Mohammed Islam Should Read During Lunch Break

Mohammed IslamJust about everywhere I went on Sunday, I saw a very click-bait-y headline about some kid who had made $72 million during his lunch break day trading. I’m highly susceptible to click-bait, but I did not click. For one thing, I’m not that interested in things that are special only because they are done by someone young. They always make me wonder what’s wrong with their parents and why the kids aren’t outside doing something edifying. I’m also not interested in the subject of stock trading. I would have been far more interested by a headline like, “High school senior has profound inside into Don Quixote during lunch break.” So I just didn’t care.

Now we learn from New York Observer that the kid was lying. Or rather, he was trading but it was all simulated. Fair enough. Fun with numbers! Of course, it wasn’t all a simple mistake. The young man — Mohammed Islam — went so far as to make a false bank statement that he used to deceive the original reporter. But I can’t imagine that she looked all that closely. After all, a multi-millionaire self-made teenager is exactly the sort of thing that America generally, and New York especially, wants to celebrate. He reaps but does not sow — the American Dream!

Before the story fell apart, Jeff Macke at Yahoo! Finance called it bunk, Story of the High School Day Trader Making $72 Million Fails the Smell Test. Basically, he showed that the numbers just didn’t add up. He calculated that Islam would have had to have made returns of at least 500% per year for the last seven years — since he was ten years old. “In other words, Mo wouldn’t have to be one of the few blessed souls with market skills like Warren Buffett or Paul Tudor Jones… Mo would have to be the greatest trader in history. Ever. By far.” Since he’s a finance type, Macke’s annoyance seems to be with the idea that people think making money with stocks is easy. Fair enough. But I doubt that this is really what was going on in the story. I think it is rather the opposite.

The story was a big deal in the same way as “Six year old sings national anthem at Super Bowl.” Stock trading is something that few people really understand but which they think is super cool because people make scads of money doing it. And it has been a long time since the stock market seemed to have much relationship to the real economy. I know that every stock trader thinks they are doing the important work of moving capital to companies that need it. But with things like high-frequency trading, which actually hurt the process of moving capital to where it can be used, this isn’t entirely true. And certainly the public’s perception of Wall Street is that it is a kind of black magic that some people are very good at. So why not a 17 year old high school student?

I wonder about a society that thinks this is a good thing. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that Islam reaped but did not sow. His amazing trading — if it were true — would not have resulted in a more efficient market where worthy companies get more capital at a lower price. He supposedly started trading penny stocks! What he was supposedly doing was just beating other traders. He was the human equivalent of a high-frequency trading computer. And that means that all Islam was doing was making money. We’re supposed to applaud that?!

Give me a 5,000 word essay about the depiction of the working man in Don Quixote any day!

Obama’s Bad Bet on Republicans

Barack ObamaOver the weekend, Jane Mayer wrote, Torture and the Truth. I know that many people are thinking, “Torture! Again?! That’s so last week!” Actually, this article is not about torture. But the truth of the matter is that, for me, torture will never be so last whatever. It’s not that I ever thought that the United States was lily white, but I was appalled when Cheney started talking about the “dark side” and people began to discuss when torture might be okay. From grammar school on, I always thought that the willingness to torture was the prime thing that separated the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” So I’m never getting over this. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

In Mayer’s article, she discussed how Obama blew the response to this issue. By leaving it for so long to be dealt with by the Senate, he allowed it to become just another partisan issue. She quoted political science professor Darius Rejali, “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty.” (I find this terrifying; I really do think that the Republicans have devolved into nothing short of fascism.) But it isn’t like the issue was off the table. Mayer explained that in early 2009, pretty much all of Obama’s advisers were in favor of “the formation of an independent commission.” It wasn’t done. “Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.”

Two days ago, I quoted Garry Wills, The Problem With Obama. In it, he said that Obama is so keen to maintain continuity that he often (Usually?) does the wrong thing. I think that is at work here. But there is a political aspect here as well — one that gets to the heart of why Obama was exactly the wrong president for this period. He was so eager to placate to stop people from attacking him as a foreign radical. And what he got for that was absolutely nothing. And that will continue going forward.

