Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cuts for Cooky: Bernard Hermann's Antimacassar

From Welle's "The Magnificent Ambersons," it was supposed to have run with the end credits. It was cut by RKO, and along with the butchering of Welles' work, was probably one of the reasons Hermann insisted his name be removed.

Welles, a director's director, and one of Hollywood's greatest assassinations.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

99 Homes: Carver Spells it Out

Andrew Garfileld's Dennis Nash having a while ago shook hands with the devil, has just bought back his family home from Michael Shannon's Nick Carver, who agented the eviction. That's a bit of pat irony, but I understand the license I'll take for the diegesis that follows at about 53:40, where Nash has been working for Carver and working up the nerve to agent his first eviction. All emphasis added.

CARVER: There's evictions today. You can pop your cherry with this one. First one's a bitch but, you catch on to it.. All you gotta do is stand next to me today, but after this you're going to do them on your own.

NASH: Listen Rick, I don't, um… could I uh, could I…

C: Go fuck yourself? Yeah. What'd you think it was gonna mean working for me?

N: Well I just thought that, maybe…

C: NO you didn't. You didn't think you didn’t have the guts to ask me either. Nobody does. Because who in their right mind wouldn't rather put someone in a home than drag 'em out of it?

Up until three years ago I was a regular old real estate agent, puttin' people in homes, speculatin' on property, that was my job. Now in 2006 Robert and Julia Tanner borrowed $30,000 to put an enclosed patio on their home that they had somehow managed to live without for 25 years. Why don't you ask them about that when they're spittin' in your face while you walk 'em t o the curb? Why don't you ask the bank what the hell they were thinking giving these people an adjustable rate mortgage? And then you can go to the government, and ask them why they lifted every regulation and sat there like a retarded step-child. You, Tanner, banks, Washington, every other homeowner and investor, from here to China, turned my life into evictions.

I'm not a, an aristocrat. I wasn't born into this, my Daddy was a roofer, okay? I grew up on construction sites watching him bust his ass until he fell off of a townhouse one day. A lifetime of insurance payments and they dropped him before he could buy a wheelchair, but only after they got him hooked on painkillers. Now, do you think I”m gonna let that happen to me?

Do you think America 2010 gives a flying rat's ass about Carver or Nash? Uh uh.

America doesn't bail out the losers America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation, of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.

You go to church Nash?

N: Sure

C: Only one in a hundred's gonna get on that ark son. And every other poor soul's gonna drown. I'm not gonna drown.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ishmael Beah

The Middle East flight from madness has begat the Euro crisis, which has certain people decrying the influx of foreigners into the west. Not everyone, though.
The reason so many are fleeing places like Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq is that US and European interventionist policy has left these countries destabilized with no hopes of economic recovery. This mass migration from the Middle East and beyond is a direct result of the neocon foreign policy of regime change, invasion, and pushing "democracy" at the barrel of a gun.

--Ron Paul
Given that the West has played its hand and the dealer's still dealing, this disconnect obviously doesn't serve the refugees. Cue our peculiar American ego of ours, wrapped in the flag of lofty ideals, with just enough leftover food to fuel the pr machine. Even if you come up in one of our tough urban environments.

And here's the question: Is coming  up in East LA, South Central, Compton, the South Bronx, Cabrini Green... really tough? My Auntie Kathy told me she hated her childhood because they were dirt poor, Ma told me of having nothing to eat unless Uncle George went out and killed some game, otherwise it'd be cabbage and some listless white sauce made out of flour. Most self-proclaimed "gangstas" would run screaming from the room if faced with the prospect of being in a really tough context. You either eat or you don't. You can dodge bullets, not hunger.

Nebraska high school yearbook photo. Yep.
Then there's war torn places the likes of which are relegated to privileged gazes like the neocons or our mass media, as distorted and twisted a view as any. One  of the things I asked in the wake of the City of Bell scandal, which saw the government liquidate the holdings of that puss sack otherwise known as former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, was this: How much of that money found its way back to the citizens of Bell? While covering the scandal, the LA Times, whom I applaud for breaking the story, never once mentioned this, nor reparations of any kind.

I once told a young kid from the inner city who thought he was hard, that if he thought he was tough, to go live in Gaza and support Palestinians. Or see if he could get into the looniest bin on earth, North Korea. Stay there, year after year, eating crap day and night. Then write us and let us know how hard you are.

