly loans! Of course, remembering the giant sucking sound of a tax cut happy elite going for seconds by getting that little extra helping of interest and then happily slicing, dicing and giving themselves bonuses for securitized debt – why that requires such a big memory capacity that the poor reptilian core of the brain starts to pant and gives up. Instead, it wants to see the giant ex-Governor of California in his latest action epic, Mr. Fiscal Responsibility – you know, the one in which new memory is implanted into the old brain so that a certain history didn’t happen, and a certain governor didn’t solve a certain crisis by going for the 15 billion dollar bond issue.

So alas: although Lewis’s concentration on our pension problem is half right, it is a one-eyed correctness: the pension problem was in the end a tax problem. If you don’t want to tax businesses, which is where the money traditionally is, and the wealthy for your social services, and you hire people to staff things like schools and hospitals with low salaries but high future benefits, eventually, you are so fucked. By nice people in business suits, and by Hollywood stars. …
Incidentally, for those of us old enough to remember the California election, Schwarzenneger’s anti-tax and pro-charge it policy was endorsed by ... Warren Buffett.

ps - what the hell! Might as well stretch this post out. The public pension plans that Lewis is writing about are victims of the same investment strategies by which the upper 1 percent has been looting the bottom 99 for years. This is from that now forgetten decade, the 00s - in fact, I wrote this a tremendous six years ago. Wow, that is way too long to remember anything!

I have seen the future, and it is United
Anyone interested in what Bush’s reformed Social Security would look like should look at the NYT article about United Airline’s pension fund today. It is a fun article. Here's how the movie goes: Wall Street persuades a viable pension fund to redo its safe strategy of investing for a much more groovy strategy of growth growth growth in equities. Big money is made by everybody on the Street as the pension fund shrinks, disappears, goes into a black hole. Everybody is very sorry that the beneficiaries of the fund have nothing left, but everybody also points out – the beneficiaries are scum. Mere workers. Pilots, for god’s sakes. Imagine, some stewardess somewhere is bawling cause her measely 200 thou went to some really nice Manhattan bistros. As if she deserved it. The best and the brightest, in the new Hobbesian Randian world, feast upon such little lambs.

Bush’s plan has those advantages too. By targeting middle America’s vast wealth and accelerating the burgling of it, in a record amount of time the top 10 percent income percentile can capture even more of America’s wealth. This money will be used much more efficiently. For instance, many retiring congressmen will be able to find lobbying jobs that will launch them into the higher regions of financial security when the theft is completed. Meanwhile, in a blow against the French, Americans will work harder. They will have to, as their retirement will be approximately equal, in value, to the price you can get for confetti that’s been cleaned off of streets and sidewalks after the parade is over.

The first three grafs of the article map a strategy that is almost a perfect parallel of the Bush reforms:

“HAD anyone listened to Doug Wilsman, tens of thousands of United Airlines employees would not be facing big cuts in their pensions. And the federal agency that guarantees pensions might not be struggling with its biggest losses ever.

So who is Doug Wilsman? He is a retired pilot and a former fiduciary of United's pension plan for pilots, and in 1987 he discovered that the company had abandoned its older, tried-and-true approach of investing retirees' money in bonds timed to pay when the pensions came due. Instead, it had bought into the promises of Wall Street that it could put less money into the plan - and take out more later - if it just put most of the assets into the stock market.

Mr. Wilsman was skeptical of such promises, and soon after learning of the change in strategy, he filed a grievance with his union, the Air Line Pilots Association. "Hey, you guys are really building yourselves a trap," he recalled warning them at the time. "Someday, at the worst possible moment, when the bottom falls out of the stock market, the plan is going to have to come up with new money, and it's going to be enough to kill the company."

Wilsman has got to be a traitor, and one hopes he will be roundly denounced on the rightwing media circuit. More voices like his would blow the perfect caper. He obviously wasn’t clued in that DJ 36,000 was just around the corner.

As even the article admits, the result of the Bush-like investment strategy proved highly satisfactory:

“While the money managers and other pension professionals who ran United's pension plan walked away from the wreck unscathed - indeed, they collected about $125 million in fees over the last five years alone, records show - the ones who will have to pick up the bill for the advisers' collective failure will be the airline's 130,000 employees and pensioners, the federal pension guarantor and probably, someday, the taxpayers.”

Million dollar payouts for high level failure have become America’s secret weapon for achieving true greatness. As for the employees – they merely work for a living. Piss on em, as the old Wall Street saying goes. Also, the federal government has proven that almost any problem can be solved if you have a gigantic enough credit card. Put those pensions on the card and have the Chinese buy more of our dollars, as they say in the corridors of the Treasury department.
Here’s a nice window into what Social Security is gonna look like once we get it all licked into shape:
“United is far from unique. Lifting the lid on how most pension funds are invested might raise an outcry if the 44 million Americans covered by company plans knew these things:
Pension investing is largely unregulated, even though the federal government effectively covers the investment losses when a defined-benefit plan fails. At United, this freewheeling approach gave rise to investments in junk bonds, dot-coms and even what appears to be an energy venture in Albania.
The Securities and Exchange Commission recently said that more than half of the consultants who help pension funds invest their money have outside business relationships that could taint their advice.”
I, for one, am totally psyched.
Three more irresistible grafs. Your congress at work!

"While the federal agency tries to pinpoint its obligations, apparently no one in an official capacity is pausing to ask who the plans' outside investment professionals were, much less how they made their decisions and how they responded as the airline's fortunes faded.

"It's just a nonstarter," said Richard A. Ippolito, the pension agency's former chief economist, who is now retired. A few years ago, he recalled, a director of the federal pension agency appeared before Congress and suggested that if companies wanted to invest their pension funds in stocks, they should pay more for their pension insurance coverage.
"I could politely say that he was vilified," he said. "They basically accused him of being un-American because he was asking companies to pay for the privilege of investing in stocks. He just dropped that idea."

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