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California —piece by Michael Lewis

This piece is from the current Vanity Fair. Very sobering read about the state of California's finances....

And nobody does this stuff better than Michael Lewis.


California and Bust | Business | Vanity Fair
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Old 11-10-2011, 06:39 PM
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And on a per capita basis the US Federal debt is something like ten times the state debt of California.

In his book The Winds of War Herman Wouk discusses a group of German Jews being observed by the American sub officer who sits next to them in a night club after WWII started but before American involvement. They had escaped from Nazi Germany and were partying and carrying on as though there was nothing to worry about in Franco's Spain. The American protagonist described them as "Fish flopping in the net. They're trapped, but they don't know it yet." His point was that they were doomed, but that they were still living the good life and were denying the obvious fact that they were dead men walking, waiting only for their visas to run out and they were returned toGermany or Franco tired of them and they were visited in the night and never heard from again.

The image of Jews trapped in Spain during WWII as fish flopping in the net - temporarily safe but trapped and they don't know it yet - has nothing to do with this post. I have no idea why one made me think of the other.
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Old 11-10-2011, 07:20 PM
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Old 11-10-2011, 07:26 PM
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This is a rather nice little aside from the above piece:

Quote

The road out of Vallejo passes directly through the office of Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America’s society is a by-product of America’s success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. “Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,” he says cheerfully. “We’ve got the core of the average lizard.” Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. “The only problem,” he says, “is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.” Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. “When faced with abundance, the brain’s ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress,” says Whybrow. “In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake.”

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. “What we’re doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don’t have,” says Whybrow. “We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded.”

The succession of financial bubbles, and the amassing of personal and public debt, Whybrow views as simply an expression of the lizard-brained way of life. A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control’s color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern. The boom in trading activity in individual stock portfolios; the spread of legalized gambling; the rise of drug and alcohol addiction—it is all of a piece. Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for short-term rewards.

What happens when a society loses its ability to self-regulate, and insists on sacrificing its long-term interest for short-term rewards? How does the story end? “We could regulate ourselves if we chose to think about it,” Whybrow says. “But it does not appear that is what we are going to do.” Apart from that remote possibility, Whybrow imagines two outcomes. The first he illustrates with a true story, which might be called the parable of the pheasant. Last spring, on sabbatical from the University of Oxford, he was surprised to discover that he was able to rent an apartment inside Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. The previous winter at Blenheim had been harsh, and the pheasant hunters had been efficient; as a result, just a single pheasant had survived in the palace gardens. This bird had gained total control of a newly seeded field. Its intake of food, normally regulated by its environment, was now entirely unregulated: it could eat all it wanted, and it did. The pheasant grew so large that, when other birds challenged it for seed, it would simply frighten them away. The fat pheasant became a tourist attraction and even acquired a name: Henry. “Henry was the biggest pheasant anyone had ever seen,” says Whybrow. “Even after he got fat, he just ate and ate.” It didn’t take long before Henry was obese. He could still eat as much as he wanted, but he could no longer fly. Then one day he was gone: a fox ate him.

The other possible outcome was only slightly more hopeful: to hit bottom. To realize what has happened to us—because we have no other choice. “If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment,” says Whybrow, “and the way that environment deprives us.” For meaningful change to occur, in other words, we need the environment to administer the necessary level of pain.

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Old 11-10-2011, 07:29 PM
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Old 11-10-2011, 07:33 PM
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Great article. Thanks.

Why is it that so many don't see it?
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Old 11-10-2011, 07:43 PM
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Old 11-10-2011, 11:10 PM
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Fantastic article - and the above excerpt is the most important part. Unlike the typical doom and gloom drivel that is spewed on this board and elsewhere, this actually identifies a SOLUTION, not just problems, potential problems or ways to levy blame. It is unabashed in its ability to say (as Pogo would), "we have met the enemy and he is us".

Virtually all the commentary about California and what it is rapidly transforming into are dead-on, and that's from the personal experience of someone who's been there from 1999 to 2010 to personally witness the spectacular rise and fall of it, and contemplate its greater meaning.

We are ALL in the same boat as Vallejo or San Jose, ultimately and the ONLY way we'll collectively not preside over the complete collapse of our once-mighty societies is if we learn the real meaning of civility, collaboration and cooperation. As several people (including me) have pointed out in the contentious thread about abortion, the solution is not governmental nor is it legislative - it's a change in our mindset to be one that values human life and the quality of it and one that overcomes primal instincts to behave in a manner consistent with supporting advanced societal structures and civilizations - whether that means curbing sexual urges, greed, whatever.

Great article.
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Old 11-10-2011, 11:28 PM
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Great article, thanks for positing it. To bad that very few people will actually read it.
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Old 11-11-2011, 04:54 AM
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Quote:
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And on a per capita basis the US Federal debt is something like ten times the state debt of California.

