Not sure if this is an economic indicator or something else altogether, but this year I haven’t been able to find any greeting cards for the Jewish Holidays. Did I just start looking too late?
Archive for September, 2008
All of this discussion of judgment versus experience hits me where I live. Like many of y’all here, I wear multiple hats. One of them, by which I make my living, is lawyer. Another, by which I have in the past made a living, and may get back to again, is college English teacher. In both vocations, I deal with multiple levels of certainty and uncertainty.
As a lawyer, I’m always being asked by a client or potential client, “will we win this case?” Sometimes I can say, “Almost certainly, yes. The law is on our side, the facts are on our side, the other side’s case is horsefeathers, and the judge likes me.” More often, I get to say, “What we’re doing isn’t winning or losing, it’s getting you more time to move out of your apartment, and yes, we can certainly do that, because this is Cook County and everything happens slowly.” Or, “No, this is a crapshoot. You have a legal issue that has never been litigated before in this state, and the other states that have ruled on it have gone both ways. I have no idea what the judge is going to do.” Or even, “This argument is almost certainly a dead-bang loser. But making it will get you more time to figure out what you want to do, and to get it done.”
Clients hate these responses. If I’ve worked with a client for a long time, and s/he has had a chance to see the court system in action, s/he will accept my assessment. But the element of uncertainty in the legal system still drives all my clients nuts. I rarely tell my clients the real basic truth of the legal system, which is that no lawyer is any smarter than the stupidest judge, and that I have suffered some of my most ignominious losses when the law was on my side, the facts were on my side, and the other side’s case was horsefeathers. And also that I have sometimes won cases in which the law and the facts were dubious at best, but the judge really disliked the other side’s lawyer.
Many of my colleagues have allowed themselves to become what is known in the trade as “good news lawyers,” lawyers who just say, “of course we’re going to win. I always win.” This is especially useful during the initial consultation, when the potential client is deciding whether or not to retain the lawyer. I often see the former clients of good news lawyers on a second or third consultation, after the good news guys have run into an unavoidable run of bad news and the client has gotten disillusioned. On the other hand, the good news guys often see potential clients I have interviewed, who have decided not to retain me because I can’t tell them what they want to hear. I figure the good news guys and I end up pretty much even, except that I at least have the satisfaction of not having flimflammed my clients.
As an English teacher, on the other hand, I get to speak from a position of absolute certainty. “No, ‘between you and I’ is not and never will be correct English.” “Yes, a 3-point outline will help you organize your thinking so people can understand what you are trying to say.” “Yes, if you write your last paragraph first and your first paragraph last, it will save you a lot of time and trouble.” And so on. Most of my students are okay with this certainty, especially with the helpful hint stuff. Not so much on formal usage, which they tend to think doesn’t matter and isn’t worth the trouble, but since I am the ultimate source of the Almighty Grade which in turn will show up on the Almighty Transcript, they put up with it.
In college, they know they are dealing with a fundamentally arbitrary system, and they put up with it for the sake of getting a degree, getting a job, and maybe even being able to turn the job into a career. In court, on the other hand, at best I have been hired by somebody who feels unable to represent him/herself, but probably wishes s/he could.
I won’t even talk about the levels of uncertainty in the health care system, since there are other people here who could do a much better job of it. I do, however, also teach a course in professional ethics for mental health workers, and I generally tell my students in that course that there are three things a competent professional in any field absolutely has to know: the limits of his or her own knowledge in the field, the limits of knowledge in the field generally, and some other good professionals in the locale to whom a dissatisfied client can be referred. Unfortunately, the President of the United States can’t do a referral.
Maria Montessori says that our problem lies not in understanding what we see, but in seeing what we see. Which, I think, may have had a lot to do with the media responses to the debate last night. The consensus seems to be that both candidates did pretty well—at least a B+–but that there was no decisive Winner.
Mr. Wired thinks they were all missing something important about McCain. As the evening, and the debate, wore on, McCain seemed to become more irritable, more condescending to Obama, and more visibly aging. Mr. Wired saw that in his skin tone, which of course could always have resulted from either bad makeup, bad lighting, or even bad TV transmission. I saw it in his posture; McCain, after all, is an Annapolis grad and career military, so one would expect his posture to be impervious to fatigue. But those shots of him from behind (so as to get shots of Lehrer from the front) seemed to show him getting really hunchbacked.
I think the reason the pundits didn’t see these signs is that they were expecting McCain to do a full-scale meltdown, given his legendary temper. So anything less than that, they just didn’t notice.
