Is private greed still good public policy?

As an economist (University of Chicago no less), I find myself pondering the status of Adam Smith and his iconic metaphor of the free market economy as an Invisible Hand, leading people collectively to wise decisions without requiring anything other than their own selfish interests as a guidepost. Meaning that a free people left to their own devices will manage to deploy national resources in an optimal manner, without need of any supposedly wise benevolent government or Godfather to step in. A tenet, after all, central to the national self-image of America.

But today, with the U.S. finding itself in the midst of a crisis caused at root by what may turn out to be the worst mismanagement of scarce resources ever – even surpassing the disasters of Soviet central planning – can we still put faith in the Invisible Hand? Is private greed still good public policy?

How have we ended up with $700,000 McMansions studding the farmlands of Tracy, Stockton, Bakersfield when we needed middle income multi-family housing and good low-income rental stocks? And our largest financial institutions including the firms such as ratings agencies and insurers whose business is risk, failed so miserably to assess and control risk?

So we have the combined loss of trillions of dollars in our banks and insurance houses piled onto a disastrously costly war in Iraq; public infrastructure crumbling so badly that bridges collapse and kill dozens; crucial air traffic control struggling because it hasn’t been upgraded since the 1970s; and CEOs and corporate directors looting shareholder value at a rate so vast it hasn’t yet been completely comprehended.

Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand relies on individuals, and companies, having adequate information on dealings in order to make good decisions. Has our economy so developed in the past half-century that our private decisions are no longer adequately connected to outcomes?

Certainly the rise of mathematically modeled derivatives created a situation where humans had to rely on the accuracy of the models and the assumptions of the models. And the rise of the derivatives created the market that allowed individuals without real means to borrow substantial sums of money. At the same time, forces developed allowing corporate governance to disconnect from real outcomes – think Tyco, Citi and many others. With executive compensation being linked to short-term or transient, and in many cases non-existent, share price increases via the magic of repriceable options, said execs had incentive to use more and more leverage and take on more and more risk. The risk being borne by the shareholders while short-term gains were able to be hijacked by the people supposedly in charge of governance. And the final losses now being borne collectively by the public in the form of the necessary bailouts.

So the question is how far and how well will the next administration go to figuring out the causes of the current debacle and addressing them? Will we still be able to even talk about a wise Invisible Hand in three or five years? We already know central planning is not an option. So what next?


Trader Joe’s parking lot wit

As I was leaving Trader Joe’s this morning, loaded with brussels sprouts, shiitakes, herbs and assorted snackies, I spied a couple bumper stickers that made me chuckle:

“Namaste motherfuckers”
“Ask me about my vow of silence”

Perhaps the respective car owners should hook up on a date.

The Woman from Rio and the Muni Curse

It happened last night. I rode the Muni #24 bus down to catch the subway at Castro Street, as I often do.  It was a dark night, doubly so since it was a new moon and fog was rolling in.  Gave the city an eerie feeling I tell you.   I paid my fare and took a seat at the front – the handicapped and elderly seats – but the bus had plenty of room this Sunday night.  Good people were  home with family and friends, not heading out to nightclubs, like me.

The electric bus quietly made its way over the top of the hill separating me from the Castro and on down, lulling me with the clicking of the wires and the purr of the motor.  Not much traffic tonight.  I noticed a woman sitting directly across from me, right behind the bus driver – and invisible to him because of the partition behind his seat.  Invisible to even the red eye of the security camera that looked back from its perch high up above the windshield.  Nothing struck me about the woman – I wasn’t actually trying to look at her – but from the periphery of my view I could see her.  Hair inky black, wrapped up in a scarf with more color than a dimestore parakeet, she wore a shift dress that looked too light for the weather, which was cooling quickly as the fog made its way into town.  The dress was a geometric print in various shades of green – near as I could tell.  Mind you, I am good with colors but the light on the bus was a cold, glaring, fluorescent so everything took on some green.  By the light of day her dress could have been most any light colors.  But her skin, the shade of milk-and-coffee and so smooth, yes, she had to be a Carioca I decided – with really no justification.  But this was idle thinking – little matter.  Her skin was a twenty year-old’s but her plump figure hinted she was older than that.