Hearing about insanity from Others can be like opening a new door. Whether one has the capacity, the energy to go through is another subject. Ishmael Beah walks through from the Other side, and shakes up our so-called hard gangstas with hardcore reality, pragmatism, humor, and, a profound vision of humanity born and bred in the crucible of horror and struggle.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Bus Story


Edward Bernays deployed one of the most nefarious psych strategies in history that took hold of Madison Avenue and has been at the core of spam ever since. Bernays' hunch was to take his famous Uncle's (SIgmund Freud) theory of the unconscious desires and leverage them to do the bidding of spammers. While Bernays and the chart he set America on was a fateful one, it laid the groundwork for an even deeper cut into our psyches, a world he would never see over half a century later.

Filmmaker John Milius once said, and I greatly paraphrase from memory, America is about making and keeping you dis-satisfied. Your car isn't good enough. You don't live in the right part of town. You don't look good enough and you don't have the right clothes or mate.

Today, we have a milestone in human history; in the palm of your hand, you can learn just about anything. From particle physics to playing basketball to the Mongol Empire, it's all there. But what do the millenials use it for? Showing their private parts.

This self-absorption is perfectly in line with Freud and Bernays, because if it's true that most lead lives of quiet desperation, then the social network is like the ultimate psychic crack. My life is boring and exceedingly average, but let me check my Facebook page... Aha! People love me, and here's the proof!

24-7, people can now see that their lives matter, because others tune in and say so. "Likes," comments, text messages, photos, videos... all attest to the justification of our existence. When you have 400 "friends" giving you a "thumb's up," it's validation reified, concrete and indisputable.

* * * * * * * *

One of my favorite things to do as a kid in middle school was to go downtown before the school year with Ma and get my school clothes. Bullock's and Bullock's Wilshire were my favorites, and I have fond memories of having lunch with Ma afterwards at the old LA landmarks like La Luz del Dia or Clifton's.

Ma always looked nice when we ventured out; hair done, nice skirt, blouse, a sweater or jacket, and heels. The ladies at Bullock's were similarly appointed, but more, they were helpful. Customer service was the norm. I do admit to looking at some of those ladies more than I should have.

Pulling into a gas station then is perhaps the starkest contrast of the customer pleasing America of my youth and today's wing it approach. An attendant, usually a guy in a uniform but sometimes a grease monkey, would pop the hood, check the oil, water, tire pressure, clean the windows, pump the gas. He'd "Ma'am" Ma, and I never gave it a second thought. It was just the way things were.

 * * * * * * * *

One of the consequences of trying times is the tendency to concentrate almost solely on one's self. Here's something that happened to me last week.

I was riding the bus to a local school to avoid parking, as the semester had just opened up. Crammed like sardines, I managed to find a seat, and in about 5 minutes we stopped and a lady of about 70 got on. She happened to end up standing right in front of me, facing away. So, I decided to survey the surrounding kids; each was in her or his own world, virtual or psychic. So, Ma's boy that I am, I tapped the lady on her shoulder and offered my seat.

LADY: Oh, that's nice of you, but I'm getting off very shortly, but thank you.

Turns out we both got off at the same stop. As we hit the street, she turned to me.

LADY: You know, that really was very sweet of you. These kids today... I'm an inconvenience to them. I'm just in their way.

I was kind of embarrassed. She struggled a bit and then said some of the saddest words I've ever heard.

LADY:  Or worse, I'm simply invisible to them.

That lit the fire, and I have to say, I got a little pissed off.

ME: I was raised in a different time, in a different way, by a mother who gave a damn about how people treat each other.

LADY: (nods) And thank god you were.

 * * * * * * * *


Now, fast forward a few days from the bus incident. I'm at the gym talking to one of the front desk gals - let's call her "Carol," who happens to be in her 20's. I'm telling her my "bus story" when, right in mid-sentence, a kid of about 20 walks up and just begins peppering her with questions.

Carol looks at him, and then I say, a notch louder than my interruptor, "You see? THIS is EXACTLY what I'm talking about!"

The kid stops, looks at me with that blown away look one gets when forced to see themselves outside of their own perception, and utters a meek "Oh, excuse me," more perfunctorily than anything.

As a young person, it never would have entered my mind to interrupt two adults, much less not to offer my seat to an elder, or hold the door open for them. This may seem like overly simplistic, undue analysis, but I don't think so. I think it's telling. Moreover, I think it matters.

Our governments mouth off about a lot of things; be afraid of ISIS, Al-Qaeda are plotting our demise, fear Iran... Hey, I'm guilty of fear mongering, what with my obsession with the economic meltdown of 2008 and the associated psychopaths. But I think the destruction of America is here, much closer than we think, and is so in our faces, it perhaps is like not being able to see the forest for the trees.

After all, if we can't simply be decent to our elders, let alone each other, what are we?

