Make A Run For The Money

October 11, 2008

It’s quite understandable that most individuals are freaking out about the current economic disaster. While few people actually directly buy stocks—thought plenty of people have dormant Ameritrade accounts for when they thought they were going to be crackerjack day traders back in 1998 but gave up after one week of taking a bath on internet pet food companies and incorporated European “tanning” salon chains—many people have 401(k) accounts. And these retirement accounts have not exactly responded how imminent retirees want them to—namely, up. It’s rather understandable that a nation of reluctant investors has suddenly realized how distant pages in the financial section of the local paper now officially matter to them beyond checking the potential interest rate on a loan for that sailboat they will never buy.

Thank goodness that people are reacting rationally about this, such as thirty year olds waiting all of four hours until they get home from work to accept the tax penalty and pull all their money from their retirement accounts and stuffing it under their mattress, causing most financial advisors to fall over in pain after listening to small parts of their soul die. While the market is being unpredictable, there are certain rules of finance that are immutable, one of them being reckless changes in your financial spending are the equivalent of the cross between a women two weeks before the announces she wants a divorce and…every other woman.

Well, at least journalists are being reasonable. Such as Time magazine, which ran a cover story entitled “How We’re Going To Be Sipping Bone Marrow Soup And Eating Crabgrass Clippings For Breakfast For The Next Three Decades.” For style, they put a stock picture of a soup line from the Depression on the cover; stock photos being necessary since there aren’t exactly any modern soup lines to snap pictures of, a fact no doubt quickly ascertained by the crack objective journalists at Time. One assumes that journalists study to become journalists because they already understand everything there is to know about finance and economics (cough, cough).

So at least television financial advisors are acting like reasonable human beings, right? Such as Jim Cramer, the host of Mad Money, declaring that anyone who hasn’t converted all of their shares into gold bullion being stored in small compounds in the Pacific Northwest is going to be first up against the wall when the revolution comes. Most financial advisors try to avoid such broad-based panic-generating statement, though in Cramer’s defense he is certifiably insane.

While it’s certainly possible the economy will spiral out of control and falling stockbrokers will force the creation of a new task force within FEMA, things are a lot different than they were in the 1930’s. The banking system now resembles what happens to my DVD player after the power goes out and comes back on during a storm—it’s a lot of interconnected wires and signals that create a lot of flash and activity that doesn’t really show that anything productive is happening. But tinker with it for a few scary minutes and it will still play Suburban Commando like a champ like it always has, at least until a power surge destroys the whole thing.

Of course, there is one unfortunate similarity between now and then, and that’s bank failures. Bank failures have been virtually nonexistent for the past sixty decades or so (the legal system delineating the different types of banks in such a way as to make Andy Warhol a beacon of sense and clarity), owing in part to the fact that, unlike now, most banking CEOs aren’t complete amoral idiots. An elaborate system of balances has been set up in the financial industry for years effectively guaranteeing that banks won’t fail. They mostly do this by forcing banks to hold on to a certain level of assets in relation to the money they are holding, a concept so simple that no one ever followed it.

During the savings and loan crisis in the late 80’s and early 90’s, financial institutions were using any and all random items to claim as assets—everything from artwork with deliberately overinflated worth to all the crap they could find in their grandmother’s attic—and in many cases would simply declare their grandmother’s attic to be worth what it theoretically would be worth if anyone wanted to actually go root around and inventory the place while she prattled on about a sale at the Hallmark store and meat rationing, which of course no one ever did. Because of the resulting financial mess from this scandal, many regulations we see today being flaunted were initiated—and the reaction, alas, seems to be much the same.

Unfortunately, new regulations didn’t help, since banks went ahead and used mortgages on homes that had highly inflated prices to begin with as assets, and the exact same story started over again—when the depositors knocked on the door, the bank found nothing but a burned out DVD player in granny’s attic. So it may be a while before we see any part of a recovery. If only there was a way to make embarrassingly clunky metaphors a solid asset, we could finally get ourselves out of this mess.

Fifth Avenue Bailout

October 1, 2008

I don’t think anyone knows what to think about this economic bailout.

