Friday, December 03, 2010

Busting the joint out

LI hopes, someday, to hammer with his little hammer and nails one little dictum into the American mind (that mountain of quivering balony, that Etna of bullshit): you can not indefinitely support an income spread a la 1900 and a social welfare network a la 1965. Yes, the neo-liberals will claim that the lion and the lamb can lie down together, and that a paradise of growth will infuse us all with the milk of human kindness and good medical coverage.

But besides the fact that growth, when one begins to examine the constituents out of which it is measured, seems to be a funny way of looking at human well being – and besides the fact that growth, inconveniently enough, was much better under the non neo-liberal bad times from 1945 to 1980 – there is, of course, a sort of blindness in this belief. It is as if the neo-libs want to defend the wealthy without ever asking themselves – why be wealthy?

After all, how many lunches can one highly overpaid CEO gobble in a day?

Wealth is power, and power is embedded in the social reproduction of classes. The wealthy need only use a small portion of their wealth to block upward social mobility – and they will gladly do so, if they can. Why shouldn’t they? Wealth, after all, responds to a positional as well as an accumulative logic. You don’t just ‘make a buncha money’ – you use that money to exert power. Which is to homo sapiens what the dew is to the daffodil.

All of which floods the mind in this, the second year of the Zona. As a Christmas gift, we were given the Federal reserve dump, Wednesday, showing how much they loaned and who to and with what interest in the 2007-2010 period. Of course, as Yves Smith has pointed out, they blatantly and illegally kept dark what they took for their loans – in other words, there is a pile of 885 billion dollars in collateral that the Fed, majestically, decided not to disclose to the unwashed. The Fed don’t work for the unwashed.

The numbers have a sort of operetta feeling – the comedy of Randian Wallstreeters running like, to use Dutch Reagan’s phrase, a Chicago Welfare Mother to the Fed should definitely be scored to Offenbach. Today’s Business Week contains this excellent quote:

“Magnetar Capital LLC, the hedge fund which profited from bets against mortgage securities during the financial collapse, participated in the program through Magnetar Funding II, which borrowed about $1.05 billion through seven TALF transactions.
“Magnetar participated in the program on the same terms as the hundreds of other participants in the TALF program, by Magnetar providing ‘first loss’ risk capital in these markets,” Steven Lipin, a spokesman for the Evanston, Illinois-based firm, said in an e-mail.
FrontPoint Partners, a hedge fund unit of New York-based Morgan Stanley, used the facility 48 times through its FrontPoint Strategic Credit Investments for a total of $1.09 billion.
“On behalf of clients, FrontPoint was an early participant in the government TALF program,” Steve Bruce, a spokesman for the firm said in an e-mailed statement. “With our clients, we were able to support the government in this important initiative.”

I’d like to support the government by taking out a 1 billion dollar loan for 0.0077 percent interest to. Please? I promise to be most patriotic.
This is even more rich for those of us Zona fans with that Long Term Memory – a most unpatriotic property. If there were an operation to get rid of it, I’m sure that , the Dems and Republicans would probably join together in bipartisan harmony to make it tax deductible.

But we remember Front Point from the excellent article by Michael Lewis about the firm that shorted the subprimemarket.
Here’s a quote to go out on. And, if I could only reproduce in prose what is so well done in cartoon, I’d like this quote to be read in a Woody Woodpecker laughing voice, please. The suckers are the American people, and if they don’t rise up and cast aside mock chains and the serious message mongers who insist on herding them into the killing stalls, they deserve what they get:

