Communion Of Dreams

TSA: Defining 1% as success.
November 18, 2008, 10:33 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Constitution, Daily Kos, Failure, Government, Politics, Privacy, Society, Terrorism, Travel

Vice President Dick Cheney is reported to have set forth the “One Percent Doctrine” following the 9-11 attacks.  The basic premise is that if there is just 1% chance that an enemy is planning a serious terrorist attack, we have to treat it as though it were a certainty, and respond accordingly.

So, I suppose it really is no surprise that all the absurdity of “behaviour detection” that the TSA employs at airports leads to just a 1% arrest rate, and that they proclaim this as “”incredibly effective.”  No, seriously:

TSA’s ‘behavior detection’ leads to few arrests

WASHINGTON — Fewer than 1% of airline passengers singled out at airports for suspicious behavior are arrested, Transportation Security Administration figures show, raising complaints that too many innocent people are stopped.

A TSA program launched in early 2006 that looks for terrorists using a controversial surveillance method has led to more than 160,000 people in airports receiving scrutiny, such as a pat-down search or a brief interview. That has resulted in 1,266 arrests, often on charges of carrying drugs or fake IDs, the TSA said.

* * *

TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said the program has been “incredibly effective” at catching criminals at airports. “It definitely gets at things that other layers of security might miss,” Howe said.

Sure it does.  Because people who are carrying drugs or using a fake ID are really the terrorist threat that you say you are protecting us from. And to achieve that, they had to have over 99% false positives.

It’s just more Security Theater, of course: the illusion of ‘doing something’, not any kind of practical prevention.  I’ve written about this often, and in looking back through those posts it is clear that the real effect of this whole bureaucracy is to make us more and more inured to the systematic destruction of any sense of privacy at the hands of our government.  As I wrote just over a year ago:

Over the weekend, news came out of yet another “Trust us, we’re the government” debacle, this time in the form of the principal deputy director of national intelligence saying that Americans have to give up on the idea that they have any expectation of privacy. Rather, he said, we should simply trust the government to properly safeguard the communications and financial information that they gather about us. No, I am not making this up. From the NYT:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, told attendees of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s symposium in Dallas.

Little wonder that they’re happy to define 1% as “success” – it gets them exactly what they want.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI and Daily Kos.)

Extinction in the news.

Yeah, I know I said I’d try and get a nice cheery travelogue up next.  Oh well. This has more relevance to Communion of Dreams, which is ostensibly the focus for this blog, anyway, right?

Right.  So, here: seems that researchers have for the first time clearly determined the extinction of a mammal to have been caused by disease.

In 1899, an English ship stopped at Christmas Island, near Australia. Within nine years, the island’s entire native rat population had gone extinct, and scientists have wondered ever since what exactly happened.Now, researchers led by an Old Dominion University scientist think they have unraveled the mystery – and, they say, the lessons of Christmas Island apply today to issues such as disease, invasive species and the law of unintended consequenceTurns out, says ODU biology professor Alex Greenwood, that a British black rat had stowed away on the ship in a bale of hay. Upon reaching the island, the rat – or several rats – escaped on land and spread a “hyperdisease” among the native population.

“Anyone who has ever tried to kill a rat – let alone a whole population – knows how hard that can be,” Greenwood said in an interview Monday. “That’s what made Christmas Island so fascinating for so long. Imagine, a whole species – especially one as tough as a rat – gone within 10 years of exposure!”

OK, for those of us who are non-biologists, this may be something of a surprise: why wouldn’t extinction occur due to disease?  But the prevailing theory has long been that it was virtually impossible that a disease would wipe out all members of a species – and that any survivors would pass on their immunity to their descendants, thus continuing the Darwinian arms race.  To determine that this has happened – and to a robust and fast-reproducing species such as a rat – is real news.

Which touches on an older item I came across recently:

Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction
Jason G. Matheny

Abstract: In this century a number of events could extinguish humanity. The probability of these events may be very low, but the expected value of preventing them could be high, as it represents the value of all future human lives. We review the challenges to studying human extinction risks and, by way of example, estimate the cost effectiveness of preventing extinction-level asteroid impacts.

