Thursday, April 30, 2009

Poem in Your Pocket

So my mom, who is a teacher/school librarian, emailed AND texted me to inform me that today was Poem In Your Pocket Day. It's also Queen's Day and some crazy guy who got laid off drove his car into a crowd of spectators in the Netherlands. But, anyway, in honor of Poem in Your Pocket Day (and also because -- let's face it -- I wasn't about to post something original today anyway) I thought I would share a few of my favorite bite-sized poems (all by American authors, coincidentally).

This one I first read in the anthology from the creative writing class I took in college

We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

And then there's the famous non-apology by William Carlos Williams.

This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

And this one's a little longer, but why not include a little Emily Dickinson?

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

I found all these poems (and more) at Now if only I could remember/find this cool poem I remember reading about how black men landed on the moon first (on the dark side of the moon) and about being subjected to scientific examination. Grrr, it's going to kill me...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why I Hate the Tudors

I don't know why I haven't written about this before seeing as how I've been brewing on the topic for so long, but I really cannot stand the Showtime series The Tudors. I was really excited when I first heard how they were coming out with this Sopranos-style drama about the reign of Henry VIII and England's Tudor dynasty because (a) I'm a big history buff and this is a fun era to learn about and (b) at the time I liked Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the actor who was playing Henry. But, for me at least, the series has been a big disappointment: I stopped watching about halfway through Season 1 because I just couldn't stand it anymore. More recently, I tuned in to the first few episodes of Season 3, tempted by promos that showed Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour and the Dissolution of the Monasteries/Pilgrimage of Grace uprising. I found out that, although the Anne Boleyn story arc may be over, all the same problems that irritated me remain. Let's countdown my issues with the show...

Problem #3: Historical Inaccuracies

The Tudors has a lot of these – some small and some big. Let me give you just a few examples of major rewriting of history in the show's first season. First, there's Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who was Henry's bastard son and the only illegitimate child he officially recognized as his offspring. On the show Richmond is a young boy when he dies, but in real life he survived until the age of 17. At one point, Henry may have even been considering the idea of grooming the young man to be his heir seeing as how he was having so much trouble producing a legitimate son.

Then there's King Henry's sister. On the Tudors there is a character called Princess Margaret who is first married to an elderly King of Portugal whom she murders! (smothering him with a pillow) before going on to marry Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (Henry's main bro, see problem #2). Margaret later dies, and there's no mention of her having any children with Suffolk. In real life, Henry's sister PRINCESS MARY was married to the elderly King Louis XII of France (on the TV show they had already introduced Louis' successor Francois I as King of France so I guess they decided to move the story to Portugal). There's no evidence that the old king was murdered, but many historians suggest he over-strained his heart trying to produce an heir with his young wife. Mary then did go on to marry Suffolk whom she bore three children: this is kind of important given that their granddaughter Lady Jane Grey would be put on the throne as Queen of England for like a minute after the death of Henry's son Edward VI. Not only that, but the real Princess Margaret, another sister of Henry's who is excised from the story in the Tudors, married King James IV of Scotland. She was the mother of James V and grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, rival to Queen Elizabeth.

These historical revisions really irked me and were a major reason I stopped watching the show. I understand how – you know – this is a work of fiction (kind of a trashy one at that), and I could overlook some use of dramatic license – maybe playing around with the chronology of events in order to speed up the pace. But these are some major points. The producers of the Tudors have to understand that there are lots of Tudor-era enthusiasts out there who are familiar with all the minor details of the period down to Anne Boleyn's eye color and who don't appreciate these liberties they're taking with history. Plus, why do they have to make shit up: isn't the true story dramatic enough?? Henry VIII was a tyrant and a womanizer who broke his country away from the Catholic Church, started his own religion, married six times, had numerous extra-martial affairs, and put hundreds of people to death (including two of the aforementioned wives).

Problem #2: Henry VIII was not Vincent Chase

Another thing that bugged me in the 1st season (I suspect this might not apply as much to the subsequent seasons) is this whole Entourage vibe that pervaded the show. Henry VIII and his posse of bros always seemed to be carrying on like sixteenth-century frat boys what with all their carousing, attending/participating in jousts, hunting, and most of all chasing after women at court. Sure, as a young man Henry was athletic (incidentally, Henry was already in his thirties by the time he started his affair with Anne Boleyn) and we all know he was a playah, but I think as King of England he did a bit more then just chase skirt and hang with the boys. Plus the guys on the show just all seemed like such douches it became painful to watch.