In his book The Winds of War Herman Wouk discusses a group of German Jews being observed by the American sub officer who sits next to them in a night club after WWII started but before American involvement. They had escaped from Nazi Germany and were partying and carrying on as though there was nothing to worry about in Franco's Spain. The American protagonist described them as "Fish flopping in the net. They're trapped, but they don't know it yet." His point was that they were doomed, but that they were still living the good life and were denying the obvious fact that they were dead men walking, waiting only for their visas to run out and they were returned toGermany or Franco tired of them and they were visited in the night and never heard from again.

The image of Jews trapped in Spain during WWII as fish flopping in the net - temporarily safe but trapped and they don't know it yet - has nothing to do with this post. I have no idea why one made me think of the other.
Worse than that, when the Jews started emigrating out of Germany not very many countries would take them but Lithuania was standing there with open arms welcoming them in droves.

later ,when the country had to choose between the nazis and the bolcheviks, Lithuania said "come on in nazi's, we'll kill all these Jews for you".

We're not talking about concentration camps, or poisonous gas, we're talking about bullets to the head. Line em up, shoot em all, cover em up with dirt.
And it wasn't just the nazi's or the military, it was also Joe Public Lithuanian who was going around murdering his neighbors.
That story is one of the most treacherous and brutal in WWII but it doesn't get told much. Lithuania is where we should have tested the first nuke.

Out of approximately 208,000 to 210,000 Jews [in Lithuania], an estimated 195,000–196,000 were murdered before the end of World War II

The Holocaust in Lithuania - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Old 11-11-2011, 07:04 AM
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Great article.
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Old 11-11-2011, 07:13 AM
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thanks D...

like that dreaded ?..
do these pants make me look fat..

first, you are fat..
second, yes they do..

but..
best to just go with..
no sweetheart..
you look ..
marveloossssssssssss..
and wait for the MI..

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Old 11-11-2011, 08:40 AM
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As I have said 1000 X's before "we are rich and can affford it all without consequence."

As I have said 100's of times before.."The reason why AIG was BAILED OUT was the Public Employee Pension Funds." Otherwise they would all be BK.

And the Grand Daddy of them all is, "Obama and the Dems are going to turn the US into Californication."

Several years back I quoted and posted a letter from the Treasurer of OC, CA...The States and Locals are 5T USD in debt...and if that Rooster ever comes home to roost America is an instanious Greece.

Thank You and Good Day.
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Old 11-11-2011, 10:32 AM
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It's pretty simple - zero out all public employee benefits packages and renegotiate based on equivalent performance in the private sector.
Old 11-11-2011, 11:53 AM
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I think I'm moving to Puerto Rico...

They just cut the corporate income tax to 15%, capital gains to 15% and personal income tax to around 25%.

Of course, if the Liberals take back over, it will probably change back.
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Old 11-11-2011, 01:39 PM
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There are plenty of states who did well during the boom years and didn't go on crazy spending sprees. Indiana comes to mind. They wisely ran a surplus during the boom years, and now have a decent cushion to get through the lean years

I remember getting into a [respectful] debate with one of my college finance professors in the fall of '99. He told us (with frustration) that the old rules for investing didn't hold true anymore. Stocks were going up. It didn't matter what their P/E ratio was. It didn't matter if their earnings or cashflow supported the price. I didn't matter if the company had ever made any money. I told him that I thought that sanity would return to the markets some day.

What I didn't understand at the time was that sanity will often return suddenly. The dot com bubble, the housing bubble, subprime mortgages, and lavish public employee pensions all worked and made some people a lot of money just fine right up until the moment when they stopped working. Then one day, investors get wise, or the economy tanks, and the old model proves to be a temporary anomaly, not a viable long-term plan. People who bet their futures on ridiculous pensions will have to face the same truths as people who bet their futures on Pets.com, or people that bought houses they really couldn't afford. In every case, the losers have attempted to spread their losses to taxpayers, with varying degrees of success.
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Old 11-11-2011, 07:20 PM
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Yet some California cities have balanced budgets and are still hiring employees at the same "ridiculous" pension rates. Most cities have changed the pension rates, going forward, but some have not.

Can anyone explain that ?

p.s. I am amazed that states/counties/cities don't just pass legislation that limits all public pensions at a set annual dollar amount, say $50k or $75k, for everybody, no matter how many years worked, rate of pay, etc. etc.
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Old 11-12-2011, 12:39 PM
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Old 11-12-2011, 03:02 PM
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Meh, nothing in that article is news, when was that wrtitten, 2002 or something?

I guess not, because it is talking about post governator Ahnold. This state has been doomed since Gov Moonbeam gave the state to the state worker unions.

Color me unimpressed by that article.
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Old 11-14-2011, 12:13 PM
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Quote:
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It's pretty simple - zero out all public employee benefits packages and renegotiate based on equivalent performance in the private sector.
It actually used to be that way until elected officials found out they could punt their duties for the next crew. Time has a funny way of catching up with the electorate.
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Old 11-14-2011, 03:10 PM
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