19 November 2011

Some Words That Came Late At Night

Greed and selfishness, though they may be the epitome of human nature, are not virtues, and should never be celebrated or idealized, nor even normalized. They should be treated as other natural scourges of humanity have always been treated: contained, opposed, extricated, and ultimately vaccinated against. This is how we as a species shall rise above our animal birth, and grow closer to our divine inheritance upon reaching philosophical majority. To embrace self-interest, as do the Objectivists, is to choose to wallow in retarded, syphilitic, spiritual adolescence, never accepting any reality that cannot be touched, chained, sold or killed.

28 May 2011

Inside Of It All

About 18 months ago, my two eldest boys were really into learning about the planets and space.  They were 6 and 4 at the time.  My eldest would read all these books to his brother, and they had videos and other materials to learn about the solar system and the stars, and like many young kids spit out these ridiculously long dinosaur names, they would talk about types of stars and galaxies and the various properties of the planets.

One night we were driving home from a dinner out, and the six year-old said something about "living on Earth", and the other boy said, "No!  We live IN Earth, not ON it."

This comment really struck me as an incredibly profound observation.  Of course, it is true.  Just as a fish lives IN the sea, we "terrestrial" creatures and plants live IN the "sea" of the atmosphere, which is every bit as much a part of the Earth as the ground or the water is.  But it truly changed the way I thought about myself and about humanity as passengers here on Spaceship Earth.  Not that it was the first time I'd had a though about our interconnectedness to all that surrounds us, but to look at myself as a creature not walking upon the planet, but swimming within it, made me feel as if I were just a mitochondrion in a terrestrial macro-body, something of deep insignificance, and yet part of a larger living whole.

I am not an individual.  I am a member of a species, and not even really a "member" as most people understand the term, being one individual in a group.  I am a part of an interconnected whole that is Humanity.  And Humanity is just a part of the larger biosphere of the planet, just as all of the bacteria and microscopic bodies that float within us and around us are a part of us and thus the larger biosphere.  If you had a powerful microscope that could see all the way down the atomic level, you could eventually focus down to a level where you would not be able to discern the atoms of your skin from the atoms of the air that surrounds you.  Nor would you be able to discern the difference between the vast amounts of "space" that exist between the nuclei of atoms and the vast space that exist between the stars, based on their relative sizes.  It's all One.

To me, knowledge is a puzzle.  Each fact learned has a place it fits in the big picture of understanding.  The more you know from learning, the more you can figure out from recognition of the patterns you've already built from your knowledge to postulate other ideas, which leads you to think about where and how to find the facts that will either support or refute those theories.  "Thinking" is the process of acquiring the pieces and putting the puzzle together.  "Knowledge" is what is built.  The more you know, the less you have to think.  The more things you know, the closer are you are to knowing the One.

I've got a couple of idea projects that I've never really put the effort into that I once thought I might.  One is to rewrite the U.S. Constitution for the 21st Century, attempting to preserve as much of the original central ideas and flexibility as possible, but allowing for changes that we have learned in the lessons of 200 years.  Some 15 years or so ago, I did a similar thing with a much smaller subject, The Ten Commandments.

The First Commandment, as written in the Bible, reads, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," or something very similar.  I wanted to make it more universal and less tailored to the ancient Hebrews, so I shortened it to, "I am the Lord your God."  Still, I felt that was cumbersome and loaded with language that has too much cultural baggage, words such as "Lord" and "God".

"I am."

Simple, basic.  God speaks and says he exists.  Right back to the first meeting at the Burning Bush.  "And Moses said unto God,  "Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, 'The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you'; and they shall say to me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say unto them? "  And God said unto Moses,  "I AM THAT I AM " and he said,  "Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel,  "I AM hath sent me unto you. "  "I am" is also the key phrase for Aries, the first sign of the Zodiac and the sign most often associated with the God of the Old Testament.

But that seemed somehow incomplete, at least in my philosophy.  I believe that the greatest philosophical gift given to the world by the ancient Hebrews, and carried on by the religions of the Western tradition, is the idea of the "One God".  The greatest problem this idea has created, the greatest misinterpretation, is "One and only One God".  The unitary deity is profound and speaks a deep truth, however the idea of "one and only one" implies an "other", be it another competing inferior god, or simply the existence of something that is not God.  NOTHING is not God.  God is One.  God is All.

George Carlin once said, "He's just like us - He's a cool guy, that's all God is, a cool guy. That's what all the religions told us:  "'He's like us, He's us.' That's what all the big ones, all the big religions said,  'Love yourself, Love your God, Love your neighbor, because you're all basically the same person.' We just don't have uniforms yet, that's all."  And that is what I wanted to build into my new First Commandment.  I am You.  We are One.  We are God.  God is One.  God is Everything.

I am You are One is All

And that's it.  It does not matter who the speaker is.  It could be God, or me, or you, or Aunt Edith, or a creature from Omicron Perseii 8.  It's all the same.

Strangely, I can't really remember where I went with the remastering of the other Ten Commandments.  I remember that I reinterpreted the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy to mean that it was important to "count the days" and keep calendars and holy days, but as for the rest, it's lost to some notebook in a box somewhere.  Perhaps it speaks to the centrality of a FIRST RULE, like The Prime Directive of Star Trek, or The Golden Rule, which I tried to incorporate into my First Commandment by implication.  Once you have the most basic rule of ethics, all others are merely derivatives thereof.

 So, I'll close with a song from They Might Be Giants.  This is from their children's album Here Come The 123's, but I find this expression of the "One=All" philosophy to be as well presented as in any text or adult music.  My wife and I are taking the boys to see a TMBG "family show" at the Iowa State Fairgrounds this Sunday.  I can't wait.

EDIT:  As Lauri said in the comments below, Neil should be in here. 

Neil Young's 1997 live album Year of the Horse opens with a heckler yelling out "They all sound the SAME!"  To which Neil famously replies, "It's all ONE SONG."

Indeed.  It is all one song.

06 May 2011

Parting Ways

Does anyone else have music that they love, but for one reason or another it's really hard to listen to it?

I've got a bunch of it.  Mostly, it has to do with nostalgia of one kind or another.  For example, I've got several albums that I listened to A LOT in the fall of 1993, that I so intimately associate with that time in my life, that I find it very hard to listen to them without taking myself back there.  Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream is one, along with The Posies Frosting On The Beater and to a lesser extent Pearl Jam Vs. (the latter not as much, because I was a huge PJ fan for so many years that I don't associate the album with that particular time so closely).  That was a good time in my life, I was 20 and a junior in college, and had a great group of friends both at school and at home, and the world was really opening up to me and so much was possible.  Still, it's not a place I like to go in my mind, and I'm not completely sure why, although I've always felt sad about my lost past and simpler times, from the time I was a child and first felt the burdens of responsibility.

The Posies - "Burn and Shine"

There are other beloved albums that I have associations with that are more negative, the most striking being Soup by Blind Melon.  Blind Melon was my favorite band, and for those who only know them from "No Rain", let's just say that every one of their other songs is better than that.  This was a great, great band, where each musician was very talented, and they played together in a fluid way that all bands wish they could and few do.  In addition, it's really the only band that every one of their songs resonated with me in a personal way.  At that time in my life, they were where I was at.

Their second album was my most anticipated album release to that time, perhaps ever, and when it came out in August 1995, I listened to it over and over and over again until I knew every note.  I have strong associations with listening to it in a hotel room alone in Montauk, where I was fishing with my dad for a week, waking up at 5:30 every morning to go out on the boat, and just crashing out after dinner to this music.  I really loved where this band was going with this second album, and I was already eager to hear where they would take it next.  They obviously had so much more to say.

And then Shannon died.  I have never before or since been as hurt by the death of someone I didn't know personally, perhaps because I felt like I did know him. 

So, I find it very hard to listen to that album now...

A couple days ago, I heard a song on my mp3 player that struck me in that same way, but for a totally new and different reason.  The song was "Given To Fly" by Pearl Jam.  It's far from my favorite song of theirs, but it holds a special place in my heart, and now I think I understand why.

GTF was the lead single from their 1998 album Yield.  The single was released in January, about a month ahead of the album release.  I had just started using the internet that previous fall, and it was mostly because of Pearl Jam, and my search for rare recordings after hearing a low-gen tape of songs from my friend Gary that I'd never heard before, and I thought I was a hardcore fan, with bootlegs and b-sides and all that sort of stuff.  The internet was still relatively young, and mp3s were the new big thing in music, as for the first time there was available a format that could keep most of the sonic integrity of a CD and could be downloaded on a dial-up connection in less than a year, and stored on the tiny 1 or 2 GB hard drives that were the norm back then.  Plus, there were fan communities and news websites beginning to show up, and suddenly I was "plugged in" to my favorite band with breaking news and inside information as never before.  It was all very exciting, and GTF and Yield were the first new release of this era for me.

