Search Box

Sunday, December 28, 2008


After 9/11, there was a three month period where the U.S. did nothing while it weighed its options. You could feel the nation growing more impatient by the day as the administration figured out exactly where to retaliate. I felt that impatience myself.

When, after three months, we declared victory, it was hard not to be proud. We seemed to have accomplished in three months what the Soviets had not been able to in ten years. (The ten years the Soviets were mired there from 1979 to 1989 did much to crush the morale of the Red Army and hasten the downfall of the Soviet empire.)

Now, after six and a half years, we're looking more and more like the Soviets.

The worst part is, no one seems to have a clear idea of exactly what it is we're supposed to be accomplishing over there. We wanted to topple the Taliban, which had supported al Qaeda, and we succeeded in doing that. But the Taliban has made a strong comeback recently. And it is fairly obvious that they will retake power as soon as we leave. We wanted to find Osama bin Laden, but he has remained strangely elusive. We are also engaged in that amorphous, uniquely American activity known as "nation-building." That goal now seems overly ambitious, particularly now that own nation so direly needs rebuilding.

Unfortunately, Obama is now making hawkish noises regarding Afghanistan. I've never gotten the impression he cares about waging war on a distant Muslim country. He cares far more about making sure black Americans get a larger slice of the pie, and about getting reelected. But because of the latter concern, he does not want to be viewed as soft on terrorism.

Terror is something the Afghans are all too familiar with. Theirs is a forbidding, arid, mountainous country (their highest mountain measures 24,557 feet), and the Hindu Kush, literally translated, means "Hindu killer" (so named for all the Hindus who died while trying to cross it). Due to their position at a geographical crossroads, they have been conquered by both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, but more recently have fought off the British and the Soviets. When they are not fighting off a foreign enemy, the local warlords battle each other instead. They also have numerous different ethnic groups, with Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities all at frequent odds with each other.

Warfare is their natural state. It is not ours.

So what exactly are we trying to do? To build a stable democracy which will prevent a resurgence of power by the Taliban? Afghanistan has never been a democracy, and if it did have a popular vote, it would probably elect the Taliban anyway. (After all, it is officially "The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.") Or maybe we're hoping to convince each of the local warlords that trying to increase his own base of power is a sin, and sinning is a no-no.

I propose a much more practical solution: bulldoze the mountains and transform the entire country into flat, arable farmland, then convince the populace that corn and wheat are more profitable than opium. Honestly, this would be just as easy to accomplish as what we are trying to do.

Fifty billion in perspective

Bernard Madoff is supposed to be cooperating with the authorities. It is possible that one, or two, or three of the missing fifty billion will somehow be recovered. But the rest of the money will simply vanish into thin air.

To appreciate exactly how thin the air is at that altitude, a few comparisons are in order.

Rod Blagojevich was ready to sell a Senate seat for half a million dollars. That is exactly 1/100,000th of the amount that Bernie made disappear.

When Dennis Levine was caught in the insider trading scandal of the late 1980's, he had made a total of 10.4 million, 1/5000th of fifty billion. (Admittedly, this was with 1987 dollars, but inflation has made only a small dent in that fraction.)

Robert Vesco, perhaps the most famous fugitive financier of all time, embezzled slightly over two hundred million from four funds he controlled. This is 1/250th.

In 1996, when Bill Gates was named the richest man in the world, his net worth was listed at $18.5 billion. (At his peak in 1999, at the height of the internet bubble, he was worth 90 billion. In 2005, he was ranked first with 46.5 billion.)

In 2005 the GNP of Kazakhstan (of "Borat" fame) was 44.4 billion. Luxembourg had 30.0 billion, and Yugoslavia had 26.8 billion.

There are plenty of comparisons to make. But for now Madoff is the grand champion, the Michael Phelps of scammers. Some day someone will come along to replace him. But let's hope -- for the sake of future investors -- that Madoff's reign lasts a long time.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Our liberal press

According to most polls, approximately 90% of reporters vote Democratic. It would be the height of naivete to imagine that their their viewpoints do not seep out beyond the editorial pages.

When I argue with liberals about this they will often say, "Well what about Fox News?" This is tacit acknowledgment that ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC all lean the other way. Not to mention the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times, etc, etc.

Two liberal friends, both smart guys, when presented with the 90% figure, each tried to argue, well, why do you think it is that reporters are liberal? One explained, "Once people have been out in the world for a while, once they've traveled and seen how things work, they tend to become more liberal."

What utter rubbish.

This presupposes two things. First is that reporters somehow start out at age 22 or 23 as blank slates, without any established political bias. Or maybe that they started out conservative, but then turned more liberal as they get older.

We've all heard the old quote, "If you're not liberal when you're young, you don't have a heart. And if you're not conservative when you're old, you don't have a brain." This overstates the case on both sides, but it is rare to see someone move leftward as they get older (and presumably wiser); usually the drift is in the other direction. There is no reason to think that reporters would be any different.

And the majority of people never change affiliations at all. (Can you picture the 24-year-old Barbra Streisand as a Young Republican?)

Ironically, the set of people who change their political affiliations the most often seem to be politicians. But this is less a matter of shifting core beliefs than political expediency. Senator Lieberman didn't change his affiliation from Democrat to Independent because he had a change of heart. He did so because he lost the Democratic primary in Connnecticut. If you look closely at other cases you'll find similar motivations.

The second presupposition of my friend's argument is that newpapers and television networks are somehow mini-democracies, where reporters of any persuasion can just sign up and slant the news whichever way they choose.