Obama did pretty much what everybody expected, for better or for worse. So he got no extra credit for being up on the issues, whereas McCain got extra credit for not melting down. Mr. Wired gives McCain a D and Obama a B. I give McCain a C and Obama a B+.
One of my clients has discovered that her landlord is being foreclosed by Indy Mac. We don’t know for sure if it’s the building she lives in or some other property owned by the same landlord, but it’s interesting, anyway.
Apparently the debate is ON, and so far, the bailout is OFF. We would have preferred the other way round. The monkey wrench in the works is being thrown by House Republicans, who are proposing a rival plan that involves MORE deregulation, and a government-run mortgage insurance program rather than outright cash bailouts. It’s hard to figure out what, if anything, they’re thinking, since they’re all up for re-election this year.
In the meantime, Washington Mutual has crashed and been bought out, under governmental auspices, by Morgan Chase. This is too big an item to qualify for the Bennigan’s Index, but we are personally concerned about it because we bank with Morgan Chase. And the last time the government forced our bank (Chicago’s late lamented Talman Savings and Loan) to buy up some questionable assets, that bank crashed shortly afterwards. Talman was ultimately bought out by LaSalle, which has recently been bought out by Bank of America. I miss Talman, which was a good local citizen and sponsored lots of great musical events.
Also, this is affecting my legal practice. In Chicago, a lot of residential land is held in land trusts, usually with some bank as trustee. When such a bank goes under and/or gets bought out, the trust department usually closes down, and the beneficiaries have to go find some other trustee. The number of possibilities diminishes every year.
OTOH, some years ago, I was handling a decedent’s estate. One of my duties was to consolidate all of the estate’s assets into a single bank account. In this instance, I took a bit too long to do it (that’s easy in probate cases, since one assumes that the decedent won’t get any deader), and by the time I did, all of the banks in which the decedent had accounts had already merged, saving me a great deal of walking around.
Are we facing a future in which America will have one bank, with a very long name and a very short lifespan?
It’s 6:47 PM Central Time as we write, and all three of us and Mr. Wired are totally confused. Is there an agreement on bailing out Wall Street, or not? Is the debate between Obama and McCain on or off for tomorrow night? Was McCain trying to act presidential by suspending his campaign, or just trying to get out of a debate he hadn’t been looking forward to? And if the latter, why wasn’t he looking forward to it, when he actually does pretty well in a debate format?
Of course, what the media have chosen to focus on today is what The Taxpayer thinks of the proposed bailout. So okay, here’s what we think:
- Some kind of bailout is probably essential. We are currently reading a really interesting book about the run-up to the Great Depression, and it makes us nervous.
- But really, what is most necessary at the moment isn’t actual governmental cash on the barrelhead, but a commitment on the part of the US government to stand behind the companies holding bad mortgage assets.
- So why can’t Bush make the commitment right now, and in the process also commit to spending the next 6 months or so working out the best possible format for the bailout?
- Are we mad? You bet. As usual, the Big Guys throw the party and we get stuck with the cleanup and the hangover. But to a certain extent, that’s unavoidable. None of these Big Guys will spend tomorrow night at the Salvation Army, because they’re too important for that. We could live with that.
- What we can’t live with is Bush’s mad panic to do something, anything, now. That’s how we got hustled into Iraq. This time, let’s get everybody working on this issue. It would be really tempting to get Wikipedia on board. They apparently already have a piece on “bailouts.” Why not let them gather information on how to do a bailout?
What we really need in government right now isn’t a Minuteman. It’s a Wait-a-Minute-Man, somebody to say that the one thing worse than not acting fast enough is acting too fast.
As for the debate, it would be interesting for Obama to have the podium to himself tomorrow night. But could he really use all that television time effectively, without boring the American public to death? Would it be better for him to invite a McCain surrogate to argue the other side? And if so, who? Chris Buckley would be fun. His father, may he rest in peace, would have been a total blast. We welcome other suggestions.
The Wired Sisters
Some of you may be aware that the Chicago Cubs clinched the National League Central Division title this weekend. Our office secretary, who is a passionate fan, had been hoping that the victory would be followed immediately, on Saturday afternoon, by a thousand kiosks blooming and selling Cubs stuff, so she could buy a T-shirt. But she saw no kiosks or T-shirts on Saturday, or even Sunday. This is definitely not what happened the last time the Cubs won anything significant, so she sees this as a Bad Sign for the economy. However, this morning, the 7-11 nearest our office did have some Cubs T-shirts on sale, so maybe this isn’t as bad as it looked initially.
Mr. Wired has discovered a whole new class of numbers. Each of them is divisible only by itself, the number one, or the current balance on your mortgage. They’re called, of course, subprime numbers.