One thing that was very cool about this release, and it is something that could NEVER be done today, is that there was a "secret" b-side on the single.  Everyone on the internet knew about the first b-side, "Pilate", which it was also known would be an album track, but it wasn't until people started picking up the album in stores on release day that anyone, even those supposedly the most "in the know", found out there was a second b-side, "Leatherman", which incidentally has never had any other release besides this now rather rare single, and which holds some personal significance itself due to the subject matter.

Yield became, and continues to be, my favorite Pearl Jam album.  It was around this time that I started collecting their concert recordings, and I saw them live twice on their tour that fall.  They firmly cemented themselves as my favorite band, but (from as objective a place as I can speak about this) they also reestablished themselves as the greatest rock and roll band in the world at the time.  And I felt like I was a part of it.  The Beatles were not only the biggest band of their era, they were also the best, and at that moment in the late 90s, Pearl Jam was approaching that sort of status.  Not quite as big as they'd been five years earlier, but definitely better, and those of us who really knew the band knew that we were experiencing an extraordinary time in rock music history.

So why do I feel weird about "Given To Fly"?  It really has more to do with my relationship with Pearl Jam's music and the band in the time since 1998.  For me, 1998 was the band's peak, and all bands that last have a peak at some point where they never quite reach that level of greatness again, however you may measure greatness.  Their next album, 2000's Binaural, left me kind of cold, but at the same time the band was doing what was perhaps the coolest thing any band had ever done.  They announced they would release every show from their 2000 tour, unedited, on CD, and also announced that they didn't really care if you traded them with your friends.

Unfortunately, every subsequent album has left me feeling colder, and each business and marketing decision by the band has left me feeling further from the band that once seemed to truly care about their fans more than any other.  It's hard to believe that I have soured on Pearl Jam to the extent that I have, considering how devoted I was at one time.  It's not that my life has changed so much that I can't still be a huge fan.  I'm still just as devoted to my Neil Young fandom, and in fact much more so, it's that Pearl Jam has ceased to be the band that was so important to me, and to which I felt a closeness.  I've changed, they've changed, and we've grown apart.  So, like seeing an old friend who you once cared deeply for but who has somehow drifted away, it's a little painful to hear a song that epitomizes the time when you were at your closest.

This year, Pearl Jam is celebrating their 20th anniversary.  I'm just not feeling it.  I didn't buy the reissues of the first three albums that have been released in the past couple years, and even though I did download the new Vs. and Vitalogy special editions, I haven't been able to bring myself to listen to them yet, or even to put them on my mp3 player.  It's strange to feel this way.  I'm even questioning whether to renew my Ten Club membership, which expired today.  I've got a pretty low number, being that I've been a member continually since 1999, but since the band hasn't played a show within 4 hours of my home since 2003, I haven't even been able to take advantage of my seniority for fan club seating.

Fittingly, this performance is from Benaroya Hall in 2003, which is about the last time I felt the closeness.

Behind her eyes there's curtains,
And they've been closed to hide the flames. 
She knows their future's burning

But she can smile just the same. 

And though her mood is fine today,
There's a fear they'll soon be parting ways.

Standing like a statue,

A chin of stone, a heart of clay. 

And though he's too big a man to say,

There's a fear they'll soon be parting ways.

Drifting away. 

Drifting away. 
Drifting away. Away. Away.
Drifting away. 

Drifting away. 
Drifting away. Away. Away.

I'll always remember how it was, even if I don't really want to.  Thanks for the music.

19 April 2011

How to Not Reduce Your Household Debt

Deficit hawks (or “deficit peacocks”  as many on the left prefer to call them, since they plainly have no actual interest in doing what needs to be done to reduce the deficit) are always asking the American people to look at the budget and spending of the Federal Government in terms of your own household budget.  “You can’t responsibly run up these kinds of deficits and borrow against the future in the way that the government does in your own home or business,” they say (I won’t get into how businesses ACTUALLY operate in this country).  So I decided to look at how the current proposals to reduce the deficits and national debt would apply to my own home finances.

I’m a middle-class father of 3 making a decent salary that allows me to support my wife and children, but we certainly aren’t putting much away in savings or investments, and we don’t have much discretionary income for wasting on fun and games.  We have some credit card debt, not a lot, but a few thousand dollars that eats up a couple hundred bucks of interest every month.  I’d LOVE to be able to pay off all of that credit card debt.

WHY do I want to pay off my credit card debt?  The simple answer is that if I were to pay off the debt, I would be saving all that money I spend on servicing the debt, and it would mean a couple hundred bucks more every month that could go to buying things for myself and my family that would make our lives better, or to saving for the future.  I mean, why the hell else would someone want to pay off their debts?

Perhaps we should ask that question to Paul Ryan and the Republican Party, because they don’t seem to have an answer to this question that makes any sense.  They appear to want to reduce the deficit/pay down the debt for the simple sake of doing it, as if that “virtue” will somehow translate into something good for people.  No matter what you believe, you can’t run a government based on the belief that God will magically reward you if you are righteous and virtuous enough.  Some right-wing leaders may actually believe this, and many more proclaim this to be true, but the “serious” people know that there are other factors involved.

The real goal is to reduce the size of the government, and to reduce taxes on the very rich.  Perhaps if I were exceedingly generous, I would say that they wish to reduce taxes on all of us, but the vast majority of those reductions will benefit the very rich, and the vaster majority of the reductions in government will hurt the poor and middle classes.  In fact, in Paul Ryan’s plan, the deficit isn’t even reduced in any meaningful way for MANY years to come, and the projections are based on assumptions that have been panned as unrealistic by virtually every legitimate economist in the country.  So let’s just call it a wash, and say that Ryan’s plan doesn’t actually reduce the deficit at all, and just shifts the cuts in spending directly to cuts in taxes for the rich.  It’s pretty close to the truth no matter who you ask.

Back to my household finances metaphor.  Here is what Ryan proposes YOU do to reduce your credit card debt! 

You are going to make significant cuts in your grocery bill, medical costs, vacations, clothes for the kids, and other such budgetary items that you already don’t spend as much as you’d like to be able to spend in order to give yourself the quality of life that your parents’ generation had.  Now, we’re going to ask you to make those cuts to essential expenditures (but we're going to call them "discretionary spending"), and use that saved money to pay down your credit card debts, but we’re also going to cut your salary at the same time.  We’re not going to wait until after the positive results of paying down the debt start to accrue to make that salary cut, we’re going to cut your salary first.

Now, if you somehow manage to actually pay down your debts in any significant way, which would be a minor miracle under this plan, any savings that you are able to make from reductions in interest payments to your creditors will NOT be shifted back into your household budget.  No, they will be offset by further reductions in your salary, because you have now shown that it is possible for you survive on less, so you must need less.  Forget about the idea of making your quality of life any better, because you deserve a better quality of life much less than the rich man who pays your salary deserves to have that small amount of money added to his already vast holdings.

Get it?  Now you understand the Republican plan to reduce your personal debt!  And by the way, if you happen to have any money left at the end of your life, they plan on instituting a 100% Estate Tax on all estates UNDER $1 million, so that “extra” will be swept up for your boss’s benefit as well!

12 April 2011

A Fictional Tale of the Mortgage Crisis (c. 1985)

Beginning on April 12, pre-orders will be accepted for Neil Young's latest release from his Neil Young Archive Performance Series (NYAPS).  A Treasure (NYAPS #09) is a collection of 12 live recordings from his 1984 and 1985 tours with The International Harvesters, a top quality country band that Neil assembled for this period in his eclectic career.  I may be "punk" david, but the Harvesters period has long been among my favorite of Neil Young's, and by far my favorite of his genre-hopping 80s experiments.  In part, it's because this band was so talented and tight.  Also, Neil Young has a gift for writing really great country music, a talent that few in modern country music can even fathom, and one that Neil has drawn from far too infrequently throughout his career.

From the spring of 1984 through the end of the summer of 1985, Neil fully immersed himself in country music and the surrounding Nashville culture.  His fake country accent was only slightly less contrived than Hillary Clinton's, but his music was as genuine as could be, and during this time Neil collaborated with such venerable country legends as Waylon Jennings, Bela Fleck, Rufus Thibodeaux, Anthony Crawford, Ben Keith, and Willie Nelson, with whom Neil and John Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985.  On that note, the Harvesters were the band that Neil performed with at the Live Aid concert in July of 1985 before a TV audience in the hundreds of millions.

My favorite thing about this period in Neil Young's career however, is the large number of songs that he wrote and performed and recorded that did NOT appear on his 1985 country album Old Ways.  I consider Old Ways to be kind of a middling album in the Neil Young canon, but he probably could have released two full albums of additional material written and recorded during this period, with much of it superior to the material that did make the album.  Fortunately for the Rusties, there are many circulating concert recordings and a few circulating studio recordings to give us an idea of what Neil held back.