Monday, August 03, 2015

Women Should Play Sports: Ronda & Leticia Bufoni

I thought Rashard Evans made a very perceptive comment pre-fight to UFC 190, Rousey v. Correia; he said it was Ronda's imagination that separated her from the pack. I couldn't agree more. The thing I love about watching her fights -- and the Gracie breakdowns -- is her ability to see two moves ahead, or adjust on the fly, improvise, and pivot to other possibilities. She's like Coltrane, improvising like crazy in a stream of consciousness way, but from an unshakeable bedrock of classic theory. You put elite skill level together with the creativity of a top flight artist and the mental toughness of Godzilla and you have athletes like Muhammad Ali, Rickson Gracie, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax... and Ronda Rousey.

Then there's Leticia Bufoni. Being an LA boy, I couldn't help but be exposed to skateboarding although my first loves were football and basketball. But skating has an element of freedom I admire and the rogue, non-bullshit attitude perhaps best embodied in LA legend Jay Adams. Leticia, I think, reflects that attitude. If it's seemingly at first odd to put Ronda and Leticia together in a post, I thought of it because both possess this quality; they are of course highly accomplished and yet self-possessed. They own themselves before anything and that sets the table not just for themselves, but for anyone searching for meaning in this upside down world. Particularly young women.

That they're both LA girls -- Ronda by birth, Leticia via Brazil -- is just icing on the cake.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Susan from LA, to Dick Fuld

Here's an everywoman some seven years after the fall of 2008. Amidst the NYT's Neil Irwin proclaiming just today, that the Jobs Recovery is Going Strong, the real world continues to sputter. With all eyes on Greece and the looniness of the Tsipras rebuff of the latest EU deal as "absurd" -- what's more absurd than Greece calling a creditor deal "absurd"...? -- a most deadly game of chicken is now in play. Anyone remember Cleavon Little in Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles, where Little puts a gun to his own head and threatens to shoot if his opponents don't let him escape?

Then there's Dick Fuld. The reprobate just can't take a page from the von Bulow playbook, can he? No, he's gotta shoot his putrid pie hole off about ... well, who gives a flyin' fuck what he shits, anyway? Evidently, the New York Times does. Why? Well, again, who gives a ... OH NEVERMIND. Here's Susan from LA who wrote a comment.

SusanLos Angeles
My family lost a considerable amount of money when Lehman Brothers went under in 2008. As mere stockholders, not only were we at the back of the line, we were so far back, there wasn't even a line to be seen.

To see this guy, prancing around without a care in the world, speaking as if all the water (and blame) means nothing to him and he's carrying on as before, is infuriating.

Why isn't he in prison? Why hasn't he (and others) been required to divest himself (a la the Madoffs) of all his ill-gotten gains to compensate the small investors who lost their savings to this massive fraud?

I don't care that is mother loves him. I find him reprehensible (and I'm someone's mother).

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sputter THIS

[T]he resolution of two cases last week clearly indicates that enforcement actions for conduct leading up to the crisis are pretty much done, with no real finding of liability for violations.

When the fourth estate is so firmly wrapped in the arms of EM08, it's little wonder the biggest crime spree in history was successful. I've written about how the sin of omission is the msm press' main act, but here's one I'd never anticipated: the truth! By coming out and telling us that those entrusted with protecting us are basically done, well, how can we argue with that, right? Let's just move on now, shall we? Like leaving the Lakers game after a loss. There's always tomorrow. Between this nonsense and the statute of limitations, EM08 puts another feather in its cap, and the evil empire can get back to yachting in the south of France.

One bit of important data emerged: Ernst & Young will go stand in the corner for a minute for its role as Lehman's accountant. Since Enron, this has been a topic never broached in either the msm or indies: who were the banks' accountants? GM's?  Chryslers? AIG's? Fannie's?

Once again, the blogosphere beat the press. "Beat the Press" ... has the ring of a show.

Oh, Ernst & Young's fine? $10 mil. It's just more cause for national embarrassment and shame, at least for those of us who can still feel.

NYT's Dealbook

Financial Crisis Cases Sputter to an End

April 20, 2015

Yogi Berra once said that “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Unlike the final out or winning run in a baseball game, determining when cases arising from the 2008 financial crisis will end is a bit harder to discern. But the resolution of two cases last week clearly indicates that enforcement actions for conduct leading up to the crisis are pretty much done, with no real finding of liability for violations.

In one case, the Securities and Exchange Commissionresolved fraud charges against Richard F. Syron, the former chief executive of the mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and two other senior executives related to statements regarding the company’s exposure to subprime mortgages. The case did not even end with the usual settlement in which the defendants neither admitted nor denied liability. Instead, it concludedonly with an acknowledgment “that no party is the prevailing party.”

