Monthly Archives: December 2008

Six degrees of Madoff

Good for a chuckle, but of course not for the unfortunate people who invested with Bernard Madoff:

Bernard Madoff’s Bacon number is 1

Yes, even Kevin Bacon and his wife got taken in.

There is another angle to this story that is not at all funny. It has to do with the way that the Madoff Ponzi scheme has revealed the internal support struts of our economy. The not-so-rich now have a much clearer glimpse of the specifics — names, amounts, relationships — of how the rich invest; indeed, of how rich they are (or aren’t). It’s a little like dissecting a familiar creature and being surprised and slightly grossed out at how the guts all fit together. The koala is extremely cute, but you do look at it differently once you learn that it has a brain not much bigger than a walnut and that 40% of its head is filled with fluid. Our economy and the people at the top of it are very impressive and intimidating, until you learn the specifics of their power and wealth network. And the Madoff scheme was a microcosm of how our entire economy has been run for a long time.

So why isn’t this funny? Only because it’s unlikely that such a loss of control over the facts is going to be allowed to snowball. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that there is a collective drive to maintain a status quo of power that favors this or that group of people who wield more power over the lives of others (as an American, I recognize I belong to the group that currently has the upper hand, even though I tend to personally identify with those who don’t). And we weren’t supposed to be able to view the specifics that have emerged from the reporting on the Madoff case. We were only supposed to get a vague general message that “the economy is bad, and we’re all going to suffer — the poor more than the rich, of course.”

When “the powers that be” lose control over the facts, it’s a serious threat to the status quo. And keeping in mind that war is not only “politics by other means,” but “economics by other means,” I don’t particularly feel like laughing.

Technical odds and ends

The week between Christmas and New Year’s must be the most unloved and unappreciated days of the year. They are especially weird for me this year because my employer, for the first time, is closed for the week. This is the longest vacation I have ever had in my working life (previous record was 11 days) and I’m finding it hard to stay on track. (Looking at my “Last Year’s Posts” widget, I see that this week last year was also underwritten.)

Where computer time is concerned, this is a good time of year to consider ways to do things differently:

Feed readers: I don’t really like them — if you’re going to start up a program so you can read aggregated news feeds, why not just visit the actual websites? I prefer the news ticker approach, where the news is pushed to your desktop, and have found two or three ticker-type (or pop-up) feed readers that do a good job: Tickershock, Feedpopper and Snackr (which requires Adobe Air). Feedpopper and Snackr are particularly good if you find yourself too busy to keep up with feeds every single day – you can program them to show you only what’s been posted at your favorite sites in the past day or two.

Twitter users may also find TweetDeck an interesting program, especially if they have dozens of people they are following (honestly I don’t know how people can keep up with 500 strangers at a time). Twitter has yet to find its true calling, I think. It could be a really useful local news tool (hey, it told me that Wegmans was mobbed the day before Christmas!) but it still is mainly about what other people are eating or watching. That said, it’s still more useful (and interesting) than Facebook as far as I’m concerned.

I also will put in a good word for a strange and low-tech device that came on the market a few months ago: the Peek. All it officially does is mobile e-mail (it does text messaging to phones as well), but it does it without locking you into a phone service contract. (See this recent NYT story about how Big Telecom makes their money on texting.) I got one of these because getting a Blackberry felt like it would be overkill, and my phone needs are served by my prepaid account. I have no idea if the people behind this startup company are making any profits, but their customer service is impeccable (they called me when I had a minor problem), and it was named Wired’s best gadget of the year. Consider it the “anti i-Phone.”

Slumdog Millionaire

I saw the much-acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire today — at a surprisingly well-attended matinee (Carousel really needs to move this film out of their basement suite of shoeboxes). For those who haven’t heard the buzz on the film, it’s about a desperately poor Muslim boy who has become a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (an Indian TV program in real life, by the way) and amazingly knows the answers to all the difficult questions. Although I didn’t find it Best Picture material, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours and would recommend it.

I think the enthusiasm for this film among American critics isn’t so much for its plot, which is a fairly simple rags-to-riches fairy tale, but for its setting. Modern India is an amazing, vivid place full of contradictions: extreme poverty next door to glittering high-rises… religious violence in the world’s biggest democracy… dozens of languages and yet everyone appears to speak English as a single lingua franca. More American than the real America — or at least, a place where everything is on the table in a way that can’t be spoken of here. In India, no one pretends there aren’t class distinctions. In America, if class distinctions are admitted at all, it’s only spoken of in the context of an allegedly large middle class versus “corporate robber barons.” (It’s easier to fold class into the umbrella of racism, which blunts class issues by changing the subject.) In India, poverty is in-your-face. In America, no one ever talks about the poor — unless some also-ran for president thinks it would make a nice touch to a stump speech. In India, celebrities get pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want; in America, they’re “just like you and me.” Supposedly.

In Slumdog Millionaire the audience has a hero to root for, even if there aren’t any really hissable villains. That’s because the screenplay makes the hero particularly likable against a backdrop of injustice and corruption, and if India has vibrant appeal, it’s because most of us don’t have to wash our clothes in filthy puddles. But it makes you wonder what’s been lost in an American society where everyone is officially more or less “doing fine” (because there are no poor people, just a middle class that hasn’t gotten all it’s entitled to). A country where there are no heroes, only successes.