In addition to the ten songs released on Old Ways, there were a whole crop of new country songs that Neil premiered on these tours that either appeared later on other albums in a slightly less country flavor or have never seen any official release.  These include:

Amber Jean (a heretofore unreleased song about his baby daughter)
Razor Love (released on Silver & Gold, 2000)
Let Your Fingers Do the Walking (heretofore unreleased)
Hillbilly Band (unreleased)
Silver & Gold (released on Silver & Gold, 2000)
Nothing Is Perfect (to date released only on the Live Aid DVD in 2004)
This Old House (released with Crosby Stills & Nash on American Dream, 1988)
Interstate (released as a solo acoustic b-side in 1996)
Grey Riders (heretofore unreleased, and long considered one of Neil's greatest unreleased songs)

Several other studio outtakes that were never performed publicly have also reached trading circles and have become well known.  Right there you have more than enough material to complete another album of new songs in 1985.  But that doesn't even include several songs that Neil had performed earlier but had not been released in the mid-80s and could easily have made their way to a country album if Neil had decided to issue a second at the time.

The Ways of Love (premiered in 1978, released later on Freedom, 1989)
It Might Have Been (an old cover tune that Neil had played with Crazy Horse in 1970, and which only gained its first release in the form of a live recording from 1970 that appeared on Neil Young Archives Vol. 1, 2009)
Too Far Gone (premiered in 1976, released later on Freedom, 1989)
Soul of a Woman (a song that Neil played in four distinctly different styles in the 80's, but which never found a release until now, it is Neil's most often performed unreleased song)
Don't Take Your Love Away From Me (another genre-hopper, which had limited release on the Solo Trans LaserDisc in 1984, but didn't find an album release until Lucky 13 in 1993)
Country Home (premiered with Crazy Horse in 1976, and ultimately released on Ragged Glory, 1990)

And to top it off, there were several of Neil's older released songs that really came into their own, often for the first time, when played by The International Harvesters:

Motor City
Hawks and Doves (2 songs from the early 80s that were a little country, but really needed to be much more so to work)
Southern Pacific (released on the 1981 Crazy Horse album Reactor, the Harvesters make this song truly sound like the train that is the songs subject.  AMAZING.)
Roll Another Number (from Tonight's The Night, 1975, I believe this song comes off better as "country & western" than the drenched in feedback-drenched rendition that appears on 1991's live album Weld)
Are You Ready For the Country? (from 1972's Harvest, country-folk becomes pure country, and is better for it)
Down By the River (2 live staple Crazy Horse jams that saw some of their most powerful performances of his career with the Harvesters.  DBTR from New Orleans in 1984 is jaw-dropping)

There's so much more that could be written about Neil Young and the International Harvesters, but I've gone on long enough.  As for the title of this post, here is a song that didn't make the cut for A Treasure, but tells a story that is as timely and poignant today as it was in 1985 when it was first written and performed.

"This Old House"

Midnight, that old clock keeps ticking,
The kids are all asleep,
and I'm walking the floor.
Darlin', I can see that you're dreaming,
And I don't wanna wake you up,
When I close the door.

This old house of ours is built on dreams,
And a businessman don't know what that means.
There's a garden outside she works in every day
And tomorrow morning a man from the bank's
Gonna come and take it all away.

Lately, I've been thinking 'bout daddy,
And how he always made things work,
when the chips were down.
And I know I've got something inside me,
There's always a light there to guide me,
To what can't be found.

This old house of ours is built on dreams,
And a businessman don't know what that means.
There's a swing outside the kids play on every day,
And tomorrow morning a man from the bank's
Gonna come and take it all away.

Take it all away,
take it all away,
take it all away.
Take it all away,
take it all away,
take it all away.

Remember how we first came here together?
Standing on an empty lot, holding hands.
Later, we came back in the moonlight,
And made love right where the kitchen is,
Then we made our plans.

This old house of ours is built on dreams
And a businessman don't know what that means.
There's a garden outside she works in every day,
And tomorrow morning a man from the bank's
Gonna come and take it all away.

Take it all away,
take it all away,
take it all away.
Take it all away,
take it all away,
take it all away.

01 April 2011

True Anecdotes of the Mortgage Crisis Part II: Who's the Customer Here Anyway?

Previous Installments:
True Anecdotes of the Mortgage Crisis Part I: Negotiating from a Position of Power

After leaving Chicago in 2001, I settled in Milwaukee for a few years and went to work at a small local title agency.  It was pretty menial and low-paying for a licensed attorney, but this was the business that I'd decided I wanted to be in, so I started at the bottom.

My first job was as a recordings clerk, where I learned about how long your deed or mortgage might sit around on some idiot's desk before someone with half a brain finally comes along and gets it sent to the courthouse.  Even worse is how long it can sit at the courthouse before it gets entered in the records, and then how long it can take for the recorded documents to become indexed and searchable by the next title agent to come along and look for them.  Ten years ago, when everyone was refinancing once or twice a year and the courthouse technology was not exactly 21st century, that could all add up to as much as 4 to 6 months.

But, recordings are boring, and they have nothing to do with the mortgage crisis, so let's move on.  Within a couple months I started doing closings, which is what I had originally signed on to do.  If you've never bought a home, this is what the closer does.  I greet you, the buyer/borrower in the lobby of the title office, and escort you to a small conference room.  Then, over the course of the next 20 or 30 minutes, I walk you through a big stack of documents, which have mostly come from your lender.  About 4 or 5 of them are really critical, such as the HUD-1 settlement statement, the note, the mortgage, the "Truth In Lending" disclosures, and maybe a couple others.  The large majority of the documents are a variety of state and federally mandated disclosures regarding your type of loan, privacy policies, ID requirements, and various waivers to make your eyes cross.  I had a shpiel that I could do in my sleep where I explained the meaning of each and every document in the stack.  Most lenders had 90% the same docs, with minor variations in forms, so eventually, like all closers, you figure out what to say, what to not say, and how to say it just right.

This is not to imply that I was hiding anything or trying to deceive anyone.  I took my responsibilities under RESPA seriously, and I felt that I always owed my first duty of loyalty to the borrower, as it is supposed to be under the rules.  These are the least informed persons in the entire real estate and mortgage lending process, and I was for a short time their advocate.  It's also important to understand that in Wisconsin, unlike Illinois, attorneys are rarely present at residential real estate closings.  The title closers assume most of the duties that attorneys handle in other states.  I really had to be looking out for these people's interests, because no one else in the process was.  The thing is, people have a lot of stupid questions, and they get worried about the silliest things, so I did try to avoid those conversations by saying everything just right.

Then there are the other people in the process.  Who are they, and more importantly, what are their motivations?  First, you've got the real estate brokers (realtors).  Their motivation is to make sure the deal closes, because they don't get paid until the papers are all signed and the money disbursed.  They get paid by a percentage of the sale price, and so they are motivated to get the sale price as high as possible.  The seller pays the brokers' fees, both the seller's agent and the buyer's agent, which is fine for the seller.  But if you are a buyer of real estate and you are working with an agent to find a property, you must always remember that "your" agent is paid more the higher the price you pay.  They are not interested in helping you get the best deal.  They will find you a house that is a good fit for you personally, but although they legally act as your agent in negotiations, they have a practical conflict of interest built into their relationship with you.  Their interest is to make a deal, and the highest number you will accept is their implicit goal.

The other major players are the mortgage brokers, or front-end lenders.  The mechanics of the mortgage loan, who finances it, who ultimately buys it, and who services it are very complicated, but the motivations of the parties are devastatingly simple.  If you can understand the role of the mortgage broker, then you can understand the basic building block of the global financial crisis.  I am not shy about saying that I believe that mortgage brokers are as responsible for the collapse of the global economy in the past few years as anyone.  Wall Street financiers may have invented all of the securities that ultimately tanked the economy, but mortgage brokers sold the banks the shit mortgages that got thrown into those packages.  As you will see as this series continues, I have dealt with some sleazy, dishonest, slimes in my career, but the worst individuals and the worst in the aggregate have been independent mortgage brokers.  Some were good people just trying to earn an honest living, but when interest rates are falling, the scumbags set up shop to pull in the free-flowing money.

The motivation of the mortgage broker is to get you into a new loan.  There are subtleties involved regarding the amounts they are paid by the banks who actually lend the money depending on the mortgage loan "products" that the broker is able to sell, but what it ultimately comes down to is getting a new loan for you to buy or refinance your home.  The critical element is that the mortgage broker gets paid at the closing or very shortly thereafter.  Once you are closed, you are no longer a concern, and he has moved on to his next client.  He is not going to be servicing your loan, collecting your monthly payments for years into the future.  If you default in a year, he doesn't care at all.  He got his payment up front, and you are now the bank's problem.

The root of the mortgage crisis is that the lenders started doing the same thing.  Your mortgage would get sold and resold and packaged into mortgage-backed securities, various pass-through certificates, and sold to investors and financial managers who would then sell shares of funds that held billions of dollars worth of these securitized instruments.  Each time your loan was sold, the seller would take a small profit.  You see, if you look at that Truth In Lending disclosure from your closing, it will say that your $200,000 mortgage at 7% is going to cost you something like $450,000 in payments at the end of 30 years, or about 125% total interest.  By holding the note for a few months and taking 5% or 10% on a sale, it was a good, smart deal for the initial lender, and their hands were clean of you as well.  Next customer.

