Dec 25 2008

The shame of Bernie Madoff

Published by under Judaism,Opinion,Thoughts

As a Jew (and a Modern Orthodox Jew at that) I am deeply saddened and shamed by Bernie Madoff. Of course I realize that what he did was not my fault. But what I am particularly disgusted and ashamed of was who he stole money from. Of course stealing money in his Ponzi scheme was bad enough (and $50 billion dollars at that!) but what makes it that much more egregious is that he stole it from charities and other organizations that rely on their endowments and investments to help fund their work to help other people. He’s sort of a perverted Robin Hood — he stole from everyone to spend on…?

I recently read a good letter from Rabbi Marc Gellman in the latest issue of Newsweek. Rabbi Gellman does an excellent job in summing up the betrayal that Bernie Madoff has wreaked everyone. However, what I really feel he quantified best was the damage that Mr. Madoff has done to Jews everywhere. As Rabbi Gellman notes

You are responsible for reviving the “Jew game.” I heard of the Jew game from a boy who became a man last Saturday. I asked him once if he had ever experienced anti-Semitism in school. That is when he looked at the floor and told me about the Jew game. The game, played by anti-Semitic kids in school, was one in which they would hide around a corner, throw a quarter down the hall, and then when somebody picked up the quarter, they’d run at the person, shouting, “You’re the Jew!”

You did not cause the anti-Semitic insults about Jews and money, but you caused them to be revived.

(Gellman, Marc, “A Letter To Madoff,” Newsweek, December 23, 2008 )

Yes, Mr. Madoff…you have revived not just anti-semitic insults but you, personally, have revived the ancient bigotry and accusations that Jews are untrustworthy and greedy (Gellman, Marc, “A Letter To Madoff,” Newsweek, December 23, 2008 )…you have given new life to the slur “dirty Jew” that flows from the mouths of the bigots and hate-mongers who despise us. You, Sir, have done this single-handedly. The Aryan Nation couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than you and you will assuredly be cursed for what you have done.

I am reminded of a story a friend of mine told me one time about a Professor at Yeshiva University who taught accounting. It seems that some time after he taught a particular class a few of his students were arrested for embezzlement. When asked why they did it (especially since they studied at Yeshiva University) they said that they were never told not to steal. So, in response, this professor would make sure that every semester he would tell his students “oh, by the way, don’t steal!” Now, as to how accurate this story is, I cannot say but it seems to sum Bernie Madoff pretty well. “Do not steal” is one of the Ten Commandments given to us at Mt. Sinai…it’s not like this was some obscure commandment…this was one of the Ten that were on the tablets Moses brought down! How could you not know this one Bernie?

I find it interesting that Yeshiva University professors are now trying to find a lesson in what Bernie Madoff has done. In a New York Times article is a story of how the students of Yeshiva University struggle to find lessons in this and to understand the short and long term implications for the Jewish community. We are all sullied by the actions of this man and many within our own communities and our own institutions were impacted by the thievery of Mr. Madoff…some will never recover.

I am ashamed of Mr. Madoff…but he doesn’t represent Jews worldwide. What he has done, though, has awakened and reinforced the old stereotypes that we had hoped would die away with the Nazis and the communists. For that, Bernie, there has to be a special place in Hell for you. May your name be blotted out from memory.

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Dec 22 2008

And what did you do with that money?

A recent op-ed by Frank Rich of the New York Times made me do a little digging this morning into just where our taxpayer money being used to bailout institutions like Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs (to name a few) is going. Unfortunately the picture is not looking too good at the moment.

It seems that along with throwing $700 billion of taxpayer money (Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked for the other half of the $700 billion to be released back on Friday, December 19th after originally indicating that he would leave it available for the incoming administration) at these institutions the government (that would be both the current administration and Congress) has failed to conduct the appropriate oversight necessary to ensure that this money was not being used to pay for bonuses and other compensation. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report, GAO-09-161 detailing a lack of specific, enforceable methods of ensuring that the money given to banks is used according to the original intent of the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP). Specificially, the GAO report notes

We spoke with representatives of the eight large institutions that initially received funds under CPP [Capital Purchase Program — clarification added, ID], and they told us that their institutions intended to use the funds in a manner consistent with the goals of CPP. Generally, the institutions stated that CPP capital would not be viewed any differently from their other capital—that is, the additional capital would be used to strengthen their capital bases, make business investments and acquisitions, and lend to individuals and businesses. With the exception of two institutions, institution officials noted that money is fungible and that they did not intend to track or report CPP capital separately.

