Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Entitlement Issues

Gulfstream G550: a good place from which to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

People who have too much money and people who have too little share one common trait. After a time they come to believe that they deserve their fate. They settle into the trappings of their lives, and wear their circumstances like a second skin. This settling works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. What started as purely fortune, whether good or ill, becomes the natural order of things.
This all became evident to me as I struggled to make sense of my own fall from grace. I knew that the economy had collapsed, not because of any real or fundamental change in productivity or capacity or supply or demand, but because of an artificial set of circumstances precipitated largely by global financial institutions. While everyone was pointing fingers at the bursting of the real estate bubble and the huge sludge pool of underwater sub-prime mortgages, I knew that the real culprit was the enormous and mostly unregulated market in over-the-counter derivatives, speculation in which had allowed, even forced, the underwriting of the toxic mortgage paper, which in turn had fueled the real estate bubble, which in turn brought us all low when it burst.
The great irony in all this is that the investment bankers and speculators who brought us this mess escaped with our money. They fleeced us. Treasury and the Fed helped them do it. The big audit firms blessed the ubiquitous bookkeeping legerdemain. And when their overvalued and under-performing assets became problematic, we bailed them out. I've written about all this before. So have a lot of other people. If you'd like to sort all this out for yourself, I recommend the following:
  • Too Big to Fail – Andrew Ross Sorkin
  • Freefall – Joseph E. Stiglitz
  • 13 Bankers – Simon Johnson
  • The Devil's Casino – Vicky Ward
  • Griftopia – Matt Taibbi
These are by no means exhaustive, but they do, together, convey the broad sense not only of what went wrong and why, but that nothing that was broken has been fixed in any real, meaningful way. You should not read the last three without taking your blood pressure medication.
The tragedy is that, even though the contributory problems still lie festering under the surface, nobody cares anymore. The economy is recovering. The markets are orderly. We've got other problems to occupy our collective consciousness. The Middle East is in flames. Japan is radioactive. Charlie Sheen is taking us all to school in a completely different kind of China Syndrome. Who has time to worry about something that happened three years ago, even if many of us are still trying to crawl out of the smoking ruins of our former lives. It's apparently time to move on. I'm trying, but moving on is about as easy as loving my enemies or turning the other cheek.
When I first lost my job, the Lehman Brothers collapse was all over the news. The Lehman debacle was the precipitating event, the end of the beginning, the thing that galvanized the movers and shakers in government and on Wall Street to come together and save themselves from the disaster they had created. These were historic events: rewriting Fed rules to allow the lending of funds to investment banks and insurance companies, death spiral deal making facilitated by government functionaries who came from and would return to the institutions they were regulating, the sale of the TARP program (a one-page legislative mandate) to a panicky Congress by a credible Chicken Little. I was enthralled, and, being unemployed, I had plenty of time to immerse myself in the heady details.
I'd like to say that I learned, among other things, how the other half lives, but it's not the other half. It's more like the other 0.00001%. I learned how the guys in the ethereal high plains of self-entitlement live. They are not like you and me. They may have been once, but no more. They no longer carry the burden of living and working at the sufferance of others. They are the ones who do the suffering, and they do it from high-rise glass office towers, multimillion dollar Manhattan apartments, the custom appointed cabins of their Gulfstream G-550's, and palatial estates where their wives enjoy closets that are bigger than my house.
The most disconcerting thing about all of this is that it became obvious to me that these folks honestly believe that they deserve everything they have and more. They actually think they got where they are because they are smarter, more industrious, better prepared, more enlightened, and ultimately more deserving than the rest of us. They have bought in, wholesale, to their own bullshit, and they are occupied, full-time, curating their singular circumstances.
The rest of us let them do it. We've bought into their bullshit as well. We think they deserve what they've accumulated, and mostly just because they managed to do it without going to jail. So when Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Trust says we don't need any more banking regulation, we don't think that maybe Jaime's not ready to put down the fleecing sheers just yet. Instead we think, he's smart and he's rich, he must know what he's talking about. And, when Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs says they didn't bilk their investors out of billions by selling them bundled mortgages that had been hand selected by the firm that stood to profit most if they defaulted, and that their investors were sophisticated speculators who should have been able to figure out what Goldman wasn't telling them, we don't think he's talking out of both sides of his mouth at once. This is Goldman Sachs, for crying out loud, not some fly-by-night investment chop shop like Bernie freaking Madoff.
People listen to people with money. It hardly matters what they say. This is why Donald Trump is able, with a straight face, to tell us that one of his most attractive qualities as a candidate for the Presidency is that he's rich. He apparently believes this is sufficient to convince us of his sincerity, intelligence, leadership, and good judgment in spite of the overwhelmingly contrary evidence of his hair, and the fact that he let his marital infidelity with Marla Maples in 1990 play out on prime time network TV.
If this were all there were to it, that we listen to and believe rich people because they are rich, it probably wouldn't bear remarking. The sad thing though is the other side of the coin—that we don't listen to or believe the impoverished, the more than half that is not in the 0.00001%, the half that does not suffer in executive jets or ride private helicopters to work. Us. You and me. Hell, we don't even believe each other.
I mentioned the other day that I have ascribed to myself 1/40th the relative value of Bill Gates. By this I mean that I think that my ideas, conviviality, cleverness, and good nature, are, on average, at least 1/40th as good as his. I don't think this is a vain assumption on my part. I think your ideas, etc., are probably that good as well, and I don't even know who you are.
That being the case, I also don't think it's unreasonable for me to demand from the nebulous creative energy of the limitless universe, the deliberately secularized power behind the so-called law of attraction, that I should receive something akin to 1/40th of Bill Gates' net worth—specifically $749,000,000. If I had $749,000,000 people might actually begin to listen to me. Some of them might even read my frigging book