The real problem with this system happened after I was out of the title business in the mid-2000s, but I did see some early signs of it when I was still there.  By 2004 or so, interest rates had hit rock bottom, and every person in America who should have legitimately owned their own home had bought a house, and probably refinanced it a couple of times.  These mortgage-backed securities had become the hottest item in the financial markets, and investors from all over the world saw investing in the American mortgage market as the best bet on earth.  The problem was, the supply was not endless, and the lenders needed to find more loans to package.  You were left with people who should not have owned their own homes being even further enticed into investments that they could not afford, with zero margin for error, just so the banks would have more securities to sell to eager investors.  These mortgages were total shit, and sold to be much lower risk than they actually were.  The people at the front end took their upfront commissions and washed their hands, and the investors ended up dumping billions into garbage paper.

Dozens of writers with more knowledge and experience than I have written about this aspect of the mortgage crisis in much more detail and with greater authority.  However, if you want a very basic primer on the mortgage crisis in language that anyone can understand, I can't recommend this broadcast by This American Life and NPR News entitled "The Giant Pool of Money" highly enough.  You will "get it" after this.  There have been a couple of follow up programs as well.

I want to say a couple of words at this point about a popular boogeyman in the mortgage crisis that I believe gets maligned somewhat unfairly.  "MERS" is the Mortgage Electronic Recording Service, and from the perspective of a title closer/examiner/agent, I think the idea is brilliant and very useful.  The idea behind MERS was that it would enable banks and other investors in mortgages to sell and resell the note and underlying indebtedness to each other without having to record an assignment of mortgage document every time with the county recorder of deeds.  It makes the market for secured debt more fluid and therefore more efficient and profitable, and there's nothing wrong with that.  From my perspective as a title examiner, I wouldn't have to dig through several recorded assignments to figure out who owned a particular mortgage, I'd just find the original mortgage, go to the MERS website, and enter the MIN (Mortgage Identification Number), and voila!  It gives me the name and contact info for the current servicer.  As a closer, it made ordering payoff letters easy.  As a bonus, it saved money in recording fees.  A super system, right?

The problem with MERS is that once investors were able to skip the step of filing assignments with the recorder, they started to get lazy and skip other critical steps as well.  Like assigning and delivering the original note document to the new investor.  Hell, MERS would have served as an excellent repository for all of the original documents as well, but storage space is expensive, and that wasn't their primary purpose, so it wasn't done that way.  It also doesn't appear to have been designed to accommodate the mortgage-backed securities market, or if it was, it wasn't designed well for it.  In later chapters, I'll get into what lenders are doing today when they need to foreclose on their mortgages and the documentation needed to do so is substandard.

Anyway, back to mortgage brokers.  The worst part about mortgage brokers, as far as I was concerned as a title closer, was that they were the ones that brought in the business.  I don't know if every market was like this, but in the early 2000s, Milwaukee was completely oversaturated with title agencies.  The competition was so strong that the going rate for a loan policy was $200, and the closing fee was about the same.  If you didn't give the best rates, and the best service, there was another agency right down the road where the brokers could take their business who would give them what they wanted. 

I could spend pages writing about how this business model screws up the title agents and causes cutting corners and errors, but more critically was the basic conflict of interest that I felt as a closer on the occasions when I could recognize that a borrower was being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous mortgage broker.  I can recall several times when I was sitting in a closing room with a borrower and a broker where I could tell from the looks I was getting that the broker did not want me to explain the documents the borrower was signing as well as I was. 

What?  Why should you have any problem with me explaining to this woman who looks like she smells like pee that a 2-year ARM at 11.99% with a 2-year prepayment penalty is not a good deal, and that if she doesn't refinance this loan in exactly 2 years, she will be hit with either a six-months interest penalty or a 7 point rate hike?  Sure ma'am, $4,000 is a perfectly reasonable broker's commission on a $40,000 loan.  Oh, yes yes.  I'm certain that this broker will be there two years from now to help refinance you into a 30-year fixed, just as soon as you get your credit score up 200 points by making every single one of you mortgage payments on time for the next two years, without missing any car payments, or credit card payments, or electric bills or any other payments.  She smells like a perfectly responsible person, and clearly her $47,000 row house will appreciate dramatically in that time as well.

But I would never be able to even imply any of the things I was thinking.  Never would I jeopardize the company's relationship with the broker by causing a deal of his to fall apart at the table.  Hey, most of the time the mark was too stupid to know the question she could have asked me that I would have been bound to answer and which might dissuade her from closing the deal. 

This is the conflict that I was thrown into as a title closer.  Shit, at least I had a moral conflict about it.  I'm sure others didn't even think it that far.

In the next Chapter:  Condo Conversions and How to Keep a Costco Out of Your Fancy Suburb

29 March 2011

Chicken House

I watched a re-run of House from earlier this season last night.  In a scene, Dr. House is supposed to be babysitting Cuddy’s daughter, which of course he doesn’t want to be doing, so he calls up his old pal Wilson to pick up some Chinese food for him, and when Wilson arrives, House tries to leave Wilson there watching the kid.  Wilson defiantly refuses and walks out the front door to his car, as House also walks out the front door to his motorcycle.

House’s gambit is that Wilson is too decent a person to leave a 2 year-old home alone.  House is able to play the fact that he’s kind of crazy and would simply take off, and is betting that Wilson will fold and stay with the kid, because he knows that Wilson is too good a person to ever allow the kid to be left alone.  House is right, and it would have worked exactly as he'd planned, had House not been dating Cuddy.  Wilson is able to play his ace-in-the-hole, and threatens to tell Cuddy about House leaving him there babysitting, thus guaranteeing that House would not get sex from Cuddy.  Wilson wins, and both men return to the kid, who has in the three minutes they left her alone strewn popcorn and Chinese food all over the floor, and ingested a dime.

This is how I see the current budget negotiations in Congress and the threatened government shutdown.  House is the Republicans, part calculating, part crazy, all dickish petulant child.  Wilson is the Democrats, a patsy pushover, but a decent responsible adult.  The crazy part of the Republicans actually WANT a government shutdown.  The calculating part (the leadership) knows that it would be a) dangerous, and b) politically stupid (hard to get laid later) to allow a government shutdown to happen on their watch, but they are somewhat held hostage by the crazy part.  So the Republicans are playing a game of chicken with the Democrats, who they figure, being the responsible suckers that they are, will flinch first and “compromise”, which in Washington, D.C. seems to always mean “Democrats cave on their core values while Republicans get everything they want”.

But the Democrats have an ace themselves.  There is no way that a government shutdown is going to be blamed on the Democrats by the American people.  In addition to the facts being on their side (which is certainly not dispositive of anything in politics), the propaganda is on their side as well.  As everyone “knows”, the Democrats are the party of “big government”, and the Republicans are the party of “limited government”.  Who shuts down the government?  The limited government guys, of course, not those evil socialists who want to control every aspect of your lives.

Plus, with the recent actions of the radical governors elected in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Maine and elsewhere this past fall, the American people are beginning to get a nice big spoonful of Tea Party Crazy, and to understand what it actually means to their lives when the Republicans get to live out their wet dreams in public.   

All political momentum is with the Democrats at this moment.  Democrats are more motivated right now than Republicans, a major switch from six months ago.  Independents, especially in the states that had Teabag Revolutions in 2010, are running in droves towards the Democrats and away from the Republicans.  Full right-wing crazy is on full display right now, and to such a grand extent that it’s hard to avoid seeing it, even for the average casually ignorant American (as opposed to the aggressively ignorant Teahadists, who just LOVE the idea of destroying the government from the inside out and/or using it to oppress liberals, women, the poor, unions, etc...).

Now, if only the Democrats have the courage and foresight to actually play their ace and not only let the Republican trump their scared and overwhelmed leadership, but to press the point home to the American people when it happens and not let the Republicans somehow take political advantage of it, then the Democrats could be back in business, and rolling in 2012.   “Flip the track, bring the old school back”.  This is how we do it.

Honestly, I just don't want them to make me eat a dime.

26 March 2011

Don't Feed The Trolls


It's a continual source of frustration to me that commenters on blogs and message boards have not figured out to not feed the trolls.  We're talking about smart people, many of whom seem to have been on the internet for a long time, and have not figured out this basic lesson.  It's a rare reply to a troll that is that combination of razor wit with a complete and utter dissemblance of the idiot's position that people are always shooting for, but almost never achieve.  The vast majority of the time, it just allows a discussion to devolve into either a flame out or else spending a bunch of wasted time arguing about something so stupid that it should never even be an issue to a sentient being.  Click on the link to TPM over on the right there, and read the comments section of a story.  There's usually a troll who ends up being the subject of nearly half of the comments.  Troll Mission Accomplished.

And yet, ironically, I spend a large amount of time reading political blogs and news sources on the internet where the subject of the story itself is a writer pointing out something ridiculous that some well-known conservative personality has done or said, and then either making fun of it, or taking apart the position point by point.  It's very entertaining, and it validates your worldview to see idiots who hold a radically different worldview put in their place by an intelligent and witty writer.  But really, it's just feeding the trolls in real life.

