Sunday, January 10, 2010

More Hookah and Thoughts on Personal Geneology

A year and a half ago I participated lightly in this protest against the local neighborhood hookah lounge, here and here. I went to the city of Tempe's city council meeting and listened to a series of people who streamed up to make their case for and against the lounge. In the end, the city council ruled against the Hookah for very technical reasons. The Hookah owner's lawyer who was there representing the owner's interest didn't seem very smart to me, making very unconvincing arguments.

Well, one of the arguments made by the Hookah owner was that if he was forced to leave, what would occupy that location in his place? He suggested something even more undesirable like say a payday loan business. Hmm... Well, after the ruling, I noticed that his business continued to operate, but driving by it the other day, I noticed that not only was his business not there, but in its place was a payday loan business. Unbelievable. It got me thinking if this was an improvement.

What do you think? Would you rather have Hookah in your neighborhood or one more PayDay Loan establishment? What would you rather have your high school age child walking by as they make their way to school (it's literally across the street from Tempe High School).

And really, the entire corner is blighted. The Walgreen's that used to be there moved across the street leaving an abandoned shell. There are a few stored in that mini-strip mall, an underrated Mexican restaurant my wife and I enjoyed a few times, but its really, truly an eye sore.


On other topics, today I started no less than four books. Do you think I'll finish all of them, hah, doubtful. I am still reading two others currently. But two of the books are books written by family ancestors, another was written by my neighbor and still another was a book I received for Christmas.

In one of the books, I learned that my Great Great Grandfather (though my father's mother's line) owned slaves. This is probably something I should have known. Anyway, not too long ago I was reading an essay I wrote for a college English class about heritage. It was written by an African American and it was about her rejection of her past. I made this pretty big statement in the essay disparaging my ancestors for being the slave owners. I was being dramatic thinking really this was untrue. Anyway, today I found out I was completely accurate in that college essay of mine.

By the way, here's the quote in my essay (I got a B+ on the essay by the way, and re-reading now I have to say it was pretty good overall, but it ended really badly and this is the worse part of it - let it be said).

"To me, my history consists mainly of stories about unfamiliar people quite different than me. Further, my culture to me is not unlike the rapists who complete abuses another's life just to satisfy his own selfish desires. Instead of thinking about the injustices my ancestors inflicted upon an entire culture, I desperately attempt to form a life completely devoid of prejudice and hatred. Instaed of remembering how my ancestors succeeded, I can only ponder upon the mistakes they unfortunately made."

This entire quote is almost completely untrue. My family moved to the farthest corner of the universe (Yuma, AZ) when I was five years old, and we barely ventured out of that spot most of my life. I never developed relationships with extended family and never really got to know my ancestor's stories in any way beyond the few anecdotes my dad would tell me about growing up in Phoenix. My history consists of stories about unfamiliar people quite different from me not because of any conscious decision on my part, but because I had no emotional connection with my past. I simply had no way of really getting there from here.

I guess I've tried since to make those connections and I'm trying again.

Anyway, here's the quote about my slave owner ancestors (I apologize in advance for the now offensive language in it - but this is how they talked back then):

"Pa was born and raised on a plantation down in the deep south near Macon, Georgia. This was before the Civil War and they had colored slaves, but were always very kind to them, and from what they said almost made them a part of their family. In fact, when Pa was born his mother had no milk for him to nurse, so he had a colored mammy. It was the custom in those days if the mother didn't have nurse for her baby and there was a colored woman on the plantation who had a baby and she had sufficient milk then she would take the white baby and nurse him and was called his or her mammy. So Pa always said his colored mammy saved his life and he grew to love her very dearly. Even as a child growing up and as a man he always called her his mammy. I have often heard him say, 'If I ever get to Heaven and don't find my colored mammy there I will be very unhappy.'"

Let it be said also, that "Pa" in this story joined the Mormon church from missionaries teaching in the deep south when it was very risk to be doing so. He and his family made a pretty major sacrifice to get to Showlow Arizona. And one of "Pa's" daughters later married a man named Ivan who gave birth to my dad. The author of this book, incidentally, is my Grandmother's sister. I just only recently received this book from very kind lady who goes to my local ward congregation.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Nice Poem

On NPR the other day, I heard an interview with Wendell Berry who just published a book of poems and another book. On the show, he quoted this poem I thought was quite good:

(a poem by Wendell Berry)

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

----Wendell Berry

More Financial Crisis Update

The original thought I had that prompted my last post is a thought I'm not sure I really made in the post. For the sake of this discussion, I'm assuming in the most general sense that Bush's administration and Obama's administration are basically the same, and in many ways they were in how the responded to the crisis. Bush's administration started the response, Obama, by and large, continued along pretty much the same path Bush started.

But for both presidencies, the view is, generally speaking, the system was not in general broken, that the blame cannot easily be pinned on any one entity. So, the motivation behind the bailouts is to keep the economic system pre-2006 in-tact with the assumption that many of the lessons learned about real-estate and leverageing will stick and will prevent another bubble from growing any time soon.

