Alfred Nobel, Nobel Prize and Irony

As most of the readers must know, Alfred Nobel invented Dynamite. What you might not know is he also owned “Bofors,” a major armaments manufacturer, which he had redirected from its previous role as an iron and steel mill.

According to Wikipedia, “The erroneous publication in 1888 of a premature obituary of Nobel by a French newspaper, condemning him for his invention of dynamite, is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death.The obituary stated Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead”) and went on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”[

Dr. Nobel didn’t, clearly, change his entrepreneurial activities before he died in 1896, eight years after the publication of the erroneous obituary. Instead, in his last will he decides to bequeath much of his enormous fortune to the five Nobel Prizes. One each in Physical Sciences, Chemistry, Medical Sciences, Literature and Peace (a new one has been added in Economics). The Peace Prize “is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses.”

Bofors is still, to this date, one of the largest arms manufacturer in the world.

I am surprised that not too many of the talking heads or the pundits point-out the base irony fundamentally present in the Nobel Peace prize. Nobel, the merchant of death, and Peace is an oxymoron. And to me, it does little but expose the hypocrisy of human kind that money collected by creating and selling Dynamite is used to award the most prestigious “Peace Prize.” Not sure how Dr. Nobel could write “…suppression or reduction of standing armies” and not see the naked irony of it all. I forget the author’s name but she hit the nail on the head when she said, in a matter of fact manner, “the beauty of childhood is that it is not afflicted with hypocrisy yet, the very cornerstone of adulthood is hypocrisy especially the hypocrisies that the self doesn’t even see.” A very important goal of mine is thus to stay a child in this context.

It is good that President Obama has pledged to donate the prize money to charity.

My opinion, and I know President Obama did not apply for the Prize, President Obama doesn’t deserve it and it is going to be nothing but an impossible standard to meet when he ends up making tough decisions on Afghanistan, Iraq and may be Iran. Oh, and I don’t think he will make the easy decision on the domestic front — Gun Control — that 540 Mayors just petitioned him for. Isn’t that ironic: acting on gun control can taken away some “business” from Bofors reducing the Nobel families fortunes and may be their ability to dish out the Peace Prize (hey! I can dream, can’t I?).

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Bankers robbed the banks

Wasn’t it only in October ’08 that we all were told to believe that the whole financial system had collapsed/was on the verge of collapse and that we need to shell out $780 billion of tax payers money to the exact same bankers has cost us upwards of $5 trillion to-date (per President Obama on the Letterman Show)?

So what happened?

Goldman Sachs (GS) reported $3.4B in profits for the 2Q09. GS plans to pay $18B in total compensation to employees averaging a staggering $600K/employee.

However, Unemployment is still at 16.5% (including semi-employed and people who have given up looking for a job).

That’s what happened.

People are so worked up about the Health Care reform when what we are talking about is A) keeping people alive/healthy which will “actually” benefit the economy B) saving the long term “social” model (yes, social) of Medicare, Medicaid and VA that will not survive unless we control cost and C) most importantly, making it affordable to buy insurance for individuals.

That to me is completely misplaced anger. We all have reason to be angry, reason to feel disoriented, reason to feel like we’ve been had and reason to lose trust. But directing it at Health Care reform is not only wrong it is a disservice to the country. It is much better to focus on reforming our Financial Industry and I contend, the only way to do that by reforming our election campaign finance – remember that issue that was hot before the 2008 elections and oh yes, also before the 2004 elections? Though, I must admit right on the outset that I am not very hopeful that either can happen.

However are some plausible ways to make a dent:

1. Make Banking boring —  Banks should, asPaul Krugman points out, return to being “boring” and provide money at reasonable, conservative rates to support the rest of the society to invest, innovate and develop “real products” not consider credit default swaps as a product….ever! In effect, behave like a Utility Company….like they use to back in the 50s and 60s.

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Sonia Sotomayor

I was quite excited at the prospect of  a second woman on the Supreme Court bench, a first Hispanic, a first Supreme Court judge from the Bronx projects — an out and out American success story. I thought her confirmation will provide the right representational balance at the highest court of the land.

