What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Big Short

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If you look at the tumultuous decade at the beginning of this century, a number of very notable events stand out.  September 11th, 2001 certainly rises above the rest as the defining moment of the decade.  With it stand the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Bush’s election in 2000 and Obama’s in 2008 are certainly notable.  Then sometime in the Fall of 2007 or Winter of 2008 Wall Street investors stopped buying Subprime Mortgage Backed CDO’s.  The trillion dollar market entirely disappeared.  .  .and for months nobody admitted it.  The bankers behind the CDO’s covered it all up, still valuing their CDOs as if people were buying them but in September of 2008 5 trillion dollars disappeared out of the US GDP in a single week and suddenly everybody knew.

Since then several politicians, bankers, investors, reporters, authors and even Hollywood studios have tried to explain to the average U.S. citizen what went wrong.  What happened was so incredibly complex that your average voter with an undergrad degree in Art History will never take the time to understand it and your average banker still is not able to understand it.

Michael Lewis offers one of the most successful explanations in the “Big Short.”  He tells the story of the 2008 collapse through the real stories of four investment firms who made billions in 2007 and 2008 because they knew what was happening and shorted the whole market.

The producer of “Anchorman” (yes, the Anchorman starring Will Ferrell) picked up the book and turned it into a movie which came out last year.  My wife rented the movie and we watched it last week and after viewing the film I just had to read the book.  It was one of those rare cases where I was delighted to watch the movie first because there is no way I would have followed the book without picturing Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt as their various characters.

Both the book and movie are a must read and a must watch, albeit for adult audiences.  There is a high amount of language and a bit of nudity.  To be honest, I was okay with the language because after studying the factors behind the 2008 recession I want to spew profanity too!

Click to buy!

In that vein, both the book and the movie start out as comedies.  The four heads of the investment firms can be pulled from the stereotypes of your average CBS lineup.  Michael Burry, who was the first to discover the absurdity behind the subprime mortgage market has Asberger’s and doesn’t understand sarcasm, which means everyone thinks he is a sarcastic jerk.  He wears shorts and baggie T-shirts and listens to heavy metal music while trading and absolutely hates people.

Steve Eisman is a very blunt, very rude, prone to anger banker whom you either love or hate.  At one point right before the crash he was attending a conference workshop where he jumped up in the middle of the presentation and accused the presenter of being stupid.  In the middle of his tirade his cell phone started ringing, to which he yelled, “I have to go take this call.  It’s my wife!” and stormed out of the room.

Greg Lippman is a conman’s conman.  He is totally honest by being ridiculously smarmy.  He plants ideas in your head by using the form, “I’m not saying you’ll make so much money you’ll be sleeping with Penelope Cruz but.  .  .”  Steve Eisman’s employees hated Greg but Eisman loved him because, “his self interest is so obvious.  I respect that about him.”

There was also two college grads who started trading out of their neighbor’s shed and took 110,000 to millions with the help of an apocalyptic, doomsday forecasting banker who not only foresaw the 2008 economic collapse but the as yet not happened collapse of San Francisco bay into the Pacific Ocean.  “I have to hang up now.  I just realized I need to sell my house.”  And he did and they didn’t hear back from him for 3 months, after he had moved further inland.

Along the way they met strippers with 5 subprime mortgages, a nanny who owned a 750,000 home, and the chief investor of Goldman Sachs who was participating in a debate with Steve Eisman arguing that his Goldman’s stock was sound while the stock plummeted to $2 a share.  One brave college kid asked him, “Would you still invest in Goldman’s stock now that it has halved in the time you were speaking.”  The investor had zero idea it was happening because he had turned his phone off.  When he said, “of course” the audience booed him and stormed out of the room.  The only person left was Alan Greenspan who was scheduled to be the next speaker.

That was the only problem with the “Big Short.”  I felt like I was reading a fantastically well done novel only to research various tidbits and find out all this stuff did actually happen.  Our world is so much more absurd than you can ever imagine.

Even the short traders, Eisman’s clan in particular, always assumed there was someone sitting atop the pile of corruption who knew what they were doing.  They really believed there was a moral voice at the top governing the whole thing and when that person emerged , they would lose all their money but the U.S. economy would win.  So far that person has not materialized and the U.S. economy is still losing.

Michael Lewis, the author, records that they all knew Wall Street was corrupt.  It was when they realized Wall Street was also stupid that they decided to short the whole market.

As the book and movie end, comedy turns to tragedy and the absurd becomes aggravating instead of entertaining.  After all, nothing has changed since 2008.  The government bailed out Wall Street with zero stipulations or demands for change.  The banks who were given the billions of taxpayer and Chinese dollars used no small amount of that money to hire lobbyists and invest in political campaigns that would maintain the status quo.  Yes, your read that right.  They are using our taxpayer dollars and nations ballooning debt to pay politicians to continue to empower their corrupt stupidity.

