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Monday, March 25, 2013

Jim McGreevey's Real Victims

The public fall and long road to "redemption" of former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey is chronicled in an upcoming HBO documentary airing this week.

McGreevey's story, of a straight family man and politician who "comes out" and reveals himself to the press as a "gay American," may make for compelling watching for those who need affirmation of their world view -- to which the concept of gay equality (whatever that truly means) may be central.  

When McGreevey made his sexual orientation public, it was at an August 2004 televised press conference, hastily arranged as McGreevey and his advisers sought to beat an inquiring press -- or possibly even the United States Attorney's Office -- to news of McGreevey's relationship with a young man named Golan Cipel whom McGreevey had inexplicably named the state's homeland security director.  (The transcript of the press conference is here.) That news began to surface not long after the real damaging revelation, that of McGreevey's role as "State Official No. 1," an unnamed player who uttered the infamous code word "Machiavelli" on tape in secret law enforcement recordings, had been made earlier that summer.  (McGreevey was being taped by a New Jersey mulch farmer (whom I speculated was really a professional informant; I mean, since when is scrap wood growings a cash crop? Even in New Jersey?)

I view the documentary as McGreevey's latest and lame attempt to gain sympathy and public acclaim, for what was essentially gutless and truly narcissistic behavior.  His sexual preference, claimed or otherwise, is irrelevant here.  It is a smokescreen -- a reputational beard, if you will -- designed in 2004 and still used today to gain immunity from public outrage and shaming for what he did to his true victims.  In fact, it may have been an attempt to make him such a politically correct figure as to make any criminal investigation or prosecution of him (see above) extremely politically toxic.  But enough about Jim McGreevey, the man who deserves no sympathy, no respect, for publicly humiliating his wife and basically abandoning their daughter.

Left unsaid by virtually all commentators is that McGreevey defrauded his wife, Dina Matos McGreevey.  (I'll leave the speculation about her possibly knowing about his sexual orientation to the conspiracy theorists.)  The relationship was based on a sham, a fraud. His fraud.  A colossal deception of her.  

Dina Matos doesn't get those years back. Their daughter will forever be linked to an absolute cad of a man.  

Almost as equally despicable is the glossing over of Dina's pain, their daughter's pain, the absence of the father whom her mother thought she had married.  It is as if Dina Matos was, and still is and will continue to suffer, for the unintentional sins of being pretty, thin, a professional woman.  

A wife.  

A mother.

In short, being punished for being many things which many other women -- straight or gay -- cannot be.

It makes you wonder whether the sanctification of Jim McGreevey is just as much about envious women's schaenfraude as it is about his own attempt at pretend contrition, at the avoidance of responsibility.  

This is a man whose harm to Dina Matos and their daughter is incalculable, lasting, permanent and barely something one can "move on" from.

For Dina Matos, there is no status quo ante. No undoing the damage.  No restoring the reputation.  While she may be much better equipped to "move on," does that assessment make her less sympathetic?  Does it make Jim McGreevey less of a cad? Does it lessen the evil, the absolutely toxic narcissism with which he lived his life through 2004 and most assuredly continues to live today, albeit carefully concealed in a new cloak of deception, one also of his own making? 

Our society too often celebrates the bad, the evil, the fallen among us, as if to convey the message that the road to success, to fame, is to intentionally screw up and hurt people around you so that you can then rise from the ashes of your own piggishness.  But we should never forget that every day Jim McGreevey chose to continue his deception, he chose to hurt his wife and daughter.  If he is truly contrite, he will speak of nothing but making amends for that tremendous harm.

Such contrition, if genuine, will be done far from the cameras, far from any public accolades and with full respect for any privacy wants or needs that Jim McGreevey's real victims deserve.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

National Soccer Team Wins In Snowstorm

In remarkable conditions more suited to a playoff football game in, say, Green Bay, the United States men's soccer team scored a crucial 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match played in suburban Denver in freezing fog and wind chills in the teens.