(Government Accountablility Office, TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2008, p. 25)

By the way, the definition of the word “fungible” is interchangeable (see dictionary.com). As amazing as it may seem the indications are that the money which the U.S. taxpayer has given these institutions to help right themselves after nearly collapsing last September/October can well be used to pay bonuses to managers and executives. How is this possible? Weren’t we assured that this would not happen?

As originally written the bailout bill would have provided for limitations to the compensation given to Wall Street executives who took money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and provided a framework for reviewing and penalizing those institutions that broke the rules in the program. It seems, however, that as the bailout bill was winding its way through the White House a small, one-sentence change was made to the wording in the bill by the Bush administration. According to the Washington Post

The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction, which was the way the Treasury Department had said it planned to use the money.

(Paley, Amit R., “Executive Pay Limits May Prove Toothless,” The Washington Post, December 15, 2008 )

Now it appears that this little change has provided a huge loophole. Barely a month after the TARP was put in place Treasury Secretary Paulson indicated that the Treasure would not be using the TARP money to buy the toxic assets off the balance sheets of the banks but rather would invest the money in the banks directly. This about face has left the issue of oversight as to how the money is used in a bit of a limbo. As the GAO report notes

it is unclear whether Treasury plans to leverage bank regulators, which in the case of the largest institutions have bank examiners on site, to conduct any oversight or monitoring related to CPP requirements. However, unless Treasury does additional monitoring and regular reporting, Treasury’s ability to help ensure an appropriate level of accountability and transparency will be limited.(emphasis added)

(Government Accountablility Office, TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2008, pp. 25-26)

Without transparency there will be no way to know how these banks are using this money and whether it is being used appropriately or not. As the GAO report notes the initial eight institutions that took the CPP money intended to use the funds in “a manner consistent with the goals of CPP” (Government Accountablility Office, TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2008, pp. 25). In other words, at this point we are taking them at their word that they’re doing the right thing. However, when asked many of these institutions remain quiet about the specifics of where the money is going (Herman, Charles, Dan Arnall, Lauren Pearle, Zunaira Zaki, “Morgan Stanley Is One Bank That Cites a Loan From TARP Money,” ABC News, December 17 2008 ). It appears that the American taxpayer could well be taken to the cleaners once again. Paul Krugman of the New York Times had it write…it is truly a “Madoff Economy.”

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Nov 29 2008

When is a terrorist NOT a terrorist?

Published by under Thoughts,World Events

Apparently when the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC (among others) decides that they’re not. It seems that the Western media has some serious problems with telling things accurately and objectively. In the terror attacks in Mumbai this past week which left hundreds dead these news organizations refused to call these murderers for what they really are — terrorists. Instead they choose to use a more generic term — militants and in doing so they tacitly gave moral equivalence to these attackers as legitimate military forces.

The difference, and this is very significant, is that military forces abide (hopefully) by the 4th Geneva Convention. Today, even true quasi-military organizations like the Congolese rebels are expected to abide by the Geneva Conventions. But terrorist organizations eschew such restrictions and deliberately target civilians in order to effect their primary aim — to instill terror among them. As such they are nothing but murderers and deserve no protection from the Geneva Convention. But to call them militants clouds the distinction between actual military organizations and these murderers. And it seems that the Western media such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC (among others) consciously choose to do so in order to inject their subjective viewpoints. In doing so they give an air of legitimacy to these terrorists that their acts of barbarism and murder is justified.

But these news organizations are WRONG. There is absolutely NO justification for deliberately targeting civilians and murdering innocent men, women, AND children. But according to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the BBC there apparently is…and hence they call them militants instead of what they truly are — terrorists.

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Aug 18 2008

Breaking the Oil Addiction

Published by under Energy Policy

Why can’t we? Tom Friedman’s latest op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times focused on what the Danish have accomplished as far as energy independence. It turns out that the Danish have managed to make themselves 100% energy independent. That’s right…the 1973 Arab oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War initiated by Syria and Egypt against Israel impacted Denmark’s economy hard. The impact was so hard that the Danish had to ban Sunday driving altogether!

What’s most interesting is the response of the Danes to that crisis. Rather than deciding that drilling for more oil domestically was the solution they turned to alternative, renwable energy as their solution. How did they do it. Well, according to Tom Friedman the

Danes imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy — while barely growing their energy consumption — and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world today. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent.