* * *

3. Estimating the Near-Term Probability of Extinction

It is possible for humanity (or its descendents) to survive a million years or more, but we could succumb to extinction as soon as this century. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President Kennedy estimated the probability of a nuclear holocaust as “somewhere between one out of three and even” (Kennedy, 1969, p. 110). John von Neumann, as Chairman of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee, predicted that it was “absolutely certain (1) that there would be a nuclear war; and (2) that everyone would die in it” (Leslie, 1996, p. 26).

More recent predictions of human extinction are little more optimistic. In their catalogs of extinction risks, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees (2003), gives humanity 50-50 odds on surviving the 21st century; philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it would be “misguided” to assume that the probability of extinction is less than 25%; and philosopher John Leslie (1996) assigns a 30% probability to extinction during the next five centuries. The “Stern Review” for the U.K. Treasury (2006) assumes that the probability of human extinction during the next century is 10%. And some explanations of the “Fermi Paradox” imply a high probability (close to100%)of extinction among technological civilizations (Pisani, 2006).4

I haven’t spent the time to look up the entire paper and read it, though I have followed this topic in the (popular) scientific news for most of my adult life. It is, in fact, one of the reasons why I decided to write Communion of Dreams – to explore the idea of humanity on the brink of extinction (as well as to examine Fermi’s Paradox, as I have written about previously).  Just as most people seem to prefer ignoring their own mortality, we as a species seem to prefer ignoring the possibility of our own extinction.  Even the vast majority of Science Fiction (including my own) written with humankind facing the possibility of extinction is resolved with some kind of salvation – it’d just be too bleak for most readers, otherwise.

And that doesn’t sell.

Jim Downey

If you want another insight . . .
November 16, 2008, 8:43 am
Filed under: Emergency, Failure, General Musings, Government, Politics, Predictions, Preparedness, Society

I have a friend who complains that when he goes to check his usual blogs on Monday mornings, he has to brace himself about the bad economic news I’ve written about on Sunday.  I hadn’t really realized that I had this weekly schedule, but what the hell. In that spirit, if you want another insight into just how f*cked-up the Wall Street financial crisis really is, spend some time with a long piece by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker. Here’s an excerpt from The End:

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

He’s talking about his experience on Wall Street over 20 years ago.

It’s long.  It’s fairly dense in places.  But it does a phenomenal job of explaining how we got to the point we have, and how the situation is actually much more grim than most people realize.

OK, I’ll try and post a nice cheery travelogue later.

Jim Downey

Paging Through History’s Beautiful Science.
November 15, 2008, 2:01 pm
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, NPR, NYT, Publishing, Science

If you would like a small insight into why I love doing what I do for a living, be sure to check out this delightful feature which was on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning:

Paging Through History’s Beautiful Science

Listen Now [6 min 13 sec]

What makes something beautiful?

Is it exquisite colors? Elegant form or striking style? Or can something be beautiful simply for the ideas it contains?

The answer to that last question is a resounding “yes,” according Dan Lewis, Dibner senior curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. He’s the man responsible for a new exhibition at the library called “Beautiful Science: Ideas That Changed the World.”

* * *

The exhibition focuses on four areas of science: astronomy, natural history, medicine and light. Some of the books featured are Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the book where Newton codified the laws of motion and gravity; Nicolaus Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, the description of a solar system which had the sun, not the Earth, at its center; and Petrus Apianus’ Astronomicum Caesarium, a collection of strikingly beautiful, hand-illustrated star charts published in 1540.

And be sure to take a few minutes to listen to the audio link embedded there, where you will hear this comment from Lewis:

That’s probably the question I get asked the most: ‘why aren’t you wearing gloves?’ People will gasp audibly when they see that I am handling this stuff. We found that the lack of sensitivity you suddenly get when you’re wearing gloves is is far worse than anything you might have on your hands. Well, almost anything you might have on your hands. It’s always my premise that rare book librarians and archivists and doctors are the people who wash their hands more than anyone else.