The presidential candidates aren’t sure of what to make of the failure of the bailout to pass. Of course, the candidate’s position on the bailout package can be summed up pretty nicely:

Barack Obama: “I will take a tentative position on the bill until the House votes it down, so they can get all the heat for its defeat. I’ll then have an internal poll taken to see whether I want to be for it or against it regardless of its content. Once it’s voted down, I can then come out against it with little repercussion.”

John McCain: “I have no idea what is in this bill because I pretty much know jack about the economy. I would defer to my vice presidential candidate, since she is set up to complement me on my weaknesses, but it turns out she doesn’t know jack about the economy either. Even though this is the case, we still know more about the economy than Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, and the Treasury Department combined.”

Of course, even though the House of Representatives voted on it, which necessitates them specifically stating “Yes” or “No,” they don’t know what to think about it, either. Almost immediately as the last ballot hit the bottom of the box (or I assume as such; I have no practical way of knowing how votes are actually, physically tabulated on the House floor. It’s probably some pussy method like swiping an ID card, but I like to imagine they have to text their vote to number 67773 (standard text messaging rates apply) or at the very least auction off a part of their soul every time they cast a vote), representatives took to the airwaves doubting their vote cast. Some seem genuinely confused, given that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave lawmakers approximately fifteen minutes between the time they received the plan and had to vote on it, forcing legislators to use the “find” function on Adobe Acrobat to look for—depending on their political philosophy and geographical location—“tax cuts for the same people who got us in this mess in the first place,” “education grants that have somehow been tangentially related to the financial crisis,” “energy investment credits, otherwise known and handing out burlap sacks of cash to the oil companies so folks from Texas and Alaska might actually sallow this piece of tripe law,” “contractual obligation to saw off California so it drifts out into the sea,” or “Britney Spears Sex Tape” (the latter, one presumes, is simply out of habit).

The American population isn’t sure what to think about it, either. It’s one of the finest balancing acts in modern politics. People hate bailing out with massive amounts of taxpayer cash the obviously boneheaded mistakes made by rich Wall Street tycoons who, when it’s all said and done, will still be driving their Porsches around Rodeo Drive while eating foie gras and drinking Château Latour and buying tickets to the Eagles concert afterwards. On the other hand, not bailing them out will spell if not total disaster a pretty unfortunate downturn in the economy causing many consumers to stand in bread lines reading the want ads while talking on one of their three cell phones.

And, it turns out, Wall Street doesn’t know what to think about it, either. The stock market has been incredibly volatile, which is saying something in a year of an increasingly large number of ups and downs. Investors can’t quite decide if they want to jump off of buildings, throwing worthless stock certificates of AIG like confetti as they fall, or whether they want to crouch behind their office chair, salivating while holding a fork in one hand and a knife in the other, waiting for the right time to jump and carve out a huge chunk of the mortgage business at dirt cheap prices during the Great Huge Federal Government Fire Sale Of Assets From Incredibly Greedy And Stupid Companies Whose Board Of Directors Are Still Somehow Going To Make As Assload Of Money.

And—heavens to Betsy—I don’t know what to make of it, either. My rather theoretical libertarian heart wants so badly for the government to shrug their shoulders and extend a middle finger of sympathy to these failed companies who failed because they failed to realize that they were greedy and stupid. And I want people who bought houses worth about three times outside of their pay scale to suddenly realize that it isn’t just cocaine, Amway, that Ron Paul contribution you made one night you were drunk, and a nasty Starbucks habit that can lead to financial distress; sometimes overextending yourself does, too, and you shouldn’t expect the government to bail you out. On the other hand, it was government interference that sort of precipitated this in the first place, with both unrealistic tax credit encouragement and regulations effectively forcing bad loans to be guaranteed. And while I think it’s bad policy, stabilizing the economy while letting the government make a dime off the deal maybe isn’t the worst thing in the world. The blame is easy to spread around because everyone is to blame. About 13 people out of 433 are still trying to figure out the most politically expedient way to assign it for the record.

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.

Welcome to Obama Nation!

August 26, 2008

Welcome to Denver, where the elites and working class join hands and celebrate the nomination of Barack Obama for the Democratic National Convention. No flash photos, please, and if you must smoke, please do so at the nearest designated non-smoking area, officially known as Utah.