Can anyone doubt that if President Cruz is elected in 2016, that he would hesitate to prosecute the previous administration for any actual scandal that turns up? The Republicans — almost twenty years ago when they were a hell of lot more reasonable than they are now — impeached a president because he lied about an affair with an intern. I’m not even convinced that if the Republicans control all of Washington in 2017 that they won’t continue on with their Benghazi and IRS fake scandal mongering.

As I mention a whole lot around here, I’m not that ideological. I’m a pragmatist. That’s why I gave the Democrats a pass on the CRomnibus. But there is a huge difference between knowing what is possible and pretending that you live in a world of fairies and elves where you can have all the candy you want. And that was certainly the world that Obama used to live in. And to a significant, but reduced, degree I think he still does.

Politics is about power. Smart power. It isn’t about rubbing your opponent’s nose in his defeat. In fact, providing face-saving concessions to your enemies is a big part of correcting wielding power. (This is something that the United States is famously bad at internationally.) But it is not about cajoling. All Obama’s efforts to entice and prove that he is a moderate (by our far-right skewing system) have only hurt his efforts to get things done. If he had called for a single-payer healthcare system, he would have been called a socialist. So he didn’t call for a single-payer healthcare system, and he was called a socialist.

Well played, Mr President!


For the record, I know that the reason we couldn’t have a single-payer healthcare system is because of all those Blue Dog Democrats — like Obama himself! I should point out, however, that the vast majority of those conservative Democrats were swept out of office in 2010, so I don’t really know what they thought they were buying. And that was as predictable as anything in politics. Conservative Democrats get elected in nominally red districts. Outside of a wave, Democrats won’t get elected there, so they are sure to lose the next time. So they might as well stand up for liberal policy. (This is assuming that they believe in liberal policy. And I have to admit that I just don’t know anymore.)

H/T: Digby

The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual

Haron MonisMy big takeaway from Tim Rice’s White Like Me is that the ultimate sense of white privilege is not being defined as a category. It is like when I was a child, I thought that vanilla had no flavor — just sugary deliciousness. This isn’t to say that this is all that white privilege is. Given my anti-authoritarian tendencies and the way I’ve lived my life, had I been born black, I would probably be doing 20 to life in some prison somewhere. I would not be able to refer wryly to my “colorful” past. But I think it is much more fundamental to know that anything I do — go or bad — reflects on me alone and is not “typical of those people” or “the exception that proves the rule about those people.”

This occurs to me all the time. Whenever there is murder, I hope it is a white guy. It’s not that I care about the individual case. But when it is anyone but a white guy, it becomes categorized. The issue is not the explicit bigots — they already “know” whatever it is they know. But for the rest of us, it pushes buttons that have been created by living in a racist society our entire lives. In fact, it is doubtless deeper than that — with evolutionary and pattern recognition aspects of biology.

It is in this context that I came upon Max Fisher’s fantastic article, Stop Asking Muslims to Condemn Terrorism. It’s Bigoted and Islamophobic. With a headline that great, you hardly need to read the article. I feel like getting it tattooed to my forehead. The truth is, it is everywhere in the United States (and the west, as Fisher discussed). It is more blatantly bigoted than anything Paula Deen ever said. Yet it is not only allowed on television — it is celebrated.

Imagine if the same thing were applied to African Americans. Imagine that every time a black man committed a murder, the NAACP had to issue a statement, “The African American community does not condone murder…” As racist a society as we are, no one thinks that would be reasonable because we all know that the act of one black man does not reflect the arbitrary category we place him in — at least when we manage to think about it explicitly. But somehow, requiring the same from Muslims seems just peachy. Fisher noted, “Otherwise, we wouldn’t expect Muslims to condemn [Sydney cafe gunman] Haron Monis — who is clearly a crazy person who has no affiliations with formal religious groups — any more than we would expect Christians to condemn Timothy McVeigh.”

But there’s a kicker. Every event where a Muslim does something terrible causes every mainstream Muslim group to issues statements designed to pacify the non-Muslim community, who are at that point quite dangerous. But they get no credit for it. Throughout the media, there will still be pundits calling for such statements. On conservative media, there is a genre: the Muslim Lament, “Why don’t regular Muslims stand up against horrific acts?!” Of course, they do. They just never get noticed by these people.

