Archives for: August 2007
Square Roots of Grass
On the surface, Ron Paul is still far away from a first-tier candidate. His official land line polls are roughly on par with the numbers that a WhiffleBall Bat might garner in the Most Favorite Sporting Equipment Competititon. Below the digital surface though - when judged by the number of Internet support groups - he ranks among the best. I was curious about how real the grassroots support for him really is, so I went to one of the improvised MeetUp groups event that was held at the Marcey Park, a leafy grove on the outskirts of Arlington, not far from Potomac River.
When I got there, I immediately spotted lots of Ron Paul bumper stickers and about 15 square looking individuals chatting among the picnic tables and getting ready to grill some bratwursts. The fledgling activists assembled from all walks of life - starting with a political science student and going all the way to a professional stock trader. Some of them were quiet, you could see they'd be more comfortable in a public library, engrossed in a comprehensive study of Affordable Health Care, and some were not, like that guy with a heavy Southern accent who seemed to have been raised in the firm belief that a hearty pat on the back is the best way to introduce your political platform. There was even a pair of twin brothers who had some Czech roots. A true hodge podge. But I also noticed a complete absence of posers. That was a good sign.
The happening had a distinctly underground character. I imagine this is how meetings of early Christians must have looked like. Little structure, but lots of ardor. I mean, here they were - a bunch of amateurs on a Saturday afternoon - and instead of watching football, polishing their cars or complaining about the sorry state of politics, they came to help a guy who is still a very very long shot - and all that just for the good feeling that one day in the future - should Ron Paul make it - they would be able to tell their offsprings that they were there at the very onset of his revolution.
When the bratwursts were successfully consumed, I made a trip to HomeDepot with a guy who volunteers at Ron Paul's headquarters, and we bought some tape and a roll of Tyvek. When we returned, we made a few signs and posters using makeshift stencils. The results - due to highly uncooperative paint - looked rather amateurish. I would imagine that Don Quixote would be very comfortable in our midst - hacking the cardboard with his sword and brandishing the spray-paint cans theatrically.
But when we were finished it occurred to me that the home made feel of our little Tyvek propaganda, when contrasted with picture perfect and mostly prefabricated signs of wealthier candidates, sends a very unique message: "This presidential hopeful has what it takes to inspire people rather than paid staffers."
No Flipper Left Behind
As the sun slowly sets over the prairie of the current White House administration - three landmarks are casting particularly long shadows: Iraq, Katrina and Countrywide. The last may seem bush-league for now, but as the housing industry sinks deeper into the quicksand of frivolous lending, the US largest mortgage company may soon become the new Enron, falling pray to the dark side of the housing boom that it helped to create. It wasn't always that way though.
There was a time when people were earning their living by producing something other people might need rather than pushing paper around and speculating in the Bubble Du Jour. Of course, riding the coattails of the housing mania was much easier and even advanced condo flipping didn't really require many skills beyond giving your John Hancock.
There was a time when people researched their investment. The times when due diligence entailed more than clambering onto a jolly bandwagon rolling down the street. Times when "buy low, sell high" was the first comandment of prudent financial management - the rule to be later quietly replaced by "buy high and hope there are more suckers waiting on the sidelines".
There were times you had to put money down to buy a house. You had to show that you are serious about your purchase. But as the need to lure more people into the growing Ponzi scheme arose, the lending standards were loosened, then loosened some more and finally completely abandoned.
There were times when real estate agents were knowledgeable professionals providing guidance through the legal jungle of buying a home. The times when their trade toolkit included more than a pair of faded pom-poms and their pitch wasn't reducible to a single mantra of "housing prices only go up". But arguably, it is hard not to cheer for overpriced market when your comission is the percentage of the closing price.
There were times when banks carried the risks associated with loaning money. The times when they were the primary holder of the debt, which made them think twice about who they loaned to. These days, however, they just collect a fat commission and then they package the debt into bond-like securities, which they sell around, mostly to unsuspecting foreign investors. That of course is a mighty incentive to loan money at all costs.