I love it. I get this question/response from people all the time. They assume that I must always wear gloves when working on books – and this is exactly what I tell them. I lose count how many times a day I will wash my hands – it’s just automatic that I do so after this or that operation, or between handling books, and certainly after I have eaten or touched any food. It’s not a compulsion, just a job requirement.

Anyway, check out the story, and be sure to look at the different images/multi-media components, as well.  Some great stuff there – the sort of things I get to work on and handle regularly!

11/17 UPDATE:  Thanks to Lisa, here’s a link to an article from the NYT recently, on the same topic:
Handle This Book!

Jim Downey

It comes as no surprise.
November 14, 2008, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Failure, Government, Marketing, Society

It looks as though there will indeed be some manner of bailout/loan package for the “Big Three” automakers, now that the Bush administration is joining the cries from Democrats.  And I’m really not sure how I feel about that, since there are good arguments pro and con, and given the mountains of money we are already throwing at the financial industry why the hell shouldn’t we also help out people who actually make something real?

But it comes as no surprise to me that the automakers are hurting.  Sure, there’s the well understood economic forces at work – the ‘legacy health costs’, the lack of financing availability, the volatility of the cost of gas – but there is something else, too: buying a car is a major pain in the ass.

Yeah, I know, everybody knows this.  Everybody has written about it.  The lack of popularity of car salesmen is a cliche.  But that’s exactly my point – it has been like this forever, and there has been no real effort to make any changes in the system.  That, right there, tells you that there is something fundamentally wrong with the entire industry.

A case in point.  A couple of weeks ago a friend decided that the time had come to get a new car.  That with the economy being the way it is, she’d be able to get a decent deal.  She did her homework, knew what was the fair market value of the model she wanted, and that there were models with the options she wanted, and in the color that she wanted, in our vicinity.

So she called the local dealership.  Said she wanted thus & such car, and that she knew five specific versions of that car was available in the surrounding area.  “Yup, we can get that,” said the dealership, “here’s what it will cost.  Financing will be zero percent, keeping with our current promotion.”

“Let me think about it,” said my friend.  She did, ran the numbers, everything looked good.  Not great, but the price was fair.  She called the dealership back.  “I’ll come in tomorrow (Wednesday) on my way to work, and we’ll take care of the paperwork.”

She was assured that everything would be ready, wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.

OK, now, complete the story.  No, no, go ahead – tell yourself what happened.  Got it?

And that’s my point.  You *know* what happens next.  My friend went in at the appointed time.  Of course, there “was a problem.”  The “sales manager said we can’t do that price with 0%.”

“What if I just write you a check for the car?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“What would the price be if I just wrote you a check for the car I want, right now?”  (My friend was dead serious about this.)

Salesman goes off to confer with his manager.  Comes back.  “Well, the car you want . . . ”

Go ahead, finish the sentence.  Yeah: “. . . isn’t here on the lot, so we’d have to have it brought in, and there’ll be transport charges, and the other dealership will need something for their trouble, so . . .”

“Wait.  We had an agreement on the price of the car.  I just wanted to know what the taxes and whatnot on it would add, so I could write the check.”

“But we can’t sell it to you for that.”

My friend got up, walked out.  Within an hour she had an agreement from a dealer in a neighboring state for the car she wanted, at a specific price.  The manufacturer’s website showed the car in their inventory, so there’d be no problem.  They’d hold it for her to come pick up on Saturday.

She and her husband drove up Friday night, stayed with friends in the area.  Saturday, they went over to the dealership.

Yeah, you guessed it: Much the same initial song and dance.

Yes, my friend did come home with the car, after telling them that she had left one dealer’s showroom when they tried to pull this crap, and she was perfectly ready to do so again.  But it is simply ridiculous that she had to do so.

And yet, this story (all of it true), comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has had to go through the hassle of buying a car anytime in the last four decades.  Maybe longer – I’m only aware of it that far back.  Even people who live here and who have never bought a car from a dealership know to expect this kind of bullshit.  It is absurd.