And Bernie Sanders, one of only two national politicians who seems to care about this (the other being Elizabeth Warren) just lost the primary to an opponent who gives speeches to Goldman Sachs for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I don’t know what to do about all of this as I sit here alone in my kitchen taking a break from writing a sermon on Joel.  I do know the prophet Joel’s repeated calls for us as a society to “lament” and to “mourn” are certainly resonating.  I am not so much angry as I am sad because in the words of the movie version of Steve Eisman:

“We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me ins’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”

 

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When Coin Flips Decide Presidents: Something’s Gone Wrong with Democracy

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I am not going to lie, I have spent a crazy amount of time over the last six months reading politics in preparation for Iowa.  And last night did not disappoint!  In fact, whether you hated or loved the results, you have to admit that Iowa is fascinating.  By law they get to have the very first turn at picking the President, but only because they caucus.  The candidates have to campaign in Iowa in very unique ways.  They have to go door to door like your average county commissioner.  They have to pretend to like ethanol and to talk to Jesus on a regular basis.  They have to open booths at county fairs right next to the free donkey rides and they have to shake hands outside of pizzerias.  It is a lot of fun to watch.

They do this all summer and autumn until it all culminates in one night where hundreds of local communities get together and try to decide which candidate to support.  I loved every minute of following Iowa these last few months, right up through the results last night.

Then I woke up this morning with a nasty hangover whose primary symptom was cynicism.  There was something wrong and fishy about this whole thing and I am not sure I like it.

First of all Iowa’s population is 3 million.  3 million people is actually less than %1 of the US population.  More than that, only a bit more than 300,000 people actually went to the caucuses last night.  That is about 10 percent of Iowa.  So we are letting 1/10th of 1% of our population have an incredible amount of say in how the nomination battles take place.  That makes me a little uncomfortable but I still understand that someone has to go first.  Might as well be Iowa.

But then another story broke.  Hillary only “won” the caucuses because of six coin tosses in six different places.  It seems that the caucus model doesn’t leave room for ties, so the local commissioners had to figure out a way to break it.  And what better than a coin flip?  This wouldn’t have been a story if the election had not been close.  If it had been a landslide, we would all be rolling our eyes at the silly Iowan hicks who flip coins.  But the election was a tie and six coins gave Clinton the “lead.”  So now those coins are headlines as is her incredibly arrogant press release at 3am this morning before the official results were in.

Some are using the coins to critique the caucus system.  Some are using it to critique Iowa’s over inflated importance.  And still others are using it to say something more critical and profound about the state of our democracy.  I am in that last group.

Because this whole thing disturbs me.

The caucuses are not to blame.  They are closer to representing what the founding fathers of the US envisioned.  To them, democracy was not a group of people sitting in private booths pushing out chads and pulling levers, or even worse sitting at home weeks before the election with 8 envelopes that must be folded and “enveloped” just so in order for the vote to count.  (I misfolded mine in 2012 and my presidential vote for “Stephen Colbert” went uncounted.)

No, to the founding fathers democracy was about getting everybody together in a room and forcing them to work together.  This is why we elect our President not through popular vote but through delegates.  The original idea was that communities would gather together and pick someone from their community that they respected and trusted.  That delegate would then go to Washington and meet with the other delegates from around the country.  They would all bicker and argue about who the President should be but then the majority would rally around someone and the delegate would report back to the constituents who the President was.

The hope was that if we chose someone we trusted, we could trust them to pick someone trustworthy to be President.  We hoped trust would trickle up to the high echelons of power.

We are very far removed from that system and I see no hope of going back.  In fact, what disturbs me most about the primary process is that I will not know one thing about my delegate to the national conventions.  There is a high chance this year that both conventions could be “brokered” which means that on the second vote the delegates will not have to vote for who I tell them to vote for.  This means someone I do not know or trust might pick my party’s nominee.  I should spend a lot more time figuring out who that person is than who the candidates are!

If that doesn’t disturb you, then this will.  There is absolutely nothing that guarantees your state delegate to Washington D.C. for the general Presidential election has to vote for who you tell them to vote for.  Every Presidential election has had at least one delegate jump ship and vote for someone different than who their state told them to.  I live in Utah which will almost certainly vote for a Republican President but that doesn’t mean the Utah delegate has to choose the Republican.  They might go Democrat or even abstain from voting.  This happens all the time but so far hasn’t changed the outcome of the election.  The minute it does (and that day is coming) the foundations of our shaky democracy will crumble.  Be that as it may, there is some more info on national delegates here.

We are a far cry from what the founding fathers envisioned.  Their vision was about people getting together in rooms and choosing trustworthy local leaders to represent them at the state and national levels.  Currently we do the opposite.  We isolate ourselves from our communities and climb into tiny little booths.  When we do so we are quite arrogant, assuming that we think we know everything about the candidates when in fact we know next to nothing other than their appearance and party.  You can’t really know someone until you have met them face to face.  But we assume we are little gods who know everything and we pull our lever of power and then spew vitriol at those who disagree but we do it from behind closed doors.

This is not democracy.  This is arrogance.