By the spring of 2005, FrontPoint was fairly convinced that something was very screwed up not merely in a handful of companies but in the financial underpinnings of the entire U.S. mortgage market. In 2000, there had been $130 billion in subprime mortgage lending, with $55 billion of that repackaged as mortgage bonds. But in 2005, there was $625 billion in subprime mortgage loans, $507 billion of which found its way into mortgage bonds. Eisman couldn’t understand who was making all these loans or why. He had a from-the-ground-up understanding of both the U.S. housing market and Wall Street. But he’d spent his life in the stock market, and it was clear that the stock market was, in this story, largely irrelevant. “What most people don’t realize is that the fixed-income world dwarfs the equity world,” he says. “The equity world is like a fucking zit compared with the bond market.” He shorted companies that originated subprime loans, like New Century and Indy Mac, and companies that built the houses bought with the loans, such as Toll Brothers. Smart as these trades proved to be, they weren’t entirely satisfying. These companies paid high dividends, and their shares were often expensive to borrow; selling them short was a costly proposition.
Enter Greg Lippman, a mortgage-bond trader at Deutsche Bank. He arrived at FrontPoint bearing a 66-page presentation that described a better way for the fund to put its view of both Wall Street and the U.S. housing market into action. The smart trade, Lippman argued, was to sell short not New Century’s stock but its bonds that were backed by the subprime loans it had made. Eisman hadn’t known this was even possible—because until recently, it hadn’t been. But Lippman, along with traders at other Wall Street investment banks, had created a way to short the subprime bond market with precision.
Here’s where financial technology became suddenly, urgently relevant. The typical mortgage bond was still structured in much the same way it had been when I worked at Salomon Brothers. The loans went into a trust that was designed to pay off its investors not all at once but according to their rankings. The investors in the top tranche, rated AAA, received the first payment from the trust and, because their investment was the least risky, received the lowest interest rate on their money. The investors who held the trusts’ BBB tranche got the last payments—and bore the brunt of the first defaults. Because they were taking the most risk, they received the highest return. Eisman wanted to bet that some subprime borrowers would default, causing the trust to suffer losses. The way to express this view was to short the BBB tranche. The trouble was that the BBB tranche was only a tiny slice of the deal.
But the scarcity of truly crappy subprime-mortgage bonds no longer mattered. The big Wall Street firms had just made it possible to short even the tiniest and most obscure subprime-mortgage-backed bond by creating, in effect, a market of side bets. Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.
The arrangement bore the same relation to actual finance as fantasy football bears to the N.F.L. Eisman was perplexed in particular about why Wall Street firms would be coming to him and asking him to sell short. “What Lippman did, to his credit, was he came around several times to me and said, ‘Short this market,’ ” Eisman says. “In my entire life, I never saw a sell-side guy come in and say, ‘Short my market.’”
And short Eisman did—then he tried to get his mind around what he’d just done so he could do it better. He’d call over to a big firm and ask for a list of mortgage bonds from all over the country. The juiciest shorts—the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default—had several characteristics. They’d be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada. The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking homeowners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.”

WE SEE HENRY AND TWO HOODS from cabstand checking the cases
of liquor being delivered into the lounge. The entire room
is filled floor to ceiling with cases of whiskey, wine,
crates of lobster, and shrimp, and stacks of table linen
and sides of beef. The place looks like a warehouse.

But now the guy has got to come up
with Paulie 's money every week,
no matter what. Business bad? Fuck
you, pay me. You had a fire? Fuck
you, pay ma. The place got hit by
lighting? Fuck you, pay me. Also,
Paulie could do anything. Especially
run up bills on the joint's credit.
Why not? Nobody's gonna pay for it


WE SEE cases of liquor, wine, etc., being carried out of
the rear door of the lounge by HOODS from the cabstand and
loaded onto U-Haul trucks.

As soon as the deliveries are made
in the front door, you move the
stuff out the back and sell it at
a discount. You take a two hundred
dollar case of booze and sell it
for a hundred. It doesn't matter.
It's all profit.


HENRY, JIMMY and TOMMY are standing around the small
workman's table. There is no desk. The office looks denuded
of furniture. A LAWYER is going over papers.

A terrified, unshaven SONNY BAMBOO is seated behind the
desk. The LAWYER is showing him where to sign.

And, finally, when there's nothing
1 left, when you can't borrow
another buck from the bank or buy
another case of booze, you bust
the joint out.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The book is rejected, and LI is bummed

Well, the agent to whom I sent my proposal letter had one his factotums respond that it wasn’t the type of project for the agent’s “list”. No explanation, but I imagine that the factotum was the one assigned to the task of delicately warding off the cranks. And, admittedly, I am a crank.