Snow fell throughout the game, but play in the second half bordered on treacherous.  At one point the referee tried to stop the game but both teams implored him to continue.  Undoubtedly, Costa Rica had an eye on its Tuesday night qualifying match.  Had tonight's game been suspended and played tomorrow (a dicey proposition given the forecast for near-blizzard conditions through midday Saturday, and six inches of snow), Costa Rica would have had one less recovery day for that next game, at home versus Jamaica.  That is a likely win (and a must-win) for Costa Rica.  However, the conditions tonight negated any skill level advantage that the Americans might have had -- although Latin American countries traditionally have had more skillful ball handlers and dribblers who can excel at one-on-one battles, so most any Latin country poses a test for an American squad. 

The snowy conditions required on-the-fly adjustments -- which I don't believe either team made.  These adjustments would and should have been to the mentality of the players. Instead of the long volley passes, I believe shorter passes would have better enabled ball possession and the development of a methodical attack and scoring chance.  Long passes were hard to execute due to the very slippery conditions, the condition of the ball (subfreezing temperatures turn leather balls into something resembling a block of ice), and the poor footing made it hard for players to be able to react and run onto a pass.  In other words, a pass had to be right at a player or else the ball would go out of bounds, or simply stop as the snow and ice concoction would stop many rolling balls from sailing on the grass out of bounds.

The conditions and adversity made me think that tonight's game would have put a premium on the dribbling and short passing skills that often made certain mediocre outdoor players in the old North American Soccer League excellent -- if not star -- indoor soccer players in the Major Indoor Soccer League.  Those players more often than not came from certain countries like Argentina, Bolivia and what used to be Yugoslavia -- countries where the traditional style of play emphasized ball control in tight spaces over the reliance on the "air war" of volleys and set plays (a good characterization of English soccer).  The growing proliferation of players moving cross-border to top European leagues has erased much of the traditional "national" styles of play in the last two decades, however.

In the meantime, the United States next plays Mexico on Tuesday night at Estadio Azteca.  The United States' qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 is no means certain

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is Federal Government The Enemy of Investors?

Provocative headline, prompted by breaking news that federal regulators secretly downgraded American Too Big To Fail, Too Big To Jail uberbank JP Morgan Chase last summer, but did not tell the investing public.

That's nice.  Not to defend anyone committing, accused or suspected of engaging in fraud, insider trading or other market-rigging crimes, but secrets kept by the government have the same fraudulent, outcome-distorting effect.  And these secrets also produce unjust winners and losers.

If a private citizen makes an analogous secret deal and doesn't disclose it, and if it's later ruled to be "material," that citizen is likely to face civil lawsuits from wronged investors, or even criminal prosecution for securities fraud.  Something known as Rule 10b-5.

Is this just more evidence that the federal government is picking winners and losers in the investing arena as well?  

Is this just another disclosure that undermines what remains of the investing public's confidence in either the markets or its federal government?

How the heck does one invest in this environment? These are the questions one must ask, when regulatory uncertainty seems to be the government's modus operandi and one can assume only hypocrisy, not fairness, from the government. Such uncertainty can only undermine future economic growth and prompt some economic actors -- business owners, investors, retirees -- to withdraw from the economy. This is a foreseeable and entirely prudent course of action, when any other activity carries with it a risk of regulation, prosecution or confiscation. For the rest of us who aren't yet willing or able to shut down and retire, the coming years may be daunting indeed.

Most Evil New Jersey Lawyer Bergrin Faces Life

Former federal prosecutor turned convicted murderer Paul Bergrin faces a lifetime jail sentence after being found guilty of multiple counts, including the murder of federal criminal trial witnesses.  Today, the largest newspaper in New Jersey calls for Bergrin to get a life sentence in this editorial

Question for readers: Did Bergrin "go bad" after leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office? Or was he a "bad nut" to begin with?  If the latter, this suggests that Bergrin's criminality was hidden well while working for the federal government (and before that, with the state as a prosecutor in Essex County, of which Newark is the county seat).  It calls into question the psychological vetting in these offices and, unfortunately, casts a pall over many fine lawyers -- prosecutors and former prosecutors -- who have distinguished themselves through both intellect and integrity.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lawyers As Serfs?: Fed Judge Proposes Lawyers' Corps For Immigration

The devaluation and degradation of America's professions continues.

