Home to Roost
or the banker as chicken

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

The following YouTube Kay Ryan insert illustrates how interestingly beautiful life can turn amidst language commons.

On Obama's tax Plan

Paying taxes is a suckers' game for many. Too often, big money is being spent on tax avoidance schemes, which in turn distort behavior. Apparently, some individuals cannot think of what it takes to run modern states, while corporations have become states within states.

Our presidential hopefuls make all kinds of tax-related promises that are either unrealistic or incompletely specified. Even if McCain were to win, he could only raise taxes. Obama has come out as favoring tax-increases for those families making more than $250,000/year. Since Obama appears to have better chances to win, I will quote a couple of tax-related comments pertaining to his tax plan:
1) I'm a Democrat and an Obama supporter -- a volunteer, in fact. I am also a salaried professional, married to Joe the construction manager. Together, we earn about $250,000 a year, after deductions, and therefore will be paying higher taxes under Obama's tax plan. This even though we live in the NYC metro area, where the cost of living is 2.5 times the national average. That means that our income has the purchasing power of $100,000 in Podunk. We ain't starving, but neither are we Mr. & Mrs. Richie the Hedge Fund Manager.

My point is that Obama's plan will in fact impact the urban, professional middle class. Most of us are voting for him, but let's be honest; we are paying high taxes already here in Westchester County, plus high energy costs, plus high health care costs, and the extra $3,000 or so per year that Obama's plan will cost a family in my income bracket will not come easily.

I wish that Obama would include a "cost of living" adjustment in his tax plan, so that middle-class professionals in big cities wouldn't take a hit. On the other hand, if I have to sacrifice so that Richie finally pays his share, then I'll bite the bullet.

— KT, Chappaqua, NY

2) My husband and I have worked hard over the course of our careers. Now that we are in our late 50s, we are mature in our professions and in our earning capacities. After many years of post-graduate education, we each attained the credentials necessary for our respective professions, and we have each subsequently put in countless hours (and immeasurable passion) to serve, in his case, patients, and, in my case, clients. We net more than $250,000 annually. Although we are now worried about the value of our investments, we are still looking forward to a comfortable retirement in the next decade.

While we don't particularly enjoy paying taxes, we do enjoy being citizens of the United States. We do expect to contribute to the education, infrastructure, public health, social welfare, safety, and culture of the country we live in. We do want to do our part to insure its future. So, while we may sigh when we write checks to the IRS, we also take some satisfaction in the belief that we are integral to the success of our country. Moreover, because we can afford to pay a larger share of our income than others can, we expect to do so.

Regardless of our professional success, however, we still are limited in our income potential by our relying principally on reimbursement for our labor. There are many others in the over $250,000/year category with incomes much greater than ours. There are many whose earnings come from their investments or their executive positions enabling them to partake of large shares of corporate earnings. Fairness requires that these individuals pay even greater amounts/percentages of their income than those of us who are essentially high-earning workers do. The tax rate needs to continue to slide upward, for top incomes go way, way, way above $250,000 annually. Those corporate executives who take millions in cash, bonuses, and stocks do not even breathe the same air as my husband and I. Their tax rate has to be greater than ours. In the tax realm, that's all I ask of Obama when he takes over the reins of this country, which he will do, and not a moment too soon.

— Shelley, Santa Barbara

Andrew Lahde's Farewell Letter

October 17, 2008

Today I write not to gloat. Given the pain that nearly everyone is experiencing, that would be entirely inappropriate. Nor am I writing to make further predictions, as most of my forecasts in previous letters have unfolded or are in the process of unfolding. Instead, I am writing to say good-bye.

Recently, on the front page of Section C of the Wall Street Journal, a hedge fund manager who was also closing up shop (a $300 million fund), was quoted as saying, “What I have learned about the hedge fund business is that I hate it.” I could not agree more with that statement. I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy, only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.

