Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, J

J is 60 today. Happy Birthday!

On the Liability of Rating Agencies

This is an interesting idea--go after the Big Three security rating organizations (Moody's, Standard and Poor's, and Fitch) not for the quality of their ratings, which are protected by First Amendment rights ("we can say any silly, stupid thing we want, no matter how dumb we know it to be"), but for the effect of the ratings on African American and Latino communities. One of the scandals of the foreclosure crisis is that the mortgage brokers and non-bank lenders (those not subject to the Community Reinvestment Act) mined African American and Latino communities for potential borrowers, encouraging people who could easily have received safer loans to take out exploding ARMs and the like.

This complaint attempts to sidestep the First Amendment protections afforded the ratings' agencies. Whether it works or not, it would be useful for the EEOC to investigate the ways in which minority homeowners and homebuyers were steered to these nasty loans.


The Washington Post reports this morning that the East Coast oaks aren't producing any acorns this year. We don't have that problem this year; our trees have been producing bumper crops. So many that we've found acorns on the ground, ones the squirrels who live in our yard have either missed or rejected. And the squirrels are getting chubby.

For several years we didn't see any acorns and wondered if there was something wrong with our Valley Oak. But local naturalists reassured us--oaks don't produce every year, but in three to seven year cycles. So in years with fewer acorns our squirrels are assiduous in their hunt for the acorns our tree produces. Only in years with a lot of acorns do we find any leftovers.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ready for My Bailout

Now that it seems that the government is bailing out every bank in the country, not to mention various manufacturers, it's time for the rest of us to start thinking about what we want for our bailout. I know that some people are opposed to bailouts altogether, but it's too late for that. Our government has spent hundreds of billions bailing out people who make hundreds of millions a year. So what about bailing out those of us who make barely more than the median income? It's our turn.

I've thought about my bailout a lot. I can't do a lot of shopping without a bailout, so it takes the place of pointing and clicking and entering my credit card number. I do have a problem in that my bailout doesn't include paying off my credit card or refinancing my mortgage. I don't have a credit card balance and I rent. But I could receive a bailout. Really.

First I could have a line of credit at my favorite shops. My favorite shops would vie with one another to provide me the cheapest prices, the best service. I would no longer be just the woman who occasionally makes small purchases, but the woman who has a line of credit guaranteed by the government. The local bookstore would probably send someone over with the latest garden book acquisitions. The plant nurseries would call me with plant lists from their growers. My clothier would call when the pinwale corduroy jackets arrived, rather than just sending me a postcard.

Second, I'd receive a restaurant allowance. This would enable me to try new ones, as well as revisit old favorites. J would never have to cook again, unless he wanted to. Our reservations would be honored promptly. Indeed we might receive calls when the chef was preparing our favorites. If we didn't feel like going out, the restaurant could deliver. And did I mention that all of those who served us would be union employees, with good wages and benefits?

Third would be purchases of durable goods. Now unfortunately I don't need much in the way of consumer durables. Our 1200 square foot duplex holds quite enough furniture for us, thank you. And for the most part, we wouldn't want to replace it. I would be interested in one of those skinny TVs, though, if I could get an energy miser. And I might be convinced to revisit the sofa question, if excellent choices were provided. I'm afraid, though, that my fellows will have to use their bailouts for consumer durables.

Then there's the matter of concerts, plays and the like. Some portion of everyone's bailout should be used to support cultural activities. This would require many more performances, but would also thereby allow many more artists to make living wages. Small troupes would require larger spaces, and new groups could take over the ones vacated. These funds would augment the direct bailouts to arts' groups and the income earned by performing at senior centers, schools and day care facilities. J might be encouraged to get a couple of guitars, bass and drums together for the Centrum Silvertones, performing old acid rock and alternative folk at senior centers and nursing homes.

Hmmm, we might find that this kind of bailout worked much better than the one given to Citi, and learn something for the next go-round.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Thomas Friedman

I think that the period Thomas Friedman took off to write his book, which I haven't bothered to read, was a little less miserable for those of us who do a lot of reading. No rattling on about the joys of the new financial system, Davos Man, and his unfortunate construction of globalization. But watching him now is almost fun. It reminds me of the writing on Cuba just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the government there stayed in power by repressing the population at the same time (and sometimes in the same article) that the government was entirely unable to control the population. What that confirmed was that they can't see that their analysis is wrong, even when the contradictory facts are directly before them.