A New York federal judge proposes forming a lawyers' corps -- mostly of newbie lawyers with soon-to-retire mentors -- to handle the growing immigration case backlog that plagues many federal courts around the country.  The corps would rely on private money and government subsidies; in other words, government money will be spent under this plan to provide legal help for noncitizens who "need" legal representation.  As there is no mention of what the immigrants -- legal, illegal, asylum seeker or otherwise -- would pay, it is reasonable to assume they would get their lawyers for free.  Well, free for them.  For the taxpayer, not so free.

Such proposals will hurt most lawyers, particularly those in small firms in the private sector who must be entrepreneurial.  That is because every program to "provide legal services to the needy" (and every word in that phrase deserves the quotations) conditions the population to receive and expect free lawyers, as if it is an entitlement, a right.  There are several consequences of such proposals.

First, the provision of free services -- legal or otherwise -- implies the value of those services is, well, close to zero.  Retailers know this when they do fire sales and dump inventory at markdowns of 80-90%.  This type of program will tell a segment of the population: (1) lawyers' services aren't worth very much, (2) don't go to a private lawyer, go to a lawyer for free through our program, and (3) you have a right to a free lawyer.  

The third message undermines the private bar, but also sends a frustrating message to middle-class and lower-class citizens: you don't get a free lawyer, and you get to pay for others (who may or may not deserve to even be in the country) to try to endlessly plead their case in the courts in an effort to outrun the immigration authorities until mass amnesty is declared.   There is little more discouraging than to have the hard-working, urban poor, struggling to get ahead, forced to see and to pay for subsidies for others who may be less deserving (or not deserving at all) of a government (or hybrid private/public partnership) subsidy.

The effects on the legal profession will not be positive.  Such proposals will be the first step towards forcing lawyers into collectives, much like doctors are being forced through economic disincentives into selling their small practices and working as salaried employees (for less pay but with less hours) of hospitals.  There is likely to be another economic result (possibly intended): Good lawyers will abandon the practice of law for other pursuits which pay more.  When attorneys are faced with declining revenue, increasing regulation and a growing public backlash to the profession as a whole, this becomes an attractive option.

The larger picture is not good.  Economic pressures on the private, entrepreneurial segment of the legal profession, combined with the economic pressures on the middle-class, threaten to make quality legal representation for the middle class scarce as capable and honest attorneys leave the practice of law, leaving the profession to the cookie-cutter paralegal mills (technically, supervised by one or two lawyers) who will be positioned to take advantage of the poorest and most uneducated segments of the population.

This free immigration lawyer service will be the product of a do-gooder proposal, floated by a federal judge whose grasp of economic realities may not comport with the economic reality.  New York federal judge Robert Katzmann has little excuse for such detachment from reality; his court, at 500 Pearl Street in Manhattan, is literally just across the street from a burgeoning slum still known as Chinatown.  Others in the legal profession, who may have graduated from The School of Hard Knocks and/or been raised in economically disadvantaged environments, know that the actual impact will probably be negative.

But for the progressive, professional class, which measures the value of charity not by its impact on the purportedly-targeted population but by the improvement in their own self-esteem, such adverse realities will be of no consequence.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bank Run in Cyprus: Could It Infect American Stock Markets?