There are far too many people for me to sincerely thank for my success. However, I do not want to sound like a Hollywood actor accepting an award. The money was reward enough. Furthermore, the endless list of those deserving thanks know who they are.

I will no longer manage money for other people or institutions. I have enough of my own wealth to manage. Some people, who think they have arrived at a reasonable estimate of my net worth, might be surprised that I would call it quits with such a small war chest. That is fine; I am content with my rewards. Moreover, I will let others try to amass nine, ten or eleven figure net worths. Meanwhile, their lives suck. Appointments back to back, booked solid for the next three months, they look forward to their two week vacation in January during which they will likely be glued to their Blackberries or other such devices. What is the point? They will all be forgotten in fifty years anyway. Steve Balmer, Steven Cohen, and Larry Ellison will all be forgotten. I do not understand the legacy thing. Nearly everyone will be forgotten. Give up on leaving your mark. Throw the Blackberry away and enjoy life.

So this is it. With all due respect, I am dropping out. Please do not expect any type of reply to emails or voicemails within normal time frames or at all. Andy Springer and his company will be handling the dissolution of the fund. And don’t worry about my employees, they were always employed by Mr. Springer’s company and only one (who has been well-rewarded) will lose his job.

I have no interest in any deals in which anyone would like me to participate. I truly do not have a strong opinion about any market right now, other than to say that things will continue to get worse for some time, probably years. I am content sitting on the sidelines and waiting. After all, sitting and waiting is how we made money from the subprime debacle. I now have time to repair my health, which was destroyed by the stress I layered onto myself over the past two years, as well as my entire life – where I had to compete for spaces in universities and graduate schools, jobs and assets under management – with those who had all the advantages (rich parents) that I did not. May meritocracy be part of a new form of government, which needs to be established.

On the issue of the U.S. Government, I would like to make a modest proposal. First, I point out the obvious flaws, whereby legislation was repeatedly brought forth to Congress over the past eight years, which would have reigned in the predatory lending practices of now mostly defunct institutions. These institutions regularly filled the coffers of both parties in return for voting down all of this legislation designed to protect the common citizen. This is an outrage, yet no one seems to know or care about it. Since Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith passed, I would argue that there has been a dearth of worthy philosophers in this country, at least ones focused on improving government. Capitalism worked for two hundred years, but times change, and systems become corrupt. George Soros, a man of staggering wealth, has stated that he would like to be remembered as a philosopher. My suggestion is that this great man start and sponsor a forum for great minds to come together to create a new system of government that truly represents the common man’s interest, while at the same time creating rewards great enough to attract the best and brightest minds to serve in government roles without having to rely on corruption to further their interests or lifestyles. This forum could be similar to the one used to create the operating system, Linux, which competes with Microsoft’s near monopoly. I believe there is an answer, but for now the system is clearly broken.

Lastly, while I still have an audience, I would like to bring attention to an alternative food and energy source. You won’t see it included in BP’s, “Feel good. We are working on sustainable solutions,” television commercials, nor is it mentioned in ADM’s similar commercials. But hemp has been used for at least 5,000 years for cloth and food, as well as just about everything that is produced from petroleum products. Hemp is not marijuana and vice versa. Hemp is the male plant and it grows like a weed, hence the slang term. The original American flag was made of hemp fiber and our Constitution was printed on paper made of hemp. It was used as recently as World War II by the U.S. Government, and then promptly made illegal after the war was won. At a time when rhetoric is flying about becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy, why is it illegal to grow this plant in this country? Ah, the female. The evil female plant – marijuana. It gets you high, it makes you laugh, it does not produce a hangover. Unlike alcohol, it does not result in bar fights or wife beating. So, why is this innocuous plant illegal? Is it a gateway drug? No, that would be alcohol, which is so heavily advertised in this country. My only conclusion as to why it is illegal, is that Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other addictive drugs, than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers. This policy is ludicrous. It has surely contributed to our dependency on foreign energy sources. Our policies have other countries literally laughing at our stupidity, most notably Canada, as well as several European nations (both Eastern and Western). You would not know this by paying attention to U.S. media sources though, as they tend not to elaborate on who is laughing at the United States this week. Please people, let’s stop the rhetoric and start thinking about how we can truly become self-sufficient.