Not quite. It's the owners and managers of the media who will determine what its tone will be. The Sulzberger family doesn't write the editorials on the back pages of the New York Times. Nor do they compose the headlines on the front page. But they do choose which editors will do so, and they would never pick an editor whose views didn't reflect their own. Those editors in turn hire and fire those beneath them. So the masthead ends up very monochromatic, as it is with most of the national news media. (Maybe this has something to do with why so many reporters have a built in distrust for large corporations.)

There are plenty of conservative writers who would love to have their views publicized in a major newspaper like the Times. But you'll never see them there. Because people who don't toe the party line are either let go or simply sent to the gulag, i.e., assigned lesser beats. They often end up writing for local newspapers in Butte or Bangor. This tends to makes journalism a much less appealing profession for conservatives.

The NY Times has long had the motto, "All the news that's fit to print." This is supposed to make one appreciate that they don't print trashy tabloid gossip of the sort that lesser newspapers do. But the more one reads the paper, the more apparent it is that what it really means is, all the propaganda that's fit to print.

As another old adage goes, there's freedom of the press for those who own the press.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Marc Dreier way cooler than Bernie Madoff

Marc Dreier, currently cooling his heels in the Men's Correctional Facility in Manhattan, must be a little chagrinned. He pulled off -- or almost pulled off -- one of the most ingenious, creative, nervy scams in Wall Street history. Yet it is Bernie Madoff, with his tired old Ponzi scheme, who's getting all the publicity.

True, Madoff, with his missing fifty billion, will have more of an impact. Dreier took just chicken feed ($380 million) by comparison.

But from an artistic standpoint, Dreier has it all over Madoff. Dreier's scam was to sell fake promissory notes from large real estate companies to various hedge funds. He would do this by setting up an appointment with the representative of a hedge fund in the conference room of a real estate firm he did business with. Because Dreier's law firm did business with these real estate firms, the receptionists and lawyers were not surprised to see him there. And because of the location of the meeting, it was natural enough for the hedge funds to assume that Dreier was representing the real estate companies.

On one occasion, when Dreier was in Toronto on business, he met with a lawyer in a conference room, got his card, and then immediately afterwards impersonated that lawyer to a third party. That takes a fair amount of creativity as well as nerve.

It's like something that would happen in a movie.

This is part of the reason that while Madoff has been let out on $10 million bail, the judge overlooking the Dreier case decided that he is not to be let out for any reason, since he is a "master of impersonation and forged documents."

Dreier is a 1972 graduate of Yale and a 1975 graduate of Harvard Law. No word yet on which courses helped the most in pulling this scam off. (Of course, the most important thing those two schools teach you is that you're smarter than everyone else, and having that mindset undoubtedly helped encourage him to come up with the idea in the first place.)

Both Dreier and Madoff score stylistic points for the supposed sophistication of the investors they ripped off. Both men took some hedge funds, and Madoff also fleeced the Jewish elite of both New York and Palm Beach, as well as a few European banks and a handful of charities.

Neither man can quite claim to be Robin Hood. Although they took from the rich, they mostly gave to themselves. Both men kept several expensive residences as well as a yacht. Both were understandably secretive about their financial dealings and seem to have kept others at their own organizations in the dark about their machinations.

If a movie is made about either man, the 58 year old Dreier, a natty, even-featured presence, could be played by Michael Douglas. Madoff could be played by any number of older character actors; Dustin Hoffman comes to mind.

The SEC, which investigated Madoff a couple years ago and found nothing amiss, could provide comic relief in that all too common role, the bungling policemen.

Christopher Cox, the head of the SEC, might be played by Tom Hanks, in a reprise of his Forrest Gump role.

Thank George

For at least the next four years, if the Republicans object to the socialization of America, the Democrats will have a built in excuse:

"What are you talking about? Bush is the one who started us on the path to socialism when he bailed out Wall Street."

And they'll be right.

The Wall Street bailout originally seemed a necessary evil. After all, if the credit markets aren't operating, the whole country comes grinding to a standstill. Now that it has emerged that some of the rescue money may be going towards bonuses, that the original plan to buy bad mortgages has been abandoned, and that lending is still very tight, it's not so clear.

One thing that is clear is that if you're going to give money to the richest group of people in the country, it's hard to justify not giving it to everyone else.

The problem is, under Obama's plan, the group the bulk of the money is going to go to -- the construction industry -- has always been a festering mass of corruption, thanks in large part to the mob. And you just know that Obama's plan, instead of being a strictly regulated plan with honest competing bids, is going to turn into a Pandora's Box of who's got the right political connections, who can hire a minority frontman the quickest, and who knows how to grease the right palms.

Rebuilding the infrastructure may create some jobs, but it's the Rod Blagojeviches of this world who will really profit from this enterprise.

But once again, it's not as if Wall Street was any better: all the mortgage bankers eagerly selling subprime loans to people who were never going to be able to pay them back, then all the investment bankers then turning those loans into toxic collateralized debt obligations. The traders who inflated the credit default swap market to the point where Wall Street turned into a cannibalistic frenzy. All the hedge fund managers who turned out not to know what they were doing. Not even to mention the outright scammers like Bernard Madoff.

And away from Wall Street, the Republicans awarded those noncompete contracts to Halliburton and Blackwater over in Iraq.

All of which takes much of the steam out of any Republican protest that revving up the construction industry is going to create a big mess.