The sheep may be approaching their slaughter. The bank accounts, the savings accounts of the responsible, the least profligate, the most penurious, are under imminent attack in the EuroZone. This is more than an attack on six or ten percent of your savings account. This is an attack on the most sacrificing, the most responsible, and the most righteously angry segment of the population. Nothing creates a moral hazard -- to steal and then to spend -- than the taxation of savings. Those who were irresponsible, or larcenous, converted their ill-gotten gains of yesterday or yesteryear into material goods which are ill-susceptible to taxation and only may be gotten through seizure (and later, through sale at discounted prices). All of this is being undertaken by the EuroZone -- subject, that is, to approval by the Cypriot government meeting on Monday during, coincidentally, a bank holiday in that island nation -- and will roil the world's investment markets. What are the implications for the United States, which remains considered -- despite its warts -- the cleanest of the dirtiest shirts in the closet?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bank Runs In Eurozone Possible After Cyprus Emergency Meeting Sunday

A shocking development this weekend. Residents of Cyprus have run on the banks on the small Mediterranean island, after news that Cyprus is considering instituting a 9.9 percent tax on wealthy bank depositors' accounts with balances over 100,000 Euros, with ordinary accounts hit with a 6.75 percent tax, as part of Eurozone austerity measures imposed Saturday.  The Cypriot government will meet to vote Sunday on whether to adopt the measure.

Eurozone ministers have declined to rule out similar measures in other countries.  This may weaken many Eurozone banks as well as spark a flight to quality -- hell, a flight to pure safety -- as capital preservation becomes the immediate concern over any concern over returns on investment. 

One wonders if the United States will see a flood of new capital, as well as increased commodity buying from abroad as people seek to convert seizable assets into less liquid assets.  Gold and silver, anyone?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Low-Flow Toilets: Flush This Idea

New York City plans to install hundreds of new "low-flow" toilets in public schools, replacing the old, standard, dependable toilets that would actually flush what you put in them.  

As is common with government policy, beware the unintended consequences.

As anyone who lives in a home built in the last ten years will tell you, an "old" toilet is a prized commodity because it actually effectively flushes its organic contents.  That is, after all, the purpose of a toilet: the removal of potentially health-hazardous organic material.  If toilets don't exist for health and sanitation reasons, we might as well poop on the bushes outside (just like people did 200 years ago and the homeless still tend to do today). The value of that removal has been recognized since 18th century scientists began to at least suspect a link between nonexistent urban sanitation and widespread, deadly diseases like cholera, and since at least the early 19th century cities began instituting urban sewerage systems.

The low-flow toilet idiocy turns this value on its head. (No pun intended.)  It replaces the sanitation / health and safety values with the uber-value of "conserving" water.  

The new toilets allegedly use 70 percent less water.  That assumes, of course, that nothing clogs up the toilet.  Stuff like organic material, human excretions and toilet paper.  (Insects and the occasional baby crocodile are not considered here for purposes of this column.)

However, when the new toilets inefficiently (er, they flat out don't) remove the organic material, we are presented with fresh, exposed organic detritus that exposes the surrounding air and water to cross-contamination.  Harmful, disease-causing bacteria can become airborne.  Toilets which aerosolize their contents with each flush end up spreading the bacteria in every direction other than down and out, turning rest rooms (and their hapless users) into petri dishes.  Efficient toilets promote human health the best by flushing the most organic material in one flush!

With a low-flow toilet, you have more harmful residue remaining in the toilet. In addition to this being simply gross, and a health hazard, you then have a clogging risk from the buildup of residue.  Partial clogs lead to multiple flushes, which exacerbate the problems I explained above as well as undermine the very rationale behind a low-flow toilet.  (But if you own a company that makes plungers, this is good for business.)

None of this seems to bother the environmentals one bit. Their highest value is water conservation. Human health is a secondary -- if not nonexistent -- value to them.  If little kids die from cholera because of cross contamination, that is apparently an acceptable tradeoff for the value of "saving" water.

But the concept of "saving" water is idiotic by itself.  There is a water cycle throughout nature.  Water falls from the sky, hits the ground, seeps into the ground and ultimately (whether through rivers, aquifers or sewers) goes back into the oceans from which it evaporates into the sky, then condensing to form clouds and ultimately falling back as precipitation or returning as atmospheric water vapor.  The "water" doesn't disappear.  To the extent water's component molecules (two hydrogen for each oxygen molecule) are separated, these elements are also among the most basic in the universe and constant combine and recombine.