With that I say good-bye and good luck.

All the best,
Andrew Lahde

Gimme the next bubble!

After a long sequence of not doing the right thing-s, our western world is headed if not down then lower. " Down" is probably too sudden relative to how history evolves and the preparedness of the Chinese, or lack thereof.

The "low," as I see it, can be described in terms of under-, and un-employment, but one can think of many other metrics.

In the US, even if the ever shifting targets of the (now) $700Bn TARP are reached, how does this address the more real problem of jobs creation? For the time being, the voices one can hear, from the House Speaker Pelosi to ├╝ber-investor Buffet, sound optimistic about the financial prospects of the system and pessimistic about jobs.

So, one gets the feeling that the government has extricated itself from several of the responsibilities associated with running the state. We've come to rely on Wall Street to sort out most society decision-making needs--from pensions to child-care, from environment to efficient allocation of resources, from war to peace.

That free markets have more in common with flea markets than financial markets is a fact we painfully reckon with periodically. And, re-adjusting for such facts, read bailing the system out, is probably a tax on our beliefs (e.g. in smaller government) and hope that the next bubble will rescue ME. Somehow, the growing problem with Wall Street is that it needs more money each time it's crying for rescue.

Bush tried to privatize social security for he most probably learned about the real problem in the economy 8 years ago to these days. Failing to privatize social security, and succeeding only moderately to stimulate jobs growth with the Iraq War, he had given free hand to the bankers.

Yet, for people like us, the recession started in 2000-2001. By “us” I mean people who have not worked in: defense, real estate, healthcare (insurance, included), banking. Now, one can only wish the military Keynesianism had been applied towards national infrastructures instead of sand castles in Iraq…

Most probably, the upcoming elections will effect a kind of Keynesianism different from the one characterizing the last 8 years. If this is going to be the case, healthcare automation and alternative energy would be two areas where bubblets, if not bubbles, are likely to develop.

As a side issue, the huge size of our economic/financial actors has dealt these days' near fatal blow to our system, yet nobody seems to notice that most all solutions lead to even further size increases and fewer players.

Wall Street: How good of an approximation for market-based capitalism?

Four months ago I challenged the LinkedIn community with a topic titled "Survival of Capitalism." Last week, one of my LinkedIn connections asked the question "Is capitalism dead?"

Needless to say, within the time between these two almost identical questions, the answers have taken quite different paths. Here's what I've learned myself, or how I replied to the second question:
There is a useful distinction between capitalism and free markets as illustrated by Arrighi and others. According to Arrighi, the US form of capitalism entered its final stage in the 1970s. Moreover, capitalism does not die, it just goes to live in another country, with better/more accommodating systems.

At this point in time, increasingly, the answer to your question is in the hands of the US creditor(s). They'll have an increasing say in how the capitalism evolves from here on.

On the other hand, I raised a very similar question to yours, about 4 months ago. I was not aware at that time of the distinction between capitalism and free markets, yet I felt there was something rotten in capitalism. Worth reading are all the answers at that time--see also the implicit "socialist" cries from folks in very regulated industries....
As I've been writing about markets and their actors for some time, allow me to reference the following: Wall Street: How good of an approximation it makes? ... for market-based capitalism?

my takes on the short and medium term future

There is a lot of talk about the upward gyrations in prices and one can easily look for answers in whatever quarter suits one's taste. Here in the US, the loudest voice seems to attribute this to the growth in demand from places like China and India. Across the Atlantic, speculation is considered as source if the problem.

Recently, I wrote the following in response to a question posted on LinkedIn by a fellow professional (Would you agree with these predictions).