(Friedman, Tom, “Flush with Energy“, The New York Times, August 10, 2008 )

The increased taxes pushed the Danes to be more energy efficient and to innovate in many ways. They recycle waste heat from coal-fired power plants and use it for home heating and hot water and they incinerate trash in central stations also to provide home heating (Friedman, Tom, “Flush with Energy“, The New York Times, August 10, 2008 ) The reshaping of their energy market with high taxes on fossil fuels and high energy efficiency standards has not stifled innovation in the private sector. Rather it has created jobs and industries. In the 1970s Denmark’s wind industry was non-existant. Today one-third of all manufactured terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark and over the past 10 years Denmark’s energy technology exports have tripled. (Friedman, Tom, “Flush with Energy“, The New York Times, August 10, 2008 ) Denmark’s minister for climate and energy, Connie Hedegaard notes that

“It is one of our fastest-growing export areas,” said Hedegaard. It is one reason that unemployment in Denmark today is 1.6 percent. In 1973, said Hedegaard, “we got 99 percent of our energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.”

(Friedman, Tom, “Flush with Energy“, The New York Times, August 10, 2008 )

So here’s the bottom line. Denmark had fewer resources than we do now to make this transformation over the past 30 years. What’s stopping us from doing the same thing. Consider that in the short term we will be paying higher taxes for energy but in the long run we will be breaking the oil addiction that OPEC wants us to be on and we will stop channeling money into the coffers of people like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez who would love nothing better than a world without a United States. Both John McCain and Barack Obama must be willing to spell out a visionary energy plan that will end this stranglehold that OPEC and the petrodictators hold over us. We are already seeing what Vladimir Putin and the Russians are now doing with their newly discovered wealth and power…they’re invading former Soviet republics with the intent of reconstructing a Greater Russia. Similarly with President Chavez and the Arab leaders of the middle east. Our only way to break this is by breaking the oil addication.

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Jul 28 2008

From Texas to Tel-Aviv

Published by under Energy Policy

Tom Friedman’s most recent op-ed brought to mind the efforts of T. Boone Pickens in Texas and Shai Agassi in Tel-Aviv to break America’s and Israel’s dependence on oil. And their both doing it through renewable energy. I’ve already written about T. Boone Pickens efforts with wind energy in West Texas. Shai Agassi, however, is taking a different tack. He’s doing it by building a fleet of electric vehicles – in cooperation with the French firm Renault. In addition to the vehicles, he’s looking to build a network of recharging stations all around Israel so that you just subscribe to his service — kind of like how you do with your cell phone now — and you have unlimited charges. To power this system Agassi is contracting for 2 gigawatts of solar energy from Israeli power companies! There’s an old joke about how God gave the Jews the only piece of land in the Middle East without oil underneath it. But in fact the “oil” of Israel is its brain trust, talent, and vast supply of sunshine in the desert!

I applaud the efforts of men and women like T. Boone Pickens and Shai Agassi who are helping to lead the Green Revolution — even if Mr. Pickens has some not so nice aspects to him he’s doing the right thing here. As he told Tom Friedman, he was “tired of waiting for Washington to produce a serious energy plan.” (Texas to Tel-Aviv, Tom Friedman, New York Times, July 27, 2008 ) Friedman continues by noting Pickens belives that unless ‘“Congress adopts clear, predictable policies” — with long-term tax incentives and infrastructure — so thousands of investors can jump into clean power, we’ll never get the scale we need to break our addiction.’ (Texas to Tel-Aviv, Tom Friedman, New York Times, July 27, 2008 )

Like Tom Friedman, I wonder to myself what a shame we don’t have a Congress and a President who are able to mobilize more people like T. Boone Pickens and Shai Agassi to lead us off the OPEC needle and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions instead of wasting their time with cockamamie schemes like gas tax reduction, or releasing the oil in the strategic petroleum reserve or promoting more off-shore oil drilling.

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Jul 25 2008

Tough Love for Israel?