Now, you can say that such a system continues to exist because the profit derived from it for dealers is great enough to overcome the alienation that buyers feel.  And besides, everyone else does the same thing.  I’ll say instead that this system is proof that car makers in the US do not care about consumers, and are just looking for a way to screw them over at each and every opportunity.

And there’s a big part of me that says payback is a real bitch.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

Something to smile about.
November 14, 2008, 7:37 am
Filed under: Humor, YouTube

Got my hands full today with a number of other things I need to do, so I won’t get around to posting about several things I’ve been thinking about.  For now, here’s a little something to smile about:

More later –

Jim Downey

Another prediction win! Well, sorta.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

In Communion of Dreams, there comes a point where the A.I. Seth is tasked with doing some research – checking the various discussion forums and public communications about whether a given topic seems to be gaining in attention.  My thought in doing this was that the topic in question would manifest itself in such discussions in a statistically significant way, showing that something was happening below the threshold of conventional news sources.

Well, guess what – something very much like this is now being done by Google, in order to predict the spread of flu.  Yup, Google Flu Trends.  From their “How does this work?

How does this work?

We’ve found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in your state up to two weeks faster than traditional flu surveillance systems.

Each week, millions of users around the world search for online health information. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. You can explore all of these phenomena using Google Trends. But can search query trends provide an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena?

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together. We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discovered that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.

OK, not *exactly* the same thing – but pretty damned close. I’d like to think that someone over at Google read Communion and got this idea, but the fact of the matter is that they were probably working on it well before my book was available. Still, interesting.

Oh, and this is another argument for the proposition that the Google search engine is an actual Artificial Intelligence, just in its early form, as I have discussed previously.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

A couple of updates.
November 11, 2008, 9:39 am
Filed under: Ballistics, Feedback

Firstly, the alpha test site for Ballistics by the inch I mentioned the other day has some additional components now complete.  Specifically, the link to the photo set under DOCUMENTATION is now good, as is the link to the .pdf of all the email exchanges which led to the test.  Thanks to everyone who has provided feedback about the site so far – and for those who haven’t done so, please feel free to poke around and either send me an email or leave a comment about your thoughts.

Next, some numbers, just because I got to wondering.  We’re now solidly over 12,000 downloads (it’s about 12,300) of Communion of Dreams to date.  Just under half of that number were downloaded this year.  There have been ups and downs in the number of downloads from week to week and month to month, but it has stayed remarkably consistent – in the 500-600 per month range, with little evidence of dropping off.  I find this interesting, and more than a little encouraging – thanks to all who have helped to spread the word about the book!

So, maybe another travelogue later –

Jim Downey

Jim Downey and the Federation of Silver.
November 10, 2008, 10:21 pm
Filed under: Argentina, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia, Travel

Part Five: OK, this is what I came for!

After spending the bulk of Saturday sitting in the hotel pub, sipping beer, making notes, doing a bit of quiet reading, things got busy.

That evening, the choir was giving a performance at one of the Catholic churches in downtown Buenos Aires, in honor of Dr. Edgar John Hughes, the British Ambassador to Argentina, who happens to be Welsh.  They all left for the rehearsal at the church about 4:00, the rest of us following at 6:30.  Of course, this being Argentina, nothing started on time – the concert got going about 8:30, and was quite enjoyable.  Following the performance, there was a brief reception, and then we went back to the hotel, arriving about 10:30.  Not too bad, right?

Well, except that we’d not had dinner.  Remember, no one eats dinner until starting about 9:00.

Not such a problem, eh?  I mean, plenty of restaurants were open, this was Saturday night in downtown Buenos Aires – the night was just starting!

Er, except that we had to be up at 3:30, in order to make our flight out of the Buenos Aires domestic airport, to Bariloche.

No, I am not kidding.  Well, actually, I am a bit.  See, Buenos Aires was changing over to Daylight Savings time, so the clocks had to be set forward Saturday night.  We needed to be up by 4:30 in order to make our flight.  Except that was 3:30.  And the place where we were going – San Carlos de Bariloche – was not going to change.  So, as far as our bodies, and the rest of the schedule, was concerned, we had to be up at 3:30.  Yeah, it was built into our schedule that we would have a maximum of five hours sleep.