Yesterday, I read a diary on Daily Kos that really blew my mind and put this in perspective for me.  It's long, but if you are frustrated with the state of political discourse today, I highly recommend you read the whole thing (a "long" diary on DK takes maybe 10 minutes to read, so it's not like I'm asking you to read a book).

Ignore the Hard Right: Hit The Mainstream Right Hard

I generally think that the people on the left who document the ravings, lies, hypocrisy, hate,and general cognitive dissonance of the American right are doing the world a great service.  I know that I can't stand more than about 45 seconds of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News before my bullshit alarm is making me feel physically ill, but there are people who listen to their shows every day and publicize their venom to the wider world so that they can know how batshit these people are.

But has it ever really helped anything?  Really?  In the grand scheme of things, does it help to be able to easily find an example of something idiotic that Newt Gingrich said a few weeks ago that totally contradicts something equally as idiotic that he said yesterday?  Is it good for the world to know what paranoid nonsense Bryan Fischer said on his radio show the other day?  Or does it just help to lend legitimacy to people who in any kind of sane world should be relegated to the fringes, standing on boxes in a park with a megaphone, if not screaming at the padded walls of their cell.

In martial arts, it is very important to stay focused on your opponent, and not become distracted by the motions of their weapons (i.e., hands and feet): Those are just extensions of their core, and their entire purpose is to create both a barrier and a distraction away from that core.  If you allow yourself to become overly focused on the opponent's weapons, then they are safe while you are left desperately moving your core in response to movements that are trivial for them.  This quickly becomes exhausting and unsustainable, and you either get knocked down or are forced to take a step backward to increase your safety zone.  Pretty soon, all you're doing is retreating.

This is more than an apt analogy for the various radical "movements" that have defined Republican politics since Reagan - it's practically an identical phenomenon.  From Reagan himself, to the emergence of Hate Radio, to the bellicose Gingrich Congress, to the Buscists, and now teabaggers, they are essentially all convenient tentacles of the main body whose purpose is to grab our attention and divert our actions away from the GOP core.  And so far, they have succeeded completely: They cause the energetic, activist left to become obsessed with debunking irrelevant noise-makers; mainstream Democrats to become afraid of being targeted by them; and the two halves of the Democratic community to become estranged and mutually suspicious as a result.  Those of us who remain focused on achieving substantive results are thereby diminished in number, and our efforts dampened rather than magnified by the rest.
The author proceeds to present an amazingly simple and yet complete dissection of how an economic debate circa 1970s about whether to raise taxes for education reforms could have devolved into an argument today about whether the government should have any role in providing public services at all.  That's really how far we've come in the modern debate with the Republican Party.  It's sheer madness.  It's past the point of going back to the roots of our country.  They're practically advocating feudalism and serfdom at this point.

But reality-based intellectual liberals are suckers, and we just can't help ourselves.

Making a logically specious argument to a liberal - especially when it's dressed up in the shallow accoutrements of intellectual theorizing - is like waving a red cape in front of a bull, and we just cannot help ourselves: We must correct it, dissect its fallacies, and illustrate in detail how it fails to validly reflect reality.  But all the public sees is that both sides are talking about this "new idea," and that means - regardless of the content of one side's arguments - it has become "debatable" rather than the plainly false kookery of some fringe headcase.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because I had found that I just couldn't take the "debate" anymore on the messageboard that I had frequented and moderated for many years.  I had lost interest in playing whack-a-troll, and the impossibility of ever truly "winning" the game disheartened me to the point that I no longer even had interest in educating the willing and open-minded.  Of course, my favorite tactic was to post snarky commentary or links to other snarky commentary that belittled the absurdity of the modern "conservative" movement.  So, as you can see, I was being part of the problem.

I realize that it's very entertaining to just react to craziness: It's such an easy, satisfying target for mockery and intellectual dissection.  But ultimately there comes a point where self-discipline is necessary, and where you have to decide that your attention is more responsibly employed generating and proposing real solutions to real problems rather than arguing with lunatics.  This was one of the biggest reasons for the success of the Obama campaign: While some pundits on the left insisted that he was "losing the message war," and that he was being weak on the hard right, in fact he was consciously ignoring the GOP's meat-puppet crazies and instead attacked the core of the Republican edifice.

Here is the truly amazing thing: If we employ this principle on a broad, grass-roots basis, we have a real chance to restore the window of public perception toward reasoned debate and sane priorities.  The media would resist tooth-and-nail, but its efforts would be in vain: People just stop paying attention to what it says when coverage loses touch with them, and they end up losing viewer share, ad revenue, and everything else that supports them as an institution.

Sooner or later, much as happened toward the right after Reagan, the media must follow the public, even if only in the most superficial ways - it cannot do otherwise and remain viable as a business.  So ignore them too: They are merely echoes, and it does not matter whether they portray a newfound Eisenhower-era liberalism as Kommunist Radikalism - direct experience of it will immediately debunk such lunatic portrayals without ever having to legitimize them by arguing with them.

The whole point of political extremism is to get public attention, so rationally the way to deal with it is to deny public attention while dealing with the phenomenon on a grass-roots level (i.e., by talking to individuals).  By doing this, you treat political craziness as what it is: Not something to be argued with, persuaded, or even really opposed, just dismissed and people not closely affiliated with it made to understand that it's illegitimate and will cause them to be ostracized in the public space.

This is basically how societies function: Common values and common perceptions are upheld because deviating too greatly from them will cause you to be viewed as a weirdo who doesn't belong.

It's "Don't Feed The Trolls", in REAL LIFE.

12 March 2011

Comments Policy

I've opened up a bit for comments. You may now post comments if you are a "registered user" (not sure exactly what that means, but it was less restrictive than "anyone with a google account" and more restrictive than "even anonymous posters").

So, please join in, and welcome.

10 March 2011

...We'd Like to Stop Playing this Rubbish...

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "Voodoo Child", "Hey Joe/Sunshine of Your Love" (live on A Happening for LuLu, 4 Jan 1969)

Imagine if The Beatles were on a TV show in 1967, in the middle of their psychedelic experimentation phase, and the hosts of the show asked them to play "She Loves You".  That's pretty much what happened here, in the Experience's last UK television appearance.

By early 1969, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was nearly through, with the members seeking to go their own ways.  Much as had happened (in a band life of almost exactly the same length) with Cream, which had announced to the world earlier that week that they were officially calling it quits.

Jimi and the band were invited onto A Happening for LuLu, which was a pretty mainstream British variety and music program of the time.  LuLu may have fancied herself hip and "with it", but she was pretty square for someone in the middle of the British psychedelic rock scene.  This is probably pretty obvious from the introduction she gives the band before each song in the video below.

For their first number, Jimi played "Voodoo Child", which was a powerhouse jam from their final album, Electric Ladyland.  Awesome, but uneventful.

For the second and final song, they were asked to play "Hey Joe", which was their first single from about two years earlier, and which was not even a Hendrix composition.  Jimi, ever accommodating on the outside (and mischievous on the inside), assented.

(you'll have to click through to youtube to watch, but it's worth it)

Apparently Jimi was told that he had 3:30 to work with until the end of the show, and you can see how that turned out.  I can just imagine the director and LuLu pulling their hair out at what Jimi was doing, but as you can see, Jimi was having a wonderful time.

In my opinion, this ranks right up there with the greatest televised musical performances of all time, for its musicianship, but more so for its historical value.

08 March 2011

True Anecdotes of the Mortgage Crisis Part I: Negotiating from a Position of Power

So, I was thinking that maybe I ought to write a bit about something that I actually have a good deal of first-hand knowledge about: real estate and the mortgage crisis.

I'm an attorney, and for the better part of the last ten years I've been practicing real estate law in a variety of capacities.  I've represented real estate developers, and I've been a title closer.  I've worked in-house with developers in a strong market, and worked in-house with real estate vultures in a weak market, and now I'm investigating title claims on loan policies (which I love, BTW).  I was there in the early 2000s when interest rates were dropping and housing prices were climbing, and I was there when people were investing millions of dollars in huge tracts of desert in Arizona.  I was also there when it all came crashing down and the ganefs scrounged to pick up foreclosed homes from banks by the dozens at forty cents on the dollar.  I've seen the tricks that the lenders and brokers used to get us into this mess, and I've seen the tricks they're using to try to get out it (for themselves, not for you).  I even lost my entire investment in the real estate market myself.

I've spoken to many people about the mortgage crisis, and read a lot of people's opinions about who is to blame and what should be done.  Everyone seems to be interested in it at some level, especially if they are homeowners, and when they find out what I do for a living it's often a topic of conversation.  There's a lot of misunderstanding out there, as well as a good deal of flat out misinformation.  I certainly don't have all of the answers, but I am a smart guy who pays attention, spots bullshit pretty well, and has been up close and personal with many people on all sides of the real estate business throughout the last decade.  I think I've mostly got the right idea, and I've got some stories.