It's not as if the Democrats have come out of the past four years looking good either. Barney Frank was the one who erected a roadblock when McCain tried to investigate the types of loans that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were purchasing. And plenty of Wall Street titans were Democrats.

Still, it all happened under a Republican adminstration. And that is going to give the Democrats all the excuse they need to turn this country into Yugoslavia circa 1975.

Rod Blagojevich's only problem was that he came along at the wrong time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Caroline Kennedy for Senator?

Could someone please explain to me exactly what it is that this woman has done to merit being appointed a U.S. Senator?

Take a look at her Wikipedia entry. It says "she is an attorney, writer, editor, and serves on the boards of numerous non-profit organizations."

I don't mean to quibble, but she has never actually worked as an attorney. Her steadiest work came from 2002 to 2004 when she worked three days a week as Director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships for the New York City Department of Education, a fundraising job. (Something tells me those weren't ten hour days, either. I can't quite visualize the Schools Chancellor chiding, "Caroline, you're supposed to report for work at nine AM sharp, not come waltzing in here at 9:45. And no more personal calls during work hours!")

She is currently on the board of directors for The Fund for Public Schools, the Commission on Presidential Debates, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

She and her family created the Profiles in Courage Award, given to public officials who best demonstrate leadership in the spirit of her father's book. She is President of the Kennedy Library Foundation. She is an adviser to the Harvard Institute of Politics, a living memorial to her father. She is also an Honorary Chairman of the American Ballet Theater.

And she has written two books with Ellen Alderman on the subject of civil liberties. (Take a wild guess as to who did the heavy lifting there.)

In other words, she has spent her adulthood being a Professional Kennedy, and a dilettantish one at that. All of her appointments were obviously given to her because of her name. Her books undoubtedly got published because of her name as well.

Should she now be appointed U.S. Senator for the same reason?

Surely there must be someone who has spent his -- or her -- life in pubic service, at a job they worked at for more than two years, three days a week. How many New Yorkers currently serve in the U.S. House of Representatives? Are none of them suitable?

If you're going to give it to someone on the basis of name recognition and bloodlines, give it to her cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who at least has had a cause (environmentalism) he has dedicated his adult life to. Even as a former heroin addict, he deserves it more than her.

Andrew Cuomo, current New York State Attorney General and son of Mario, is more deserving than both of them.

But hasn't the American public had enough of dynasties after eight years of George W. Bush?

And shouldn't a Senatorial position require more than having ridden a pony named Macaroni around on the White House grounds as a young girl?

I smell a pretty strong sense of entitlement here.

Hey, wait a sec. If we appoint her, we'll be channeling Jack and Jackie! She'll be in the same seat her uncle Bobby used to have! She'll be coming in at the same time her uncle Teddy is fading out, maintaining our connection with history! This is the same seat that we all wanted John-John to run for! Didn't you see those adorable old black and white photos of her and her father playing in the Oval Office?!

We'll be bringing back Camelot!!

Oh, okay. In that case give her the seat.

Sorry, I didn't realize I was stepping in the way of history.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Schadenfreude time

This morning's NY Times had an article about a hedge fund manager entitled, "In Fraud Case, Middle Men In Spotlight."

It featured a picture of Walter Noel, dressed in an expensive jacket, with a big smile on his face and his arm around his wife Monica:

"As a go-between who shepherded clients and their money to Bernard L. Madoff, Walter M. Noel became so prosperous that he was only too happy to show off his good fortune to the world.

"In 2002, Vanity Fair dispatched the photographer Bruce Weber to shoot a lavish spread of Mr. Noel's wife and their five grown daughters at his home in Connecticut ("Golden in Greenwich", read the headline). That was followed, in 2005, by a Town and Country story on the Noel family's tropical retreat in Mustique.

"These houses -- joining Mr. Noel's addresses in Palm Beach and Southampton and on Park Avenue -- were visible evidence of his investment empire, the Fairfield Greenwich Group, which had $14.1 billion in February.

"Mr. Noel's firm, including four sons-in-law as partners, now has the distinction of being the biggest known loser in the Madoff scandal, to the tune of $7.5 billion."

Here is the question: what percent of the people who read this article are chortling over Mr. Noel's misfortune?

99.99%? Or 99.999%?

Your guess is as good as mine.

(The above numbers take into account that members of his immediate family probably subscribe.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What I want to look like when I grow up

A year or two ago, I saw the guy pictured above (the older version) in the locker room of the local Y. He was obviously well into his sixties, but was in tremendous shape and had one of the hardest-looking faces I've ever seen. (For some reason there are no recent pictures of him available where he's not smiling, but his usual expression looks more like a modified glower, which seems to be a function of bone structure rather than personality.) I thought, wow, a tough guy, we don't get too many of those in my hometown. He still looked like 175 pounds of testosterone on the hoof, which is rare for a guy of that age. (When you see a twenty year old who looks as if he's spoiling for a fight, you can't help but think, what a moron. But when you see a guy in his sixties who looks that way, it's hard not to think, what a man!)

He also looked as if his nose might have been broken at some point, so I got it into my head that he must have been a boxer. Just to satisfy my curiosity, I asked, "You look like you're in great shape, what was your sport?"

He replied mildly that he had played some football, but now found swimming to be great exercise, as it had actually brought his voice back. He added that he had started his show business career as a singer. I was slightly chagrined that I had been wrong about his sport, and the show business comment didn't really register. I just figured it was something he had done when he was young, before he had gone into whatever blue collar career he was in. (White collar guys never look that tough; though now that I think of it, neither do blue collar guys.)