I think this is a bit naive and we need a modified system that is more responsive to our modified world. But by and large, I think what they did was largely appropriate and probably the only response politically possible.

Monday, January 4, 2010

More Financial Crisis Talk

I've been following Simon Johnson's blog here quite a bit over 2009, and he's been a pretty consistent critic of how we've dealt with the financial crisis that began in 2008. His main criticisms are very valid, that we are now left with fewer, much bigger banks that are really, really too big to fail and they know it. Having this sort of knowledge and special privilege - they get all of the upside and get bailed out on the downside - gives them more incentive to take on greater risks to get bigger profits. Combine that with built-in financial incentives to promote this risk (year end bonuses that are tied to stock performance for that year - which incentivizes short term profits over long term stability), and we're at serious risk for additional future bubbles, something Simon Johnson refers to as the doom loop.

His proposals, if I understand them correctly, involve tighter regulation and more aggressive control by the Federal Reserve and other governmental agencies to limit what the banks can do. This I generally agree with, and its basically this point of view and the point of view that the general philosophy of Bernanke (and Greenspan before him) that helped cause the crisis to begin with and is why the Senate should vote no on confirming Bernanke.

But I don't quite see eye to eye with this point of view. In my endless debates on the way the financial crisis was handled, here's a very high level summary of how different partisan views interpret the crisis and by extension how they want the government to shift in response:

1) The libertarian point of view: The crisis was caused by the Federal Reserve dropping interest rates too far for too long and the government's sponsorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose mission was to try to extend housing mortgages to more people, caused this crisis.

Their view of course, is that most bad things happen by the government and that we would be much better off if we got the government out of our way. So, Ron Paul publishes the the best seller "End the Fed". So, under this view, not only should Bernanke not get nominated, but we should get rid of the entire institution altogether.

Obviously, ending the federal reserve is never, ever going to happen, and this is a pretty extreme view. A more moderate view would be to keep the Fed's meddling to a minimum and let the markets sort it out.

2) The progressive point of view: The crisis was caused by greedy bankers and investors on wall street. The Bush and Obama administration bailed out those greedy bankers and investors because of their strong ties to our government and the bailout was paid for with tax payer dollars putting the lion share of the pain of this global recession on the backs of the every day worker - you and me. And we're paying dearly for it, primarily through steep declines in our home values and in extensive and long-lasting unemployment.

This point of view calls for stronger regulation. People in this camp would have preferred wholesale nationalization of the failing banks. Where the management is fired, the assets are controlled by the government until they can be turned over to a new bank run by a different set of managers.

3) The view in the middle - this is my view really, and I believe its also the Bush/Obama view. This view believes the causes of the crisis was complicated. Low interest rates had a role, sure, but how much? To quote Bernanke himself (who is quoted here:

"[T]he most important source of lower initial monthly payments, which allowed more people to enter the housing market and bid for properties, was not the general level of short-term interest rates, but the increasing use of more exotic types of mortgages and the associated decline of underwriting standards. That conclusion suggests that the best response to the housing bubble would have been regulatory, not monetary. Stronger regulation and supervision aimed at problems with underwriting practices and lenders’ risk management would have been a more effective and surgical approach to constraining the housing bubble than a general increase in interest rates."

So, this statement would lead someone to believe that the reality lies within 2) above. But I don't fully believe it. I believe we had massive regulatory failures during the housing bubble. The problem was massive and systemic. I'm not sure whether its too much to ask for our government especially on the back of a massive, long-lasting economic boom (beginning in the mid-1990's) in which the entire world and its economy revolutionized, to stay on top of it in a scale large enough to deal with the massive global bubble and subsequent burst.

Simon Johnson dismisses repeatedly the role the global imbalances played in this crisis. And I've never heard him (or anyone else for that matter) address how what happened in the world, starting in 2000 where our world economy was turned upside down through globalization and never before seen technology, had a role in this crisis. A role that would have been difficult for anybody or anything to control or prevent. Actually, I have heard this point of view, on This American Life where they describe how the global amount of money in savings all over the world doubled from 2000 to 2006. And how a big portion of this money came pouring into the US real estate market. Tell me how in the world any governmental agency, especially an agency that is directly influenced through winning short term elections every 2 to 4 years is going to stop a tsunami of money rushing into our markets.

I think the reason Bush and Obama responded the way they did is because there really wasn't any easy villains or at least there wasn't any one. By and large, almost all of us got caught up in the hysteria to one degree or another. Some benefited much more than others. Many of these villains also benefited on the downside as well, which gets a lot of people really, really angry.

But how do you really respond? The economy was on the verge of cratering. You can't just fire everyone and turn the entire world economy over to the handful of people left who were prescient enough to see it from the beginning.