I'll start at the beginning, because although my first gig in real estate law was pretty short, it did yield one great story that has amazed friends and business associates alike for the past 10 years.  In 2001, I was living in Chicago, and I was working legal temp gigs (they call it "contract work", but it has nothing to do with contracts) after losing a job with a dotcom.  One job I got was with a small firm in The Loop that was representing the developer of a new high-rise condo project on the near South Side.  The construction was just about finished, and they were in the midst of closing all of the sales of the 300 or so units.  In this heady real estate market, all of the units had been sold about 18 months earlier, when the project had barely broken ground, and I'm sure the competition was hot to get in.  My job was to draw up the closing documents and then spend all day at the main office of Chicago Title walking around from closing to closing delivering the seller's docs, signing the closing statements and then returning to the office with the checks.

So here's where the story gets good.  Because there was so much competition for these units in this building, I don't think the buyers had ever read their purchase and sale agreements very carefully before they signed them, and the ones that had their lawyers look at them apparently didn't do much better.  Out of all of the closings I attended over those couple of months, only 4 buyers, 3 of whom were represented by the same attorney, caught the little nugget that the developers had dropped in the contracts to make themselves a little extra cash.

When you buy a property, one of the charges on your settlement statement is for the proration of the real estate taxes.  This is usually a pretty simple calculation where you figure the taxes for the current year (or other tax period), divide it up between the buyer and seller based on how many days each party owned the property, and then one party gives the other a credit to pay for the taxes they owe.  95% of the time, it's the seller that gives the buyer the credit, because the tax bill will come out later in the year and the buyer will have to pay the whole thing.  Occasionally, the seller has already paid the taxes for the year, so the buyer has to give the seller the credit, but that generally only happens within the month when the tax bills are released and closers try to avoid that situation if they can by having the taxes actually paid on the closing statement.

With a new development however, there is an additional twist.  Undeveloped land is worth much less than developed land, and is often taxed at a different rate, so the taxes are much lower.  If you buy a newly constructed home, it is very likely that the taxes will go up quite a bit in the first year from the assessment the previous year.  The slimebag developers that I was representing saw this as an opportunity.

The language of the purchase and sale agreements in this deal addressed the proration of taxes by making it the responsibility of the seller to pre-pay the taxes for the year, and for the buyers to give the seller a credit of the prorated portion of 2% of the sale price of the unit (which was an estimate of the property taxes based on the City of Chicago's "mill rate" at the time).  This would be a relatively fair way to estimate an unknown tax bill, except that the tax amount was known by the developers, and they had paid the taxes based on the undeveloped value of the vacant lot that the high-rise was built upon.  The developers paid approximately $90,000 in real estate taxes for the year the closings took place.  But the 300-some-odd units, selling at an average of about $350,000 each, yielded well over a MILLION dollars in tax proration overpayments to the developers!  If you ever need to define the term "windfall", just remember this story.

The kicker was that the contracts specifically stated that there would be no re-prorations of the taxes after the closing (a remedy that is sometimes used when estimating taxes that are very difficult to ascertain).  Like I said earlier, only those 2 attorneys representing 4 buyers caught this trick, and even they were only able to negotiate the tax proration down to 1.5% because the properties were so in demand.

That gig ended after about two months, but I learned something very important for my future career path.  I learned that I would rather be the closer working for the title company than represent the interests of a party that I found distasteful in a real estate deal.  It would certainly not be the last time that I would advocate for a position or client that I found unseemly, but I decided to pursue the path of the poorly paid referee in the real estate world rather than the highly paid player.

In the next chapter, "Who is the customer here, anyway?"

24 February 2011

The Prolifieration of Gay Marriage

I've been pretty down about the grand state of politics today, despite the encouraging signs of life from the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and the pro-union protests in Wisconsin.  Mainly it's because I learned today that Wisconsin has already been killed by the teabaggers, and they don't even know they're dead yet.  The shameless lying and hypocrisy out of Washington is worse than ever, to the point that it would be hilarious if anyone in the major news media ever actually called them on the bullshit.  But there was one story today that perked me up a bit about the future, so I'm going to run with that tonight.

Social conservatives are terrified of the creeping specter of gay marriage taking over the United States, as well they should be.  All indications are that they are on the losing side of history, just as they were with civil rights for women and blacks and other minority groups throughout American history.  Honestly, they should be used to it by now, especially because "being on the losing side of history" is pretty much the definition of conservatism.

But in the recognition that the roller coaster of life goes faster than their delicate fear centers can handle, social conservatives have endeavored to head the gays off at the pass over the past two decades.  To give the political architects of the right their maximum amount of credit, the lawyers among them have to have known that all of the same arguments that destroyed Jim Crow would eventually come to destroy discriminatory laws against homosexuals as well.  I mean, anyone who has read the Supreme Court decision in Loving v Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), could plainly see that substituting the issue of race for gender would eventually lead a court to find that laws restricting same-sex couples from marrying were plainly unconstitutional. 

The first major salvo in the fight did not secure the unconstitutionality flank, however.  The "Defense of Marriage Act" ("DOMA"), passed by the Republican controlled Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, sought to allow states to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions performed in other state (which at the time was being done in no states), and it also defined marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife". 

For a variety of reasons, DOMA does not solve any of the constitutional issues that it sought to block.  The avoidance of recognition is designed as a direct challenge to the "Full Faith and Credit" clause of the Constitution, which among other things, is what requires a marriage performed in one state to be recognized by the government and courts of another.  I've always believed that it was beyond the power of the Congress to legislate this clause away, and that it would require an Amendment to accomplish the goal of DOMA.  Of course, just as it could not happen now, it was already too late in the mid-1990s to get the required votes in Congress or in the state legislatures to pass a federal marriage amendment.  It's also very contentious legally whether the federal government is within its authority to define marriage and whether attempting to do so violates the10th Amendment (which should always be taken with a pound of salt), and/or the "Due Process" and "Equal Protection" clauses of the 14th Amendment. 

Earlier today, the White House and Department of Justice announced that they would no longer be defending DOMA's 3rd clause in future lawsuits because it was their legal opinion that the clause was unconstitutional.  For the time being, they will continue to defend suits challenging the 2nd clause, but I believe it's merely a matter of time before that too will fall.

While a few states had enacted domestic partnership laws granting some legal protections of marriage to non-married couples (gay or straight), the fireworks really began in 2004 when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled that the hundred year-old state law banning same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution.  This is what the social conservatives had feared, and what they had been waiting for. 

In a well-coordinated attack, measures amending the various constitutions of many states to define marriage as "one man and woman" were placed on the ballots in time for the 2004 general election.  All passed with wide margins, and some credit George W. Bush's reelection to the huge turnout of social conservatives in Ohio, the electoral votes of which were the difference in the election.  In fact, in all of the ballot measures put up for vote, only the 2006 measure in Arizona has failed to pass (and a barely watered down version did pass there in 2008).

With today's DOMA decision from the DOJ, I saw a question asked on a blog about how many people have actually voted to ban gay marriage in their states.  The implication was that since many of the states banning gay marriage are small in population, that they may actually be outnumbered by those enjoying same-sex marriage rights.   So I set to work crunching the numbers.  Unfortunately, the comment section had become such a flame war by the time I got back, that I couldn't even find the original comment that I wanted to respond to, not that anyone would see my response anyway.  Actually, it wasn't a flame war, because a flame war involves armies on both sides.  This was just a single troll that completely fucked up the comment section of a blog posting.

Anyway, I found that there are several ways to look at the data.  Let's begin with a map:

As you can see, it's a rather complicated patchwork of laws these days.  I also needed some census data to estimate populations, and I used the July 2009 estimates based on the 2000 census, since the numbers from the 2010 census don't appear to be available yet in neat Excel format.

Now, if you want to look at the numbers in a simplistic way, sort of a red state/blue state kind of way, here are the numbers broken down into a "same-sex marriage is banned" vs "same-sex marriage is legal" spreadsheet.

Here we see that 82.84% of Americans live in a state where there is either a Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage, or a statute doing so.  Only 16.82% live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, or where a civil unions law is in effect that grants all of the legal rights of marriage.  Clearly the conservatives have won and set up their firewall against teh gayz, right?

Well, let's look at those numbers with a bit more subtlety, and see what is really happening on the ground (my colors do not match the map above):

When you break it down into all of the categories shown on the map, the picture becomes much more nuanced.  Now, there are only 59.83% of Americans who live in a jurisdiction where same-sex unions are completely non-existent, and 37.34% who live in a jurisdiction where either same-sex marriage is recognized, or civil unions with full legal rights of marriage are recognized.  Not quite so bleak.

There are several other subtleties that should be addressed as well.  I counted Wisconsin in the most restrictive group, even though there are domestic partnership laws on the books there.  The question of whether those domestic partnership rights would be trumped by the Constitutional amendment has not been decided by the courts there.