In the other case, the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, reached a $10 million settlement of accounting fraud charges against Ernst & Young for its role as the auditor for Lehman Brothers, whose collapse in September 2008 in the largest bankruptcy in American history ignited the near meltdown of the financial system. Although Mr. Schneiderman asserted that the resolution showed that auditors can be held accountable for violations, DealBook reported the accounting firm’s statement that “after many years of costly litigation, we are pleased to put this matter behind us, with no findings of wrongdoing by E.Y. or any of its professionals.”

Both cases took direct aim at conduct at the center of the financial crisis, and neither yielded anything close to a finding of actual wrongdoing.
The S.E.C. dropped its investigation into Lehman Brothers in 2012 despite an extensive report by Anton R. Valukas that concluded that management was aware of accounting maneuvers used to make its finances look stronger than they were. No one at the firm ever faced a civil action, much less criminal charges, and the modest payment by Ernst & Young looks more like a nuisance settlement.

In addition to the Freddie Mac defendants, three Fannie Mae executives, including its former chief executive, Daniel H. Mudd, were charged by the S.E.C. in December 2011 with the same type of violations regarding the company’s exposure to subprime loans. These were among the few cases to take aim at the management of a top player in the subprime mortgage market for its role in the financial crisis.

The problem the S.E.C. faced in the Freddie Mac case was that there was no accepted definition of a subprime mortgage, so proving that Mr. Syron and others intentionally made misstatements about the effect of those loans on the company’s portfolio was almost impossible. The case against the Fannie Mae defendants remains outstanding, but it is unlikely the S.E.C. will obtain much more than what it obtained from the Freddie Mac executives, which included total payments of $350,000 that were covered by the company’s insurance policy.

Prosecutors have been successful in using a provision of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, better known as Firrea, to pursue civil cases against banks for violations of the mail and wire fraud statutes for misstatements about subprime loans bundled into securities that were sold to investors. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup all paid multibillion-dollar settlements for Firrea violations. The law carries a 10-year statute of limitations, so cases from the financial crisis remain viable.

In February, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a speech at the National Press Club that he had given federal prosecutors 90 days to decide whether to file charges against executives for misconduct related to mortgage-backed securities. That deadline is fast approaching, and there has been no indication yet that a case will be filed against any individuals.
Banks have been willing to settle with hefty payments, but to date only one individual, a former executive at Countrywide Financial, has been found liable for a violation. Although Firrea remains a potent tool, evidence from the financial crisis is undoubtedly becoming stale because fraud cases, unlike fine wine, do not age well.

DealBook reported last November that prosecutors were considering filing civil charges against Angelo R. Mozilo, Countrywide’s former chief executive, but nothing has materialized. Mr. Holder’s 90-day deadline may push prosecutors to file a few cases against individuals, but the likelihood of any being pursued against a top Wall Street executive looks to be almost nil.

For all the billions of dollars paid in penalties by banks and Wall Street firms, the sense of dissatisfaction with how prosecutors investigated those involved in the financial crisis remains pervasive, especially when companies enter into multiple agreements that allow them to avoid charges for repeated misconduct but no individuals are named. The Justice Department has threatened to “tear up” a deferred or nonprosecution agreement if a company commits additional violations, but whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Even that shift drew a rebuke from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who described it in a speech last week as a “timid step.” For corporate misconduct, she said, “no firm should be allowed to enter into a deferred prosecution or nonprosecution agreement if it is already operating under such an agreement — period.”

With the era of financial crisis cases drawing to a close, the main lesson the Justice Department seems to have taken away is that the focus should be more on individuals who cause corporations to engage in misconduct rather than just the organizations themselves. In a speech last Friday at New York University, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Leslie R. Caldwell, reiterated the point that the primary target will be those inside the company who are responsible for wrongdoing.

Federal prosecutors expect cooperation for corporate misconduct, but self-reporting will no longer be enough to consider a company to be cooperative. “True cooperation, however, requires identifying the individuals actually responsible for the misconduct — be they executives or others — and the provision of all available facts relating to that misconduct,” Ms. Caldwell said.

If anyone still had a notion that companies should be loyal to their employees, the Justice Department is trying to send a message that such feelings should fall by the wayside as prosecutors focus on culpable individuals in organizations. For companies, the dissatisfaction with the lack of signature cases from the financial crisis means increased pressure to cooperate, lest they be made an example of a new “get tough” policy.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Bureaucrooks Gone Wild, The Taming Episode

The lifestyle that Robert Rizzo enjoyed during his run as Bell city manager included a stable full of thoroughbreds, among them a gelding named Depenserdel'argent — French for "spend money."