I’d still like to find out what idiot came up with this idea.  I blame ‘Ferguson’.

And of course, that five hours maximum was really not possible.  Because we had to repack our bags before getting to bed.  And that, after persuading the hotel bar staff to come up with some sandwiches before we crashed.

Why not pack our bags earlier?  Good question.  Because there was a 15 kilo weight limit for the domestic airline.  So Alix and I had scaled back what we brought on the trip, by a considerable amount.  This was not a bad thing, overall, except that it necessitated packing in a certain way.  Specifically, in a way which required the more formal clothing we wore to the concert to go into the bags *first*.

Ah, well.  We survived.  Got something to eat – basically, I ordered the sandwiches as soon as I walked in the door, and then the check as soon as they were brought – and then got packed and crashed.  Up ungodly early, had a light breakfast (rolls, coffee, juice) in the hotel lobby, then climbed on the bus for the airport.

The domestic airport in Buenos Aires is as nice as any airport I’ve been to in the States.  Security was somewhat casual, but still substantial.  Got our bags checked, then up to wait for the plane.  And of course it was late – we could have easily slept in at least another hour, and still had plenty of time to spare.  The flight was two hours, with another light breakfast en route, along with the sort of absurd officiousness to be found among airline crew everywhere.

We landed in Bariloche, at a small airport about the size of the one here in Columbia.  In other words, getting off the plane, collecting our bags, getting out took no time to speak of.  Cold there – with mountains in the not-too-far distance!  Ferguson kept telling people mixed up and confusing things, but we got into buses OK, then set out for a bit of a tour of the area around Bariloche – effectively, a tour of Nahuel Huapi National Park.

It was absolutely gorgeous!  Simply stunning.  Early spring, into the mountains.  Take a look at the images on the Bariloche tourism site, but keep in mind that they are no better at capturing the beauty of these mountains than any photos of mountains anywhere are.  I was reminded more of the Swiss Alps than the Rocky Mountains, if that helps.  And it is little wonder that the area was largely settled by Germans/Swiss and Italians.  Which shows very much in the style of the architecture and in the culture of the town. We stopped at several junctures, just to get out and enjoy the view.  I was hooked – this is what lured me on the trip to start with!

The local guide for our bus, Frederico, was very knowledeable about not just the culture of the area, but also of the local geography.  Young, smart, relaxed, and with a much better command of English than Ferguson, it was a real pleasure to listen to him as we toured the countryside.  I would have loved to have traded him for Ferguson for the rest of the trip, but my karma is not that clean.

Finally, mid afternoon we rolled back into Bariloche proper, and went to the hotel.  (Whose website is yet another example of the god-awful preference they have for flash-design in Argentina!  Gah!!  Particularly given the poor condition overall of the internet infrastructure down there, especially outside of Buenos Aires, you’d think they wouldn’t want to run such a bandwidth-heavy design.  Makes me crazy.)  It was a complete debacle at the hotel, trying to get checked in and getting to our rooms.  Oh, the hotel staff was friendly and helpful enough, but it was like they were totally unprepared for the mass of us to arrive there, and good ol’ Ferguson just kept confusing everyone by standing up and loundly trying to ‘clarify’ things.  Madness.

Eventually, we got into our rooms.  Tired, hungry, we went out to seek something resembling a decent meal.  Turns out, this was the day that Argentina celebrates “Mother’s Day”.  Meaning that every restaurant had done a huge business for the normal lunch crowd, and we were arriving at the tail end of that.  But Alix and I were able to join another couple on the tour for a pleasant meal at the Familia Weiss – something of a local institution specializing in smoked meats, wild game, and handmade pastas.  I ordered some wild pork – which arrived as four large medallians, thick and juicy, and absolutely delicious – and easily more meat than I would normally eat in a week at home.  I think that it was at this point in the tour that I made the conscious decision to scale back radically on how much I was eating – in an effort to enjoy everything, I was over indulging.