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Half Full, Half Empty, Less than Zero

As many of you know I am busy trying to accumulate $749,000,000 using the so called Law of Attraction. You can read about it here, and here, and also here. I thought it would be useful today to mark my progress so far in raising this not inconsiderable sum. To wit I have prepared the following chart:


As you can readily see the universe has so far provided none of the requested, believed, visualized, and accepted funds. ZERO is the thus far accumulated total. My thinking is that the universe better get freaking busy!

Forbes magazine puts Bill Gates net worth at somewhere north of $40 Billion. I'm putting mine at somewhere south of $1 Billion. In other words I am ascribing to myself approximately 1/40th of the value of Bill Gates. I am not one of those people who think that Bill Gates in an evil genius bent on world domination. I think Bill Gates works hard to make the world a better place, and he deserves every good thing that comes his way. So do I, and I am willing to settle for less than 1/40th of what Gates gets. I don't think this is unreasonable, although, apparently the universe does, at least so far.

I only have anecdotal evidence to go on, but after a careful analysis I have come to see my personal claim on the world's bounty like this:

As you can see my portion in life is less than half full, less than half empty, and less that a nice dram of Balvenie Double Wood Single Malt Scotch in a glass that is too big for it. It is less than ZERO because there is just enough spilled to let me know what I have missed, but not enough to lick up off the table.

If just one person buys my eBook at the Amazon Kindle Store, I will be 35 cents closer to my goal. I am more than willing to help the universe out a little. $749 million is no paltry sum, after all, even for a limitless universe. I'll do my part.

If that same person is then among the first five readers to post a review of my eBook on Amazon (see details here), I will send them an 8x12 print of the artwork of their choice from this blog, to include any photos and works available at my Etsy store (see the shop aimless arts tab above or just click here). In this case I would be out about $18 in materials, labor, postage and handling, but I would still count myself ahead of the game. I would still mark that I had made some progress, although of course I would have to subtract that sum from the red juice in the ball of the thermometer and hope to make it up in volume.

These new images are among those available in this sweet, sweet deal:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

eBook Launch and Fabulous Giveaway

Covers don't have to be shaped like books anymore because books no longer have shapes!

My new eBook is now up at Amazon. I'm sparing the trees, so it will not be available - at least for a while - in print. Instead you download the book and read it on your eBook reader or computer. If you don't have a Kindle reader, you can get one that works on your PC (or Mac or whatever) for FREE from Amazon.

The eBook is titled Buses & Bears, Bullets & Stones. To buy it click on the title, or here. It is a collection of 5 short stories. It will cost 99 cents of your hard-earned money. If your money was easy to come by, the book is still just 99 cents. I don't discriminate. It will be delivered to you electronically and immediately. This is a very cool thing, I think - good for the forests and good for your gratification bone.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag of my best fiction. They are alternately funny, poignant, quirky, magical, and maybe a little scary. Not too scary though. I'm not a big fan of the scary, not since I jumped into my first date's lap at the drive-in movies when Joan Crawford swung that ax and made her charm bracelet sing in Straightjacket. Clinking jewelry still makes me cringe.