A few weeks later I was standing by the side of the pool chatting with a woman when he walked by. The woman said, somewhat breathlessly, "That's Adam Chandler!" I asked, who? She explained that Chandler was a character on "All My Children" and that the fellow I had thought was a boxer was in fact David Canary, a well known actor.

The next time I saw him, I said, "I hadn't realized you were a big TV star."

Canary made a dismissive wave with his hand and growled, "Agh, just on a soap opera. You've got better things to do then watch soap operas." (What a great line.)

Each time I've seen him over the past couple years, I always think, now that's the way a man is supposed to look: rugged and chiseled. If Canary were an animal, with that mane of white hair and his fierce, regal mien, he'd be a lion. (I evoke a chimpanzee.)

A few weeks ago I said to him, "Please don't misinterpret, I'm not gay, but I have to say, you're one of the most magnificent-looking men I've ever seen." (A more confident man would not have needed that preface, and would have spoken more slowly and emphatically; I, of course, felt obliged to include the preface and blurted the whole thing out too quickly.)

He said, "Oh, I've seen your children" in response to the preface, then added, after I was done, "I have to question your eyesight, but....thank you." Once again, I thought, what a great line; he must get plenty of opportunity to use it.

(If you're thinking it's a little weird for me to be talking to a seventy year old man as if he's a twenty year old girl, well, I can't argue.)

A week later I bumped into him again. I tried to cover up my sheepishness by saying, "You know, it's not every day I go up to another guy and tell him how good-looking he is."

He smiled slightly and replied, "I've replayed that conversation in my head several times since." Then he reached out to shake hands. He knew just what to do to make me feel less foolish.

A few observations. First, good-looking people often seem to be all cheekbone. I have to maintain myself at the absolute peak of fitness in order for my tiny cheekbones to even be perceptible. Canary could actually allow himself to get fat and those things would still be sticking out about half a mile on either side of his head.

Second, the camera seems to love people with almost exaggerated features. I once saw the actor Matt Dillon in person, at another gym. I was struck by how he looked almost like a cartoon version of himself in real life, with cheekbones that seemed even more prominent than they did onscreen.

Third, the above picture of Canary on the left, when he was younger, makes him look hyper-androgenized, i.e., as if he were exposed to an excess of male hormones in the womb. (Male hormones tend to make the jaw larger and stronger, the forehead more prominent, the Adam's apple more prominent, and the eyes deeper, among other things.) Evidently Canary made a living in the 1970's, post-Bonanza and pre-All My Children, playing bad guys on TV. You can see how he would have been cast that way.

Guys with a lot of male hormones are generally more intimidating, brutal, and even violent in real life. So directors like to cast men with hyper-androgenized faces as villains. Think Jack Palance in Shane. Or think of the number of times that acromegalics -- who are huge guys with exaggeratedly manly features -- have been cast in roles which call for intimidation. For instance, Richard Kiel ("Jaws" in the James Bond movies), or the guy who had the knife fight with Paul Newman/Butch Cassidy, or Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride.

Comic book artists also take this into account. The bad guys inevitably have big, prominent jaws and deep set eyes, as well as bodies that look as if they've ingested massive doses of steroids. (Then again, so do the good guys. Comic book readers want their heroes to be just as manly as the villains, and one look at Superman's jawline and bulging neck show that, kryptonite or not, he's got the right hormonal mix.) Stan Lee knew what he was doing.

After I first found out who Canary was (everyone in town except me seemed to know), I Googled him and saw that he had been in Hombre, in my opinion one of the four greatest Westerns of all time. I watched it again and was impressed by how well he played the bad guy. In fact, I remembered that the first time I saw it I had been left with the impression that the actor must have been a bully in real life, too, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to play nasty so well onscreen.

But Canary is in fact mild-mannered and gracious, as exemplified by the above quotes. I sometimes wonder if at some level he doesn't feel obliged to go out of his way to be nice just to offset the instinctive impression people must have of him from the sociopath he plays on All My Children. Or from his hyper-androgenized face. (Maybe that's why he's smiling in every recent picture I found on the web.)

Anyway, the moral of the story -- if one can ascribe morality to a story primarily about something so superficial as appearance -- is that it's always reassuring to see a guy who's older than you who looks better than you do. It gives you hope (however false).

Blagojevich a textbook sociopath, Part II

Monday's NY Times provided more evidence of Blago's sociopathy in a front page article entitled, "Two Sides of a Troubled Governor, Sinking Deeper." (Funny how often sociopaths are described as "troubled," when in reality they're far more troubling than troubled. As a matter of fact they're generally nothing but trouble -- not that that fact troubles them.)

All quotes are from the Times article:

"In 1996, John Fritchey, a Democrat who shared a campaign office with Mr. Blagojevich, was told that his stepfather had suffered a serious stroke. He walked over to Mr. Blagojevich, who was making fund-raising calls, and shared the news. 'He proceeded to tell me that he was sorry, and then, in the next breath, he asked me if I could talk to my family about contributing money to his campaign,' recalled Mr. Fritchey. 'To do that, and in such a nonchalant manner, didn't strike me as something a normal person would do'."

No, it's not something a nonsociopath would do. But for a sociopath, it's perfectly normal behavior. They are not capable of any real regard for other human beings, and thus have zero empathy or sympathy.

