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?"