Then there are the states that are actively in motion and could change at any time.  One is Maine, which enacted same sex marriage by legislation in 2010, only to have the law struck down narrowly by a voter initiative later in the year.  Maryland and New York are strong candidates to have same-sex marriage laws on the books within the current legislative session, as is Hawai'i. 

Perhaps most critically, California is now the center of the judicial universe when it comes to gay marriage.  The CA Supreme Court had ruled that the state's marriage ban statute was unconstitutional in 2008, only to have a full Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage pass by the slimmest of margins that fall.  On a night of celebrations for liberals, this was by far the toughest blow.  However, the ballot measure's constitutionality was immediately challenged, and has been found to be unconstitutional by a US District Judge under California law.  That verdict is currently under appeal to the 9th Circuit, which has stayed the ruling pending its decision, which may take months, since they have certified a standing question back to the CA Supreme Court.  If the standing issue goes one way, the case is over and gay marriage is legal in California.  If it goes the other way, the 9th Circuit could potentially make a ruling that could affect nine states.  If the 9th Circuit ends up ruling on this issue, it's a virtual guarantee to be in front of the Supreme Court of the United States within a couple of years.

I believe that the victory of Prop 8 in California in 2008 was the high water mark for the anti-gay marriage people.  Anything that happened in 2010 was more the result of the generally low turnout of the left across the country (such as in Maine).  All the momentum in the future is against the conservatives, and their walls will eventually crumble, because they have never managed to get their federal marriage amendment, and they never will.  As strong as these state bulwarks are, they will not stand forever.  On top of that, younger people are much more open to gay marriage than older people, and to be blunt, older people will die sooner.  You can't fight those demographic changes (note to conservatives: learn to speak Spanish).

This has been a bit dry as a posting, I know.  Lots of history and legal stuff and figures and graphs.  Not much ranting or even opinion from me.  So I'll just finish with a challenge that I have made to people for several years.

As my views on gay marriage evolved from the adolescent "ick" factor, through the post-collegiate libertarian "the government should just get out of the marriage business" stage, to "if everyone has equal legal rights, who cares what it's called", to the ultimate "civil unions are like separate drinking fountains for second class citizens", I have solidified my arguments in favor of gay marriage and accepting nothing less as enough. 

In my experience, there are some political issues that the more your think about the two sides, the more you come to a moderated understanding of the competing merits of the arguments.  This is NOT one of those issues.  I find that the more people think about it, the more they tend to shift towards the side of gay marriage rights, and that is because this is a rare case where one side is completely right, and the other is completely wrong.

So, here's the challenge.  I have asked friends and political debate opponents to give me one good argument against gay marriage that is not based in religion, emotion, or some other sentimentality for a past that probably never was in the first place.  In six or seven years, I've never had anyone come up with one that could not be completely dismantled, not merely countered or outweighed, but utterly laid to dust. 

That is my challenge to you.  Think about it.  Be honest with yourself.  Examine your feelings and your arguments.  And then do the same for everything else you think or believe.

Now how about some music celebrating gay love!

06 February 2011


Bill Hicks, Prophet (1961-1994)

Through the millennia, there have always been people who "got it" in a religious and spiritual sense.  They have been known by many names, and held many different positions, in many cultures all over the world.  Sometimes they were given positions of great honor, such as the medicine man in a tribal group, or allowed to express their gifts in positions supported by others in society as artists or musicians or poets.  At other times, they are reviled as madmen, apostates, or as radicals or terrorists.  In rare cases, they have been revered as religious leaders whose every word and deed are seen as directed by God himself.

My preferred term for such people is Spiritual Adept.  But for short, I will call them Prophets.

Prophet, of course, is a loaded word for those raised in the western religious traditions (or near them).  But that is useful to my point, because I want everyone reading this to have in their minds their idea of what the word Prophet means to them.  My personal understanding of the word evokes images of the men of the Old Testament who heard the voice of God and were usually in some way directed by Him to do something, or spread some message to the people.  I'm going to guess that your idea is probably not too far off from that.

At this point, I wanted to pull a few ideas from a sort of open letter I wrote to my closest friends a little over a year ago about my feelings about my Jewishness.  I've clipped just the most relevant few paragraphs below, but I've also reprinted the entire thing at the end of this post (with a few minor edits from its original text), because it's something I'm very proud of, and which I'd like to share now with a wider audience.

One of the problems with religion in general, and especially “religions of the book”, is the book itself. You see, over the course of history, there have been people all over the world who have “gotten it”. For lack of a better term, we’ll call those people Prophets. The problem with Prophets is that in order for them to make their deep spiritual and philosophical understanding at all accessible or useful to people who have not “gotten it”, they need to dumb it down quite a bit.

The most successful method for imparting deep ideas to shallow people is in the form of allegorical stories. These allegories must be finely tailored to the intended audience to maximize their effectiveness, as allegory and metaphor are nothing without context. You talk about things that your audience knows from their everyday lives, so if you’re speaking to Bronze Age goatherds, you talk about wolves and the life cycle of a goat. If you’re talking to fishermen, you talk about the sea and fish and boats and other things they will understand.

The problems begin to grow when such stories are written down, and especially when some scribe or priest decides that he needs to tell people that these allegories and metaphors are important because they are the “revealed word of God”, or worse, the literal word of God. Then suddenly, a story told in such a way that prehistoric illiterates could grasp even the tiniest bit of deep wisdom about the nature of the universe and God becomes the unerring literal revealed word of God and the actual history of the world, and that story is now supposed to be just as important to people today as it was when it was first told 2500 years, and several language translations, ago. This is why I consider any religious orthodoxy or fundamentalism to be useless. The potential for missing the forest for the trees is tremendous, and can sometimes go so far as to be an actual distraction from the basic message.

I believe that there are Prophets walking among us today in vast numbers.  Considering that there are about as many people living on earth today as have died in the entire history of humanity, and the people alive today are FAR more educated than at any other time, it is not unreasonable to believe that there are as many Prophets walking around today as in the whole of human history before us.  So why in God's name do people continue to hold the words of men who lived thousands of years ago in higher esteem than those of people living today who have tremendous advantages in their ability to understand the universe as it truly is?

Think about this for a minute.  Imagine the wisest man on earth 2500 years ago, the man with the greatest understanding of science and of human cultures, as well as spiritual and religious beliefs.  It is unlikely that this hypothetical man would have any actual knowledge of any cultures further than a few hundred miles from his place of birth.  He would have no understanding whatsoever of chemistry or electromagnetism or particle physics, if he had any understanding of the mathematics understood by every moderately intelligent 16 year-old of the 21st Century.  These are topics that literally millions of modern people are very well-versed in, and if only a small percentage of those have the gift of spiritual aptitude, and the interest to pursue it even a small amount, you should have thousands of higher quality Prophets in the world today than the best possible Prophet of the first millennium B.C.

Now, remember that the words used by those ancient Prophets were a) allegories and metaphors for a specific ancient audience, many of the subtleties of which must certainly be lost on the modern reader, b) dumbed down for audiences that were neither educated nor spiritually adept, and c) translated several times through the centuries into languages that were not of the same language group, in parts of the world where the metaphors and allegories may have made little sense, by other men who were also not particularly well-educated or spiritually adept.

You are left at the end with some manner of sausage, and it's probably not kosher.

There are voices worth listening to all over the world today.  As Bill Hicks said in the video above, "We always kill the good guys who try to tell us that, and let the demons run amok."  But they can't get all of them, not in the age of digital information, and not before they can get some of their words out to us.

Jesus (a Prophet) said (rough translation from Aramaic to Greek to 17th Century English), "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.  For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."

I believe this very strongly.  Seek, and you shall find.  But what do you seek?  Faith is a powerful, powerful and dangerous thing.  It can make you believe with every fibre of your being things that are patently untrue.  I give as an example my small son.  Last summer, he was about 16 months old, and he believed with everything that he was, that he could swim.  He would jump into the swimming pool, I'd hold a hand under his belly and he'd paddle and kick and stick his face in the water think he was getting around the pool on his own, and it just was not so.

If you seek Christ, you will find Christ.  You will find him in everything.  You will be shocked at how you find him in everything, and each time you find him, it will further affirm your faith in Christ.  And it will be mostly a figment of your fallible human mind that has been seeking him.  If you seek God, you will find God.  If you seek wealth, you will find wealth.  If you seek power, you will find power.  If you seek sex, you will find sex.  If you seek love, you will find love.

I seek TRUTH.  Often I find lies.  Often I am wrong.  Often I have told lies, to myself and others, and that is obviously not the path to Truth, but I am fallible and weak.  But when I focus on seeking Truth, when I make that the priority, I tend to find it.  I may sometimes be fooled into believing a lie, but I also believe that the best way to avoid being deceived is to make Truth your goal.

What is your spiritual goal?  If it is not to know the ultimate truth of the universe, then what is the point?