Well, fuck it. I was bummed for a bit. But I still think that this small book works – it would be an excellent intro to my larger, more flou happiness book. If – I told myself, awake in the hollows of 3 a.m. as the snow began to really accumulate on the streets of Paris – if I just made a first chapter, some 10,000 word consideration of how, a, we moderns have come to at least accept the myth of homo economicus, and b., how economics, in its policy designs, has tried to impress the character of homo economicus upon capitalist societies.

Unfortunately, the story I want to tell has more than just one linear narrative – because in telling this story of the moderns, I am concerned to show that the moderns do not, contra the intellectual historians and the economists, make up one homogenous mass – that in fact in the everyday life of contemporary societies a number of exchange matrixes are in play – and in fact must be in play for capitalism to be liveable.

From the question and the thesis springs my drama – how HE has been fostered in society, and variously resisted by imagination armed.

So these are the elements I need to put into my first chapter.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Ireland and Pareto

Ireland and Pareto

It is a tale often told by the economist, this one of Pareto optimization. The tale goes that, in the Pareto optimal state, we reach a sort of distributional heaven, in which no person can gain any utility without that gain being made at the expense of somebody else in heaven. But the tale contains a paradox, of the kind associated with Zeno. To advance to this state, we must move through Pareto superior arrangements. These arrangements subtly reverse the terms of the optimum. A Pareto superior arrangement is one in which one party – or shall we say the owners? – may gain utility, but without any other party in our heaven losing it. This, we are assured, improves the entire set – all of heaven rejoices when one sinner is forgiven – or when one of the archangels receives a nice golden parachute and stock options amounting to 400 million dollars.

This, of course, is the neo-liberal heaven on earth, and the dispensation by which our rulers rule us. It is, however, a curious idea. For one thing, the ‘gain’ of utility seems to come ex nihilo – surely we are far removed from the labor theory of value here. Ex nihilo, in bureaucrat-speak, is exterior – it is an exogeneous gain. If it were, after all, endogenous, then we would have to ask about who created it, which would lead us to the question of whether, indeed, the other party wasn’t losing utility here. Which brings us to the other perplexing moment in this paradise. For the assumption, here, seems to be that there is no future - it is all present states. Heaven indeed! We transcend time, in Pareto superior states. For the inequality that must hold between the parties is eternally static.

But if our heaven is not in eternity, but in the sublunar flux of time – if all things in this heaven are mutable – then we see that, indeed, what looks like no skin off the nose of the drudge – what does he care if the boss makes his 400 million, as long as the drudge himself makes enough to buy the entertainment center, the car and the house on easy credit terms of 9 percent per annum (with the creditor holding the right to readjust interest at any time)? – might actually not be such a good deal. Heaven has a flaw. The devil’s disciples, from Machiavelli to Marx, have noticed it. The flaw is called power. In fact, a part of the 400 million dollars might well be used to block the poor drudge’s socially upward mobility, by making the cost of entry into a higher class too expensive – say, by making college tuition too expensive, or dentistry, etc. The boss may use part of the 400 million dollars to make tax loopholes for himself, to be paid for by either closing off social welfare programs that benefited the drudge (who will be scolded for his ‘special interests’ and his unwillingness to “share the sacrifice”). Or – and such are the wrecks of mutability – there may come a time, a horrible time, called a slump. Yes, in heaven on earth, it may be that the business cycle is not abolished, even if the economist angels have announced that God, that is, the free and competitive market, has abolished it.

We are testing the effect of creeping from one Pareto superior position to another in Ireland. Here, indeed, the gains in utility seemed to be exogenous. A low corporate tax brought in companies from outside the country. And then, look at how easy credit terms were offered through banks that were flooded with cash from foreign investors! Why, drudge and millionaire could dance to the pleasing pipes of some Celtic Tiger rock band and lay down, afterwards, in one another’s arms, like the proverbial lion and the lamb.

But it turns out that, while the lamb was asleep, he was being trussed up, and now he wakes up to discover, to his horror, the boiling pot and the butcher’s blade. For it is the drudge, the lamb, the one who was gaining utility in spirit whenever his boss’s board of directors gave the boss another raise, who is going to be sacrificed in the feast. Pareto superior states, it turns out, are heavens for the peculator, and they end in fricassee for the drudge. Who doesn’t understand, and turns to the economist who proclaimed the end of the business cycle. Only to hear that now the business cycle must end by the drudge, a., paying for all his boss’s parties, and b., lowering his wages and paying the debts (the not so easy credit term debts) that the economist, just last week, was telling him was the great reason he was the most fortunate drudge in all of Emerald heaven!