What we should be doing is far more humble.  It is gathering together with our neighbors and having honest but confrontational dialog.  We should sit in a room together until we can all agree on a delegate whom we know.  Then we should trust that delegate to make the right decision about who the President should be.

Therefore the reason the coin flips in Iowa bug me so much has nothing to do with the caucus format.  It has everything to do with the reality that the coins were the easy and lazy way out.  Those communities should have lived into the spirit of the Fathers and argued until there was a majority.  That is how democracy is supposed to work and I pray, without much hope, we can get there again.

What Bernie Sanders Should Have Said About Abortion

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I am fully aware that this is a risky blog post.  In no other area are social conservatives and progressives so much divided as in the debate about abortion.  Both sides have fully made up their minds and whenever abortion comes up they talk over and under and around each other, repeating the now very old talking points that score points with their bases while alienating any who are still undecided.

With that said, the political scientist in me absolutely loved Bernie Sander’s address to Liberty University’s chapel on Monday.  I love that they invited him to speak and I love that he accepted the invitation because, as he put it, “I believe it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in civil discourse.”

And for the most part, that is what happened at Liberty University last Monday, though Sanders certainly still spoke very forcefully about this own moral/ethical views.  He was the most at his game when he spoke about how we treat our children who are living in poverty.  In fact, he put it most poignantly and poetically when he asked, “Are you content? Do you think it’s moral when 20 percent of the children in this country [are] living in poverty?”

He goes on to describe how our economic system ravages our most vulnerable children in order to show favor to the “billionaire class.”  It was the best part of the speech.

As was fully expected during the brief Q&A, abortion came up.  The question, stated by Liberty University’s Vice President, went like this, “You have talked about how it is immoral to protect the billionaire class at the expense of our most vulnerable children.  A majority of Christians would agree with you but would also go further and say that children in the womb need our protection even more.  How do you reconcile the two?” (39:20 in the clip below)  The Vice President also noted that it was the most popular and most asked question, which was substantiated by an almost standing ovation as the question was asked.

Despite how obvious the question is, it is still a very brilliant and fair one.  Sander’s answer was no less obvious but far less clever.  He reiterated the standard talking points of pro-choice types, muttering something about how the government shouldn’t be telling every single woman how to make health choices about her body.  His official answer was something like, “I understand the very painful and very difficult choice that women have to make and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do.” (40:30 below)

That is a fair answer but a tired one and one that doesn’t quite understand the underlying pathos of the pro-life movement, whose reasoning is more along the lines, “God all ready told them what to do and it is just the government’s job to enforce God’s decision.”  But I do not expect a Jewish Progressive to fully realize or answer that line of thinking.

Putting that aside, this whole interchange (or lack thereof) felt tired and it annoyed me a little, more so as I thought about it this week.  I understand the debate about abortion is now 40-50 years old and it barely registers as a talking point any more except in early voting conservative states and the deep south Bible belt.

Yet there is still progress to be made here for children, the unborn and their mothers who are in those difficult days making those difficult decisions.

For one there is still the underlying hypocrisy on both sides of the debate.  It is a hypocrisy a now retired college professor of mine summed up perfectly when he said, “Democrats don’t seem to care about a child before it is born.  Republicans don’t seem to care about a child after it is born.”  It is a scathing reality underlying this whole debate and there is a fair amount of propaganda pointing at it on both sides but the propaganda never goes so far as to answering that hypocrisy with honesty.

So without digging my grave any deeper, I admit that I wish Sanders would have risen to the challenge and addressed his own hypocrisy and the opposing hypocrisy of the evangelicals.  I wish there was room on both sides to admit we are all being hypocrites.

Therefore, I would like to step into Sanders’ shoes and offer my own answer to the hypocrisy question.

Here is what I might have said, “Yes, the unborn children in this country are very vulnerable.  The recent headlines about Planned Parenthood have made that abundantly clear.  Yes, I care about the mothers in unfortunate situations who are having to make the very difficult decisions during these unexpected or unwanted pregnancies and I question how effective the government can really be in helping them make the most informed and compassionate decision.

However, I also fully acknowledge that a child’s vulnerability does not end at birth!  The most important and crucial development happens in the first 4 years of a child’s life.  We have an economic system that heaps abuse and insults on these children, especially if those children are born with the wrong skin color, in the wrong country or to low income families in low income neighborhoods.  They are not getting the nutrients they need.  They are not getting the exercise they need.  They are not getting the love and support from parents and grandparents they need (which is why family values are still extremely important).  We must do more for children both born and unborn!  We must do it consistently and compassionately all throughout their childhoods and even into adulthood, not just stopping at birth or a few weeks after.”

Such an answer would have at least acknowledged the hypocrisy and allowed for a greater discussion that might just expose how limited our care and concern for the “vulnerable” really is.  Or maybe I am just daydreaming carelessly about a world where we can actually talk to each other, not around each other.

I will let you decide.  Be that is it may, the full speech with Q&A is below.

Also here is a link to Rachel Held Evans’ 2 year old post about abortion that is one of the best I have ever read.

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/why-progressive-christians-should-care-about-abortion-gosnell