"Long before this, he disagreed over a casino with Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago; he irked Michael Madigan, the powerful Democratic state speaker, over the budget; and he infuriated just about every legislator by staying put in Chicago (rather than moving his family to the Governor's Mansion in Springfield). His penchant for promoting his headline-grabbing proposals....on television, rather than in the quieter halls of Springfield, also won him no friends. 'Rod reveled in fighting with members of the General Assembly,' said Representative Tom Cross."

As stated in Part I, sociopaths thirst for battle.

"Even with approval ratings that had sunk to 13% as details of the federal investigation into his administration had seeped out over the past three years, Mr. Blagojevich.....still spoke in his recorded conversations in the past six weeks of the possibility of remaking his political future and running for President, perhaps in 2016."

This is pretty much the height of narcissistic self-delusion.

Blago also treated employees extremely cavalierly. He "erupts in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush."

Ah, the hair. Please refer to

"'God forbid you make a mistake,' said one longtime former employee. In December 2003, the employee recalled, Mr. Blagojevich flew into a rage because he thought he was late for a holiday tree-lighting ceremony in Springfield, and his two young daughters -- who were visiting with Santa Claus in the parlor of the Governor's Mansion -- did not have their shoes on yet. 'You're trying to sabotage my career!' the employee recalled Mr. Blagojevich screaming at staff members, as he charged into the parlor. 'You're the worst'!"

These last two comments might have been more accurate had Blago been speaking to himself.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How to tell if someone is lying

The website for Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities states, "The owner's name is on the door. Clients know that Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm's hallmark."

I've never known anybody with real personal integrity who's felt the need to advertise it.

Blagojevich a textbook sociopath (Part I)

(For bloggers, Blago is the gift which just keeps on giving. )

There has been a fair amount of talk in the media recently about whether Blagojevich has "lost it," or has gone psychotic somehow.

These analyses miss the mark. Blagojevich is just a classic sociopath. Always has been, and always will be. (Sociopaths, though they often claim to, never change.)

Because normal (nonsociopathic) people can't imagine acting the way Blagojevich has, they innocently assume that somehow he must have lost his marbles. What they don't realize is that someone who has no conscience -- i.e. a sociopath -- is not crazy. A sociopath is simply a supreme narcissist who will do absolutely anything to achieve his ends.

A one paragraph primer for those unfamiliar with the syndrome:

Sociopaths are not capable of real love or affection, and are disloyal to everyone. They feel no guilt or shame. They are dishonest, glib, and instinctively skillful manipulators. They are destructive and hate other people. They are also supremely self confident, completely uninhibited, impulsive, and arrogant in the extreme. This gives them tremendous nerve and an ability to easily withstand what normal people would consider stressful situations. As a result they are often great performers. They like to be in control and they hate to lose. They can be very charming, and often have dynamic, even electrifying personalities. But the more you get to know them, the more you see their hypocrisy and their core dishonesty. If you spend enough time with them, they will always leave you feeling used and bitter.

When you hear about someone that "you either love him or hate him," he's probably a sociopath. If you hear that he'll "stop at nothing" to get what he wants, he's probably one. They're often very successful, although they also will often crash after what seems like strangely self-destructive behavior.

Blagojevich has all the classic signs.

He married Patricia Mell, the daughter of Chicago alderman Richard Mell. It is said that this is how he got his political career jump started. (Sociopaths often marry with some sort of personal gain in mind, which is why many female sociopaths are gold diggers.)

Richard Mell later said about his son-in-law that "He'll throw anybody under the bus" to further his own ambitions. The expression sums up Blago's (or any sociopath's) disloyalty. Mell also said that Blagojevich "used me" and that "he uses everybody and then discards them."

The fact that Blago was able to rise to a governorship shows that he knew which people to curry favor with, which people to pressure for campaign contributions, which people to funnel money towards, and so on. If you don't play those games, you simply don't rise in politics, especially in Chicago. A sad but inescapable fact of life, which is why you see so many sociopaths rise to the top levels of politics.

In his youth Blagojevich trained as a Golden Gloves boxer (sociopaths often are attracted to positions where they can hurt others).

After graduating from law school he used his father-in-law's connections to clerk for a Chicago alderman and then went to work as a district attorney. (I've known of an inordinate number of sociopaths who've worked as DA's, it seems to represent another method of being able to hurt, or at least punish, people.)

Blago later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the only Democrat from Illinois to vote for the Iraq War.

Blagojevich was elected Governor of Illinois in 2002 on a promise to end corruption in the state. (No editorial comment needed.)

As Governor he has been known for his ongoing feuds with fellow Democratic lawmakers. He has evidently not been on speaking terms with Barack Obama for several years. (Sociopaths are known for their thirst for battle.)

Since 2005 Blagojevich has been the subject of at least twelve separate federal investigations for corruption of various sorts. He knew he was being investigated when he decided to put Obama's Senate seat up for sale. (It is common among sociopaths for them to feel as if they'll never be caught at whatever skullduggery they're up to; they tend to feel invincible.)

After the Obama camp declined to offer Blagojevich any compensation for their choice of a candidate to fill the seat, Blagojevich called the President-elect a "motherfucker" and stated in similar language that he would not take their suggestion. (It is common among sociopaths to have respect for absolutely nobody.)

The day after he was arrested, Blagojevich showed up for work in a reportedly "upbeat" fashion and waved to the reporters gathered later outside his house. (Shame and embarrassment are not part of a sociopath's emotional repertoire.)