You will read:

In which inveterate stoner, Sonny Crooks, can't seem to escape his dad's legacy - not even in a million dollar motor home.


Some people, they get something nice and luxurious, they feel compelled to show it to everyone they know. John Tinley longs for a sanguine escape from the office show and tell.

Two young Vietnam vets sort out their experiences in a trailer park on Galveston Bay. Bullets fly. Whiskey is murdered.

Merle Stinson needs to get her husband to stop cheating on her. Brigid Clooney, thin and knobby as a shillelagh, wants to help. Turns out you get what you pay for.

To celebrate this momentous release, and to generate some buzz, I am offering a FABULOUS GIVEAWAY. You could call it a bribe. I don't care. I've been unemployed a long time now. I have no shame left. Here's the deal:

  • buy the book
  • post a review on Amazon. it doesn't even have to be a positive review. pan my book if you must, although it would be better for me if you give me something constructive to work with. you can still win a prize!
  • the first five reviews posted to Amazon will get a prize: YOUR CHOICE OF ANY PHOTO OR ARTWORK ON THIS BLOG. I will mail you an 8x12 inch print of the picture of your choice on either photo metallic paper or 140 lb water color paper, mounted, double matted, signed, and sleeved.
  • all you have to do is make the first five, e-mail me your address and let me know which picture you want.
  • I sell these things for $35 on Etsy. the materials alone cost me 7 times what I'm charging for the book. I call this a great deal. I hope you'll agree.
  • I also hope you enjoy the stories because this is what I want to do when I grow up, and I'm already working on the next one. it's called Uncle Speed and the Tuner Punks. a middle-aged financial consultant mixes it up with a bunch of teen-aged import car enthusiasts and the local mob, steals their women, gets cross-wise with an enforcer from a Mexican drug cartel, and proves he'll risk just about anything to escape boredom.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Milestone: 10,000 page loads

Hit a milestone of sorts yesterday: 10,000th hit on the blog. It's been a real slog, way more arduous than I would have hoped...plus, to forestall any confusion, I'm talking lifetime, not daily. It's a long, long, long way to 10,000 a day or 1 million plus per month, which is where my dreams live. Perhaps I should try to be more interesting.

On another note, I am about to upload my first eBook to the Kindle Store on Amazon. It is a collection of short fiction titled Buses & Bears, Bullets & Stones. It contains 4 short stories and one piece of flash fiction. I'm offering it for 99 cents, so it it comes out to less than $.20 per story. That's pretty good value for your entertainment dollar these days. I'll be having a fabulous giveaway offer as part of the publication launch festivities, which, truth be known, mostly consist of me having a couple of belts of Balvenie single malt even though it's Lent. Watch this space for details.

Cover Art - love the lettering. The 1+ million dollar bus conversion from Marathon Coach is pretty nice too.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Turning the Other Cheek

Turning the other cheek: not for the faint of heart.