The theme of this year’s Democratic convention is “One Nation,” a sentiment somewhat contradictory to 2004’s vice presidential candidate, John Edwards. His idea of “Two Americas” presumably includes those in which his wife has terminal cancer and one in which he has a mistress; alas, for Edwards, the times have changed, and those two worlds have now become one.

The selection of Denver as the city for the convention was no accident. Surely, the cold, unforgiving masses of Colorado are rather unwelcome to those Democrats weltering in the south or at least have the benefit of the gentle gusts of wind emanating from Martha’s Vineyard, Puget Sound, or Joe Biden. Colorado is seen as a potential swing state. While Bush and the Republicans have safely won the state over the past few decades, the Democrats have slowly been gaining ground. What used to be the standard-bearer of western rugged individualists has found droves of environmentalists, immigrants, and rich urbanites looking to get away from the exact sort of city they voted to create in the first place settling in and, worse, registering to vote and, even more worse, actually voting.

This year, then, the Democrats are hoping to pick up its nine electoral votes. While small in the grand scheme of the electoral college, it’s a gold mine (quite literally) in the razor-thin election results we’ve seen lately. Someone, somewhere, on hearing about the selection of Biden as the vice presidential candidate, wiped their brow, squeaked a “3” on the dry erase board, and was glad to secure Delaware’s otherwise safe three votes.

This was shaping up to be one of the few political conventions in recent years that might have some legitimate drama. Conventions used to be full of brokered deals: cabinet positions auctions off to the highest bidder, legislation hammered out and agreed to in exchange for favors; party platform statements used to score internal political points but largely ignored by pretty much everyone else in the history of mankind. These slowly drifted away in importance as primaries determined the nominee, and the only thing left to do at conventions was get drunk and accidentally cast vote for Dennis Kucinich.

This year, with the primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama so close for so long, it was rumored that there may be a brokered convention once again, just like the olden times of Eugene McCarthy, Adlai Stevenson, and a long, long, depressing list of extremely capable losers. This trend, as it were, was the impetus for the creation of superdelegates, individuals empowered to vote for whoever they pleased. In effect, this was to ensure a voice within the party apparatus, but, in reality, it was to prevent the Democratic faithful from nominating Walter Mondales for the next 2,000 years, which seems quite likely even today. (The Republicans have no such issue, and no superdelegates; they simply run an auction.)

Obama has also made a historic decision: to give his nomination acceptance speech not at the Pepsi Center, but at Invesco Field, where the Denver Broncos play. This echoes john F. Kennedy’s similar decision when he accepted the nomination in 1960, one of the few ways in which Obama has likened himself to Kennedy. And by “few” I mean “about as many times as John McCain has reminded us that he spent five years in a POW camp.”

Whether the convention will be a grand success, playing on Obama’s strengths while downplaying the historically bitter primary or descending into chaos and strife, remains to be seen. Several protest groups with an unfortunate grasp on exactly the sort of political spectrum they are protesting against have already planned on attempting to create the 1968 convention in Chicago, where Hubert Humphrey got into a fistfight with Mo Udall in the men’s room, and Mayor Daley roamed the floor with a steak knife he stole off of Lyndon Johnson personally garroting anyone he found giving him the ole crook eye.

Ultimately, it is going to be up to Obama to determine how this convention is viewed by the unwashed undecideds. Given that Obama’s campaign theme has been largely about the rather blandly generic terms of “change” and “hope,” it seems rather strange to latch on to another quite lukewarm concept as “One Nation.” While political themes have always been broad and undefined—Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” could mean the optimism of a renewed America or another damn Starbucks being built next to the dentist’s office—the Obama campaign seems to be striving for optional definitions with a politically constructed premise to be named later. Obama should do what every Democratic campaign in the past century has done: grasp the universal theme of peace, fairness, and pandering to labor unions, environmentalists, and Hollywood. It works every time.

Kiss a Sasquatch Good Morning

August 17, 2008

For a time, at least, alarmingly significant portions of the North American population thought that they had found him. Bigfoot, the elusive creature of which folklore and major motion pictures starring John Lithgow are made, was captured. Captured, of course, in the way all Bigfoot sightings are—in the sense of “We may or may not have found an animal of indeterminate origin that we’re not going to show you any of the evidence for.”

