Welcome To The House of Cards

September 28, 2008

With the looming economic crisis soon to splash down on the American and global financial systems, maybe normal citizens are concerned about how this will affect them. Will I lose my house? Is my 401(k) solid? Does this mean more news about FDIC and subprime loans and less about Lindsay Lohan’s hoo-ha? These are all very important questions, so perhaps it’s time to clarify a few things about what’s happening:

Q: So…am I up the creek or what?
A: Probably. But maybe not. The extent of the financial crisis had yet to be known. So far, few consumer banks—the kind that give away free toasters when your order checks with cows and puppies printed on them—have been adversely affected. It’s the financial banks that are getting tugged on the short ones. How bad the situation will get depends on how much of the financial bank crisis trickles down to the consumer side.

Q: Will the government be supplying me a paddle, then?
A: It depends. If the paddle companies made years of lousy mistakes compounded with excessive indifference to market conditions, then, yes, the government will probably reward them by giving them a boatload of cold cash.

Q: How did we get in this mess in the first place?
A: Well, it depends on your political philosophy. If you’re a liberal, then this is all part of George W. Bush’s plan from January 20th, 2001, to nationalize the United States economy, personally pilot the planes into the World Trade Center, monopolize the oil supply so he can freely drink a quart of it every day for breakfast, and spend the waning days of the American empire circle jerking with Dick Cheney, T. Boone Pickens, and Rupert Murdoch. If you are a conservative, you blame this on irresponsible consumers buying $500,000 houses with a steady income solely from the fry cook line at the local Jack in the Box and whining when it turns out they can’t make their mortgage payment on time. If you’re a libertarian, you shake your election-losing fist at Richard Nixon for ever getting us off the gold standard in the first place. If you’re religious, blame it on the gays.

Q: None of that involves any financial or economic rationale at all.
A: Your point? It’s an election year, you know.

Q: Right.
A: Right.

Q: So what really happened?
A: You will probably sleep better at night if you don’t know.

Q: Try me.
A: Fair enough. While there are multitudes of reasons why—high commodity prices, a cyclical recession, declining value of the dollar, Ben Bernanke wore a blue tie instead of a red one last Monday—it all focuses on the housing market. For the past decade or so, easy credit—encouraged by the government for citizens (read: voters) to buy houses on the cheap—inflated housing prices well above the market price. Banks were even encouraged to loan to individuals whose credit rating was not exactly what one would call totally awesome. To compensate, many of these mortgages had triggers that would cause the interest rate to rise once payments were missed or even simply due to economic conditions. With more demand for housing, then, prices shot up. Since these were individuals who couldn’t normally buy a house in the first place, the rise in prices were artificially increased.

Q: OK. Tell me why I should care.
A: Economists have been sounding the property value bubble bell for around five or six years now, but no one listened. (Though, to be fair, this is mostly because economists have been ringing that particular bell every year since approximately 1776.) This was foolishly exacerbated solely by HGTV, whose entire program lineup consisted of reruns of “Flip This House,” where average, ordinary Americans would buy some shack, invest $2000 of paint and duct tape, and resell it for a cool million all within a matter of three or four business days. When some investors had an epiphany, or got knocked on the head, or simply got drunk enough to understand the current economic system, they finally realized the entire house of cards was about to tumble down quite ungracefully and make the Nigerian Treasury Department look like it had a comparatively solid foundation. When the bubble finally burst and the mortgage rates skyrocketed, maybe people found themselves paying mortgages for houses that were a fraction of their original value, and simply found it to be easier to chuck the house keys at the bank, tell them to sit and spin, and run away.

Q: So Johnny Lunchbucket and Jill Sensible Shoes overextended and have to buy generic Hot Pockets and crank their laundry for a while. Why do the banks care?
Because the mortgages they gave out were licenses to print money. At least they were, until the payments stopped coming in. Of course, that would be the case if the actual bank that gave you the actual loan was the one collecting the actual money. In most cases, these mortgages, once awarded, were immediately bundled up and sold to the highest bidder. These were originally thought to be nice, safe investments, since they involved solid assets largely guaranteed by the government.

Q: So they weren’t?
A: Kind of. The lending institutions responsible for all this—mostly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—were acting like a combination of Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Weekend At Bernie’s, and large portions of Caligula. In case you’re keeping score at home, they were effectively nationalized as well.

Q: Wait, what? I thought Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac weren’t owned by the government.
A: Right. And Vladimir Putin isn’t running Russia, soccer will take off in America any year now, and Clay Aiken is straight.