Blago's behavior is best understood when viewed through the prism of sociopathy, through which it makes perfect sense. Viewed any other way, it seems, well, crazy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Political hairstyles

John F. Kennedy did his profession a great disservice by wearing his hair the way he did. Ever since, countless politicians have tried to "evoke" JFK (and RFK) with their hairdos. While the Kennedy brothers probably came by their slightly unkempt hairstyles naturally, most of their imitators have obviously taken great pains with their slightly overlong, carefully blow-dried hair which falls across their foreheads just so.

Politicians as a breed are not an overly good-looking lot (Harold Ford Jr. and Mitt Romney are exceptions, but I can't think of any others at the moment). Nonetheless, many seem extraordinarily vain about their hair. Bill Clinton once made other planes wait on the tarmac so he could have his hair cut, and John Edwards famously paid $400 for one of his haircuts.

Gary Hart and John Kerry both tried very hard to come across like long lost (and well tousled) Kennedy brothers. Hart tried a little too hard to emulate JFK's womanizing, to his political detriment. And Kerry was totally unable to duplicate JFK's effortless charm. But both get an A+ for effort.

There's only one other group which comes remotely close to being as fussy about their hairdos, and that group, is, unexpectedly, big time football coaches. Professional football coaches are, on average, a bit more manly than the average politician. Yet they, too, seem very preoccupied with their grooming. Maybe they're compensating for all those years of hanging around smelly locker rooms. Or maybe it's that big time football coaches are the only group with egos to rival politicians'.

Whatever the case, there are an extraordinary number of (mostly Democratic) politicians who sport a big, bushy head of carefully blow dried (and probably dyed) hair. It's hard to be exactly sure what such a hairdo is mean to to signify. I'm guessing that in a politician's mind it is supposed to represent a certain youthful vigor and earnestness, as well as announce that he is the Second Coming of JFK. To me, it screams a lack of originality. But maybe I'm too critical.

The latest in this long line of offenders is, in case you couldn't guess from the above picture, Rod Blagojevich. If he shouldn't go to jail for his avarice, he should at least serve some time for that hairdo, which is JFK squared. It's not an accessory to his head, his head is an accessory to it. First of all, the hair is massive, like a hat that's a couple sizes too large. Secondly, the dye job is as blatant as his greed: it would be remarkable for a 51-year-old to not have a single white hair in his head.

Of course, given his ordinary facial features, Blago may in fact be doing the right thing (if that phrase can be applied to him) by having a hairdo that demands your attention, simply because it draws your gaze away from his close set eyes and plump cheeks. As a result he looks attractive enough at first glance. His body language is certainly energetic and confident as he strides up to a podium, and he's obviously well groomed. All of which says he's doing a good job with what he's got. Which is all we can ask of anybody.

Well, I suppose we could ask them to not be corrupt as well.

Blago was evidently a big Elvis fan. My wife claims his hairdo is meant to evoke Elvis, not JFK. I disagree. Even during his most flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted, jumpsuit-wearing Las Vegas period, Elvis would never had had the gall to sport a do like that.

Blago's second biggest problem after his hair is that he imitated the wrong Kennedy. Rather than try to channel JFK's self-deprecating wit, he instead tried to get rich illegally, like the old robber baron himself, Joe.

Given that Blago seems more interested in doing well rather than doing good, why didn't he just go to Wall Street, where he could have gotten rich legally?

He'll have plenty of time to ponder that question where he's going.

How much is a Senate seat worth?

A lifetime ago when I was working on Wall Street, a coworker once commented, in reference to John Walker, the U.S. Navy man convicted of spying for the Soviets, "Can you believe he was doing this for thirty, forty thousand dollars a shot? I mean come on. I could see doing it for half a million, but to sell your country out for measly thirty grand?"

In all fairness, I don't think my coworker had it in him to become a Soviet spy. He was just trying to appear cool and sophisticated and big-time, the way teen-agers do. (Wall Street is populated by old teen-agers.) So I won't editorialize about Wall Street greed and corruption.

But I was reminded of the comment by all the outraged harrumphing that has gone on in the past twenty-four hours about Illinois Governor Blagojevich's attempted sale of a U.S. Senate seat. Not one commentator has remarked how cheaply the governor was hoping to sell the seat for. He was evidently hoping to either be promised a lucrative post-governorship job heading up a nonprofit (these generally pay in the mid-six figures), or to get his wife some corporate board memberships totaling maybe $150,000, or a campaign contribution in the neighborhood of half a million.

Blagojevich's exact words were, "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden. And I'm not just giving it up for fuckin' nothing."

Well, maybe not nothing, Blago, but next to nothing. Or maybe you just haven't checked the price of gold recently. For purposes of comparison, Jon Corzine spent $70 million campaigning for his Senate seat from New Jersey. Hillary spent a like amount for her Senate run in 2000. John Thune spent $38 million to unseat Tom Daschle in 2004 (who knew South Dakota was so expensive?). The unfortunate Michael Huffington spent $25 million just to lose a Senate race from California. And they all had to undergo the indignity of an actual campaign to boot.

If Blago had had more sense, rather than turn to the usual suspects, he should have just gone to a billionaire (there are several in Chicago) and said, for five million it's yours, and you don't even have to kiss any babies. Surely a Sam Zell or one of the Pritzkers would have ponied up. And if they hadn't wanted the office for themselves, they could undoubtedly have come up with a suitable proxy. Owning your own United States Senator for just five mil is a steal for a billionaire.

True, a governor would be expected to appoint someone with a suitable resume, i.e., someone with an entire career full of political jobs, not just a businessman. But in that vast morass known as the Daley machine, there must have been someone with deep enough pockets to make Blago a rich man.