This time, of course, they thought they had found him. “They,” of course, being the sort of people to call a press conference before the conclusive DNA results have actually come back yet, so sure of their find. The story was even picked up by the major news outlets, something I assumed was devoted solely to the items that Lindsay Lohan regards as acceptable things to enter into or exit out of her hoo-ha or the occasional report as to what Obama pooped out after eating a McGriddle. But there it was, amongst sordid tales of subprime reform and protests in Beijing: Some Fringe Nutjob Thinks He Might Have Found Bigfoot.

Well, not exactly. The report, no doubt currently wrapped in a manila envelope being mailed to the Pulitzer committee, featured a rather disturbing photo of what appeared to be a Bigfoot carcass. It wasn’t Bigfoot kicking up some mold spores in a big hairy cage tied up by leather straps in some dude’s basement, or Bigfoot eating Froot Loops while sitting on a tree stump trying to do the Jumble. It was a post-Sasquatch. He looked like he was crumpled up in an abandoned meat locker, a shameful burial and no doubt a nightmare to the olfactories. It basically looked liked a hollowed-out monkey suit had been dumped into a malfunctioning refrigerator with the door tore off.

Of course, there’s a pretty good chance that it was, in fact, a picture of a hollowed-out monkey suit that had been dumped into a malfunctioning refrigerator with the door tore off. The DNA evidence, once the results came back, identified it as human or opossum. Of course, the counter claim was that these were obviously part of the stomach contents of Bigfoot, a known opossum connoisseur, but one doubts exactly how much further they are going to go with this.

The story, of course, is otherwise light on details and full of rampant skepticism. The body of a 500-pound suspected Bigfoot was “stumbled upon” by two individuals while hiking, who, oh, by the way, just happen to immediately contact someone who have previously detailed Bigfoot discoveries in the past. That’s about as believable as the cat who lovingly purrs up against you after you find out that someone just took a dump in your bathtub while you were out.

Bigfoot sightings are exactly the sort of thing that happen with unfortunate regularity, but not rare enough that it still shows up on the Odd News column. They go way back to the late 1800’s, when those still searching for the frontier would often report sightings of strange animals to journalists hungry for a story that didn’t involve railroad combinations or inkwell trusts. Most of these were converted into sensationalistic mockeries of modern journalistic standards except, of course, for the Sasquatch Preservation Society newsletter and the New York Post.

Out of all of this, the most amusing aspect of this Bigfoot story is the fact that a reporter for the Scientific American, no doubt looking longingly back at his four-year college degree in journalism, had to actually type out the phrase indicating that the individuals who made the claim “made an announcement on a bigfoot enthusiast radio program.” A bigfoot enthusiast radio program, eh? Someone in Riyadh just put another note in their file.

I don’t quite get the allure of Bigfoot. I mean, there is a certain attraction to many creatures in the cryptzoology menagerie; the scaly, dragonesque dread of the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps, or the eerily terrifying hoop snake, or maybe the tauntingly alluring mermaid. But Bigfoot? He’s basically just an ape, only bigger. He doesn’t have any special powers and didn’t come into being via any generally accepted birth of legend, except perhaps the divine experience of ingesting peyote by our Native American ancestors. He basically lumbers around and waves off cameras like the Amish, leaving big, suspiciously asymmetrical footprints and a disappointing taste of locale.

It’s somewhat perplexing exactly why individuals make wild, easily disproven claims such as this Bigfoot find. On some level, no doubt, there’s a certain amount of self-delusion involved, the exact sort of thing that fuels the initiative of American Idol contestants, Division IV rugby enthusiasts, and House Republicans. But it certainly can’t be the entire thing. As with nearly all human endeavors, the chance that someone, at some point, is going to stop someone and say, “Hey. Maybe this is kind of a stupid idea.” It doesn’t always happen—witness New Coke, the Golden Compass, and the inexplicable success of John Mayer—but more often than not batshit craziness tends to be self-regulating. At least, that the sort of thing that lets me get to sleep at night.

The 50 Meter Great Leap Forward

August 13, 2008

Welcome to the 2008 Summer Olympics in beautiful Beijing! Be sure to stop by the gift shop, where you can help imbalance the trade deficit and maybe pick up an oxygen tank or two. Also, French judges are on sale! Hope you enjoy your stay, and just remember that if a policeman cracks you on the side of your head with a baton and drags you to a dark, cold cell, it’s only because you spoke out against the government. Salut!

