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Truths In and Out of Favor

Past FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair

“I also quoted a favorite passage of mine from Robert Frost’s poem “The Black Cottage”:

Most of the change we think we see in life

Is due to truths being in and out of favor.

The “truths” that form the bedrock of our democratic culture fell out of favor in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Personal accountability, honest dealing, the right to reap the rewards of your hard work and entrepreneurship, the obligation to suffer the consequences if you fail—those were the kinds of ideals most of us grew up with, but they were forgotten in the shortsighted avarice that consumed our financial markets. The role of government in a free society—not to protect us from ourselves but to protect us from one another, as Ronald Reagan once described it—was lost as Washington deluded itself into thinking that self-correcting markets could somehow substitute for basic common sense. It would be hard to find anyone on Main Street who was not in one way or another hurt by the horrible debacle. Government fundamentally failed in its role of protecting us.”

Excerpt From: Bair, Sheila. “Bull by the Horns.” Free Press. iBooks.

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Rational Delusion

We mortals pride ourselves as rational beings, but we act emotionally. We get attached to previous positions, and will discount or filter evidence rather than change our minds. We read the news for confirmation rather than information.  We are so inundated with information that we rely on emotional instincts to make quick decisions.

Our first instincts are emotional and we tend to then, and only then, rationalize our first decisions. I call this emotional rationalism. Marketers understand this very well.

When you add risk into our thought process we can become even more irrational. Risk is probability plus outrage or fear. Thus the chance of a 911 attack may be small but the outrage of that act may lead us to take extreme measures to prevent such an occurrence from happening again. We spend far more political capital to prevent gun deaths than deaths from swimming pools, which are far more common.

The Age of Reason did not stop wars and hatred; it just changed the institutions that expressed them. Anti-Semitism of the church simply became anti-Semitism in the halls of education and government. Hatred towards those who opposed established faith became even more bitter when it was applied to those who opposed established norms of reason.

Academic credentialism, as distinct from intellectual depth, is not immune to emotional rationalism. Academics will become attached to their theories even when they conflict with the realities of the world they attempt to explain. The world of experience will translate to the world of theory much better than the reverse. Once someone gets a theory in their head it is hard to get them to see the world objectively again.

Thus academics descended on Wall Street with sophisticated models to explain investment behavior. Long Term Capital, a hedge fund from the 1990′s was held in awe because of two PhD Nobel Prize winning economists on its board. Its first few years showed impressive results and helped it attract billions of dollars of capital. But Long Term Capital made bets on Russian bonds and went from a net worth of billions to bankrupt in a matter of a few months. In typical academic fashion the quants explained that the move on Russian bonds was a ’25 standard deviation event’, so far outside the realm of a rational model that it could not be predicted.

A 25 standard deviation event is a way of saying the odds of this were as remote as getting hit by a meteor while playing the back nine at Augusta National. It is another way of saying that no rational person could be expected to have foreseen this. This is what happens when theory trumps experience. Our world is filled with the outcomes of ’25 standard deviation events’.

But these same theories brought down a bigger house of cards only ten years later. Debt pools were assembled that were so complicated that when the underlying assets such as a mass of very crappy mortgages collapsed, the credit markets froze because nobody could figure out what any of these pools were worth. The reason these toxic assets are so hard to clean up is because our brightest accounting and financial minds cannot figure out what they are worth.

We still fail to understand the principles of probability and how our emotions filter and distort our reality. As Nassim Taleb notes in his book by the same name we are “fooled by randomness.”

We can discern the various probabilities of a specific outcome of a roll of a pair of dice, because the universe of outcomes is clearly limited and knowable. The same is true of guessing the chance of any combination of cards from one or multiple decks. Cards and dice are a world on known unknowns.

But making bets on the outcomes in the world of global finance is something wholly different. There is no limit to the combinations and outcome of hundreds of national policies, billions of investors, with millions of financial products, subject to the fears and exuberance brought by wars, inflation, and old fashion human greed. This is the world of infinite possibilities, the world of unknown unknowns. This is a world better served by a philosophical understanding of risk embedded in a world of experience than a delusional faith in theoretical models proposed by credentialed academics.

Yet we have still failed to understand this fundamental reason for our recent credit collapse and we are making the very same mistakes, only this time in the government sector. We still swoon for the sound of intelligence over experience.

A car ‘czar’ brags that he has no experience in the automobile business, but “business is business”. Steve Jobs at Apple was replaced by an executive from the soft drink business; Jobs was brought back- you can now Google the story on your iPhone.

In a subject as massive and as filled with unknown unknowns as global climates we are making bets with familiar delusional certainty and even declaring that the “debate is over”. I may not know which end of the test tube the cork goes into, but I would feel a bit better about reordering our entire economy and social structure based on a fifty year climate prediction if we could predict the weather next week.

Many blame the financial collapse on greed and capitalism, but these flaws have been with us forever.  As Thomas Sowell noted, blaming the financial collapse on greed is like blaming a plane crash on gravity; it is true but not a very useful description.