She caught my attention because of what she was carrying.  The lady in the print dress and colorful scarf, this imagined Carioca, was holding a bag of some snack.  I don’t read Chinese characters so I could not be sure what the treat was.  I had a conundrum now, and shortly another or two.  Was the woman Chinese? China has many ethnicities, after all.  I decided that for the sake of my made-up history she was still a Carioca but had stopped for a snack and the closest market was Chinese.  Chinese knew the city, more native here than me, for sure.  If she was Chinese, she would be prepared with heavier clothing for the evening.  No, she must be from somewhere else, somewhere a warm day is followed by a warm night.  I still imagined Rio.

Now, I was not staring at this lady.  I was using my elevator vision.  I use it on buses and the subway, too.  But I could see that she was not only enjoying her snack, she was spitting out pits or shells or something back over her shoulder.  Mind you this is all in the space of a minute or two.  Now I am a very polite person – far be it for me to tell her she shouldn’t be eating on the bus (and the shell or seed-spitting is clearly one of the reasons for the prohibition).  Perhaps they do it in Rio.  Of course they do and in Rio the bus windows are open and one spits the residue into the street.

Before I even think about it (I swear) I dropped the elevator vision and fixed a disapproving look, straight at her, that really only should be given between familiars, the Muni bus equivalent of kicking your mate’s foot under the table.   You know the look – the look you give your spouse just before they’re going to launch into some untouchable topic at the dinner party; the same look you give the person who carelessly drops their empty coffee cup into the trash instead of the composting container at the Ritual café.   That look.

I caught myself after a few seconds and resumed my Muni nonchalance.  Too late, I had caught her eye and I could tell she was now appraising me.  I gave her another couple seconds of “that look.”  I’m sure she understood me.   “No, your $1.50 does not include the right to spit seeds, or whatever disgusting things, on this bus.”

The bus was careening downhill now, and I had to grab a nearby pole to steady myself.  Fewer than a dozen other denizens, some of them homeless and riding the bus for a comfortable place to sit and doze, saw, or could see, our silent exchange.

A second went by with no reaction.  Then, she turned her scarf-wrapped head to the side and spat out another.  A slap in the face.  She had no shame.  I slid down further on my orange plastic seat, still gripping the pole as the driver braked hard for a stop.  The emboldened Carioca defied both gravity and inertia, turned her body and stretched her legs out across the empty seats next to her.  Involuntarily, I swear, I reacted to her placing her shoes on the bus seat.

She was taunting me.  I ignored her, looking forward now to check for my stop.  Really, one can only take this so far.  I wasn’t angry that she was using the shared bus as her own spittoon; I wouldn’t be so petty.  I readied myself to leave, heaving myself up with the aid of the pole against the lurching of the bus towards the stop at Market Street.

And then, she did it.  I had to turn towards her as I moved to the back of the bus to exit.  And she brought a hand up, the one she was eating with, and pointed at me with five fingers, outstretched.  I paused, again without thinking but here she was making an actual gesture, to me.  And then she turned her fingers inwards and with a flick of her wrist, sliced them across her throat.  I shivered.  What was that supposed to be?  A curse?  What was with the five fingers? The cutting of the throat seemed clear.

Quickly I touched my left eyelid with my left middle finger.  Her eyes widened.  Even in the cold fluorescent light I thought her face turned red.  So she recognized the Mal Ochio.  Good.  I ran for the back, down the stairs at the rear and hit the door open.  The cold moist air felt good.

The chastened green thumb

When my partner husband and I moved the 45 miles from San Jose’s fertile Rosegarden district to San Francisco’s Noe Valley a few years ago, I was ready for gardening challenges. I knew from my visits as well as my dog-eared and trusty Sunset Western Garden book that I was entering not just a new Zone but a terra incognita of cold summers, coastal fog, and lack of winter frost. And my new home in San Francisco would be a condominium with only a couple outdoor spaces for container gardening. I was leaving behind a lush yard sporting loamy soil on a valley floor that once supported a thriving Blenheim apricot orchard in favor of a cute kitchen balcony and a rooftop with views from Twin Peaks across Noe Valley and the Mission all the way to the Bay.

But my gardening thumb was the deep greens of heat-loving gingers, citrus, Madagascar jasmines and yes, one old and well-tended Blenheim apricot. San Francisco gardening? I was up for the challenge and full of confidence. Little did I imagine that in a few short years I would be ruing my view of Twin Peaks, with its accompanying cold and drying wind, nor that my green thumb would be tinged red with embarrassment.