Problem #1: Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes a TERRIBLE Henry VIII

This right here is over 50% of why I hate this show. Before the Tudors came along I liked JRM, I would have even called myself a fan (ugh, what was wrong with me?). But his Henry VIII sucks. Let's put aside the fact that he looks nothing like the real Henry who was fair-haired and super tall for his time (6'3"). Maybe Henry didn't start packing on the pounds until later in his life, but I think he was broad shouldered and athletic rather than model thin and androgenous like JRM.

Worse then that JRM plays Henry as a spoiled child. He also doesn't seem very smart: watching the show it seemed like Henry's treatise in defense of the Catholic faith (Assertio Septum Sacramentorum) was a joke and any praise it got was just an attempt to flatter a vain prince. In reality Henry VIII was purportedly very learned (he was actually studying to be a priest before his brother Arthur died), and his Defense was well regarded at the time.

JRM's Henry basically has two emotions, sexy/seductive and angry/petulant, and the way he expresses the two they're surprisingly similar. In recent episodes, I noticed that his disappointment at the fact that his new bride was not yet with child was basically indistinguishable from his reaction to news that peasants in the North were rising up against his Protestant reforms and had ceased control of York.

I don't think this is just a conscious decision JRM made about how he would play the role. No, I think it boils down to the undeniable fact that he is just not a very good actor. I guess I didn't notice this so much in the movies I had seen him in prior to the Tudors. His roles in Bend It Like Beckham and Julie Taymor's movie Titus weren't that large or demanding, and I guess Velvet Goldmine and that BBC miniseries of Gormenghast (I loved those books by the way, one of the best endings ever) were stylized/weird enough for him to get away with it. But he just can't pull off the complex character of Henry VIII (portrayed by the likes of Richard Burton) and in the Tudors his is the starring role. It's the kind of performance (like Natalie Portman's crap turn as Anne Boleyn in the Other Boleyn Girl -- that's a subject for another post) that makes you reassess what you've seen of his previous work ("gee, come to think of it, I guess he's never acted any other way but sexy/pouty/angry in EVERYTHING I'VE EVER SEEN HIM IN!)

Since I formulated this opinion, I've also watched Woody Allen's Match Point: JRM wasn't awful in that but it's a less challenging role (also he stars opposite Scarjo who just had to look sexy throughout 60% of the movie). Now I'm wondering about his performance in that Elvis miniseries as I remember hearing at the time that it was really convincing. Could this go against my JRM can't act theory, or is his Elvis impersonation just all about him being pouty and sexy (maybe with a curled lip? oh, I can totally see it)....

This reminds me of when Nicole pointed out to me that Milla Jovovich (another model/actor) really has like one facial expression (if you've ever seen one of her movies you know what I'm talking about, wide eyes mouth open) which she manages to get a lot of mileage out of. In different contexts it can connote religious ecstasy, surprise, fear, wonder...

Images: Jonathan Rhys Meyers from Showtime's the Tudors, as Steerpike in the BBC's Gormenghast,. Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element, the Messenger, and Resident Evil all taken from her official website.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bailout Blues: Part II

Continuing our discussion of the big bank bailout...

What is the government doing?

It's all pretty confusing, but there seem to be two prongs to the Obama administration's rescue plan for the financial sector: buying up "toxic assets" and lending money to bail out banks.

The logic behind the government buying some of these risky, devalued assets from financial institutions is that getting this junk off their books will restore the market's confidence in the institutions and that it will allow the banks to keep/resume providing businesses and private citizens with the credit they need to function. This is also supposed to help create a market for these assets which, at present, no one wants to touch with a 10-foot-pole. The big question is what price is the government paying for these assets? The treasury assures us that by including private businesses in the buying process, it is insuring that the government is paying a "fair market price," but a lot of people disagree (and it is a fact that the government overpaid for some of the assets it has already purchased). I think the government's willingness to buy these assets ("creating a market") is necessarily going to drive up their market price. Whereas this initiative basically presumes that these assets are worth something and that they've been devalued in part because of investors' excessive panic and fear, some experts would argue that – no – a lot of these assets are actually going to further decrease in value. Thus, there's a fear that (a) the government is helping to once again artificially inflate the value of this junk and (b) we are essentially nationalizing losses, while keeping profits private – the banks get the worthless assets off their books and the US taxpayer is left holding the bag. Incidentally, these toxic assets are being managed for the Treasury by the BlackRock investment firm under three no-bid contracts whose price is being kept secret.