The Chinese government did a lot to prepare for these Olympics. While the nation of China has modernized quite a bit lately—and via a much different method than other attempts at modernizing in the past (cough, cough)—Beijing was expected to be ready for a massive restructuring of their society to welcome the hungry eyes of the world.

They first had to deal with protestors. China has had a lot of history to protest against, from the move for Tibetan independence to the recognition of the Falun Gong, to the court-martial of General Tso for making chicken too damn tasty. There were also protests that the Chinese armed forces were going to forcibly participate in the games under a new sport, the 1500 km dash to Taipei.

There have also been concerns about the environment. Upon landing at the shores of the celestial empire, the first thing most foreigners notice is that it looks like Pittsburgh circa 1890. The fog is so thick you can barely see any of the nine year olds that make your shoes. This was a concern, especially of top-tier athletes used to breathing in the crystal clear air of Turin or Paris or Johannesburg, that their oxygen intake may impair their athletic prowess, giving the native Chinese athletes, who have been filtering iron particles through their lungs for decades, an unfair advantage. Even Yao Ming, China’s most popular and richest athlete and who grew up in the country, was appalled at the filthy conditions in which the world’s best athletes were asked to compete, though he did concede that it was still preferable than playing for the Houston Rockets.

One of the more bizarre controversies involves the little Chinese girl who sang at the opening ceremonies. The opening ceremonies has been lauded as an impressive feat, the product of what can happen when an authoritarian regime spends an assload of money and utilizes underpaid workers to create an impressive song-and-dance spectacle when they just put their collective minds to it. However, it turns out that the girl that sang wasn’t actually singing; another girl, not as cute but with a better voice, sang instead. For some reason the act of lip-synching at a major event seems to have caused outrage amongst many media pundits, apparently equating the evils of the Chinese government with the worst sins of Ashley Simpson and Milli Vanilli.

Of course, despite all of these problems, Beijing had a fairly recent successful example to follow. In 2004, Athens was able to prepare for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics much more efficiently, mostly by making sure all the goats were herded off before the torch made it to the market square, and security was tightened by certifying both of their police officers in anti-terrorism tactics, which mostly involved eating too many lamb gyros the night before and sleeping until noon.

Despite all of these concerns, the Chinese government has an incentive to make sure all of the sporting events go off without a hitch. The Beijing Olympics are the single most important cultural event that has occurred in modern China’s history. Or, rather, this has to be the case, since every American reporter mentions it approximately every other sentence in every report they give, even if the subject of the report is the ongoing war in Georgia or Lindsay Lohan dropping a bag of cocaine on the dance floor of the Coot Scoot. Although, to be fair, then mention that a lot less than they mention the fact that the Olympics started on 8-8-08, and 8 invokes the word “prosperity” in the Chinese language. Really! You don’t say! Every other minute!

Of course, the best news so far for the Americans from these Olympics—aside from the fact that our President was trying to get some strange from the women’s beach volleyball unit—is swimmer Michael Phelps. He’s already won the most gold medals of anyone in Olympic history; he is on track, barring any sudden unexpected appearances by Jeff Gillooly, to break the record of winning the most gold at any one single Olympics. Of course—and not to detract from Phelps’s rather impressive accomplishments—but it appears that it’s not that hard to get eight gold medals when there are approximately six billion different events with variations of swimming back and forth in a pool built specifically for the purpose by six billion different Chinese slave laborers.

Still, there are plenty of events yet to go, and there is most likely going to be a lot more interesting things still to come. And while I can’t criticize the Olympics too much—I get light-headed changing light bulbs and vomit at the thought of a light trot up a flight of stairs—I think credit is deserved where credit is due. I will feel unrecognized until the International Olympic Committee awards me my medal, since I feel that I deserve at least the gold for going an entire column without making one the-Chinese-eat-dogs joke. I’m just sayin’.

Destination America

August 3, 2008

Summer is winding down, but there’s still some time left to take that vacation you’ve been putting off. Things have intervened—work, school, relationships, selecting a vice presidential candidate—but everyone needs to take some time away from their everyday lives to maintain their sanity.