Published by under Israel

I was recently reading Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column in the New York Times, “Tough Love for Israel” in which he argues that what Israel needs now from America isn’t “more love, but tougher love”. He uses the responses he received on his own blog, nytimes.com/ontheground after he wrote an op-ed in the Times from Hebron. The writes in “Tough Love for Israel” that he received many counter-arguments to his points in the previous opinion piece and challenges to address them. One of the first ones he focuses on is the Jewish presence in Hebron:

Jews lived in Hebron for 1,800 years continuously … until their community was murdered in 1929 by their Arab neighbors. The Jews in Hebron today — those “settlers” — have reclaimed Jewish property. So I don’t see what makes them illegitimate or illegal. (Irving)

Mr. Kristof counters

“True, Jews have deep ties to Hebron, just as Christians do to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but none of these bonds confer any right to live in these places or even visit them”

(“Tough Love for Israel“, New York Times, July 25, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com).

Interesting. Just because we had previously deep ties to Hebron, Joseph’s Tomb, and other places in the West Bank, we don’t have the right to live there or visit. Ok, let’s take that argument on face value. I can live with that. But I can hear the Palestinian Arabs, and I’m sure all Arabs in general, howling right about now. That also negates their beloved “Right of Return” if they accept that argument. It is such a simplistic position because it negates the ability of any displaced persons from ever being allowed to return to their homes after a conflict. However, his response goes even further…remember what he says “but none of these bonds confer any right to live in these places or even visit them.” So that means that under a two-state solution the Palestinians can deny Israelis the right to even visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are buried. Of course the world would simply turn a blind eye to that but if Israel were to reciprocate and deny Arabs the right to visit, say, the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount Israel would be decried as an apartheid state (nothing new about this slander) and a rascist state (again, the left-wind already makes this claim). Nevertheless, I suspect that this probably wouldn’t happen (at least not “officially”) since it would cut down on tourism in the nascent Palestinian Arab state.

Let’s look at another argument Mr. Kristof received:

One side is a beautiful, literate, medically and scientifically and artistically an advanced society. The other side wants to throw bombs. Why shouldn’t there be a fence? (Mileway)

And Mr. Kristof counters:

So, build a fence. But construct it on the 1967 borders, not Palestinian land — and especially not where it divides Palestinian farmers from their land.

(“Tough Love for Israel“, New York Times, July 25, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com)

This is a hard one to argue against. The only argument that I can see is that there are “realities on the ground” as President Bush once said that need to be considered. I would argue that a land swap should be considered to compensate for land that cannot be excluded from the Israeli side of the fence. But let’s continue. Another counterargument Mr. Kristof received was:

While I do condemn this type of violence, it pales in contrast to Palestinian suicide bombers, rockets and other acts of terror against Jews. (Jay)

To which Mr. Kristof pulls statistics from B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization:

B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.

(“Tough Love for Israel“, New York Times, July 25, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com

True, the number of casualties on the Palestinian Arab side has been greater than the Israeli side but I believe that he misses the point. It’s not just more Palestinian Arab youths have died but the Jay is focusing on the nature of the attacks. The Palestinian Arab terrorists are deliberately targeting civilians and other targets that will illicit the greatest fear and horror in the Israeli public. On top of that the terrorists are operating from civilian areas and doing so knowing full well that civilians will be killed in any Israeli response. If they truly cared for their people they would follow the 4th Geneva Convention that explicitly bars an armed militia for operating within civilian areas and requires them to separate from civilian populated areas. Israel’s response, while regretably killing civilians, is aimed at the terrorist bases of operation. We are not deliberately targeting the civilians like the Palestinian Arab terrorists do with regards to Isrealis. In fact, during the second Lebanon War, the Israeli army, in many cases, went to great extremes to try and limit collateral civilian casualties during the fighting and in some cases this resulted in greater casualties among the soldiers. War is a dirty business…that’s why it’s a thing to be avoided. The problem seems to be that the Western nations (America and Europe) believe that it’s something that can be conducted “cleanly”.

Let’s move on to the last counterargument that Mr. Kristof brings up in his op-ed:

To withdraw from the West Bank without a partner on the Palestinian side will find Israel in the same fix it has once it withdrew from Gaza: a rain of daily rockets. Yes, the security barrier causes hardship, but terrorist attacks have almost disappeared. That means my kids can ride the bus, go to unguarded restaurants and not worry about being blown up on their way to school. Find another way to keep my kids safe, and I’ll happily tear down the barrier. (Laura)

On this one Mr. Kristof responds:

This is the argument that I have the most trouble countering. Laura has a point: The barrier and checkpoints have reduced terrorism. But as presently implemented, they — and the settlements — also reduce the prospect of a long-term peace agreement that is the best hope for Laura’s children.