And Rizzo had plenty to spend, with an annual compensation package that swelled to $1.5 million in one of Los Angeles County's poorest cities.
--LA Times 

Beyond the trillions hoovered up by psycho bankers and bureaucrooks, there's perhaps the question of EM08: Why has no one gone to jail? 

Well, if "EM08" is used as I define it -- government and corporate psychopaths preying on the underclass -- then ex City of Bell city manager Robert Rizzo and his cohorts sitting on ice is a lesson.

Now, Bell is in the east portion of LA, southeast to be more precise. It's a tiny, about 40k populated city, all brown, blue collar. That these bureaucrook scums, some of whom were brown, speaks to just how seductive money is. When you jack anyone innocent it's bad, but when you jack your own kind, well, speaks for itself. Ask Jews about Bernie Madoff, Muslims about Boko Haram or ISIS, or Koreans about kid slob in Pyongyang.

Critics of the death penalty say that it's not a deterrent, and, in fact, statistically, that's apparently true. But that's for capital crimes. EM08 is in another category. Rather than bore you I think what I'll do is make an index of crimes and players, as extensively as I can, in another post. But that's a big project.

For now, let's be content with the following story below. We can't say for sure whether jailing Rizzo and his shithead cohorts was the catalyst for change, but it sure seems coincidental coming a year after jailing those psychos.

And now, faces of evil:

Asian sellout? NAH! It's love, even if he woulda been bricklaying.
Extra chili on the fries. Oh, and Skittles. Lots an lots a Skittles.
Bureaucrooks as only crazy LA can do, in white and now new LA brown.
Yes, my cell mate was Bubba, and yes, I ate him. I am sahwee.

Public CEO at:

City of Bell Scores Top Grades for Open Data Access One Year After Trials Conclude

By Bill Britt.

One year ago this month, former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prisonfor his role in what became known as The Bell Scandal. Five former elected Bell officials were convicted of corruption for paying themselves salaries of up to $100,000 a year for part-time positions.

In a city where one-quarter of the residents live below the poverty line, their elected officials not only bilked the city out of millions, they left it unable to afford the experienced administrators and staff who are now needed to replace them.

But first, the good news: The City of Bell now boasts one of the more open municipal websites when it comes to accessing data. Not only are city procedures and salaries posted, but Mayor Nestor Enrique Valencia points says the names of the people earning those salaries are listed as well. “Before the scandal was exposed, we didn’t even have a website. For years, if you clicked on it, it was the same online picture of a little girl and boy with the caption, ‘Website under construction.’ Our new Finance Director has since turned things around.”

That would be Josh Betta. He’s so good at his job that, during his tenure as Finance Director for the City of Glendora, he received the Certificate of Achievement, the highest form of recognition for governmental accounting and financial reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United Stated and Canada. He regarded Bell as a city worth saving.

“The idea of having a useful and viable website is simply good business,” said Betta. “The challenge is letting people know it exists. After they find it, the challenge for users is perspective. Sure, you can see our salaries but if you want to know whether a salary or increase is appropriate, you have to find the contract pertaining to that union. It’s also on the website, but you’ve got to do the work. It’s not all laid out for you.”

Which is why Mayor Valencia wants to take the website a step further by at least making that contract easy to find. “Visually,” Valencia says, “I’d like to see a tab where people go right to the specific things they’re looking for, but personally, mindful of those fake bonus rewards that were exposed in the scandal, I want us to post total compensation. Not just salaries but pensions, health care benefits and any potential, legitimate bonuses as well.”

While Betta boasts that the city’s website earned an A-minus grade in 2013 from the Sunshine Review, an organization that evaluates the transparency of government websites, Valencia points out that Bell has replaced one image problem for another: It can’t afford to hire quality administrators and support staff. Valencia says the city’s interim city manager has moved on, and both Financial Director Betta, and the Community Development Director are also leaving.

“Our current city manager did great work,” said Valencia. “Our Finance Director, who was key to this turnaround, is moving on. They’ve done their work and other cities are able to pay them more money. We just don’t have the funds to compete.”

And that fact alone causes the mayor to wonder if Bell can survive as a city. “If you can’t hire the right people and they won’t stay for whatever reason, it questions the sustainability of a city. We need good, dedicated professionals with proven experience. Right now, I’m proud of what we’ve done to turn things around. We’ll continue making data easily available online and other cities should follow as well.”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lucero: Llorar

Rancheras were made fun of by us East Los kids, and I suppose the obviousness and sometimes corniness of these popular Mexican songs brings that on. But, like American pop songs, every once in a while, good stuff shines through.