If New York City's schools really want to save water, they'll keep all those old toilets.  Every last one of them.  And they'll flush the low-flow toilets along with the ban on oversized soft drinks.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Homeless Invasion: New York's Return To The Dinkins Era

The homeless -- the reeking, stinking, putrid hordes of aggressive, hostile and deliberately unnerving homeless -- basically ran New York's subways, public libraries and transportation hubs twenty years ago.

An early morning commuter might step into a subway car and be outnumbered by bums 50 to one. (Trust me: I was the one.)

If you knew better, you didn't sit down, because a homeless person with soiled pants may have been sitting there earlier.

Today, New York is returning to those dark days of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. The days B.G. - Before Giuliani. When politicians were afraid to confront and expel the homeless. When commuters, business owners and residents were expected to tolerate their presence, their assault on our senses and sensibilities and, too often, their mental illnesses and violence, as the price for being in The Big City.

Those were the days when a New Jersey judge ruled that local residents objecting to a stinking bum's presence were ignored by that judge and told that "Instead of revoking [the bum's] library card, we ought to revoke his condition.". As if his "condition" were either the fault or the duty of the public to remedy.

New York City has returned to the days of inaction, of paralysis, of grudging resignation to tolerating the homeless. The evidence is the hundreds of stinking, menacing homeless now inhabitating Grand Central, Penn Station and Port Authority, certain midtown indoor plazas and even some parks.

New York City and building owners are rightfully reluctant to expel the homeless for fear of the plaintiffs' class action lawsuit asserting unconstitutional deprivations of rights. But the average person on the street has a voice.

Businesses which refuse to address their homeless problem -- of the homeless refusing to vacate the premises -- have an unenviable choice: fear the lawsuit, or fear the lost business when customers flee. (Indeed, the homeless understand this; part of this problem is a game of urban extortion played by the intentionally obnoxious.)

New York's renewal was sparked by Mayor Giuliani's understanding that the old paradigm of nonconfrontation had to change in order to retain businesses and residents, attract tourists and attract development.

New York's renewed decline will be sparked by a return to the fearful policies of appeasement and guilt. The elites may decry their condition. The average family with options -- hell, with a car -- will go out to the suburbs. And stay there.

Something to ponder the next time to hear any of the nine announced or presumed candidates for New York City mayor speak.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pension Funds And Controversial Investments

From time to time, political observers wonder with shock and awe how public employee pension funds stay invested in the stock of companies which sell tobacco, produce toxic chemicals or manufacture guns.

It's actually very simple.  The pension funds are doing their job.

This takes some explanation. It's very simple.  The job of the pension fund manager is to make money.  That is, to protect and grow the investment of the public employees whose defined contributions -- or contributions from another source, in defined benefit plans -- have gone into the fund.  If a pension fund keeps an investment in a tobacco or weapons manufacturer, the fund is doing its one and only job on behalf of its beneficiaries, who are the only people to whom the fund owes any fiduciary or legal duty.

The tricky part is that the funds often project a certain investment rate of return in order to meet outflows to pension fund beneficiaries (retired workers).  This is no easy job, and it's easy to miss your targets and have a fund deficit (that is, outflows or projected future liabilities are outpacing the actual investment returns of the fund).

But the main point here is that the pension fund exists to provide for the retirement of its beneficiaries, the public workers.  It's all about protecting and advancing their financial interest.  

It is most certainly not about making political statements by divesting or selling the stock of companies which might be considered politically incorrect (like tobacco companies).  Although they are public sector workers, fund beneficiaries are not obligated to take political positions in accordance with any elected official.  Especially when those statements would be made and paid for with the money of the public workers.

The Criminal's Multiple Identity Game: Catch Me If You Can, Part 2

Seasoned criminal suspects often learn a variety of ruses, tricks and deceptions to defraud people and sometimes even the courts.  With that in mind, here is an interesting story about a New  York suspect who was using at least five different aliases.  

(And just for the heck of it, have fun checking out my original Catch Me If You Can article from the summer of 2011.)