By and large, I think Bush and Obama did what they had to do to get the economy back on the right footing. I don't think its incredibly useful to blame Bernanke or Greenspan or Paulson or any one person for the bubble. But I do think we need to think seriously about how we should fix things going forward. In this regard, Simon Johnson does have some compelling points of view - instituting policies that try to fix the "too big to fail" conundrums. But we live in a rapidly changing world. By and large, yesterday's ways of handling things may not work to solve tomorrow's problems. And our institutions have to recognize that fact. I want an ideology of humility. Recognizing that while we should do our best at all levels to do the right thing, chances are we won't. And I'm suspicious of any quick fixes. I sincerely doubt we'll have a bubble as massive as this last one any time soon, but I'm sure we have another one in the future at some point.

Which leads me to my next point: in the longer term, I believe we need to invest more in our infrastructure, institute policies that will encourage more of our brightest to enter engineering and other "make and design real products" sort of fields and discourage fewer of these people to get into financial engineering type of professions. And of course, we need to make a gradual shift from a spend more than you make attitude and increase our propensity to save and invest. Both at the household level and in our government. (Preferably this shift happens after we're well on our way toward a recovery and not before, otherwise we can forget about another bubble, we'll just be in a massive neverending downturn). We need to cut spending before we cut taxes. We need to increase taxes before we increase spending. This is really hard to do, of course, but hopefully voters can get smarter about the mantra that there is no free lunch. And this Republican ideology that when you cut taxes you always get an automatic boost in GDP that makes up for the tax cut needs to die a quick and painful death.

And of course, we need to focus on better, smarter regulation, I'm just not sure our regulatory system will ever be nimble of innovative enough to keep up with our rapidly changing world. Given that, bailouts are probably inevitable going forward. Having a more financially stable government will go a long way toward softening the bubbles as they happen and dampening the damage of a crash.

Friday, January 1, 2010

What I got for Christmas/New Years Resolution, 2010 edition

I just got through reading my 2009 resolution post here, and I decided to do it again.

What I got for Christmas:

My best gift: GPS receiver. Not a phone that I have to pay $30/month extra to browse the internet on (on top of the money I pay for voice, on top of the money I pay for high speed internet at home). I mean how much money do I have to pay to ensure 100% access to the internet. Already I have something like 85-90% access. But, having navigational ability is a huge benefit, and having a device dedicated to that has been really fun. I've been navigating my way all over town whether I already know where I'm going or not. Thank you Sara for thinking of me.

Other gifts I enjoyed: A book, an i-tunes gift certificate, and lots and lots of time with family. What better?

This time my wife didn't get anything that I would personally enjoy. I've given up my desire (at least for now) of giving her electronic toys that she never uses. That iPod touch I gave her last year, well, its basically mine, since she rarely uses and I've found all sorts of fun uses - eReader (I have the Kindle for iPod app and can now read while being near a fussy baby at night; waiting for an appointment; etc); blog reader; facebook; pandora; access to work e-mail at home; calendar and to-do's which can be accessed off-line and sync'd later.

So, yes, I love Christmas. I love getting gifts I may not have thought of myself or at least letting someone else go through the hassle of buying it for me. And, of course, splurging on my kids, and having a little time off. What can I say?

And I love the New Years, the fresh start. 2009 is now history, today is the first day of the new year. I give myself a 50% completion of my resolutions from last year. I think I got them about half right, which isn't so bad I say.

So for 2010:

1) An extra focus along with my wife to record every last blood sugar measurement, the basal rates, the bolusing, the food. Of courses, we may not be 100%. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but I want to be much better. Our daughter was too high, too often in 2009, and as she grows and as her body changes, we may need to make insulin adjustments, but we need to have a really good understanding of what's happening. And this takes extra careful recording. We did an Ok job of this in 2009, and highs and lows are just part of the diabetes game until technology improves or a cure is found. But, maybe in 2010, we can find ways to make this easier (I got my iPod touch tracking program geared up and ready to go).

2) I want to write an iPod app for my touch? Not sure about this, but I think I want to try.

3) I want to get my blog converted over to wordpress - to make it more customizable. I don't really feel the need to make my blog all nice and pretty. Its more about content for me than presentation. And I also really love things to be as minimal as possible (I much, much, much prefer google to yahoo - can you guess why?), but I want to see what wordpress can do from a customization point of view - I have my reasons.

4) I made this goal last year and failed miserably, but I want to try again. I want to have something to bring to our next year's talent show. This year we didn't have one. Next year we will and I want to have something prepared for it.

5) More money saved, more money spent on my house. In 2009, I focused a lot on savings for most of the year, but some of that got sabotoged because I also wanted to make home improvements (which we did). So, I want to continue it in 2010, maybe focused a little more on spending on the house, a little less on saving. But I didn't quite reach my savings goals, so I want to at least make up for that in 2010.

6) Better diet/better exercise. I experimented a lot with schedule in 2009. More experimentation is on the way. Maybe there's a way for my wife and I to go to the gym together (using the at-gym day care), we'll see.

7) Better time management at work. My colleague and I have already planned to help each other on this front, tweaking and planning to make it work in a sustainable way.

8) And much more game playing with my kids (and more time playing chess on the iPod). Wonderful thing to do for a variety of reasons.

We'll see how I do!

In the meantime, I hope you had a Happy Holidays and a very nice 2010.