Then again, maybe he was setting his sights high. Where Blago's headed, the common unit of currency is a single cigarette.

Blago had evidently pushed to have the editorialists who had savaged him in the Chicago Tribune be fired by the owner of the paper, who also had a financial interest in Wrigley Field, which Blago exerted some control over. At one point in the FBI recordings, Blago's chief of Staff John Harris can be heard telling Blago, "The Trib guy gets the message. He's very sensitive to the issue."

Blago replied, "Sensitive? My asshole is sensitive. I want these fuckers fucked."

Again, given where he's headed, Blago's comment may yet prove quite prescient.

Addendum: My son points out that Blago will probably do time at a minimum security facility, where he needn't worry about the sensitive portion of his anatomy. True enough. (Though if real justice were to be served, he should by all rights experience what the Illinois electorate did.)

Monday, December 8, 2008


I pulled a boneheaded move on Saturday afternoon when I bought the online version of Scrabble from Yahoo for $19.95. (I enjoy playing Scrabble though for some unfathomable reason, my teenage daughter doesn't want to play as much as I do.) I played a few games, then, after coming back from dinner, started playing again. I didn't stop till 3:30AM, around five hours after I usually go to sleep.

Each time I told myself that the next game (each of which took around fifteen minutes) would definitely be the last one, but after each I just kept pressing the "Play" button like one of those chimps in a B.F.Skinner box pressing the lever for more cocaine.

Why is this type of thing so addictive? (I'll sidestep the more relevant question of why I have so little self-discipline.) They say that people are never happier than when they're totally absorbed in something. This is why people like movies, why they like books, and why some people even love their jobs. Those things are "escapist," meaning, they allow you to escape from your everyday problems.

This isn't quite the glorious, glamorous way I'd envisioned spending my fifties back when I was in my twenties, but I suppose, according to this theory, I'm just as happy. Well, at least when I'm playing Scrabble.

Sure enough, for all those bleary-eyed hours early Sunday morning spent staring at my computer screen, I didn't think once about my dwindling stock portfolio or my aging body or my missed opportunities in life; I just concentrated on coming up with the highest-scoring combinations of letters. (The time constraints built into the game didn't allow me the luxury of pondering my miserable life.)

This may have something to do with why falling in love is supposed to be such a wonderful experience. You're so totally enraptured by your object of desire that it makes you forget everything else. (Of course, the hangover there comes when you find that eventually you have another actual human being to deal with. No such hangover with a good movie or book. Or Scrabble.)

In any case, I woke up at around 7:30AM on Sunday morning, turned on the computer to check email and the morning's news, then had the bright idea to play just one game to see if the previous night had just been a dream, and sure enough....ended up going down for breakfast at around 11AM. I confessed all to my family, and was met with some well-deserved (and much-enjoyed-by-them) razzing.

It gave me a little more sympathy for the lost souls I've seen in Vegas sitting with glazed eyes in front of the slot machines, and for my son for playing his video games.

I can still pull rank on those who let themselves succumb to physically destructive addictions. Just not by very much.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Death penalty sexist and ageist, but not racist

I've heard both that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory fashion, and that it's not. I decided to look up the facts on my own.

According to statistics from the Department of Justice, from 1976 to 2005, whites committed 45.8% of all homicides, and blacks committed 52.2%. (This number for whites included Hispanics, so the actual percentage for non-Hispanic whites was actually lower.) Yet from 1976 to 2008, of the 1099 people who were put to death in the United States, 57% were white, while 34% were black (and 7% were Hispanic). From this broad overview, it would seem the penalty discriminates against whites. (More on this later.)

Death penalty opponents sometimes quote the disparity in its application for interracial killings. From 1976 to 1995, 101 blacks were put to death for killing whites, whereas only 5 whites were put to death for killing blacks, a 20 to 1 ratio. For all interracial crimes of violence, there are roughly 10 times as many black on white crimes as the other way around. This would seem to indicate that twice as many blacks receive the death penalty for interracial homicides. Yet during the same period, there were 1.4 million cases of "robbery with injury" involving black criminals and white victims, and 68,000 cases of white criminals and black victims, a 21:1 ratio. This is the category of violent crime most closely associated with the type of aggravated murder which would most likely result in the death penalty, and is consistent with the first statistic. (Capital murder cases usually involve aggravating circumstances, which basically means that the murder is committed in conjunction with another felony.)

But why are more whites put to death overall when they commit fewer homicides? My gut tells me that whites are probably much more likely to commit premeditated murder, while blacks are more likely to commit the more impulsive homicides. (This is borne out by the statistic showing that 80% of the homicides by poison were committed by whites, whereas 56% of the homicides by handgun were committed by blacks; poison takes forethought and planning, handguns are more often involved in impulsive acts.) Also, whites are more often serial killers, a crime much more likely to result in the death penalty -- and deservedly so.

The disparities in age and sex were far more striking. Of the 1099 people put to death in those years, 1088, or 99%, were men, while only 11 were women. The current ratio of inmates on death row is 98.2% male vs. 1.8% female. Obviously, males are more violent than females, but by how much? I couldn't find comprehensive statistics for male vs. female killers, but I did find statistics for various individual years, and the range went from a low ratio of 5 to 1 male to female murders in 1976 to a high of 11 to 1 in 1995. The 1999 the ratio was more typical at 7 to 1. (I was surprised the ratios weren't higher.) In any case, in none of the years did the ratio approach the 99 to 1 ratio at which the killers were put to death. (Yet you never hear anyone criticize the death penalty for being "sexist.")