In the best case scenario, we are one to two years away from an unqualified uptrend.

Internationally speaking, follow: Iran-Israel-NATO, the ability and willingness of the Chinese to maintain growth in today's terms.

In the US, follow: elections, war(s) cost/debt, interest rates vs. inflation, policy, institutional restructuring, immigration.

Upon deciding which way the above variables are likely to swing, the particular answers to your questions come closer to one's reach. Right now, it is not the intrinsic state of any one economy that creates as much problem as the general level of uncertainty.

boltzmann's brain

A recent NYTimes article on Boltzmann's Brain poses a few problems about our being (self aware as) the result of a stochastic fluctuation in the level of entropy, or the sense of time. Especially in our (en-)lightened cities, where star gazing has become a mere metaphor, such problems are as powerful as disturbing.

a world of change

Amidst the electoral noise, ranging from Ron Paul's ghost state to John McCain's 100-year long involvement in Iraq, Waving Goodbye to Hegemony, a recent NYTimes piece by PARAG KHANNA, makes for a timely and noteworthy change in perspective. Even though business people are not its main target, they would learn a great many lesson, as well. In fact, the aforementioned article, together with works like The 86 Percent Solution: How to Succeed in the Biggest Market Opportunity of the 21st Century should give business people plenty of food for thought. Indeed, in a recent LinkedIn Q&A exchange, Steve Terry, President with Triact Associates, had to say the following about the The 86 Percent Solution:
I think the biggest challenge is for product marketing pros in the wealthy nations to get their minds wrapped around the daily concerns of folks with very litte money. Things we take for granted (reliable utilities, quality medical care, cheap transportation) are top-of-mind for the 86% of humanity.

If western companies don't change their mindset, or create subsidiaries to address these markets, the consequence is that producers in India and China will clean up. While we may think of China as the manufacturer for the (rich) world, their local talent is better able to imagine and design products for the 86% market than the industrial giants of the west.
And now, here's an excerpt with Parag Khanna's recommendations. See what's in them for you and your business.

Less Can Be More

So let’s play strategy czar. You are a 21st-century Kissinger. Your task is to guide the next American president (and the one after that) from the demise of American hegemony into a world of much more diffuse governance. What do you advise, concretely, to mitigate the effects of the past decade’s policies — those that inspired defiance rather than cooperation — and to set in motion a virtuous circle of policies that lead to global equilibrium rather than a balance of power against the U.S.?

First, channel your inner J.F.K. You are president, not emperor. You are commander in chief and also diplomat in chief. Your grand strategy is a global strategy, yet you must never use the phrase “American national interest.” (It is assumed.) Instead talk about “global interests” and how closely aligned American policies are with those interests. No more “us” versus “them,” only “we.” That means no more talk of advancing “American values” either. What is worth having is universal first and American second. This applies to “democracy” as well, where timing its implementation is as important as the principle itself. Right now, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, the hero of the second world — including its democracies — is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

We have learned the hard way that what others want for themselves trumps what we want for them — always. Neither America nor the world needs more competing ideologies, and moralizing exhortations are only useful if they point toward goals that are actually attainable. This new attitude must be more than an act: to obey this modest, hands-off principle is what would actually make America the exceptional empire it purports to be. It would also be something every other empire in history has failed to do.