I know the standard reply to all of this, “But Muslims are unique in their use of terror!” I have much to say about this, because it shows a real disconnect where high-tech killing is somehow okay but low-tech killing is not. But let me leave all that aside. Muslims are not unique in their use of terror. And regardless, when the IRA bombed some place, no one went around whining that the Catholic Church didn’t stand up against those terrorists.

Fisher said what ought to be obvious, but isn’t, and bears repeating:

[W]e should treat the assumptions that compel this ritual — that Muslims bear collective responsibility, that they are presumed terrorist-sympathizers until proven otherwise — as flatly bigoted ideas with no place in our society.

This really isn’t asking very much.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on New Republic

Ta-Nehisi CoatesIt’s true that TNR‘s staff roundly objected to excerpting The Bell Curve, but I was never quite sure why. Sullivan was simply exposing the dark premise that lay beneath much of the magazine’s coverage of America’s ancient dilemma.

What else to make of the article that made Stephen Glass’s career possible, “Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work”? The piece asserted that black people in DC were distinctly lacking in the work ethic best evidenced by immigrant cab drivers. A surrealist comedy, Glass’s piece revels in the alleged exploits of a mythical Asian-American avenger — Kae Bang — who wreaks havoc on black criminals who’d rather rob taxi drivers than work. The article concludes with Glass, in the cab, while its driver is robbed by a black man. It was all lies.

What else to make of TNR sending Ruth Shalit to evaluate affirmative action at The Washington Post in 1995? “She cast Post writer Kevin Merida as some kind of poster boy for affirmative action when in fact he had risen in the business for reasons far more legitimate than her own,” David Carr wrote in 1999. Shalit’s piece wasn’t all lies. But it wasn’t all true either. Shortly after the article was published, she was revealed to be a serial plagiarist.

TNR might have been helped by having more — or merely any — black people on its staff. I spent the weekend calling around and talking to people who worked in the offices over the years. From what I can tell, in that period, TNR had a total of two black people on staff as writers or editors. When I asked former employees whether they ever looked around and wondered why the newsroom was so white, the answers ranged from “not really” to “not often enough.” This is understandable. Prioritizing diversity would have been asking TNR to not be TNR. One person recalled a meeting at the magazine’s offices when the idea of excerpting The Bell Curve was first pitched. Charles Murray came to this meeting to present his findings. The meeting was very contentious. I asked if there were any black people in the room this meeting. The person could not recall.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Republic: An Appreciation

Jane Austen

Jane AustenOn this day in 1775, the great novelist Jane Austen was born. She is known for her witty romance novels, but they are probably better thought of as parodies of the romances of her own day. In this way, she is rather like Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is a loving ribbing of the chivalric books of his own time. But all of that is lost on most modern readers. It is remarkable, however, that we are able to get so much out of her novels completely outside the context in which they were written.

Another aspect of her novels that isn’t as appreciated as it ought to be is their political content. Austen was clearly very concerned about one issue: the injustice of inheritance law in England at that time — most especially the way that it affected women. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet is looking into the abyss of a future after her husband is dead when she (and her five daughters) will likely be thrown into poverty. In the book, she comes off as very silly; but it is hard not to sympathize with her razor-like focus on getting her daughters married.

In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, poverty is not in the future — it is manifest. But there is another aspect of that novel that especially appeals to me. In it, she savages the romantic sensibilities of the time. Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby do not come off well in the novel. Austen clearly did not think much of the early romantics. I tend to agree.

Let me quote a little bit from the beginning of Sense and Sensibility. This is a lovely (and horrible) scene where John Dashwood’s wife Fanny talks him out of the promise he made to his father to take care of the son’s stepmother after the father’s death. These are the rationalizations of real people:

“It was my father’s last request to me,” replied her husband, “that I should assist his widow and daughters.”

“He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child.”

“He did not stipulate for any particular sum, my dear Fanny; he only requested me, in general terms, to assist them, and make their situation more comfortable than it was in his power to do. Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly suppose I should neglect them. But as he required the promise, I could not do less than give it; at least I thought so at the time. The promise, therefore, was given, and must be performed. Something must be done for them whenever they leave Norland and settle in a new home.”