There are plenty of troublesome passages in the Bible. I'm not talking about stuff that's hard to believe. I'm talking about stuff that's hard to do, even for true believers. One such passage comes from the Gospel according to Matthew:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Another, in much the same vein, comes from Luke:
But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. (Luke 6:27-30)
People are not predisposed to act this way—not even Christians—and so mostly they don't—again, not even Christians. It would take an enormous amount of courage to return only love, forgiveness, submission, and prayers to one's persecutors, knowing full-well that one was going to receive only more persecution, cheek plucking, and pants stealing in return.
It would take an even more enormous amount of faith to presume that God would see to it that things turned out otherwise. God makes no such guarantee. God only promises eternal life to those who believe and keep his commandments, and it seems, based on these two troublesome passages of Scripture at any rate, that He makes the same promise to our tormentors. Who in their right mind wants a deal like that? I think the answer is obvious—tormentors and persecutors.
I bring this up because I have been thinking about my tormentors these past few days. I have four principal nemeses, and I have written extensively about them in this blog. They are, in reverse chronological order:
  1. Bill Clifton – division president at my last job – the guy who fired me.
  2. Fritz DelMonte – corporate CFO at my last job – the guy who had me fired.
  3. Quentin Parks – CFO at Albatross – the philandering smoothie who not only let his girlfriend influence company policy, but also to weigh in on the list of candidates for a sweeping final reduction in force.
  4. Rod Chandler – director of accounting under Parks – the anal retentive self-promoter who initially proposed me as a candidate for lay-off because he saw me as a threat to his continued ascendancy in power and influence.
Often better when someone else does it.
I still think about them all with some regularity, although, thankfully, with less frequency than when all their tormenting was still manifest in fresh wounds. Two weeks ago, The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time according to our Catholic liturgical calendar, the passage from Matthew that I quoted above, was included in the readings at Mass. Our pastor preached his homily on it, as he was supposed to do, and drove home the necessity of praying for one's enemies with some force. As a devout believer, one who doesn't think that religion is all about feeling good or making easy choices, I was forced to consider it.
I considered it for two days, and then started doing it. It wasn't easy. I didn't expect it to be, but neither did I expect it to be so wrenching. Still I managed. I prayed for Bill and Fritz and Quentin and Rod by name every day. I added them to my morning regimen of thanksgiving, reflection, and supplication. I asked God specifically to bless them, to prosper their endeavors, to heal their afflictions, and to lead them to heaven. I did allow that if He felt the need to smack them around a little in the process that would be okay, but it would be entirely up to Him, and He certainly shouldn't feel so compelled on my account. I may attempt heroic levels of holiness on occasion, but I am not perfect. This was the best I could do.
Five days later I got a call from a recruiter about a job opening. It wasn't a particularly good job—low pay, long hours, insufficient resources, and supervisory management that was, in the words of the recruiter, 'a bunch of thirty-year-old type-A's with Big Four accounting backgrounds who really think they're hot you-know-what.' Oh boy! Was this my earthly recompense for praying for my enemies? Was this my God adding wholesale to my blessings because I undertook to be perfect as He is perfect? Was I getting an advance on the reward I assumed would come due in the afterlife? The jury's still out, but I think not...and here's why.
The recruiter wanted some references to forward to his type-A clients. He didn't want the ones I'd already given him. I'd given him friends and peers, department heads I'd worked with who thought I was bright and personable and a good team player, people who had come to me for accounting related decision making support and got good service from me. The recruiter wanted direct supervisors from my last job. He wanted the guys who had fired me. I didn't want to give him the guys who'd fired me because I suspected they would not be the kind of references that I would need, even though they had promised after a fashion that they would do me no wrong.
Bill might be an okay reference because he'd told me that he would miss me when I left. He'd also told me that I was one of the smartest people he'd ever met. That kind of thing wouldn't sound too bad unless he also felt compelled to say that he thought I was weak-kneed and lilly-livered when it came to enforcing policy or that he'd like to snatch me out of my car at a traffic light and beat the crap out of me, either one of which was a distinct possibility given Bill's proclivity for overstating his case.
Fritz, on the other hand, probably thinks that I am a dumbass. He never said so, but then Fritz is not the kind of person who says exactly what is on his mind. Fritz uses subtlety to get other people to understand what he thinks so that they can relate it back to him in more forceful terms. Then he tells you what the other people said as if it were evidentiary. Fritz may think I'm a dumbass, but that is a kindness compared to what I think of him. Too bad the type-A's aren't going to rank my references according to what I think about them.
When it comes to references, you can be wronged by an ill-timed pause or a poor choice of words. You can be culled from the herd by accident, so it's an easy matter for somebody who wants to do you injury to nuance a response to accomplish just that. Nobody has to say exactly what they think. They just have to hem and haw a little, or drop a hint. When there are hundreds of applicants for every available job, it doesn't take much to take you right out of the running. I didn't want to give the recruiter Bill and Fritz as references, but I didn't see where I had a choice in the matter.

Occasionally...way better.
By praying for my enemies, I had turned the other cheek, something that God apparently wants me to do, but something I hadn't really intended. 'Be careful what you pray for,' a good friend once warned me, 'because when you get it, you will be tested.' By asking God to bless Bill and Fritz, and to prosper their endeavors, I had in effect asked Him to increase their influence over me. I had given them another shot to ruin my life, as if the wreck of their first go-round hadn't been enough. I haven't heard back from the recruiter, so it remains to be seen how they do.
Another thing that remains to be seen is whether or not I continue to pray for Bill and Fritz. It was a hard enough thing to do before. Realizing that they still had power over my circumstances was like feeling someone's dank breath on the back of my neck when I thought I was alone. The trouble is that I don't know if I created this situation by trying to be a better person or if the whole matter is just coincidence. Am I being tested...or just screwed? Do I stop praying and make it go away, or do I continue to pray and perhaps get a better seat at the beatific vision? It's not an easy choice. If it were easy, there would be more saints than sinners.