Here's the pretty and popular Lucero, singing a tale of love lost, first in the studio version, then live.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

David FeBland

Artist's Statement

Some years ago, I began to produce paintings that expressed my best and worst impulses set out in the context of public spaces. It was time to give my inner devil an airing. Making virtue of vice, I imbued anonymous figures with swaggering power, elevated faceless nobodies to subject status and filled the streets with stalking female mastodons, all in the service of getting even.

Well, adversity loves company and, living in New York, I found myself in the perfect place to observe the tribulations of others while forgetting about my own. So many nuisances at a stone’s throw.

Those paintings were dark, crowded and monochromatic. As I became more and more absorbed in the project, I found an unexpected conflict beginning to emerge. As I fell more deeply in love with the act of painting, my work became more resonant. My brushwork, palette, depiction of light and air……the paintings were becoming more, well beautiful. Today I see the disconnect between some of my subject matter and my method of depiction as a source of strength…and subversion. It’s a willful act of seducing the viewer into staying with me in the picture.

My work explores the ever-modulating space between aspiration and reality. Its an uncomfortable space for some, that sense of not quite being where or what you think you are – a mental state filled with frisson not unlike the combustible edge of colliding urban neighborhoods, its corporeal equivalent. After depicting just such city spaces for many years, I grew to realize that the concept of an Edge - or more precisely the gap between them - was as much a state of mind as a physical reality and therefore eminently transportable. And so you see before you paintings embracing a variety of settings reflecting my everyday life, my travels grand and mundane, realized and imaginary.

Many of these paintings may look like directly observed events, but they’re not. I make liberal use of the infrastructure of the world around me and, using a variety of sources including memory, produce paintings that are entirely studio inventions. My paintings reflect the insights and doubts many of us share but often can’t find the language to express. I’m luckier than most because over time I’ve developed the voice to articulate these ideas. In fact, I’d say that my paintings are all about the small idea. If my work is successful, if it has significance, then each painting represents a building block which, when seen over the life of a career, serves a greater purpose, a larger idea that is expressed in the fullness of time.

David FeBland
July 2005

Saturday, March 07, 2015

There's a sucker born every minute: The Beanie Baby Bubble

A new book by Zac Bissonnette goes into the Beanie Baby Bubble uses that manic time to delve into the why of collective mania. Today, with bubble mania alive and well around every corner, we now have skinny jeaned pencil necks creating fart eraser apps market valued at $50 billion. Does this make sense any more than losing one's mind over dumb stuffed animals?

Think about another bubble burst phenomenon:
...the power of the revolutionary new technology, assisted by artful manipulation of public perception by interested parties, induced a collective hallucination that made investors ignore such considerations. They persisted in ignoring them for several years, until ... the inevitable disaster struck. [emphasis mine]
Sound familiar? It should. But this isn't the dot com fiasco, nor the runup to EM08. It isn't this century, nor even the last. Citation's here.

A running point I have with my friend, TB, is given all of the psychopathic activity in finance, for instance hedge fund managers that get an edge via inside info, that casinos and card rooms by comparison are beacons of fairness and honesty. Someone who sits at a poker table in Vegas can be very sure that the game is a fair one, because it's not only highly regulated, but policed and prosecuted. Not the owners of this world. Evidently they can stomp around at will, free to create mayhem without fear.

Fear. It's an important aspect of EM08. The trillions hoovered up in the EM08 tsunami have created a vast divide in America, one that I find it hard to believe we'll ever recover from. I'm no math wiz, but the numbers on every front are terrifying. On the street, it's created a culture of fear among the working class, specifically about the present and down the line for their kids and country. Back on top, the evil empire dines on toro for a snack, and there's an utter lack of fear.

I've said before that I believe EM08 is three phases: The run-up and crash of '08, and the second phase, maximum extraction, which we are now in. That means power is doing everything it can to grow bigger and badder, and the evidence is overflowing.

Digression: Check out the Dan Dimicco interview from yesterday. I find his straightforward take not only refreshing, but pragmatic and on point. This country is at a crossroads, and the way we turn in the next few years are crucial. Dimicco reminds me of my mother's generation; no horseshitting around, let's get to work and produce. Let's unleash positive energy in the form of creativity and innovation bolstered by hard work. In a word, let's get our entrepreneur on.

Instead, the bureaucrooks went all in with a bunch of psychopathic criminals, the true super-predators, and we have what we have. It's sad.