Q: Clay Aiken came out.
A: I know. Exactly.

Q: Oh.
A: And pretty much all of the bank and other financial institutions that have failed are related in some way to all this.

Q: None of this sounds illegal. Stupid, but not illegal.
A: Exactly. All of this was bad decision-making, encouraged by the government. No illegality at all.

Q: Wait. So why the bailout? It seems like the government is rewarding bad decision making.
A: It would seem that way, yes.

Q: Funny how that happens.
A: Funny is not the adjective I was thinking of.

Q: I need a drink.
A: I would not disagree.

An American Autumn

September 25, 2008

Welcome to the fall! Some enjoy the fall because of the weather, the atmosphere, and the seasons. Others dislike it for the fact that that means winter is fast approaching. It’s one of my favorite seasons for a variety of reasons, not the least of which it is the season I most closely associate with my birthday. Of course, fall brings with it a multitude of different experiences for different people. Such as:

The Fall Television Lineup: Each year, the televisions networks reveal their fall television lineup. Nervousness fills studio executives, producers, writers, and budding actors as viewers are now going to be the ones choosing which programs survive and which ones get cancelled after two episodes even though the television critics are required by law to change their pants on an hourly basis because it’s so ridiculously orgasmic to watch but has to be chopped off the schedule because it drew in .04% fewer viewers in the 18-34 age range than Kansas City Prostitutes Drive Big Rigs in the Arctic. So while there is plenty of hope, there’s an awful lot of disappointment, especially as one considers the fact that we live in a world where someone is contractually obligated to actually give Jay Mohr some work.

Football Season: This year is nothing like last year, when entire franchises were being rounded up and sent to Gitmo and Michael Vick was wandering the nation shooting at feral kittens with buckshot. It’s actually quite sedate this year; despite the upset of the Giants over the Patriots, New England was expected to steamroll over all the competition. However, the only drama during week one of the season—aside from whether Baltimore and Cincinnati would actually both slide into negative points—was that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was injured and will be out for the rest of the season, giving him plenty of time to fight for messiahship with Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. Aside from some incredibly arcane disputes about renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement, the entire drama manufactures for this season pretty much boils down to variations of Chad Johnson’s legal name and the concept of Jessica Simpson.

School Starts: Or, in other words, school buses suck. In some ways, the start of school is a wonderful thing. I don’t like too many things in this world, but one of the things I am terrifyingly irritated by are children of the age four through eighteen. And when they are in a building learning the cosine and making closed circuits out of a bunch of C batteries and some old crusty wires from the Nixon era, they are notably not at the mall or in front of me at the checkout counter at the local department store. So carting the kids off to school is a remarkably wonderful thing, if nothing more than the fact that since I’m forced to pay for it anyway I might as well get some peace and enjoyment out of the deal by not having to be made to feel old every time I have to go to the grocery store.

Election Time: While there is a lot of justifiably intense media focus on the presidential campaign, it’s also election time for countless local elections, as many people are fully aware of given the what seems to be approximately sixty thousand road signs you will ignore over the next two months. Everything from comptrollers to commissioners to ward council seats, everyone is trying to get a piece of the sweet participatory democracy pie. And, living in Pennsylvania, we get a super special treat of pretty much election any damn fool to any absurd position, most notably the prothonotary, a completely artificially conceived lie of a position cooked up by the Greeks or the Catholic church or somesuch and forced upon us by a progressive movement hell bent on electing everyone’s dinner every day.

A Lot More Pumpkin Crap On The Shelves At the Grocery Store: Now, don’t get me wrong, I like pumpkin stuff. I like pumpkin pies and cookies and bread and roasted pumpkin seeds and all sorts of things that make me quite capable of supply an embarrassingly large percentage of our natural gas needs. But every so many years—and this one looks likely to be one—there are multitudes of ridiculously-conceived items that are pumpkin-themed. I’ve even seen some monstrosity called pumpkin soup, something I suspect is very much so like finding something called watermelon broil or turkey cupcakes. (And please don’t write telling me that these things actually exist. I want to tread water for the remainder of my life assuming those things do not exist in a sane world.)

A Whole Mess Of Deadly Boring Movies Aimed At Scraping Up An Oscar Nomination:
Let’s face it, people are getting over the action-packed summer blockbusters, and are winding down now that the kids are on a regular schedule of not bothering me at the movie theater. The good news is that I can actually enjoy a movie without having to worry about contracting STDs from the approximately 14,000 teenaged sexual encounters that appear to occur once the lights dim down every time I venture into the theater after four in the afternoon. The bad news is that a boatload of period pieces, self-righteous historical epics, and a two-for-one sale at the Oscar Contender auction gets shoveled into the studio schedules, provided not entertainment but boredom packaged in sanctimoniousness. I don’t see why the movie industry needs to do this; the presidential campaign is fulfilling that need this year.