There are a lot of popular destinations within the United States to travel to. Here are some of the more popular places for you to go to blow off some of that well-earned steam:

Orlando, Florida

What’s There: Disney World, Universal Studios, and more alligators, handguns, and cocaine than you ever thought humanly possible
Why You Should Definitely Go: If you have never been to Disney World you are officially a communist.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: After spending ten dollars on a plastic souvenir cup of 90% ice and 10% unidentifiable sugar water, you’re probably going to become a communist.

Las Vegas, Nevada
What’s There: There are a few casinos there, but it’s mostly a vast, sticky morass of vice and debauchery.
Why You Should Definitely Go: It is a vast, sticky morass of vice and debauchery.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: There is a small chance that some of your time spent in Las Vegas will not involve gambling, eating unhealthy food, waking up in a pool of your own vomit, ingesting illegally obtained prescription drugs, or a final trip to the free clinic on your way to the airport. Also, your chances of getting your skull cracked open by a mafia goon increase approximately infinity percent once you enter the city limits.

Atlantic City, New Jersey

What’s There: It’s basically Las Vegas, but for losers.
Why You Should Definitely Go: Atlantic City is great if you are too old, broke, or too much of a pussy to go to Vegas. Also, you get to see all of the Monopoly streets, which means you’ll spend about three hours of your life being bored until someone finally says it’s time to go to bed and flips the board over when the winner disagrees.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You have any dignity. Also, it’s in New Jersey, which is enough of a gamble in and of itself.

Niagara Falls, New York/Canada
What’s There: A huge waterfall, and more overpriced kitsch than at a Beverly Hills bris
Why You Should Definitely Go: It’s kind of awesome. And there’s a small chance some idiot in a barrel will kill themselves, and that’s never a bad thing.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You have to deal with a boatload of oddly-shaped currency that you’ll bring home and not be able to spend.

Hollywood, California
What’s There: About twenty photographers and four thousand waiters wanting to be actors for every actual actor.
Why You Should Definitely Go: The glamour, glitter, and bright lights of the motion picture industry. Also, a massive amount of low self-esteem and heroin.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You will leave without a soul.

Grand Canyon, Arizona or possibly Colorado
What’s There: Nothing. Quite literally. I mean, seriously, you’re basically looking at what isn’t there. Doesn’t anyone else but me find that a little bit creepy?
Why You Should Definitely Go: Donkey rides.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You’re most likely going to run into a bunch of eco-tourists who are fueling their vacation via their own sense of self-importance, or a messy collection of fat vacationers emptying their RV’s septic system in one of the natural wonders of the world. Either way, you’re going to hate them.

Some Random Beach in Maryland or one of the Carolinas
What’s There: Fat people in speedos and old people in stuff that was out of date when the Kaiser was eating Gerber’s Sauerkraut. You will not see any hot women.
Why You Should Definitely Go: Beaches are fun, in that “please kill me now” kind of way.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: Horseshoe crabs are kind of icky. Also, hypodermic needles, sand collecting in rather unfortunate places, and the possibility of vacationing in the South or, worse, Maryland.

The French Quarter, Louisiana
What’s There: Ever been to Vegas? This is Vegas without laws.
Why You Should Definitely Go: If you have already contracted all known STDs and therefore don’t have a whole lot to lose.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You will leave Louisiana either being an ordained voodoo priest, requiring an AA sponsor, or becoming a libertarian.

Mount Rushmore
What’s There: An absolutely huge sculpture of our most influential Presidents, and about what I estimate to be about six billion novelty T-shirts showing the other side of the mountain, complete with the bare asses of our esteemed Founding Fathers. God bless America!
Why You Should Definitely Go: You want to see the world’s largest and most expensive fanboy project. I mean, besides the Phantom Menace.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You don’t feel like being depressed over the fact that, if the sculpture were remade, it’s extraordinarily doubtful any new Presidents would be added.

The Alamo
What’s There: A world conceived exclusively within the admittedly creative imagination of Texans.
Why You Should Definitely Go: Every other state in the union is closed for renovation.
Why Maybe You Shouldn’t: You are anyone else besides a Texan.