It was also here that I discovered that there was a handcrafted – the Argentines translate it as “homemade” – label of the national beer Quilmes called “Patagonia Amber Lager” which is excellent.  Much like any decent microbrew amber ale you’d find here in the States.  And comes in a nice quart-sized bottle.  Yum.  That helped moderate my tiredness and aggravation at having to listen to Ferguson back at the hotel.

Following our leisurely meal, we wandered back to the hotel in the rain.  Got settled in.  Napped.  Alix went down for a social function with everyone in the lobby, but I decided that I was full enough, and tired enough, to just stay and snooze.  It was also evident at this point that I had the beginnings of a cold.  Ah, well, to be expected, I suppose.

Jim Downey

Wait, did I say “trillions?”
November 10, 2008, 9:12 am
Filed under: Emergency, Failure, General Musings, Government, Politics, Predictions, Preparedness, Society

Why, yes I did!

OK, this is basically S&L Crisis, Part II: Revenge of the Greedoids. You, and me, and every other US taxpayer are now on the hook for trillions of dollars of bailout money. Why? Deregulation and unwise real estate lending.

That was Sept. 7. And someone in the comments at UTI called me on it, saying that I was grossly overstating the case.


$2 Trillion

Total Fed lending topped $2 trillion for the first time last week and has risen by 140 percent, or $1.172 trillion, in the seven weeks since Fed governors relaxed the collateral standards on Sept. 14. The difference includes a $788 billion increase in loans to banks through the Fed and $474 billion in other lending, mostly through the central bank’s purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds.

OK, I’m not just posting this because I want to say “I told you so.” Rather, take a look at this opening passage from a long piece in today’s Washington Post:

The financial world was fixated on Capitol Hill as Congress battled over the Bush administration’s request for a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry. In the midst of this late-September drama, the Treasury Department issued a five-sentence notice that attracted almost no public attention.

But corporate tax lawyers quickly realized the enormous implications of the document: Administration officials had just given American banks a windfall of as much as $140 billion.

The sweeping change to two decades of tax policy escaped the notice of lawmakers for several days, as they remained consumed with the controversial bailout bill. When they found out, some legislators were furious. Some congressional staff members have privately concluded that the notice was illegal. But they have worried that saying so publicly could unravel several recent bank mergers made possible by the change and send the economy into an even deeper tailspin.

“Did the Treasury Department have the authority to do this? I think almost every tax expert would agree that the answer is no,” said George K. Yin, the former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional authority on taxes. “They basically repealed a 22-year-old law that Congress passed as a backdoor way of providing aid to banks.”

OK, it’s a long piece, so let me summarize: This provision of the tax law limited tax shelters which would arise during a merger of large banks. For over two decades conservative economists and lobbyists for the banks wanted to repeal this law, which would make mergers more attractive (and thereby push consolidation of the banking/financial industry). But Congress – even a number of Republican stalwarts such as Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa – refused to budge on this. So, under cover of the financial crisis, Sec. Paulson just got rid of it by fiat – had it murdered quietly in the night. The result was to make a number of the mergers which occurred in September and October more likely, because the tax liabilities for the resulting larger banks would be much smaller.

This may have actually been a good move in terms of helping to save the financial industry, but it was very bad governance. And that gets me to the point of this post: when I said that the US taxpayer was on the hook for trillions of dollars of our tax money, I was saying so because I understood all too well the prevailing attitude of the Bush administration: “Ignore the law. Trust us, we know what is best. And yes, you will pay for it, whether you like it or not.”

When we have seen the actions and behaviour of the Bush administration in action for almost 8 years, it was fairly easy to conclude that they would use the panic in the financial markets to do just whatever the hell they wanted, and that the initial sums being talked about were likely just the tip of the spear about to skewer the American taxpayer. As I said, these actions may actually have been the right ones – when you come across a car crash, you don’t worry about breaking into someone’s vehicle, you just get the people away from the burning car. But given the ineptitude and crass violation of law demonstrated by the current administration, it was also fairly easy to predict that even if they got through the crisis there would be all kinds of extraneous extra-legal stuff happening to further their own goals and please their friends.

Damn, sometimes I just hate being right.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)