And the poor drudge turns to the right (where the words are the same) and the left (where sympathetic leaders should that the drudge has been mishandled, but (sotto voce) that really, there’s nothing one can do, and we do depend on the boss for all good things in life, don’t we?) and discovers that not only is his credit worthless, but so is his vote!

One of Pareto’s admirers wrote an article – oh, I should find the buckos name – to defend the great man from the accusation he was a fascist. The accusation comes from the fact that, at the end of his life, Pareto embraced Mussolini. The admirer wrote that Pareto was a great lover of liberty – of entrepreneurial freedom! – and thus, the fascist business was all a misunderstanding. But, he also wrote, Pareto also hated democracy.

The love of liberty, the hatred of democracy, stir a little and you get Pinochet. Or Klein’s shock doctrine. Or the current state of Ireland, as the drudges are auctioned off to the bankers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Harpagon 1

The miser is a figure, a character, who exists, in the ancient world and the early modern world, in terms of comedy and vice. He is usually old. He is usually miserable. In terms of Simmel’s schema of money, he is perverted in a key way: he has forgotten the function of money as a means, and in this way, he has forgotten the ends of life.

“When one wants to grasp human fate in the schema of the relationships between the wish and its object, one must say that money, in relation to the stopping point in the series of ends, is really the most inadequate, as well as the most adequate object of our desire.”

Moliere’s miser, Harpagon, can certainly be seen from this side of things. If we look at the sexual objects of desire in play, here, from the beginning we have two secret love matches - of Harpagon’s daughter and son – that contrast with Harpagon’s own overt desire for his son’s choice, Mariane, a space that has been opened by a fact mentioned in the very first scenes – the mother in this household has died. Elise replies to her brother Cleante’s recital of griefs received from their father, Harpagon:

“It is really true that, every day, he gives us more and more reason to regret the death of our mother, and…”

At which point she is interrupted by Cleante who hears the voice of their father.

The death of the mother/wife is both the occasion of the removal of a certain limit to the existential perversion that now characterizes Harpagon – his avarice – and allows the father, an old man, to reverse the natural order by seeking to marry a young woman, Mariane. I want to make a little more business of this competition between the love match and the old man’s money – but I’ll do that later. At the moment, let’s note that the mythic background, here, of an underground god raping a young woman – Pluto/Persephone – fits with certain features of Harpagon’s character that seem borrowed from Aristonphanes Ploutus – the ragged clothes, for instance. And, in particular, the buried treasure.

Harpagon’s two-fold perversion has one source – forgetting the ends of life. Sexually, the end of life, in the seventeenth century, is reproduction. Ever more life. Similarly, the end of money, as Boisguilbert will show in 1690, is commodities – use values.

Simmel interprets this curious synthesis of sterility and desire as the logical result of making a sort of category mistake – mistaking the absolute means for the absolute end:

“If therefore the mediated character of money has the effect that it emerges as the abstract form of pleasures that one does not yet enjoy, then the valuing of its possession in as much as it is not expended preserves a coloring of objectivity, it costumes itself with that fine charm of resignation, that accompanies al objective end goals, and combines the positivity and negativity of enjoyment in a peculiar unity that words can hardly express.
Both moments achieve in avarice their most extreme tension with each other, because the money has an aspect like an absolute means to unbounded possibilities of enjoyment and at the same time as the absolute means can still be completely untouched in its function as the unexploited possession of pleasure.”

Simmel is touching, here, on the ascetic life style of thrift that Weber will later emphasize – and yet the miser does not seem to be a normal bourgeois, even if his character does enter into all descriptions of the bourgeois up to the twentieth century. And even, among outlier fortunes – for instance, those having to do with suddenly gained primary product wealth, like the Texas oil billionaires of the 19302-1960s - the miser figure pops up again, in all its archaic glory, as does its companion, the spendthrift.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...