For I had become the person the nursery plants dread – that one who trots off with potted flowers and herbs in the prime of their young lives, and in a few short weeks on a rooftop botanical Guantanamo, batters them into the plant equivalent of brain-death. Still alive, perhaps, but no longer growing; no longer flowering or producing delicious little leaves for my kitchen.

I do my research, checking the local websites for tips on what might grow. Still, last summer I confessed to family and friends I had harvested precisely three green-grape tomatoes – and that from an heirloom variety from Siberia!
I still try – gardening is a need, in my blood. I’ve restricted myself for now to buying geraniums and spearmint. If I can keep them growing, I may let myself try nasturtiums again. And then who knows – the sky’s the limit! I’m doing okay so far – although truth to tell, the spearmint is being a bit difficult. I feel a bit like I am in a Bad Gardeners Anonymous meeting, confessing I can barely get mint to grow.
>p>Sure, I still have that kumquat that I brought from the patio in San Jose, in a state of suspended animation on my kitchen balcony. It isn’t dead yet, but I feel its pain every time I give it water, and look fruitlessly for signs that it is reviving. I have cymbidium orchids that manage to thrive, and the warm and windless autumn this year has even lulled my Mexican lime into flowering, and tiny green babies are taking hold. But I’m not holding my breath. And I’m saving my pennies for a lean-to greenhouse.

Equality rallies across the nation

protestRick and I just got back from the Equality for All rally at San Francisco City Hall. This is part of a coordinated and simultaneous protests across the nation, and in many California cities. Inspired by the removal of rights with the passage of Prop 8 here in California, it looks like this may be the seed tha grows into a revitalized movement for civil rights. Signs were inventive, the mood peaceful but determined to have our voice heard.

Shmoopy protesting

Shmoopy protesting

Speakers included Mark Leno, Carol Midgen, Tom Ammiano and other non-political movement figures. I have no idea what the crowd size was – it was big, but not as big as the crowds for Gay Pride. Muni was a bottleneck – running on a low Saturday morning schedule and having to turn away people trying to get from the Castro downtown. I am sure the crowd was still getting bigger as we left.

At one point a married Mormon gay couple spoke. Are gay Mormons an Oxymormon? If so, what are gay Pentecostals? (answer: a leader of the religious right and close associate of George Bush – Ted Haggard)

Dorothy Allison at Passing the Pen

This past Wednesday author Dorothy Allison (Bastard out of Carolina, Cavedweller) spoke at the LGBT Historical Society office on Mission Street for the penultimate edition of the “Passing the Pen” speaker series of 2008. Author Michael Nava moderated the Q&A / lecture / reading — it was simultaneously informative, informal and inspiring.
Allison herself is now approaching sixty and is a big woman with long, flowing black and silver hair which she would swipe out of her eyes frequently as she spoke. She started off discussing her coming of age in the 60s feminist scene, graduating from college in Florida and going off to New York. She spoke to the conflicting elements of the movement, and also to class differences. Allison from a poor blue collar family, but beginning to move in a middle and upper-middle class circle, always feeling the outsider because of both class differences and as a lesbian. As a femme lesbian, as opposed to (as she called it) the dyke lesbians.

She ran into conflict with the feminist movement in the 70s as those leaders looked askance at lesbians, and moved from working for the feminist publication Off our backs to an underground publication On our backs. She began writing short stories (she had been writing poetry) and read one of her 70s era stories, written for “On our backs” to the audience.

Later, after speaking and answering many questions from the audience Allsion read a short story that has not been published yet, inspired by people and events in Sonoma County where she has lived with her “dyke” partner for seventeen years. She had a lot of questions from the women in the audience about lesbian community and politics, as well as about her writing. She was a lesbian separatist once upon a time, but Allison said once she became a mother that faded.

Allison and her longtime partner were married at SF City Hall just before the election. She spoke about this and related that she was of two minds. First, marriage is a patriarchal institution that she can do without. But second, the blue collar dirt poor southerner in her kept saying “no one’s gonna tell me what I can’t do.” That side won out at the last minute.

The final reading for 2008 will be next month with Jamison Green, Julia Serano, Tristan Crane on December 9th.