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September 30, 2010


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The High Seas of International Finance

One of my favorite peces of cinema is the opening film short of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” “The Crimson Permanent Assurance.”

For those unfamiliar, the film is a brilliant Terry Gilliam fantasy in which the aged workers of a venerable London firm – The Permanent Assurance Company – stage a mutiny when The Very Big Corporation of America, which has recently acquired the “once proud family firm,” sacks a man known in the film only as Evans.

After tossing their American bosses out the window of their London office building – one walks a plank fashioned from an office desk – the adjusters and accountants fashion swords from the blades of the ceiling fans, pirate hooks from a coat hanger, and set the building a sail on “The High Seas of International Finance.”

They eventually attack the New York skyscraper of the Very Big Corporation, using their filing cabinets as cannons (this is all accomplished by the incomparable film wizardry of Gilliam). The film ends with the CEO of The Very Big Corporation accepting his defeat and leaping out of the window (audiences at Cannes cheered when this was initially screened in 1983).

I was thinking of this film recently with the release of the “Wall Street” sequel, featuring the iconic Michael Douglas capitalist Gordon Gekko, who now, it appears, is in the new role of Wall Street Cassandra, having warned the uber rich that their quick-profit ways were steering the financial industry to disaster.

This is all pretty easy for “Wall Street” director Oliver Stone now. Hindsight is always 20/20. Anyone looking back now can easily see the future that credit default swaps and subprime mortgages would fashion. We’re living in it.

With all this hindsight, it would seem we’re in a good position to avoid the same mistakes again. To that end, Congress passed a financial reform bill this summer that largely strengthens regulatory authority, giving the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission more latitude on policing Wall Street and protecting consumers.

But many economists argue the bill did not go far enough. In the New York Times, recently, Barry Ritholtz, CEO and director of equity research at Fusion IQ and a financial blogger at “The Big Picture” (http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/) pointed out simple things the government missed in the Financial Reform Act.

1. Derivatives have not been properly regulated.

2. The ratings agencies that took cash to slap AAA ratings on risky bonds were not regulated.

3. Banks are still able to leverage their assets by far too great a margin.

4. The Glass-Stengel Act, a repealed law that kept investment banks and depository banks separate should be reinstated.

5. Banks that are too big to fail must be regulated and need to be smaller.

Without rules like these, we run the risk of returning to the same conditions that caused the collapse in the first place. The federal law puts responsibility or regulation with the same agencies that missed the problem the first time. We can be forgiven for not being confident the problem is solved.

No, Gilliam got the metaphor right way back in 1983. And the pirates of the high seas of international finance are still on the prowl.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

When it’s fun to be wrong: The Phillies beat bad feelings


When you begin writing about sports you’re issued an official reporter’s notebook, a full dose of cynicism, a soupçon of objectivity, an increased yearning for free meals and, most important, a large box of clichés. Nothing in that starter kit guarantees wisdom or the ability to predict the future.

Accurate predictions are as much luck as skill. It is with that understanding that I come before you today.

Last spring, just prior to their remarkable run to the Stanley Cup finals, I was pretty sure the Flyers wouldn’t make the playoffs. If they did they’d be easily eliminated in the first round. Not only did they make the finals, they came within a game of winning the Cup. Clearly I was wrong, and gratefully so.

Here we go again.

In April, fully aware of the quality team the Phillies would send out for the 2010 season, my somewhat too substantial gut (likely the result of the wished-for free meals that actually cost about $10) was telling my brain that the Phillies wouldn’t make the playoffs this year. My concern wasn’t the team’s quality, it’s that repeating is hard. It’s seldom done two years in a row let alone the four times for which the Phillies were aiming. There is also the possibility that some team will unexpectedly catch fire. In addition, the team traded super-pitcher Cliff Lee to Seattle for a bag of balls. The baseball gods are notoriously unforgiving.

That concern came before the injuries that, over the course of the year, caused all but two of the starting position players to miss considerable time. Only Raul Ibañez and Jason Werth have escaped the injury jinx. Adding to the team’s troubles, both of them have had an inconsistent year.

The pitching staff also spent time dealing with injuries. Ryan Madson missed two months after breaking his toe. A sprained elbow ligament ended starter Jamie Moyer’s season in July. Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, Joe Blanton, Antonio Bastardo, Chad Durbin, Danys Baez and Scott Matheson have all, at one time or another, been sidelined.

All the while Atlanta was hot.

Everything pointed to a trying season, one that might well end up with the Fightins taking the 2010 playoffs off.

There were, of course, some good things going on. Roy Halladay was as advertised: a magnificent pitcher who, for good measure, threw a perfect game against Florida on May 29.

Manager Charlie Manuel performed all sorts of magic with the lineup, taking advantage of those who were well and using his subs astutely. Best of the fill-ins has been Wilson Valdez, whose fielding at second, third and short has been terrific even when his hitting has been less than stellar.

For the entire season not one seat in Citizens Bank Park has gone unsold. Sellouts every game brought an energy to the team that encouraged them not to give up.

General Manager Ruben Amaro added Roy Oswalt to the pitching rotation mid-season, managing to shut down those unhappy with his Cliff Lee trade as well as the opponents Oswalt has faced.