Power to the People!

September 21, 2008

Disaster strikes! Blackouts and debris scatter the landscape! Certain unnamed individuals (cough, cough) are ill-prepared for this particular eventuality. Film at 11.

Earlier this week, my hometown was hit by wayward bits of Hurricane Ike, touching down on various parts of the surrounding counties and laying waste to buildings, vacations, and dreams of one last day of doing whippits at the Denny’s parking lot half-drunk at three in the morning before the fall starts. The end result was that I had no power for almost (gasp!) three days.

Of course, I’m not above telling everyone that I’m pretty much a pussy when it comes to the matters of everyday convenience. So when we experienced the power outage, my first thought was thank goodness this will only last an hour or two; I can catch up on those things that I love doing and need to get done, such as sleeping and occasionally napping.

Of course, it became readily apparent that my electricity was going to be out for quite some time. A casual survey of nearby acquaintances gathered the following range of responses:

1) Dude, this will be like camping. Awesome!
2) I want to kill myself.

And, of course, scattered reports noted that the electricity wouldn’t be on for days, maybe even a week. This was unusual; even though the electric bill is high enough that it would still be cost-effective to pay for several teenagers to hand-crank electric generators hooked up outside our house getting paid union scale to meet our electricity demand, I still usually found their post-storm triage to be quite efficient. Granted, by “post-storm” I mean “post some stupid drunk hits what appears to be the only utility pole in our county delivering electricity about once every two weeks.”

Normal people, unlike myself, tend to think they can last through a crisis such as a power outage. This is an absurdity wrapped in falsity and smothered in temperate indifference. We all think that we can find some old classic literature or at least that issue of National Geographic about the Sudan genocide we’re supposedly going to get around to caring about someday, or maybe it’s a perfect day of talking a peaceful walk through the woods getting some fresh air and some nature cred. This is a dirty lie you tell yourself to let you sleep at night. Once the power goes out, you’ll be quite literally itching to be sitting in your La-Z-Boy watching Grey’s Anatomy instead of sweltering outside trying to keep up with your Proust.

So when there’s quite literally not much else to do, idiots such as myself have to create new and inventive ways to pass the time. I my own self came up with the following wonderful games:

1) Try to find my clothes in the dark
2) Try to get dressed in the dark
3) Try not to swear when I bump into furniture while getting dressed in the dark
4) Try not to swear when I realize I forget to charge my cell phone
5) Make mental note to write nasty letter to utility companies and their quasi-socialist organization, convincing myself that private-sector incentives would have given me power by now even though I know full well they’d just the standing around playing Elephant Walk instead of fixing the power lines
6) Curse the darkness, throw out candles

I can’t really complain too terribly much, of course. On the one hand, Western Pennsylvania is pretty much shielded from any kind of natural disaster except for the occasional ice storm and baseball season. Dealing with hurricanes is not exactly the type of thing they prepare us for in elementary school, focusing more on field dressing deer and protesting toll roads. So since it is a fairly rare occurrence, we’re somewhat justified in being unprepared for such things.

On the other hand, when you see the devastation like what occurred in Texas, having three days without power seems a minor inconvenience. While I’m denied warm showers and Lean Pockets for a day and a half, I wig out and start plotting the revolution, sliding my finger down the Blue Pages and taking note of who will be first up against the wall. People in Galveston and Houston have lost the opportunity to not move to Oklahoma for a month or two. They deal with it by rolling up their sleeves and actually working, which in Texas I suspect means actually dumping buckets of pure testosterone over the affected areas until they are repaired.

One of the strangest things about these hurricanes is how little affected Florida has been lately. It used to be that any tropical storm formed in the Atlantic booked a first-class ticket straight for Miami, ready to swipe away large swaths of property and infrastructure and cause the cost of black market firearms and cocaine to triple overnight. However, the last few years have seen minimal damage to Florida, at least compared to the south central region. One assumes that Mother Nature is taking a bit of pity on the Sunshine State, letting it stew in its own man-made disasters of swamp ass, Mark Foley, and Cam Cameron.

Anyway, the power was restored and all was right with the world. I can go back to doing what I normally do, which pretty much amounts to sleeping and occasionally napping. Wake me before the plague of locusts arrives.