And what of EM08's third phase? I used to say it'll be "Judgement Day" or some other dramatic sounding turn, but of late I've begun thinking that maybe phase two and three are a synthesis. In other words, maybe we're already in the crash. It's the feel good crash, buoyed by the collective, proven American ability to believe that somehow, someway, we're, *I*, am going to make it. As I've noted before, some historians believe the second most influential Nazi was Goebbels, which is a way of taking us back to the top: "assisted by artful manipulation of public perception by interested parties." To not know the tools of the devil is to be subject to them. Ask Eddie Bernays, behind the curtain.

Which reminds me of the saying, the most enslaved is the slave that believes he is not enslaved. Or is unaware of or willfully ignores it.
Plush Life
Why did people lose their minds over Beanie Babies?

Beanie Baby Spree 
A 5-year-old boy holds an armful of Beanie Babies while shopping with his mother at the Zany Brainy Toy Store on Sept. 2, 1999, in Brentwood, Missouri.
Photo By Bill Greenblatt/Getty Images

In July of 1999, I traveled with my family to Tenby, Wales. The town is said to be picturesque, but I have no memory of its scenery—except for a small toy store we passed on our drive in. As soon as we settled into our hotel, my sister and I begged our father to trek to the shop and search for the Britannia Beanie Baby, sold exclusively in the United Kingdom. The Britannia bear wasn’t just a toy, we explained; it was an investment, projected to be worth thousands of dollars within a decade. Our father capitulated and bought us each a Britannia bear, which we dutifully kept in mint condition with the tag intact, reveling in its rarity while dreaming of the day it would be a hugely valuable collector’s item.

One month later, the company that developed Beanie Babies abruptly announced that it would stop producing the toys at the end of the year, both anticipating and precipitating the burst of the Beanie Babies bubble. Sellers panicked, buyers lost interest, and by the start of the new millennium, Beanie Babies had swung from an economic and cultural phenomenon to a tired punch line. Today, the Britannia Beanie Baby sells for $10 on eBay. My own Britannia lies buried in a box in the back of my closet along with hundreds of other Beanie Babies, where it has sat, untouched, for 15 years.

From this distance, it’s easy to laugh at Beanie Baby fever, to mock it as just another pointless fad in a chintzy, hollow decade. But in the latter part of the 1990s, Beanie Babies were so much more than a fad: They were a mania, an obsession that ensnared not just gullible children but also otherwise responsible adults who lost all sense of perspective over these plush playthings. People sold—and bought—some rare Beanie Babies for $5,000 each and expected others to skyrocket in value within a decade. (Collectors were careful to keep each toy’s tag attached and protected by a plastic case; a Beanie Baby’s worth was said to fall by 50 percent once the tag was removed.) Looking back, it’s clear that the Beanie Baby craze was an economic bubble, fueled by frenzied speculation and blatantly baseless optimism. Bubbles are quite common, but bubbles over toys are not. Why did America lose its mind over stuffed animals?

Zac Bissonnette’s new book The Great Beanie Baby Bubble does an excellent job explaining the basic economic factors behind Beanie Babies’ success. Ty Warner, the mastermind behind the toys, had a remarkable talent for manipulating supply and demand. (He’s also a borderline recluse and a profoundly troubled man; among other things, Warner repeatedly dated the same women as his father—at the same time—and became a plastic surgery addict.) First, Warner understuffed his toys so that they were flexible and “looked real,” in his words. Second, he sold only small batches of each new Beanie Baby to independent businesses, refusing to supply large quantities to big-box retailers and fixing the price of each toy at $5. Third, Warner “retired” every animal after a fairly short amount of time, introducing a new toy in its stead. This strategy created a near-hysteria each time a Beanie Baby was released, sending fans rushing out to local stores to buy the new toy before supplies disappeared forever.

All of this explains, in simple market terms, how Warner manipulated supply and demand to build a frenzy for his product. But Bissonnette’s book is disappointingly short on psychological explanations for why Americans were eager to shell out at least hundreds of millions of dollars for rather conventional toys. (The total spent on Beanie Babies is unclear because ever-secretive Warner refused to release his company’s earnings.) In one sardonic passage, Bissonnette cites Sigmund Freud’s belief that “the root of collecting” lies in “sex and toilet training,” as “the collector … directs his surplus libido into an inanimate object: a love of things.” Bissonnette also hypothesizes that collecting Beanie Babies “reflect[s] a regression to the soothing and comfort provided by objects during childhood,” and that the acquisition of a scarce, valued item activates our endorphins.

While Freudian theory hasn’t held up well to scientific analysis, some sort of mental disturbance might account for the more extreme cases of Beanie Baby addiction—like the retired soap opera star who lost his children’s six-figure college fund investing in the toys, or the man who committed murder over what a detective described as a “Beanie Baby deal gone bad.” But does it really explain what sent millions of Americans—soccer moms and CEOs, blue-collar workers and yuppies, Ph.D.s and high-school dropouts—utterly bonkers over a brand of plush stuffed animals?