I’m starting a new business index. It’s more immediate and ponderable than the Dow Jones or the S & P. Every month, I will track the closing of businesses in my ordinary path of travel through a normal month. Okay, so far this month, the Bennigan’s on the corner of Adams and Michigan (and, in fact, Bennigan’s in general, I think) just closed. Also the Baker’s Square on Roosevelt Road in Lombard, which I always pass en route to the DuPage courts. Feel free to add your own notations in the combox. I no longer trust the WSJ to keep accurate figures. Let’s do our own tracking.
1. As the Points Spread
Just heard NPR’s sports commentator, the only person I will listen to on that subject, inveighing on corruption in professional tennis, which is apparently rife but totally closeted. For some reason, this short-circuited my brain into what my dear friend Tim Preston, may he rest in peace, would have called an apostrophe. What is really going on in the presidential campaigns, and probably has for the last two or three elections at least, is that the opinion polls are rigged. This is a lot easier, and cheaper, than rigging the entire electoral system of the US. Pollsters work for private organizations, most of them publicly traded corporations responsible only to their shareholders. Certainly not to the people of the United States.
Somebody out there is betting on the point spread, and wants it as narrow as possible. So, right after the Democratic convention, the pollsters told us that Obama was way out ahead. Now, they tell us, just as in 2004, and 2000, the candidates are neck and neck. And the reason the hustlers want the point spread as narrow as possible is that a close election is easy to steal, with minimum expenditure of cash and energy. Repeat after me: nobody steals a landslide. If the voters keep being told that they are more or less evenly divided, they will come to believe it. And their voting patterns will then turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that close division will then turn the election into a victory for whoever is the most competent thief.
2. Community and the Free Market
A public housing project in Chicago is running into some interesting times. It’s called LeClaire Courts, and its legal structure is unusually complex. Half of it is plain old vanilla public housing, run by the Chicago Housing Authority. But the other half is a Section 8 project, funded by federal vouchers directed to the individual resident households. Regardless of legal structure, its physical structure is a mess, and CHA (which administers both halves) says it has no money for repairs and rehab. Instead, they want to close down both halves. This would entail moving the public housing residents into the admittedly shrinking number of other public housing projects in the city. Most of the residents involved are okay with this, hoping that wherever they end up will be in better shape than LeClaire Courts, or at any rate, no worse.
The real problem is with the Section 8 half of the project. CHA is proposing to simply give the Section 8 residents their own vouchers and turn them loose in the private housing market like most other Section 8 voucher holders. And this is a problem for those residents, because many of them want to move into another Section 8 project together. That is to say, they have actually managed, under seriously adverse circumstances, to create a community in their project, and they want to preserve it.
This is a problem, first of all, from the purely practical point of view, because the private housing market into which these residents are being thrown doesn’t support communities of people who want to move together. Indeed, it has problems even supporting extended families or unusually large nuclear families. There are very few affordable apartments in the private market with three or more bedrooms, which is what most child welfare agencies require as a bare minimum for families with more than two children of different sexes (one for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the parent/s.) Trying to locate an entire building in which multiple families can live together (no idea how many, the local news sources don’t say) is just plain impossible. The private housing market presumes that people move into and out of one apartment at a time, and the possibility of an entire building’s worth of apartments falling vacant at once is just plain unimaginable (unless of course the whole building is such a mess that nobody at all would want to live in it, in any kind of grouping.)
But, from the social point of view (I think the official word these days would be “societal,” but I refuse to use an unnecessarily manufactured word when we already have a perfectly good one) there is also a question of whether we should encourage these particular people to maintain their community at all, wherever they may have to relocate it. We tend to presume that, if there is such a thing as a community in public housing these days, it is a pathological and criminal one, and should be broken up as quickly as possible, or at least allowed to break itself up under the pressure of market forces. The news stories on LeClaire Courts don’t talk about this at all. From what I personally have seen of public housing during my years at Juvenile Court, I don’t necessarily boggle at a community of decent people living in Section 8 project housing and wanting to stay together. I do not see public housing residents as a bunch of criminal ne’er-do-wells. But on the other hand, a lot of them do have family members connected with gangs, and maybe that kind of conglomeration should be broken up. This deserves more thought.
3. Cosmetics and Livestock
Nobody listens to what people say any more. I once threw a roomful of intelligent, educated people into a tizzy by telling them that 2+2 was less than five. What Obama actually meant when he made his famous remark about putting lipstick on a pig, which would nonetheless still be a pig, was of course that the lipstick wouldn’t make it a sow. He was denouncing cross-dressing, a position with which McCain shouldn’t have any problem at all. Geeze, pay attention, John.