10.05.2008

THE RIGHT KIND OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Even the most ardent free-market defenders have to be backtracking from their positions in light of our current housing and financial crisis, right? Hey, I'm no libertarian, but we're treading on shaky ground here, and could end up doing more harm than good if we're not careful about the kind of accountability we're putting in place.

Let me start by saying I largely agree with the bailout measure. In fact, all hail King Hank Paulson, and why haven't we shuddered more at the thought of what would have happened if Bush hadn't successfully urged him to take the Treasury Secretary position and we instead had one of Paulson's recent predecessors at the helm? Hey, no one likes massive government intervention, least of all when it looks like it's going to bail out fat cats on Wall Street; but one never sets policy in a vacuum, and sometimes one has to do what's necessary to prevent even more harm from being done.

That being said, where exactly is more regulation warranted? Greenspan is being vilified for largely thinking that the financial markets can be self-regulating, but think about this for a second: if I sold crap sandwiches on the corner for five bucks each, I'd soon go out of business because no one would be willing to pay me five bucks for my product. Point being that the market is pretty darn good at allocating activity to where it best deserves to be allocated, based on global needs and wants, and changing on a dime as those needs and wants change.

Where there is some serious market failure, and therefore some possible justification for government oversight, is with the ratings agencies. They're the ones, after all, that are supposed to signal to the marketplace of buyers what exactly they're buying when they buy something; AAA for stuff that'll almost certainly pay back with interest, junk status for stuff that's riskier, and multiple tiers in between. Of course, they're paid by the very entities they're supposed to objectively rate, and therein lies the inconsistency: their real customer is the general public, in terms of protecting its interest by evaluating and commenting on an entity's risk profile, but they make their money from those very entities.

As portfolio after portfolio of complicated investment vehicles came by for a rating, agencies were either too lazy to get informed about what exactly was in these things, or too unwilling to stop the gravy train and bit the hand that was feeding them more and more business. Either way, all sorts of funky smelling meat was being branded "Grade A," and next thing you knew, the stuff was stinking up a whole lot of places you'd think would be too smart to have bought this.

The nature of the financial markets is that risk and return can't be decoupled. And, in my opinion, while everyone played a role, the ratings agencies were where a lot of that decoupling took place. It just goes to show you that the right kind of accountability can go a long way.

Let's be mindful of this as we try to unbury ourselves from this mess we've gotten ourselves into, as well as where we are in need of accountability in other areas of our personal, communal, and professional worlds. When the people and places that are supposed to mind the shop are asleep at the switch, bad things will eventually happen. And when we are those people and places, let's not fall asleep in the first place.

10.04.2008

A LEVEL PATH FOR BICYCLES

Thanks to my fellow blogger at Discovering Urbanism for reporting that incentives for bicycle commuting were embedded in the House bailout bill: "Adventures of the Bike Commuter Act." The federal government, of course, and other state and local entities provide subsidies for all sorts of transportation modes, predominantly the automobile (via roads and parking), but apparently the noble bike commute was never even sneezed at until this week.

Wouldn't it be a delicious irony if, decades from now, when many more of us are biking to work because of the complete unsustainability of auto dependence, that the House bailout bill goes down in history not as the legislation that saved our economy but rather the one that put us on the path to saving our environment?
TRAVAILS OF A RAIDERS FAN

I've rooted for the Oakland Raiders all my life. The 70's and 80's were great, we had some moments in the 90's, and the first part of this decade looked promising. And then I made the mistake of breaking from my routine that got them all the way to the Super Bowl in 2003. I chose to watch the game, not alone in my living room, where I could play defense, but at our church's annual Super Bowl party.

I had intended to leave at halftime to hedge my bets, but it was 20-3 by then already. I must confess that I actually thought this thought as I was leaving (remember, this is a church event): "Some really bad karma going on here." (I have since retracted this statement. Yes, God is even God of the 2003 Super Bowl.)

Not much has gone right since then for the Silver and Black. I haven't had much time to follow them this year, but from what I have gathered, we've been blowing leads late and management is a mess. Ever the optimist, I've always had a "we were close" or "we'll get 'em next week" spirit about this season.

But this photo below pretty much seals my pessimism. Ladies and gentlemen, the coach and the owner of your Oakland . . . RRRRRRRRRRaiders! (Or, the way Al Davis is snarling into the camera, should it be, "YAR-aiders"?)