Maple the Bear was the first to go. 
Frances Mountain, left, sorts out Beanie Babies with her ex-husband, Harold Mountain, in a Las Vegas courtroom in 1999. The couple was unable to split the collection by themselves, so they spread it on the courtroom floor and divided it up under the judge’s supervision. Maple the Bear was the first to go.
Photo by Reuters

A paper by David Tuckett and Richard Taffler, two economics professors with training in psychoanalytical theory, suggests Bissonnette’s conjecture isn’t that far off. Tuckett and Taffler specifically examine the dot-com bubble, but their theory applies to all modern bubbles. According to the economists, humans occasionally view exciting new creations as “phantastic objects,” which overwhelm us and skew our sense of reason. Our brains begin to tell us that by obtaining these “magical” objects, we will achieve some profound level of satisfaction—something akin to transcendence. The thrill of the chase then muffles our ability to rationally evaluate the actual worth of the object, and others’ willingness to go along with our fantasy reinforces our suspension of logic.

All this theorizing may sound like so much argle-bargle. But the meat of Tuckett and Taffler’s thesis builds on a famous theory of bubbles by renowned economist Charles Kindleberger. According to Kindleberger, every bubble has four basic stages: a grand new development that shocks the market; “euphoria” over that development; a sudden “boom” in sales and speculation; and, eventually, panic when the bubble bursts. Tuckett and Taffler approve of Kindleberger’s model, adding a coda—“revulsion”—to describe the collective hangover society experiences when it realizes it has invested in junk.

In the Kindleberger model (with the Tuckett/Taffler twist), Beanie Babies are a kind of magical object whose plush perfection captured the imagination of a small subset of early adopters. Soon Beanie Baby collectors sprang up to spread the toy’s transcendent joy, and then everybody needed each new Beanie Baby to complete his or her collection. But Warner limited the number of each animal produced, leading both buyers and sellers scrambling to purchase new releases and, in the process, wildly overvaluing their worth. Eventually, the fantasy faded—for most people, after all, Beanie Babies do not bring about nirvana—and the bubble burst. Buyers lost interest, sellers struggled to offload their surpluses, and the whole country felt rather gross about fixating on stuffed animals.

Andrew Odlyzko, a mathematician and bubble expert, proposes a simpler theory explaining speculative panics in his study on the British Railway Mania of the 1840s. Odlyzko credits Railway Mania in part to a “collective hallucination,” an extreme form of groupthink wherein a significant chunk of society feverishly buys into a shared dream with no regard for the skeptics and naysayers. (Some scholars think Jesus’ resurrection might have been an acute instance of collective hallucination.)

The existence of groupthink has been confirmed in a rich assortment of studies, and Odlyzko’s theory expands the idea to economic bubbles. Under his analysis, the initial coterie of Beanie Baby collectors comprised an in-group that shared the great secret of Beanie Babies’ worth. As more people discovered the toy, they yearned to learn this secret and partake in the impending financial success of the Beanie Babies market. Soon, millions of Americans were gripped by the conviction that they had discovered an easy path to personal wealth. And thanks to their collective hallucination of Beanie Babies’ worth, none of these collectors ever realized that the only thing driving the Beanie Babies market was their own conviction that the toys were valuable.

These theories may explain the mass delusions that enabled a large chunk of the country to believe that a $5 Beanie Baby could eventually be worth thousands. What they never quite get at, however, is that initial spark of fascination: how the ineffable appeal of Beanie Babies turned them, and not one of a thousand other 1990s trends, into a collective mania. That allure can probably never be quantified.

But those who once loved Beanie Babies may still remember it. I certainly do, because I remember when I got my very first Beanie Baby. I was 7 and had just woken up from adenoidectomy surgery to see a family friend through the anesthesia haze. She leaned over my bed and laid Bruno the Bull Terrier Dog by my head. I grabbed Bruno, closed my eyes as the room started spinning, and threw up. Bruno stayed with me through my convalescence, and long after I lost interest in Beanie Babies, he remained perched on my nightstand. There was something sweet and comforting and innocent about him, something so tender and gentle and warm. Bruno was the kind of toy Ty Warner was trying to make for children when he accidentally created a speculative mania for adults.

In 2013, Warner pleaded guilty to tax evasion after admitting to hiding millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account. He was sentenced to probation but may face years of prison time if the Justice Department’s appeal is successful. Bruno the Bull Terrier Dog now sits at the back of my closet with hundreds of other floppy, forlorn toys. Today he sells for 36 cents, with the tag still attached.