“Well, then, let something be done for them; but that something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider,” she added, “that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy–”

“Why, to be sure,” said her husband, very gravely, “that would make great difference. The time may come when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition.”

“To be sure it would.”

“Perhaps, then, it would be better for all parties, if the sum were diminished one half.– Five hundred pounds would be a prodigious increase to their fortunes!”

“Oh! beyond anything great! What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is — only half blood! — But you have such a generous spirit!”

“I would not wish to do any thing mean,” he replied. “One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more.”

“There is no knowing what they may expect,” said the lady, “but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is, what you can afford to do.”

“Certainly — and I think I may afford to give them five hundred pounds a-piece. As it is, without any addition of mine, they will each have about three thousand pounds on their mother’s death — a very comfortable fortune for any young woman.”

“To be sure it is; and, indeed, it strikes me that they can want no addition at all. They will have ten thousand pounds divided amongst them. If they marry, they will be sure of doing well, and if they do not, they may all live very comfortably together on the interest of ten thousand pounds.”

“That is very true, and, therefore, I do not know whether, upon the whole, it would not be more advisable to do something for their mother while she lives, rather than for them — something of the annuity kind I mean.– My sisters would feel the good effects of it as well as herself. A hundred a year would make them all perfectly comfortable.”

His wife hesitated a little, however, in giving her consent to this plan.

“To be sure,” said she, “it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But, then, if Mrs. Dashwood should live fifteen years we shall be completely taken in.”

“Fifteen years! my dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase.”

“Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. Her income was not her own, she said, with such perpetual claims on it; and it was the more unkind in my father, because, otherwise, the money would have been entirely at my mother’s disposal, without any restriction whatever. It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world.”

“It is certainly an unpleasant thing,” replied Mr. Dashwood, “to have those kind of yearly drains on one’s income. One’s fortune, as your mother justly says, is not one’s own. To be tied down to the regular payment of such a sum, on every rent day, is by no means desirable: it takes away one’s independence.”

“Undoubtedly; and after all you have no thanks for it. They think themselves secure, you do no more than what is expected, and it raises no gratitude at all. If I were you, whatever I did should be done at my own discretion entirely. I would not bind myself to allow them any thing yearly. It may be very inconvenient some years to spare a hundred, or even fifty pounds from our own expenses.”

“I believe you are right, my love; it will be better that there should be no annuity in the case; whatever I may give them occasionally will be of far greater assistance than a yearly allowance, because they would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year. It will certainly be much the best way. A present of fifty pounds, now and then, will prevent their ever being distressed for money, and will, I think, be amply discharging my promise to my father.”

“To be sure it will. Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season. I’ll lay my life that he meant nothing farther; indeed, it would be very strange and unreasonable if he did. Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughters may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds, besides the thousand pounds belonging to each of the girls, which brings them in fifty pounds a year a-piece, and, of course, they will pay their mother for their board out of it. Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?– They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.”

“Upon my word,” said Mr. Dashwood, “I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described. When my mother removes into another house my services shall be readily given to accommodate her as far as I can. Some little present of furniture too may be acceptable then.”

“Certainly,” returned Mrs. John Dashwood. “But, however, one thing must be considered. When your father and mother moved to Norland, though the furniture of Stanhill was sold, all the china, plate, and linen was saved, and is now left to your mother. Her house will therefore be almost completely fitted up as soon as she takes it.”

“That is a material consideration undoubtedly. A valuable legacy indeed! And yet some of the plate would have been a very pleasant addition to our own stock here.”

“Yes; and the set of breakfast china is twice as handsome as what belongs to this house. A great deal too handsome, in my opinion, for any place they can ever afford to live in. But, however, so it is. Your father thought only of them. And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes; for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to them.”

This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.

Reading that again, it makes me angry. Austen had people nailed. Her exaggeration is only slight. I think Fanny reaching the point of turning the logic back on itself — it is sad that they will get to hold onto that fine furniture when our selfishness will require them to live in place not deserving of it — doesn’t ring true. That’s Austen’s brilliance. If the conversation had ended a couple of paragraphs before, it would leave the reader punching the wall. But it is good to that that people have not gotten notably worse in the last two centuries.

Happy birthday Jane Austen!