Another fact that stands out is the average age at conviction -- 27. Given that criminals under the age of 18 are almost always tried as juveniles, that makes for a very youthful group of killers, or at least a very youthful group given the death penalty. Of course, the most murderous cohort has always been males between the ages of 18 and 24; this is true of both blacks and whites. Given that this is the age at which testosterone runs highest, and given testosterone's correlation with violence, perhaps this should not be so surprising. (Interestingly, 5 of the 11 women executed were convicted after the age of 40; with them, testosterone obviously plays less of a role.)

As far as the gender difference between the way the penalty is applied, far more women kill out of a sense of being threatened, rightly or wrongly, than do men. (If a homicide is committed in self defense, it's not considered murder.) This may account for some of the disparity, but I suspect that most juries are also simply less willing to put a woman in the electric chair.

There are arguments against the death penalty other than "racism" which are harder to dispute, mostly because they are philosophical in nature. One such argument is that human life is sacred, and shouldn't be taken under any circumstances. That one can't be countered with logic.

Another argument is that capital punishment is cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional. The electric chair is certainly cruel (though usually less so than the method of killing the murderer himself used), though given its frequent use in the past thirty years, not all that unusual.

Some say that it is not consistently applied, and the capricious nature of its application should render it null. Currently it is allowed in thirty-seven states, and but not in the other thirteen or the District of Columbia. Should murderers in Massachusetts be treated with more leniency than those in Texas? Hard to justify that one; but then again, that's an argument for consistency, not its existence.

Some say that it makes us look barbaric because most Western countries don't allow it.

Certainly the number of people on death row who've been exonerated because of DNA evidence has to give anyone pause. (This, to me, is the best argument, and has turned me from being pro-death penalty into an agnostic on the issue; I may turn against it in the near future.) My guess is that the lack of DNA evidence does not necessarily indicate innocence, only the absence of definitive proof, and that some of the people who were so "exonerated" were in fact guilty. But cops do sometimes lie, and I'm sure that some of the people exonerated must also have been innocent.

In any case, some of these are good arguments. There's also no question that in the first half of the twentieth century the death penalty was applied in a very racist manner. But the argument that it's currently racist is simply not true.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What a swell guy

A Ford spokesman said today that when CEO Alan Mulally comes to Washington D.C. for Congressional hearings later this week, he will make the trip by car.

Does this strike anyone as a little transparent?

After the outcry over the Big Three CEOs having each arrived by private jet for the last Congressional hearings, there was of course no way that any of them would repeat that mistake.

But does anyone believe that once they get their bailout package, they won't go back to their profligate ways?

Given the tone deafness for public relations this crowd has shown thus far, Ford CEO Mulally will probably arrive in a Mercedes.

ADDENDUM: Five hours later. GM has now announced that their CEO, Rick Wagoner, will be driving to the Congressional hearings in a hybrid Chevrolet. Obviously, just another regular guy.

Lest we forget

Today is supposed to be the day Obama names Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

One can't help but wonder exactly what it is about her counsel that he values so highly.

Perhaps it is her financial expertise. This is, after all, the woman who supposedly parlayed a $1000 stake into exactly $100,000 by trading cattle futures. (Tyson Chicken's man in the futures pit later said that he had been instructed to direct all of his winning trades to her account and all of his losing trades elsewhere at the end of the day till she had accumulated $100,000. But this was never proven.) Hillary herself testified that she had studied cattle futures trading by reading about it in the Wall Street Journal and had executed the trades herself. But if she had become so proficient at it, why did she quit after making exactly $100,000?

Perhaps he realizes that she is the sort of take-charge woman who will clean house at Foggy Bottom. After all, this is the woman responsible for Travelgate.

Perhaps it is because they agree about health care. After all, Hillary, with great fanfare and even greater secrecy, attempted the proposed nationalization of health care eary inher husband's first term.

Perhaps it is her loyalty. Even though Hillary originally claimed she wasn't some little Tammy Wynette-stand-by-your-man type, in fact she did exactly that by insisting that those who claimed her husband had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky were part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Pehaps it is her thriftiness. This is the woman who stole the White House china upon leaving that residence in January of 2000. (Note to Barack: please count the silver after those state dinners.)
Perhaps it's that her thinking about the Middle East has evolved the same way that Barack's did. Hillary was a big supporter of Palestinian rights until she decided to run for Senator from New York, at which point she suddenly became an ardent Zionist. Obama too was a Palestinian sympathizer until he won the primaries, at which point he delivered a speech to AIPAC which would have made Netanyahu blush.

Unlike Obama, of course, Hillary is an actual war hero. She claimed during the primaries, in order to polish her foreign policy cred, that she had had to "duck bullets on the tarmac" after landing in Bosnia one time. Later footage of this deplaning showed her smiling beneficently at some young girls who were lined up to greet her and present her with gifts.

Pehaps Barack was won over when Hillary burnished her street cred during the primaries by adopting a black accent while addressing the congregation at a black church.

Or maybe it's her flexibility. Later, in another setting, Hillary announced that Obama had no chance of winning the general election (essentially because he was black).

Or might it possibly be that this is a cynical move to forge political alliances, and to apply a little salve to that portion of the electorate who had wanted to see a woman in the White House? Might it be that he is obeying that old maxim about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer? Might it be both?

The only thing certain about this choice is that for the foreseeable future at Foggy Bottom, Lady MacBeth will come first and the country will come in a distant second.