So in his column of November 16, we are informed that while shopping may have gotten us into this mess (which isn't exactly right anyway), we must get ourselves out of it by--by--more shopping! But by the next week he's changed his mind and, on November 23, he's--silently we hope--admonishing the young people in restaurants to go home and eat tuna fish. In other words, stop shopping. I should be critical, but right now it's just fun to watch people who spend their time justifying the unjustifiable depredations of the elite try to negotiate their way through this.

Update December 9: I can't believe that this piece ended up on NetRightNation. Uh, I'm kind of embarrassed to be there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Refund

Can we just declare the bailouts a waste, take back all the money, and try again? I mean, the banks were given a lot of money and it seems to have disappeared into their reserves and executive compensation. I wrote earlier that the government should do direct lending, and I still think that's our best option. Depending on the people who brought about this mess to fix it has been a complete waste of money.


I've been playing with SiteMeter, a free counter that lets me know how many people have been to my blog, where they come from etc. I'm most interested in it for my Tenants and Foreclosure blog (link to the right), as I want to track who is coming and what they're looking for. Did you know that people in other countries also go from link to link, reading things that may be of no use to them whatsoever? Netherlands, Malaysia, Korea. Most of my readers come through Google searches, so I also know what their search words are. I assume that the blog answers most of their questions, although I've had a few to whom I could have given more information on their exact question. (SiteMeter doesn't give me their email addresses, and I'm not sure I'd want them anyway, but I do sometimes want to say, "Wait. Wait. Here are some options for dealing with that.")

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fall Leaves

Instead of going on our usual brisk walk yesterday, I dragged my friend A to the park, so that I could take pictures of fall leaves. California doesn't have fall like the East, where all of the trees turn at the same time. Our fall dribbles from the end of August through January. Some trees are budding out at the end of January, just as the last trees going dormant lose their leaves. We do, however, have good years and bad ones--well, not so much bad, as mediocre. The best color seems to come with a short, sharp fall, when the nighttime temperatures drop suddenly from 60 to 40 degrees. This year we had erratic temperatures through the fall, so our fall color has ranged mostly from dull yellow to brown.

I've written before that I had little expectation that I would be happy with the Obama Administration. And so far, I've not been disappointed. He headed straight for the miserable centrists in and about the Democratic Leadership Council that brought us the eight-year fiasco that was the Clinton Administration.
(The only reason that one no longer seems quite so awful is that the present government is so thoroughly appalling.) The economic advisors are mostly people who helped bring about the mess we're currently in. It will soon become part of the ruling conventional wisdom that the Republicans were responsible for the deregulative frenzy that collapsed so many of our major banking houses. This is not true; the Democrats were as culpable in bringing about the "modernizing" legislation that enabled the development of the alpahbet soup (SIV, CDO, CDS) as the Republicans.

I've been thinking lately about the intersection of Wall Street and Main Street in the present crisis. What made the housing bubble so much more disasterous than the stock bubble? Yes, the collapse of the stock bubble did cause a recession, but it didn't threaten the entire economy. The housing bubble does. Several things are at work here. The first is that the poorest 2/3 of the population has been precarious since the mid-1970s.
Wages have been declining since then, and it's only because more family members have gone out to work that household incomes haven't collapsed. (In 1973 a family could make the median income with forty-two work hours a week at the average weekly wage. By the mid 1990s, achieving the median income required eighty-two work hours a week.) When that was no longer sufficient, families turned to the credit card to stretch their incomes. Credit cards were particularly important for single-earner households, as they couldn't work the eighty-two hours a week required to make the median income. Brett Williams called the credit card the virtual domestic partner and that's an apt description. The banking system made huge amounts of money from the expansion of credit card lending--interest, late fees, overlimit fees--but by the beginning of the 21st century, it was pretty obvious that people couldn't borrow much more from Mastercard and Visa. There simply wasn't sufficient income to service all of that debt. I remember Alan Greenspan trying to explain that not all households were in insurmountable debt--only some of them.

So what was left? If I were someone who believed in conspiracy theory, I'd imagine a bunch of bankers looking at the little house on Cul de Sac Lane, light bulbs going off over their heads. What was obvious to them, I'm sure, was that housing was the only resource left to exploit. Most Americans didn't have anything else left. What the mortgage brokers, lenders, hedge fund managers didn't understand was that people were so precarious that they were taking loans they couldn't hope to pay back. I remember reading in the local papers that people would always pay the mortgage, no matter what. But if the mortgage payment is more than the household's monthly income, there's no belt tight enough to save it.