But still it looked bleak. Friends and media mavens jumped on and off the bandwagon with breakneck speed and head-spinning frequency. And then came the Houston series at the end of August. The Astros swept the home team in four straight. To many of us, that sealed their doom.

Not so fast. Off they went to San Diego, Los Angeles and Colorado for seven road games. They won six of ‘em. Still trailing the Braves by one game, they came home to turn up the pressure on the opposition. On September 7 they got back into the division lead for the first time since May 31. Trailing by as many as seven games in late July they gradually pulled ahead. On September 24 they led Atlanta by seven games, a turn around of 14 games in two months.

When they clinched the Eastern Division crown by beating the Nationals 8-0 Monday night in Washington, many of those who had been declaring the Phils dead in July and August were now joyfully, if a tad dishonestly, saying they knew it all along. Appalling. At least I didn’t flip flop.

I take great pride in that consistency. Truth be told, at times like this I enjoy being wrong.

 

Commentary: Tea Party creates hostile political climate


Pete Mazzaccaro has been on target with his editorials of the past two weeks. I couldn’t agree with him more in both cases (Sept. 9, “Stuck in the trivia quagmire” and Sept. 16 “Blow it up”). I believe I can address both editorials in one shot as they have much to do with each other.

In regard to his Sept. 9th editorial: The whole debate over the proposed New York City Islamic cultural center (as opposed to mosque) has been very embarrassing. I mean who would have ever thought Muslims would insist on partaking in freedom of religion the way Christians have been doing here for so long?

By the way, a cultural center is way different from a mosque. A mosque’s only function is for prayer. Cordoba House/Park 51/whatever it’s being called today would be a training ground for future Muslim terrorist chefs and people unwinding via playing basketball. We have a lot to worry about there, for sure.

Between that and the equally embarrassing anti-Hispanic brouhaha in Arizona, I can’t help but think that cuckoos such as the so-called Tea Party and its sympathizers are actually taken seriously here in the United States while the rest of the world is laughing at them – and the rest of us (and rightfully so).

It’s so true. The U.S. economy is effectively in the toilet (thank you, masters Cheney and Bush) and global warming is getting worse by the minute. One need look no further than the Pakistan floods, the intensity of winter weather and horrible humidity the region experienced in just a few months this year, and bigger and bigger hurricanes that are forming in the Atlantic.

And we need to be concerned about that because big government, liberals, progressives, Barack Hussein Obama, Muslims, Hispanics – all of that won’t even count as we’re digging out of five feet of snow every year and floating down the street as another monster flood rolls into town.

You can’t buy a job today, constant career advice keeps telling people, albeit not directly, that it’s not “what you know, it’s who you know,” and people keep losing everything they’ve ever worked for – having to pawn their life’s possessions just to pay the mortgage (and they wind up losing the house shortly thereafter, anyway). And prices keep increasing as people’s salaries remain stagnant or they lose their jobs.

And it’s just not getting better. All is not well in the U.S. A.

Businesses continue sending Amerian jobs overseas so they can contribute to slave/child labor while they store the difference in Swiss bank accounts. Kids don’t have much to do in the way of recreation (no money for these programs because that constitutes “big government”), library hours have been reduced, cultural programs have been reduced and eliminated, hundreds of millions of Americans have no health insurance, and yet we the little people are subjected to the rants of these right-wing fat cats (some who have had their family farms receive $250,000 in government subsidies) that unemployment compensation, national healthcare and Medicaid are “socialist” and “welfare.”

This coming from the same people who continue reaping the benefits of socialism and welfare with their obscene health care packages and pensions – and they have no intention of giving all that up for the sake of “trimming the deficit” that their unelected  heroes Bush and Cheney created.

But instead of worrying about the so-called Tea Party/Republicans (sa-me thing) and their selective rage at “big government,” how they masquerade as populists and who are doing nothing more than destroying this country from within, the media do the bidding of their corporate masters and divert attention to over-rated and under-talented celebrities and singers.

The media would rather have John and Jane Everyday discuss the merits of “Dancing with the Stars” (has beens) than sit down and see just how bad they’re being screwed over by well-fed, far right-wing elitists who encourage them to fight to continue to have nothing (only in America, folks!).

Apparently, it’s too much to ask these tea party folks just why they had nothing to say about “big government” from 2001 to 2009, yet these folks were vocal in the 1990s (although they weren’t the Tea Party then) during the Clinton years, and they got fired up again in 2009, just when another Democrat became president. How “ironic.”

And I would suggest to Mr. Mazzaccaro to not pay attention to any of these polls. I have voted in every election I’ve ever been eligible to vote in (primary and general) and I have never once been asked my opinion for any of these polls that the media rely on so much.

The “liberal” media have all but guaranteed election to these right-wing elitists, but people have to say otherwise in November. People must not only get out and vote, they must have well-trained eyes on the polls to make sure there’s not a whole lot of fraud going on. We’ve been down that road twice before.

Whether it’s hatred, loathing, jealousy, and envy of people not like them, these tea-baggers/Republicans are doing a fine job of crafting a more hostile political climate than ever  before – and their media enable them every step of the way.

Folks like that hated African-Americans and Indians when it was fashionable (still do, although they have to keep it silent), today they hate Hispanics and Muslims, tomorrow they’ll hate someone else (probably themselves – if they don’t already).

 

 









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