Top New York stories of the year

Last December, I made a list of what I thought were the top 10 statewide stories of the year. Last year’s list appears so undramatic compared to 2008, truly a tumultuous year in New York’s politics and economy. And most of the stories spawned other important stories, a chain of events that is far from over. The challenge this year was not finding high-impact happenings to list, but deciding what should be ranked where.

1. Wall Street implodes. “Hoocoodanode?” The failure of investment banks and hedge funds, a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, the collapse of industries directly or indirectly dependent on obscene bonuses in the financial sector… most of it had already been predicted by cannier observers who saw where mortgage failures would eventually lead, but it apparently came as a big shock to a lot of people who should have known better. And even though Gov. Paterson tried to inject a note of alarm several months before things fell apart, there’s still a great deal of whistling past the graveyard throughout New York. It’s no ordinary recession, and impacts have yet to be felt not just on Wall Street, not just in manufacturing and real estate, but in medicine and higher education (the economic engines of many Upstate New York communities). There is no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes, or what the effects might be on New York’s economic and political structures in years to come.

2. Spitzer implodes. It’s a strange year indeed when a story like his isn’t the New York story of the decade (maybe even the century). In less than seven days — I’d almost say just three — his political career was over, his law-and-order reputation in tatters, and New Yorkers, who have pretty much seen it all at this point, choked back their disbelief, raised their eyebrows and carried on. Although his first (and only) year in office was hugely disappointing, “hoocoodanode” it would have ended up like this.

3. New York’s first black governor. Paterson’s installation into office deserves its own item. A qualified and experienced politician who almost surely could never have been elected “cold,” he is, to say the least, a very interesting figure called (or doomed?) to serve in very interesting times.

4. Bruno exits. Almost as soon as Spitzer’s political body was cold, Bruno got the hell out of Dodge (with federal indictment rumored to be near – and still rumored). Not only did he knock the props out from under the Three Men in a Room, but also from under the Upstate GOP establishment, with Long Island (in the form of Dean Skelos) taking over a Senate majority that would turn out to be short-lived… (or not)…

5. Darrel Aubertine wins the 48th District. Skipping back in time to February: when the special election in the North Country gave the district to Democrats for the first time since the 19th century and heralded a decisive step in the long-cherished plan to institute one-party rule in Albany. Unlike the three-way race in the 49th district in 2004 (which David Valesky won almost by default), this was supposed to represent a sea-change for Democrats in Albany and maybe even for Upstate Democrats too.

6. Gang of Three. As Bruno exited and Democrats made gains in the Senate, three right-of-center rogue Democrats held the Senate Democrats hostage with some hardball demands, showing a great deal of disarray evident in the party. This story is still going on and it doesn’t seem clear who will be in charge of the Senate (and therefore the Legislature) in 2009.

7. New York moves in on Indian tribal commerce. Not only the upstate Haudenosaunee, but the downstate Unkechaug/Poospatuck, have come under more aggressive treatment from state and NYC authorities on the tax-free sale of cigarettes. The issue of Native taxation in New York has a very long and tangled history, but until now, New York authorities preferred to pretty much ignore the situation. Although not much of a news item in NYC, Paterson’s signing of a tax enforcement bill — and local law enforcement raids on Cayuga-owned businesses — will undoubtedly have deeper reverberations throughout Upstate communities in 2009. How serious those reverberations, is hard to tell.

8. Gay marriage debate on deck. After years of remaining on the back burner of progressive politics in New York, gay rights activists finally were poised to get the issue of gay marriage on the state agenda, only to run smack into all of the items just listed: an economic meltdown leaving politicians reluctant to commit to controversial issues, not to mention one of the members of the Gang of Three (Ruben Diaz) trying to use his opposition to gay marriage as a crucial bargaining chip in the already bizarre power struggle among the Senate Democrats. But it is unlikely that this issue will recede again as it has in past years, perhaps adding a contentious ingredient to the newly unstable atmosphere of New York politics.

9. Hillary’s empty Senate seat. Yes, She has left us, as we all knew she would… and it’s really a sign of how explosive this year has been when I can rank the jostling to fill her seat as #9 on a list of 10.

10. Container shipping coming to Oswego. After the preceding items, this one may seem absurdly prosaic, but I think of it as “the quiet story” whose impact could be felt even after 2009… or maybe even 2019. It’s the one news development I heard this year that opened a new potential window on New York’s place in world commerce (for background, see this post on “Atlantica”). It’s also the one story on this list that will probably still retain its relevance after the current economic drama has played out — not to mention the drama of all of the aforementioned political personalities.

The moral of this year’s story: History never comes neatly packaged as a single person or a single event. It is a cascade of events uncontrolled by any one force. “When it rains, it pours.”

Other people’s blogs: Budget edition

Simon at Living in Dryden notes the budget-mandated closure of New York’s last pheasant-breeding game farm. 8,000 pheasants will be slaughtered and distributed as food for the needy in the Southern Tier.

Josh Shear has wide-ranging commentary on some of the many “small” taxes and fees in the proposed budget.

BuffaloPundit passes on this site with self-explanatory title: (Hint: Hit refresh.)

The P-S’ Frugal Mom is upset that the budget is not frugality-friendly.