So a good number of our fellows started borrowing against their houses to pay off the aforementioned credit card bills, fix up the house, buy cars and so on. I suppose that some of them bought big-screen TVs with the money or took expensive vacations or whatever, but a lot of people just wanted to send the kid to college. What's
worse is that some tenants, who should have been living in subsidized rental housing, were induced to take on mortgages so that they could have a decent place to live. Many tenants are barred from decent rental housing by credit problems, so their best option really was to buy a house they couldn't afford.

That they believed that housing prices would only go up isn't surprising; most of the nation's leading financiers thought the same thing, and produced charts and graphs to show us the truth of their proposition. Unlike our nation's financiers, however, they are suffering the consequences of those beliefs. Whatever credit they had has now been trashed, and they're now doubled up with friends or relatives. Some have rented apartments from unscrupulous landlords, paying exorbitant deposits, only to find that the house they've rented has gone into foreclosure. Particularly sad are the people in their mid-50s who suffered foreclosure, as they will never recover from it.
(For a variety of reasons, people born in the mid-1950s are less likely to own houses than those born before or after, so they were specially susceptible to the "now or never" pressure.)

I do wonder what Wall Street will come up with next. They tried commodities, but that seems to have been a bust. Maybe tulips?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pictures in the Fog

Today I woke up in the fog and decided to take some pictures. I didn't have good luck with fog pictures with my old not-digital camera--I once took a picture of a tree in the fog that led J to ask me, "Why did you take a picture of that building?" The building had been masked by the fog in real life, but the camera picked it up clearly.

So I braved the cold in robe and slippers to get some pictures of the garden. And some of them came out "not bad." (No one will ever describe me as a good photographer--ever.) The picture at the left is of the tree mallow that has grown much larger than I intended (I guess it was the compost I spread in that part of the yard) fronted by the Cape mallow that J inexpertly cut back a couple of months ago.

For reasons that are not clear to me, my impatiens are still blooming. I had planted them in small pots, thinking that they'd last through the summer and then keel over at the end of October, which was what happened last year. But they're still going strong. (Had I known that they would make it this long, I'd have repotted them in larger pots. If, however, I do that now, they will certainly die within the week.) The cyclamen, which traditionally blooms at this time of year, survived from last year. In fact, the cyclamen didn't even die back over the summer. I have no idea what I did to keep them going--none. I favor white flowers on the living room side of the yard, as we can see them at night. On really dark nights we can't see the foliage and the flowers "float" around the patio.

My Japanese maples are turning color now. They are all still small--the eldest is only about four years old--so they still live in little pots, but they are giving us a preview of what they'll be like when they get bigger. The red one is my Burgandy Laceleaf, purchased as a small expensive stick. Some day I will have to move this one to a better location, as it needs more sun in the summer, but I love having it outside the living room window.

This one is in a better location, but can't be seen from the window. Its leaves have turned a golden yellow this year, but the real treat is the coral bark through the winter. Both of these are grafted onto sturdier root stock, but I do have one that was grown as a cutting. It's doing well now (its first year), but I have no idea whether it will survive as well as the grafted trees.

This is not the season for flowers here. Some of the azaleas have, for reasons entirely unclear, put out a few blossoms, and the sasanqua camellias are in bloom. For several years I had a Yuletide--one of the most prolific bloomers of the sasanquas--but it suddenly sickened and died a couple of years ago. I purchased a new one this summer, but it's still a real baby and has only put out a few blooms so far.
My Setseguekka has been blooming like mad. It's a gangly plant, but with my very favorite sasanqua flowers.

The pelargoniums did very badly this year. I don't know why--they're supposed to do well here. (Pelargoniums are often featured plants in window boxes and planters in pictures of American-owned villas in Tuscany, as they survive in hot, dry climates.) I have determined that they're not appropriate in natural gardens, but I like plants that (most years) grow well, and I don't mind that they're a bit more structured than the rest of my plantings.

I may be doing something wrong, or perhaps it's just that I'm experimenting with new varieties and the new ones are just not going to make it. Plant hybridizers have quit test-gardening most plants, as they've found it cheaper to just toss them into the market and see which ones make it.
That wouldn't be so bad if the untested were cheaper, but the cost of plant material has increased rapidly over the last couple of years. Gardeners are paying high prices for plants that don't make it. And garden centers wonder why people are cutting back. Hmmm. Hmmm.

At the right is one of the survivors. The picture of another came out fuzzy, so I did what is so wonderful with a digital camera--I deleted it.

And I guess Senator Clinton really does want to be Secretary of State. And so does the former President, as he's going to have to give up most of his income-producing activities for the duration.