There were times when invisible hand of free markets weeded out business people making bad decisions. The times when men took responsibility for their bad decisions and learned from them. But these days, when the music stops, and the schemes are starting to collapse, the big investment bankers come knocking on the government's door with pleas for a bailout. Like a bunch of little boys crying "Mommy".
But make no mistake, the powers that be are listening. It's not that they want to bail out the poor homeowners who could just walk away from their $0 money down mortgages and feel very little pain. They want to bail out the Wall Street denizens and the hedge funds that hold all the toxic debt. Why? Well, there is nothing more heart wrenching than seeing a major campaign contributor in distress. Plus in deciding who will be bailed out, more red tape will be created, which means more government jobs. And if in the process an environment for corruption is created, so be it. Sure we could spend the money on Universal Health Care or educational programs, but hey - this will be well worth it. After all, nothing spells "freedom" like supporting irresponsible behavior.
Silence and Noise shared an apartment. Noise was very helpful around the house and did his best to be a good roommate. He drilled the holes for the bookshelves, he cut the wood logs with a chain saw and he sang country songs while washing the dishes. Silence grew restless at his acoustic output and after few months of uneasy cohabitation, she decided to leave. She packed her few belongings into a small handbag and entered the living room where Noise was watching the Airplanes Take-Off Special on a large plasma TV screen. "I cannot live with you any more", said Silence. Noise didn't seem to comprehend. His robust face was wrinkled with thinking, "I am sure we can work it out. I would like for us to get along..." Silence stopped him with an instinctive motion of her palm: "No, we can't." Noise started pouting his lips in disbelief. "But I don't understand." Silence sighed. "I know - you never do". Then she placed her keys on a glass coffee table and left.
Without slamming the door.
New York, New York
There is a Chinese proverb which reads "Heaven doesn't say that it is high". And that's what I like about New York. It doesn't have to claim to be cosmopolitan, because it is. Unlike many wannabe metropolises, New York doesn't stake its claim on worldliness with nervously tapping feet, but rather with its legs kicked high on the table. It doesn't peer into the mirror to see if the worldly jackets fits right, rather it flings it non-chalantly over its shoulder and whistles a dirty French ditty as it saunters down on Broadway.
A friend of mine teaches at Cooper Union so this weekend I got to sink my teeth into the Big Apple again. For our entry point, we chose the Holland Tunnel, whose entrance, as usual, was clogged with a yawning clump of cars digesting the distance just traveled. As we approached the booth, taking a welcome visual relief from the unremitting turnpike view, I noticed a speed measuring gun that was pointed at us and a big display board that was showing our speed: 25, 24, 23,... Strangely as we came to the complete stop, the digits froze at 15. I looked down at the pavement to make sure we were standing still. We were and yet the stubborn board kept clocking us at 15 mph, which frankly is the fastest I have ever been standing. New York can be a strange place and the laws of physics don't get much respect around here.
I suspect that the city treats the laws of physics with the same casual air with which it treats its metropolitan jacket - it flings them right over its shoulder. In this borough you can see kids with tiny bronze rings in their noses selling you gutted butterflies dipped in a saucy simmering substance that you would hesitate pouring into your car's engine, you can hear languages that do not exist anywhere else on the earth, you get to walk through a green dream of a concrete jungle called the Central Park, you will have to squeeze your body into subway cars filled with passengers whose cumulative volume exceeds that of the car itself and of course if you take a long walk south, you will hit the place which has its own set of the Laws of Physics - the Wall Street. That black hole of all reason where financial cowboys saddle the jitters of greed every day and where investment bankers wear hairdos that look like expensive scaffoldings for their mental castles albeit their actual investment advice may be as useful to your financial well-being as 10 lbs of slide rules.
As we were standing at New York's tunelly threshold, still as a frozen doornail, I wondered if my friend stands to get a traffic ticket for standing over the posted speed limit. "I am sorry, Your Honor, I will never ever stand that fast again." But that's just the kind of city New York is - you are on the go even if you are standing.