Together with buying up toxic assets, the government is also injecting capital into "healthy" institutions (i.e. institutions that can survive). In return for these loans, the treasury is mostly taking preference shares which are kind of like debt instruments in that they lack voting-rights but have certain guarantees for a return on the investment in the form of dividends. A lot of people think the treasury is not exercising enough control and oversight over what is actually being done with this money it's handing out. The government wants the recipients to use the money in order to keep lending rather than horde it, pass it on to shareholders, or use it to reward executives. Now, the issue of executive compensation is bit of a distraction since the amount of money involved is relatively small, but at the same time the public outrage over recipient companies handing out employee bonuses and spending funds on things like expensive corporate retreats is TOTALLY justified. How dare these companies keep compensating their employees the same way they did during the boom when they are only staying afloat thanks to government assistance!

Some people argue that the administration needs to grow a pair and start taking more control of these institutions, but assuming direct control would probably raise its own thorny issues. First, there's the conflict of interest I mentioned in Part I (protecting our investment v. doing whats best for the economy as a whole). Also, I could just imagine "zombie banks" controlled by government officials being made to keep lending out money to keep the economy running while they're intrinsically bankrupt.

More recently, given that Congress has made it clear that what with popular sentiment hardening against Wall Street they're unlikely to be approving a lot more funds for the rescue program, the administration has talked about converting a lot of these preference shares into common shares so as to provide banks with much needed equity. If the government is going to become the majority shareholder of some of these institutions is it going to start acting like one and exercising more control?

What's the problem?


Now a lot of the big banks are announcing that they're showing better than expect profits for the 1st Quarter of 2009. But these results are mostly bullshit: they're based on all the money they've gotten from the government and on using new accounting principles that allow them to abandon the market price standard for valuing distressed securities in an illiquid market (This is the opposite of what I said we need to do!). If the banks are going to be all like "yey, we're getting better!" but it's all bullshit, we're setting ourselves up for another fall further down the road.

Obama administration

People who disapprove of the job the Obama administration's been doing can point to the fact that his "experts" all of course come from the broken system which caused this crisis. Treasury Secretary Geithner was President of the NY Federal Reserve Bank where, according to an article in Sunday's NYTimes, he had close relationships with Wall Street executives and "often aligned himself with the industry's interests and desires." Many of the top aides Geithner invited to join him in the Treasury department worked for companies like Citibank and Goldman Sachs. Paul Volckner – another top Obama economic advisor and head of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board – used to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernake is of course a less-skilled disciple of Greenspan. Is it surprising then that critics accuse this bunch of being overeager to save Wall Street institutions from the results of their own mistakes through generous use of taxpayer funds?

Do we trust these people to wield all that power and to make the right decisions on how to overhaul the sector? Are they all too close to the problem to see the solution? Are they of the mindset that what's good for Wall Street is good for America on the whole? Are they perhaps more likely to design a recovery program that leaves THEIR system intact as much as possible and leaves their buddies' institutions with the fewest scratches possible when tougher action might be better in the long run?


Let's not overlook the clowns and corporate flunkies in Congress. Remember when everyone was up in arms about AIG paying out retention bonuses to employees after just getting a multi-billion dollar loan from Uncle Sam? Well, Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn, former longshot presidential candidate) introduced an amendment to the stimulus bill which purportedly restricted executive pay for bailout recipients, but at some point a clause was inserted specifically exempting bonuses agreed to under contracts signed before a certain date. Dodd is Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee so you can be sure he has lots of ties to Wall Street. Moreover, since the furor exploded over the AIG bonuses, it's come to light that Dodd received big political contributions from a couple of AIG employees.

But again that's all small potatoes. Congress' greatest crime in helping enable this financial crisis happened in 1999 when they overwhelmingly voted to repeal provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act which regulated banking activities and placed limits on speculation. I have no doubt many legislators were motivated in part by the influence of the banking lobby which wanted these "outdated" regulations lifted. Some were also motivated by an ideological belief in deregulation and in trusting in the market to ultimately do what's best when it's left alone. This viewpoint has of course now been exposed as foolhardy.

What is to be done?

I have to say that I am not entirely comfortable with all the power being concentrated in the hands of the Treasury department without much in the way of checks and balances, oversight, or disclosure. Some (like moderate conservative NYTimes columnist David Brooks who was on Charlie Rose the other night) might say that it's actually a good thing that more decision-making power is going into the hands of these knowledgeable technocrats (and out of the hands of those incompetents and idiots in Congress). On the other hand, let's not forget that they are also unelected officials with strong ties to the financial system and to friends on Wall Street.