Second, Pentagonize the State Department. Adm. William J. Fallon, head of Central Command (Centcom), not Robert Gates, is the man really in charge of the U.S. military’s primary operations. Diplomacy, too, requires the equivalent of geographic commands — with top-notch assistant secretaries of state to manage relations in each key region without worrying about getting on the daily agenda of the secretary of state for menial approvals. Then we’ll be ready to coordinate within distant areas. In some regions, our ambassadors to neighboring countries meet only once or twice a year; they need to be having weekly secure video-conferences. Regional institutions are thriving in the second world — think Mercosur (the South American common market), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Persian Gulf. We need high-level ambassadors at those organizations too. Taken together, this allows us to move beyond, for example, the current Millennium Challenge Account — which amounts to one-track aid packages to individual countries already going in the right direction — toward encouraging the kind of regional cooperation that can work in curbing both terrorism and poverty. Only if you think regionally can a success story have a demonstration effect. This approach will be crucial to the future of the Pentagon’s new African command. (Until last year, African relations were managed largely by European command, or Eucom, in Germany.) Suspicions of America are running high in Africa, and a country-by-country strategy would make those suspicions worse. Finally, to achieve strategic civilian-military harmonization, we have to first get the maps straight. The State Department puts the Stans in the South and Central Asia bureau, while the Pentagon puts them within the Middle-East-focused Centcom. The Chinese divide up the world the Pentagon’s way; so, too, should our own State Department.

Third, deploy the marchmen. Europe is boosting its common diplomatic corps, while China is deploying retired civil servants, prison laborers and Chinese teachers — all are what the historian Arnold Toynbee called marchmen, the foot-soldiers of empire spreading values and winning loyalty. There are currently more musicians in U.S. military marching bands than there are Foreign Service officers, a fact not helped by Congress’s decision to effectively freeze growth in diplomatic postings. In this context, Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” is a myth: we don’t have enough diplomats for core assignments, let alone solo hardship missions. We need a Peace Corps 10 times its present size, plus student exchanges, English-teaching programs and hands-on job training overseas — with corporate sponsorship.

That’s right. In true American fashion, we must build a diplomatic-industrial complex. Europe and China all but personify business-government collusion, so let State raise money from Wall Street as it puts together regional aid and investment packages. American foreign policy must be substantially more than what the U.S. government directs. After all, the E.U. is already the world’s largest aid donor, and China is rising in the aid arena as well. Plus, each has a larger population than the U.S., meaning deeper benches of recruits, and are not political targets in the present political atmosphere the way Americans abroad are. The secret weapon must be the American citizenry itself. American foundations and charities, not least the Gates and Ford Foundations, dwarf European counterparts in their humanitarian giving; if such private groups independently send more and more American volunteers armed with cash, good will and local knowledge to perform “diplomacy of the deed,” then the public diplomacy will take care of itself.

Fourth, make the global economy work for us. By resurrecting European economies, the Marshall Plan was a down payment on even greater returns in terms of purchasing American goods. For now, however, as the dollar falls, our manufacturing base declines and Americans lose control of assets to wealthier foreign funds, our scientific education, broadband access, health-care, safety and a host of other standards are all slipping down the global rankings. Given our deficits and political gridlock, the only solution is to channel global, particularly Asian, liquidity into our own public infrastructure, creating jobs and technology platforms that can keep American innovation ahead of the pack. Globalization apologizes to no one; we must stay on top of it or become its victim.

Fifth, convene a G-3 of the Big Three. But don’t set the agenda; suggest it. These are the key issues among which to make compromises and trade-offs: climate change, energy security, weapons proliferation and rogue states. Offer more Western clean technology to China in exchange for fewer weapons and lifelines for the Sudanese tyrants and the Burmese junta. And make a joint effort with the Europeans to offer massive, irresistible packages to the people of Iran, Uzbekistan and Venezuela — incentives for eventual regime change rather than fruitless sanctions. A Western change of tone could make China sweat. Superpowers have to learn to behave, too.

Taken together, all these moves could renew American competitiveness in the geopolitical marketplace — and maybe even prove our exceptionalism. We need pragmatic incremental steps like the above to deliver tangible gains to people beyond our shores, repair our reputation, maintain harmony among the Big Three, keep the second world stable and neutral and protect our common planet. Let’s hope whoever is sworn in as the next American president understands this.

Additional material: "Global trends," a McKinsey paper by Ivo J. H. Bozon, Warren J. Campbell, and Mats Lindstrand

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