A note on taking pictures in fog, assuming that you want to capture the foggy conditions. Force the flash on, which does two things. It lights the foreground, which then enables the camera to "see" the fog. (I found this out by accident, when I neglected to turn the autoflash off.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Unimportant Small Things

The speaker rehabilitation worked! Our speakers haven't sounded this good in about 15 years. I am so glad J made the repair. I can hear the bowing on Il Giardino Armonico's Il Proteo. Even the treble sounds better, although J only fixed the bass speakers. (I don't quite understand that, but both J and I noticed it.)

It's been a bit cooler for the last couple of days, so cats have started coming in earlier for their afternoon nap. Said afternoon nap now takes up most of the afternoon. But they want to go back outside just as it's getting dark. That's not permitted.

I checked in on the auto executives testimony before Congress over the last couple of days. While it's difficult to have much sympathy for the people who fought against seat belt laws and for the nine gallon to the mile SUV, it's hard to understand why we're not bailing them out if we've already rescued the people who gave us the SIV. Yes, one does have to wonder at their political incompetence--leave the corporate jets at home and go slumming in first class. However, is it really that big a deal when the financial services executives have been able to keep the salaries and bonuses they got for--I can't think of anything else--convincing the Secretary of the Treasury to keep them out of bankruptcy?

Maybe it's just that the financial services sector employs people who are more likely to be white and to have attended elite universities, while auto companies have a more diverse employee base, most of whom did not attend Harvard or Yale.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Clinton for Secretary of State?

Hillary, that is. It's not that much of a surprise. Were I Barack Obama, I wouldn't want Senator Clinton working her base in the party and her colleagues in the Senate. In a dispute between Congress and the Administration, she might become a countervaling force--with her own interests, constituencies and policy priorities. So giving her a Cabinet position neutralizes her politically and keeps her really busy. If I were Hillary, I'd turn it down--for just those reasons.

Shopping and Other Things

J will celebrate his 60th birthday this month and asked for and received an electric guitar. Much time was spent at guitar emporia listening to him noodle on various prospects, but finally the selection was made, and the guitar and its attendant equipment came home. J, who used to play acoustic guitar proficiently, hasn't played for about 15 years, and he needs to practice, practice, practice.

And we--oh happy day--learned that we could repair our old Marantz speakers, rather than having to spend a stupendous (for us) sum of money on new ones. We discovered a while back that our speaker hiss was the result of deterioration in the foam on the edge of one of our bass speakers. There was much procrastination, but we finally headed off to Best Buy and Circuit City to test new speakers. We were mightily disappointed in the quality of the sound, even of the expensive prospects. Tearfully, we looked at the possibility that we might have to spend four figures to replace our speakers, and the sound wouldn't be as good as what we already had. We returned home, dejected.

The prospect of spending so much for so little led me to my computer, where I went online and Googled Marantz speaker repair. And was saved. There's a whole industry devoted to repairing and reconditioning old Marantz speakers and receivers. We could obtain repair kits or send our speakers in to be fixed. J examined the instructions and decided that this was an easy fix, so he ordered the repair kit. It arrived promptly and J set about reconditioning the speakers. The bass speakers are now in the final drying phase and will be reinstalled tomorrow. I'm not sure whether I'm happiest about keeping speakers that are better than much of what is out there now, or saving so much money. But I am especially proud of myself for Googling BEFORE we spent a lot of money on new speakers.

And I do not feel at all guilty for not propping up the economy by purchasing something new, when reconditioning the old serves us so much better. In fact, I'm becoming distinctly irritated with the constant calls for us to go out shopping to support the economy. Even people with secure jobs are feeling nervous about our economic prospects, as the number of unemployed increases by the hundreds of thousands every month. And somehow it's unseemly to be spending lots of money when your neighbors are losing their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings.

And aren't some of these same people claiming that we brought this on ourselves by spending our home equity (for those who don't rent their homes) and running up our credit cards?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


And here we all thought we'd be up 'til the wee hours waiting to find out who would be the next President. And it was called the minute the polls closed in California. I'm glad Obama won--I actually voted for him--but I know that I'll spend much of the next four years demonstrating against him.

It also appears that Kevin Johnson has beaten Heather Fargo to become Mayor of Sacramento. Johnson is supported by many of the developer and anti-environmental interests that wanted someone even more willing to do their bidding than Fargo was.

And at this writing Proposition 8 is passing and, while Alameda and Los Angeles returns are (a) always late and (b) some of the most progressive in the state, I'm not sure that will be enough to upset this one. It's passing 53-47.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

It Rained

More than an inch and a half. The air is fresh, the buildings have been washed down, the plants are happy, happy, happy. And we're supposed to have more rain tonight and tomorrow. (I hope not all day, as I have some mesclun to plant.)