(“Tough Love for Israel“, New York Times, July 25, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com)

The separation barrier has done more to reduce the number of terrorist attacks inside pre-1967 Israel than anything else tried since the start of the first Intifada. It has made living inside of pre-1967 Israel safer albeit not completely safe since there have been terrorist attacks since the barrier was built and completed.

However, Mr. Kristof doesn’t stop there. He continues:

If Israel were to stop the settlements, ease the checkpoints, allow people in and out more freely, and negotiate more enthusiastically with Syria over the Golan Heights and with the Arab countries on the basis of the Saudi peace proposal, then peace might still elude the region. But Israel would at least be doing everything possible to secure its long-term future, rather than bolstering Hamas.

.(“Tough Love for Israel“, New York Times, July 25, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com)

Let’s review his arguments. Israel should:

  1. “stop the settlements” — ok by me,
  2. “ease the checkpoints” — how do you do this and ensure that Terrorists will not get through undetected?,
  3. “allow people in and out more freely” — again, see my question with regards to the checkpoints,
  4. “negotiate more enthusiastically with Syria over the Golan Heights” — eh? Let’s see where the current talks with Syria being held in Turkey lead. If all it leads to is a cold and meaningless peace in exchange for the Golan Heights then what has Israel really gained?
  5. “negotiate more ethusiastically…with the Arab countries on the basis of the Saudi peace proposal” — hmmm…let’s see. The Saudi peace proposal calls for:
    • Full withdrawl of Israel from all Arab lands captured since 1967 – i.e. “Land for Peace” – Israel’s stance since 1967
    • Implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 — no surprise there
    • The establishiment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital — a little sticky as to what would be considered “east Jerusalem”
    • A just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (i.e. “The Right of Return”) — hmmm…Mr. Kristof’s logic above however states that deep ties to places does not “confer any right to live in these places or even visit them.” That’s a bit of a problem.
    • The normalization of relations in the context of a comprehensive peace — that’s pretty vague.

In essence Mr. Kristof is putting all of the onus on Israel and none of it on the Palestinian Arabs or any of the Arab states in the region for the failure of the peace process. He argues that if Israel would, in essence, “just be reasonable” and give the Arabs what they want then we would have peace in the Middle East. What he fails to point out is that Israel has been trying that approach with the withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon and look where it has gotten them — rockets rain down daily on the Israeli city of Sderot and occassionally on Ashkelon, anti-semitic incitement continues not just in Gaza but in the West Bank as well where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rules (Mr. Kristof calls him Israel’s “most reasonable partner ever”), and Hizbollah is already preparing it’s next pretext for war. The Jerusalem Report noted on July 16th 2008 that

According to the Hizbullah-affiliated daily Al-Akhbar, (deputy chair of Lebanon’s Supreme Shi’ite Islamic Council, Sheikh Abed al-Amir) Kiblan declared that seven villages whose Shi’ite inhabitants fled in 1948, and which were subsequently destroyed, “must return to their owners, our country and our people,” and Hizbullah’s arms would achieve this.

Gordon, Evelyn,Civil Fights: Hizbullah’s Next Pretext,The Jerusalem Post, July 16th 2008 )

These villages are inside of pre-1967 Israel and represent the Arab approach to demanding more and more from Israel even when it meets the its obligations according to the UN. Mr. Kristof misses it completely. His approach puts no burden on the Palestinian Arabs or the Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in putting forth honest, meaningful concessions into the peace process. In essence, they need have no “skin in the game” according to him. And, according to him, the only way for a new President, whether it’s Barack Obama or John McCain, to move the peace process forward is to show Israel “tough love.” Sorry…been there…done that. What is needed is a fresh and realistic approach…not “tough love.”

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May 22 2008

Another Excellent Tom Friedman Opinion Piece

Published by under Rants

Tom Friedman definitely sees through to the facts. His latest opinion piece details some of the many power shifts are occuring today and how so few of them are in America’s favor. This will definitely be the legacy of the Bush/Cheney kleptocracy and how the middle class in America will pay the price of their mistakes and incompetencies for many years to come.

Mind you, this is not just the Bush administration’s fault alone. Congress has gone along quite well with this inability to address the real needs of this country and we will be facing many threats tomorrow because the politicians in this country did not have the foresight to see this coming yesterday nor do they have the backbone to do something about these trends today. It’s time for Americans to make their voice known in the ballot box and find a true leader who can bring about responsibility and accountability in our nation’s government and in our country’s direction into the future.

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