Of McCainiacs and Barracudas

September 7, 2008

The confetti has drifted to the floor, the little plastic elephants swept into dustpans, and little cupcakes shaped like Alaska have been digested. The Republicans have descended and departed from Minneapolis, the pristine capital of the north and a rather unlikely place for a conservative to thrive. But as John McCain has shown, he thrives in hostile environments, whether it be Hanoi, Arizona, or the Republican Party.

Coming into this week, John McCain didn’t have a whole lot to lose. The Democrats had put on a solid if not spectacular show on in Colorado, and Barack Obama was basking in a muted post-convention bounce in the polls. The Republicans—a brand name tarnished by the unpopular Bush years and a fanatical devotion to such popular ideals as the war in Iraq, Social Security privatization, and cracking open the Rockies and scooping out any carbon-based form of energy in order to burn any excess food or housing so it wouldn’t make it into the hands of the poor, the poor being defined as those who failed to make their first million before they were born—had a rather tall order convincing the American electorate that they had something better to offer than the Democrats.

Things did not start off auspiciously—and given the trajectory of the McCain campaign, when his early operation had so little money Cindy McCain was popping generic Percocet and was polling behind the reanimated corpse of the much younger Warren Harding, this boded well indeed. Hurricane Gustav threatened to rain down torrential winds and destructive precipitation, but more importantly threatened to blow gusts of the memory of Katrina. With this would come memories of FEMA, New Orleans, and a stark, unwelcome reminder that Louisiana is still, alas, part of the United States. Thankfully for everyone involved, the storm, after promising to tear the roof off the metaphorical state, kind of petered out and landed with an unceremonious thud, and it almost, but not quite, got renamed Hurricane Fred Thompson.

In many ways Obama framed the debate to which McCain reacted. By holding his acceptance speech on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he set expectations rather unceremoniously high. As such, his speech was somewhat of a letdown, being more of the breakfast-cereal platitudes of “hope” and “change” he’s been dragging out about as often as we’re reminded that John McCain was busy shooting down the Viet Cong back when a certain Illinois senator was still learning his multiplication tables than any extraordinary feat of rhetoric.

Entering this was McCain, who upset the political balance of Everybody Being Really Comfortable With Where They Were At by selecting the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Here are a few notes you may not know about Governor Palin, especially if you are either refusing to listen to anything anyone has said about anything for the past week, or are terminally dumb:

1. She is a woman.
2. Holy crap!
3. Seriously, turns out she is a woman. Just like, oh, I don’t know, say, Hillary Clinton.
4. I think John McCain has a little crush on someone!
5. Don’t tell Cindy.
6. I think it would be even money she would win a fistfight with Joe Biden. I’m just sayin’.
7. She has like a bajillion kids, all of whom are adorable
8. But they all have creepy names, like she lost a bet or something.
9. Like Piper.
10. Really? I mean, c’mon.
11. She’s from Alaska.
12. Yes, THAT Alaska.
13. The one that has more moose than people.
14. No, I don’t get it either.
15. Seriously.

The members of the GOP see all of these important points as absolute positives for the Republican ticket this year. Many of them weren’t quite sold on McCain to begin with. Sure, he was sort of a Republican, but they caught him hanging out with the Sharks a few too many times for everyone’s liking. The Christian Right in particular has not warmed to the Senator from Arizona, mostly because of the fact that while McCain agrees with the religious factions on nearly every issue, he once made the mistake of verbalizing the idea that maybe blaming 9/11 on feminists and homosexuals instead of, you know, actual terrorists, was not the most tactful thing to say. For this, he was anathema to them, something akin to watching Will & Grace reruns by “accident” or Dr. Dobson recommending therapy instead of beating yourself on the head with a 2×4. Choosing Palin, a strong supporter of religious causes, allayed their fears somewhat.

The remainder of the Republican convention was otherwise normal, with safe, unremarkable speeches punctuated by shoving anyone with skin darker than Deepak Chopra or at least one vagina up to the stage to talk about hope, struggle, and repealing the estate tax.

Most pundits classify the convention as a relative success. While the Democrats seemed to focus on making broad swipes at McCain by linking him with Bush, McCain captured the concept of “change” and molded it into his own. This is a somewhat risky behavior, since he’s effectively telling Republicans that Bush screwed the pooch and he’s there to clean up the inevitable mess. Whether this will appeal to the independent voter that has yet to make up their mind has yet to be determined. At least McCain now knows that Alaska is safe—and, as always, thank goodness.