I guess the bailout question was bound to be a thorny one, and it's almost inevitable that the solution would be messy and involve expending government funds – some of which will inevitably be lost forever and should just be written off now. But I think the next step is even more important. Namely, after the flames die down a little, what sort of new rules and regulations is the federal government going to step up and introduce? Will they start regulating hedge funds and the derivatives market? What sort of accounting principles will ultimately be embraced for assessing the value of what we are now calling toxic assets? I really hope this is where the real Change (with that big "c") will come.

Photo by David Mills/NYTimes

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bailout Blues

Wow, I haven’t posted anything in over two months. Maybe I should try and get those blogging juices flowing again with one of my ever popular political rants. The topic I want to address today is the financial crisis and the bailout.

Lately I’ve been following a lot of links to articles about how the economic recovery is coming along and the general consensus seems to be “not so good.” I’m not talking about the politicians and pundits on the right whose attacks on the Obama administration’s actions are mostly motivated by blatant partisanship – Obama bailing out the banks is SOCIALISM!, never mind that Bush was gearing up to do the exact same thing back when he was president – I’m talking about economists who know what they’re talking about. Here’s my synthesis on what I’ve gleamed the problem is…

The Problem

Over the last sixth months our financial sector has fallen apart due to systemic problems. The crisis goes deeper than just the fallout from the real estate bubble bursting and housing prices going down: it’s about letting banks, brokers, hedge funds and other operators in the financial market engage in shady activities, it’s about not enough oversight from the government institutions that are supposed to be safeguarding the market (like the SEC); and it’s about rules and accounting principles that allowed for the overvaluation of what turned out to be very risky assets.

For decades, profits had been soaring for financial institutions and everyone wanted to believe that they could go on like that forever. When crises like Enron popped up (which today seem like historical footnotes, nothing more than portents foreshadowing the much bigger meltdown that was to come) the system managed and contained the fallout and this created the illusion that the system was strong and could handle any problems that might arise in the future. This was the legacy of Alan Greenspan. And as for all those derivative financial assets that people had invented in order to raise money in creative new ways, and which most people never really understood (or understand), nobody wanted to listen to the few naysayers and Cassandras who suggested that they might carry more risk than everyone was assuming and that they were thus overvalued.

What do we do?

So now the house of cards has come crashing down. A systemic failure like this seems to demand big change. I don’t know a whole lot about the world of finance, but I know enough that I can say there need to be stricter rules regarding what different types of institutions can and cannot do, more and better monitoring by oversight authorities, and there need to be tougher accounting principles telling companies what value to assign to these mysterious derivative assets.

The other side of this big change is that we must accept that when the storm clouds clear the financial sector should look very different. First, there needs to be a shift in attitude: financial operators should be chastened after this, and they should get used to taking less risks and, in turn, accepting lower (some would say "more reasonable") profits. That's the easy part. The hard part is deciding what to do with these big name institutions that are failing. One option is maybe put them into receivership (the company goes bankrupt, shareholders are wiped out, a new entity is formed with all the creditors as shareholders, the new entity tries to pick up the pieces and become profitable again). Another option: if the government is going to bail out institutions that can’t fail, it can assume more control over the recipient institutions. The obvious (and extreme) move would be for the government to call the bailout money an equity investment and for it to get shares of common stock in return. In a lot of cases this would result in the US government becoming the majority shareholder (or at least the largest plurality shareholder) in which case it could (and probably should?) use its voting rights to tell the institution exactly what it should do. Of course, this would create an interesting conflict of interest for the government (protecting the taxpayers’ equity investment in the bank vs. the interests of the financial industry as a whole) as well as putting taxpayers’ investment at risk (if the value of the stock goes down, the government will lose money on its investment). In Europe, some banks were nationalized in the '70s and '80s and feelings are mixed about how that turned out.

So, yeah, the question of what we should actually do with the floundering big name institutions is problematic. But a wishy-washy solution such as the government simply loaning money to the banks or the government insuring or buying those toxic assets may not be enough to fix the problem. Loans don’t give the banks the capital they need, and the government isn’t doing much to control how the money is used (which might be a bad thing). Temporarily inflating the value of these crappy assets by insuring them (hoping, I guess, that the real value will someday go back up) is just putting a band aid over the crack in the dam and it basically assures there will be more problems down the line. And as far as buying the toxic assets from the banks, would this amount to “nationalizing loss” while leaving the banks to enjoy future "private gains"?

I guess that's enough to chew on for one post. Stay tuned for Part II where I'll discuss what the government is actually doing and whether it's good or bad.

Wall Street photo taken from