With some months to now reflect and study the causes of the credit collapse, we cannot hide the central role the government played in the disaster. Had Fannie Mae not guaranteed the crappy mortgages they could not have been assembled into vehicles earning AAA ratings and become acceptable to global investors on such a grand scale. We have been fleeced at the gaming table but the casino owners , the dealers, and the pit boss were all government bureaucrats. They just reserved the high roller tables for Wall Street.

As we watch and hope the government will reform the excess of Wall Street, we should be more concerned who will reform the excesses of government. We should ask how they plan to solve a problem by repeating the very same mistakes that caused it.

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Dershowitz at AIPAC

tips to Bruce Tuchman

“Israel (its medical technology) has saved more Muslim and Arab lives than all the Arab and Muslim nations combined.”

a hell of a speech

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You Broke It, You Own It

The biggest risk the Democrats take on the comprehensive approach to health care is that they will find it much harder to use the health insurance companies as the demon to unite their troops.  They may try to continue to blame others for our health care mess, but now they own the system: it is theirs.

They may have thought the system was broken now, but the majority that disagrees will now blame the Democrats for any hike in cost and drop in service or quality.

Never has such a comprehensive change been undertaken on such a partisan vote. Social Security and Medicare had broad bipartisan support.

Every sharp hike in insurance premiums, every denial of a claim, and every delay in service will be blamed on this bill and the party that pressed it forward. When voters get letters from their doctors about retiring and they are unhappy with their new selection of doctors they will blame this bill.

Certainly they will try to continue to blame the insurance companies for trying to game the system, but the pressure will be on the party that voted for it.   And voters’ ire will not be limited to health care.

If unemployment rises, companies will blame this health care bill. When a factory leaves town for overseas production they will blame this bill. In fact a rise in unemployment will be like a shot of adrenaline to the majority of the voters already hostile to this bill.

No matter whatever factors cause these problems they will blame this bill. No matter how inflated the supporters of this bill feel, the partisan divide will assure that the election will be over this bill.  If the opposition takes back Congress there is little they can do to overturn it unless they can override Obama’s veto, and this is doubtful.

They may be able to keep this campaign tool alive for the November elections, but it may be more difficult to keep it hot until the 2012 presidential race.  A lot can happen to replace it as a headline issue.

But until then health care belongs to them.

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Israel is Not a Ghetto

Some perspectives on the Hillary/ Biden/ Obama smackdown of Israel for building Jewish homes in Jerusalem:

from The Jerusalem Post

Obama has Crossed the Line- by Isi Leibner


The administration “condemns” us for building homes, not in densely Arab populated areas of Jerusalem but in Jewish suburbs like Gilo and most recently Ramat Shlomo which most of us regard as Israel no less than Tel Aviv.

Instead of condemning the brutal Palestinian murderer of an Israeli civilian in December, the US requested “clarification” after Israel apprehended the killers who the PA extolled as heroes. They failed to block a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli police for protecting worshippers at the Temple Mount from Arabs hurling stones at them. They even condemned us for authorizing repairs on Jewish heritage sites over the Green Line.

In stark contrast, the US has not publicly reprimanded the PA on a single issue over the past twelve months. It is unconscionable that neither the White House nor the State Department conveyed a word of protest concerning the ongoing incitement and spate of ceremonies sanctifying the memory of the most degenerate suicide killers and mass murderers. Not even when our peace partners President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad personally partook in these ghoulish ceremonies. In fact, during Biden’s visit, the PA announced that they would postpone a ceremony to name a public square in Ramallah to honor Dalal Mughrabi, the female monster responsible for the abominable 1978 massacre in which 37 Israelis including 13 children were butchered. Nevertheless the ceremony took place and the PA TV interviewed Mughrabi’s sister who stated: “This is a day of glory and pride for the Palestinian people. We must unite, and our rifles must unite, against the enemy who steals our land.” The US failed to register a protest.

NETANYAHU HAS extended more concessions than any other Israeli leader. His government immediately agreed to negotiations with the Palestinians. In contrast, Abbas told The Washington Post that being confident that the US would ensure that the Palestinians obtained whatever they sought, he saw no benefit in negotiating with the Israelis. This scenario is now being realized.

from Amy Goldstein at American Thinker

The Subtext of the Obama- Israel Dispute


Jews are particularly sensitive to attempts to limit their “natural growth” and the area in which they can live. President Obama continues to hit that nerve — whether it is intentional or not.

By trying to limit Jewish residency in Jerusalem, President Obama plays into this de-Judification of Jerusalem and poses a threat to both Judaism and Christianity.

Ramat Shlomo is located between the two sections of Jerusalem that were in Israeli hands when the 1948 ceasefire was signed. It is on the way to Mt. Scopus, which includes Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital. Moreover, if the administration is declaring Ramat Shlomo to be “beyond the Pale” for Jewish settlement — as the Czar once declared Mother Russia off-limits to Jewish settlement and restricted Jews to the Pale of Settlement — then the administration is implying that all Jewish neighborhoods in that area are illegitimate (Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, and others that are integral parts of the city and where tens of thousands of people live). It also is implying that the Jewish people do not have the right to control their holy places in the Old City.