PS That's Lane Kiffin on the left. Recently departed. The new coach, Tom Cable - I guarantee - will not lose a game this Sunday. Of course, the Raiders have a bye, so that's the real reason. But we build from wherever we can.

10.03.2008

THE WORLD FOR OBAMA

Whether or not you're polled out on the upcoming presidential election, I encourage you to keep tabs on a poll of a different sort: The Economist's "Global Electoral College." A clever idea: assign at least three electoral votes to each country, with a total of 9,000+ to go around based on population. As of this writing, Obama is ahead among readers by a whopping 8,355 to 8 - despite the fact that The Economist is usually considered a right-leaning mag. This certainly lends credence to Obama's global popularity!

10.02.2008

A Greater Day of Reckoning Awaits

A lot of people have been asking me about the economic meltdown, but I
feel vastly underqualified; why, naively, I thought the Bear Stearns
collapse six months ago was the bottom. Who knew so many otherwise
top-flight financiers were so leveraged up on CDOs and other sketchy
investments?

I will say that throughout the slide, as with the dot-com run-up in
the late 90's, I had a sinking, "we can't get away with this" feeling.
Back then, it was stock prices soaring on . . . well, nothing, except
for a leak about an announcement about a strategy that Firm X was
thinking about implementing a web-based something or other. This
decade, it's been the notion that our houses are like piggy banks, and
we can keep on pulling out equity, counting on ever-rising real estate
values to bail us out.

By the way, the dirty little secret in all this is that while
foreclosures hurt inner cities the most, it's been once-hot suburban
areas like Vegas and Phoenix where they've been most prevalent. There
you have the confluence of two additional "we can't get away with
this" forces: sprawl in an economy that needs to transition to a
post-petroleum age, and high water usage in a desert setting. Of
course, the upshot of all of this tightening in the credit markets is
that people and places on the fringe will be even more excluded from
the sort of liquidity we upper-middle-class folks depend on to do
upper-middle-class things like buy homes and start businesses.
Redlining and zero access to investment capital, here we come again!

To be sure, there is a greater day of reckoning coming upon us, when
the Judge of our souls calls us to account for all of our deeds. Just
like we should've gotten our financial houses in order and are now
suffering the consequences of an unsustainable system, we ought to
take pause in terms of our spiritual houses, both literal and
metaphoric. Have we let personal sin or structural injustice linger?
What are we getting away with in terms of the sins of our eyes, our
mouths, our hearts? Who are we letting slip through our societal
cracks - the disabled, the exploited, the marginalized - that we have
been expressly instructed to show mercy to? Can we afford to presume
that we can get away with this?

And, on a much smaller yet no less real scale, for our aforementioned
dependence on cheap oil, and our addiction to living in places that
impose a strain on our natural resources, there will be a day of
reckoning, perhaps within our generation. In either case, don't wait
for it to happen to get yourself ready.

SURPRISED BY DISABILITY

A good word by fellow blogger Al Hsu in his latest Christianity Today article: "Surprised by Disability." I especially appreciate the quote from Joan Mahler, coordinator of L'Arche USA: "All of us are abled in some ways and disabled in others. People with developmental disabilities often help all of us understand our own brokenness." Ironically, only those who are in touch with their own brokenness can be made truly whole; only those who are in touch with the brokenness of the people and systems around them can be truly enlisted in the work of making whole. This is a good word for me and my generation.

10.01.2008

PASSING THE TORCH

I would remiss if I didn't make a plug for The Enterprise Center's annual fundraiser, Passing the Torch. I worked there for ten years and have been on the board for the past two, so I believe in what we're doing there; and PTT is a great celebration of minority entrepreneurs building businesses and then passing on that asset to the next generation. Giving opportunities start as low as $35, a ticket to the dinner on October 9 can be had for $125, and of course we'll take checks for far larger amounts as well. Check it out, and see you there!
A NEW DAY FOR ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

When this article says that City Hall Mayor's Reception Room 202 was "standing room only," it wasn't kidding. But clearly a lot of people were interested in Mayor Nutter's announcement about a new Economic Opportunity cabinet and executive director. Leave it to my friend Andy Toy to sum up my thoughts on the gathering: “I think the key is the mayor has put his weight behind this happening, and he likes to get stuff done, so it’s going to happen.”

In other words, the jury is still out on the structure and the personnel, but what we can celebrate today is that the Mayor has picked a good person, elevated economic inclusion as a topic of the highest importance, and created a structure in which he and his highest-ranking colleagues are accountable for results. Lots of work remains to be done, but this was a very good step in the right direction.