Terence McKenna, Prophet (1946-2000)

On Being Jewish (Oct. 2009)
[In September of 1999], I spent an evening with [2 friends] at their apartment in the Bronx, and among other things, we had a very deep discussion about ethnic and cultural identity. I talked about how I’d never really felt very much a part of any religious or ethnic community because I came from a diverse background and it was not something that my parents emphasized. I knew I was not ever a Christian, but I never really felt like I was a Jew either, at least not in the eyes of my many Jewish friends.

I can recall quite vividly that [my friend] asked me if I considered myself a “musician” because I played guitar. I said I did not, because I was not a very good player, not good enough to perform for others, and that people probably wouldn’t consider me to be a musician. [He] responded that if I considered myself a musician then I WAS a musician. He said he considered himself an artist and musician because he made art and music, and the opinions of others were much less relevant than the weight to which I assigned those opinions. He told me that if I wished to embrace my Jewishness, then I could be a Jew.

This past week was Yom Kippur, and again I have been contemplating what it means to be a Jew, and what Judaism means to me. Fasting on Yom Kippur is one of the very few Jewish rituals that I have regularly practiced over the years because I believe that fasting is a valuable experience for focusing the mind on oneself, one’s needs, and on specific topics of choice, in this case one’s transgressions and how to improve as a person in the next year.

This year, my experience was different, and it has caused me to evaluate what I do as a Jew and why. I was extremely busy at work the past few weeks, including quite a bit of time spent in the office on weekends. I had three closings that I had to manage over the three business days surrounding Yom Kippur. As a result, I lost track of which day the holiday even was. I thought it was on Tuesday, and it wasn’t until I had eaten lunch on Monday that I realized that it was in fact on Monday. I regretted this, but I also knew that my work would have suffered for me not eating that day, and it was not a day that I could afford to have my work suffer.

I work closely with three other Jews. The President of my company is a very reformed Jew in his mid-40’s from Chicago. He’s married to a woman of Mexican descent, I don’t believe he has raised his kids Jewish (or Catholic for that matter) and while he certainly self-identifies as a Jew, he does not practice much at all. Our sales manager is about the same in his practice, although he seems to observe the high holidays and embraces the ritual a little bit more.

The third guy is our CFO, and he’s in his early 30’s and has really embraced his Jewishness so that he and his wife have decided to live an Orthodox Jewish life. He was not raised Orthodox, but began on this path around the time he was in college, and has progressively become more Orthodox over the course of his adult life. They lived in Israel for a year, he speaks Hebrew to his children, he eats almost perfectly kosher, and he observes Shabbat strictly. He takes his practice to what I would consider extreme lengths, and I say that with the experience of knowing many conservative Jews who engage in regular practice and ritual.

So, in addition to forgetting my Yom Kippur fast, a couple other things happened this week that have highlighted Jewish practice and identity and led me to put my thoughts and feelings down on paper. The first thing was that while I was in the midst of preparing for all of these closings this past weekend, our CFO was home with his family in Phoenix from midday Friday, and wasn’t back in the office until Wednesday. I don’t normally begrudge his Sabbath observance at all because this is a guy who regularly puts in 15 hour days so that he can turn off his phone on Shabbat and do what he does. But when it’s crunch time for work, it’s pretty tough on all the people who are working [for him] to be off for four days in a row. The result of this turned out to be that he had not performed all of the general accounting on the several closings and forgot to send a wire so that on Wednesday afternoon, the company, and particularly the President of the company, was embarrassed by looking incompetent. I was personally upset because I had put a lot of time and effort into making sure that these closings all went off smoothly, and then in the end, they appeared sloppy. Rightly or wrongly, I blamed his strict religious observance for the errors that took place.

A couple days later, I overheard him explaining to someone else in the office about his views on religious observance. He described time as a series of circles and spirals and cycles and the observance of holidays as being a harmonic resonance with Jews throughout history. From a metaphysical standpoint, these are all concepts that I fully agree with. The idea of time as a spiral is actually central to my entire philosophy of life and the universe, as are the ideas of harmonics and history. Perhaps that’s why I reacted so strongly to his words; because his philosophy is so similar and yet so diametrically opposed to my own.

To him, being a Jew is about doing things, saying words, and practicing rituals that Jews have done continually for 3000 years so as to feel a part of something that has endured throughout history and across the face of the Earth. This is obviously a common sentiment among Jews, and I’ve observed that very idea explicitly discussed at the Passover Seder, and when reciting the Shema. However, that is only a very small amount of what I identify with in Judaism, and it is the part which I find is most in opposition to the parts that I do identify.

To most, I would be considered a convert. I was not raised in the religion, my mother is not Jewish, and neither was my father’s mother. My father’s father was Jewish however, and I have always had a strong presence of Jewish culture in my life. My aunt “converted” [upon her marriage] and raised her son Jewish, my step-father is Jewish, many of my best friends from childhood are Jewish and it is the part of my background that I have always most identified with. When I married, I went through a very liberal conversion process so we could be married by [my in-laws'] rabbi. But I must say, that ever since my conversation with [my friend in 1999], and my meeting [my wife] a couple weeks later, I have considered my Jewishness to be mine, a birthright to which I required only formal recognition. I could not have gone through even the most superficial conversion to another religion because I have a well-defined and explored personal philosophy of the universe and the divine. The core beliefs of Judaism do not conflict with or offend my own sensibilities, even if I am not as certain of those core beliefs as some may be.

Which brings me to  that with which I most identify in Judaism. I can agree with the most central ideas of one God, and a chosen people and a revealed word and law. And the history of Judaism is one of scholarship and interpretation of God’s word and argument amongst wise men about the meaning of the law and how it should apply to our lives. Questioning orthodoxy is respected, so long as one has a strong argument for an alternative interpretation. Perhaps it appeals to me as a lawyer, but it certainly appeals to me as a liberal and an intellectual.

One of the problems with religion in general, and especially “religions of the book”, is the book itself. You see, over the course of history, there have been people all over the world who have “gotten it”. For lack of a better term, we’ll call those people “prophets”. The problem with prophets is that in order for them to make their deep spiritual and philosophical understanding at all accessible or useful to people who have not “gotten it”, they need to dumb it down quite a bit.

The most successful method for imparting deep ideas to shallow people is in the form of allegorical stories. These allegories must be finely tailored to the intended audience to maximize their effectiveness, as allegory and metaphor are nothing without context. You talk about things that your audience knows from their everyday lives, so if you’re speaking to Bronze Age goatherds, you talk about wolves and the life cycle of a goat. If you’re talking to fishermen, you talk about the sea and fish and boats and other things they will understand.

The problems begin to grow when such stories are written down, and especially when some scribe or priest decides that he needs to tell people that these allegories and metaphors are important because they are the “revealed word of God”, or worse, the literal word of God. Then suddenly, a story told in such a way that pre-historic illiterates could grasp even the tiniest bit of deep wisdom about the nature of the universe and God becomes the unerring literal revealed word of God and the actual history of the world, and that story is now supposed to be just as important to people today as it was when it was first told 2500 years, and several language translations, ago. This is why I consider any religious orthodoxy or fundamentalism to be useless. The potential for missing the forest for the trees is tremendous, and can sometimes go so far as to be an actual distraction from the basic message.

My CFO friend explained a project he has been working on in Phoenix over a dinner one night this summer. Apparently, there are many activities that may be done on Shabbat only within the confines of the home, but cannot be done “across property boundaries”. These include carrying or pushing anything, including children or a stroller, or any other number of things that are pretty much essential if you do not want to spend your entire day indoors in your own home on the Sabbath. So some Orthodox Jews have come up with the brilliant idea of creating a virtual wall, or “eruv” around their entire community to allow for such things. He was quite animated in his explanations about how this is constructed and how it deals with such things as roads and canals, as well as the logistics of dealing with the Department of Transportation and building even a small flagpole type erection in their right of way.

It was all very fascinating in a “do you have any idea how crazy this is?” kind of way. [My wife] summed it up perfectly. “Isn’t that an awful lot of mental energy dedicated to essentially cheating on God’s law?” I saw it more practically. For all of the time and energy that he and his friends spent on this Jewish jerk-off, they could have actually done something positive to help the world. I’m no Talmudist, but I think that God probably cares more about “heal the world” than “please, imaginatively skirt My rules.” This is pure self-indulgence, and as my Jewish boss said the other day when the CFO was out for a couple hours for a meeting on the project, “What a fucking waste of time.”

So after 10 years, I think that I’m finally completely secure in my Jewishness. I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of my beliefs or my practices, and I don’t care “how Jewish” they think I am. I am every bit a Jew as anyone else is.

My CFO friend explained to me one day how he learned that he was a Levite, and how cool he thinks it is that he so often gets to read the Torah in the synagogue. Personally, I think the entire Kohanim/Levite thing is bullshit, and that there is no way that people could have accurately kept track of such things over 2000 years and thousands of miles of Diaspora. My traditional family name [before my great-grandfather changed it] was Usilevsky. For all I know, the “lev” denotes a connection to the tribe of Levi. But I would much rather embrace and carry on my [Jewish] grandfather’s lifetime dedication to social justice and equality, than to abjure his absolute rejection of nobility and privilege, Jewish or otherwise.