But then a few news items about Ms. Sotomayor’s views have dulled my enthusiasm.

One of course being her comment that resulted in the Conservatives calling her a “reverse racist.” Her comment, made back in 2001, asserts that her experiences as a Latina woman might make her judgments more sound than those of a white man. Though I am not going to call her a racist but a comment like that shows, among other things, lack of sound judgement and bias.

A piece of writing that influenced  me more was an Op-Ed article written by Ilya Somin (Assistant Professor at George Mason University School of Law) for the LA Times.

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Obama’s turn-arounds

A sizable section in the left wing of the democratic party is all up in arms about a few recent Obama decisions that appear to be turn-arounds from campaign promises. I am in favor of the decisions.

Decision 1: Stop the release of detainee abuse photographs

Torture is a terrible thing. It was institutionalized by the Bush administration and untold number of innocent people got tortured. A rather sad and dark chapter in the recent history of the USA. However, all the people who are asking for the release of the photographs sit safely ensconced in the confines of our border and are out of harms way. They have no idea what their demands will result in for the brave Americans positioned in foreign countries.  It is purely for practical and pragmatic reasons I agree with President Obama — release of such photographs inflames anti-American emotions, is played to full advantage by Al Qaeda and its ilk, and will surely result in violence against Americans and justification for torture of captured Americans who had nothing to do with torture in the first place.

The best way to prevent such abuse from happening is to clearly define what torture is and starting from the highest office down state in unequivocal terms that such practices are banned. It is surely not to make the left wing feel happy but lose Americans lives in the bargain.

Decision 2: Has denied calls for investigating the last administration on torture

The noise to investigate past deeds has grown more shrill and people are not listening anymore to the thunderous warning of the impending category five hurricane.

We need to muster all our collective energy and focus them on the Economic, Jobs Market, Health Care, Climate Change and Geo-Political disasters at our hands.

I would love to learn how all the Bushies violated the law but these are truly unique times. I want to know about the past but not if I do not have a future.

The real bailout prescription

Banks Only

It seems like I am in a statistical state-of-mind lately.
If you were to go to the IRS website you will find the total number of Individual Income Tax Returns for the year 2008 is: 156,297,000 (Source: http://www.irs.gov/taxstats/ –>Filing Season Statistics –>Filing Season Weekly Reports –> Report for filing year 2008 –> End of Year End Report.)

Let’s take the top 25% of tax payers out and we are left with 117 million individuals.
Next, let’s take the $3.8 Trillion (anticipated government spending across current and pending stimulus and bailouts including Bush bailout) and distribute it evenly to the 117M individuals that filed taxes.

You will arrive at the astounding number of $32,478!

That’s what we all could have gotten (except for the top 25% of earners who shouldn’t need it) instead of the current morass of bailouts and stimulus.

Let’s play this hypothetical scenario out a little further:
Imagine how fast our economy would have recovered if we were given this money, income tax free in a special account, to spend within two years within United States including purchase of airline tickets to fly out of United States (money spent abroad will not count). For any one with credit card loan or mortgage default, there would be additional stipulation that they pay off the loans/mortgage first. I am sure IRS can think of many other stipulations (and that would be fine). At the end of each of the two years we all would have to submit receipts to ensure we complied with the stipulations.

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Average Joe

Actually, Joe Biden is not even average. He is way below average. Let me just break the news — he comes in last, at the bottom, no one behind him. I am of course talking about his Net Income and Net Worth when compared to other Senators.

Biden’s tax returns for 2008 showed earnings of only $269,256 and paid $46,952 in federally taxes.  The salary paid to a US Senator by us, the tax payers is, $169,300. I believe the remainder of Biden’s income is from teaching engagements in local colleges in Delaware. His net worth could possibly be negative.

And quite honestly, that’s the way I like my Vice President.  While he still makes more than the average American — which he should given his responsibilities — he is the closest to understanding what an average person’s daily trials and tribulations are like.

  Being a US Senator doesn’t require filing of exact value of assets, instead a range for each asset is provided. Hence it is difficult to know he exact net worth of a Senator but it is very easy to decipher who is filthy rich, very rich and rich (note: there are no poor senators — except of course for Mr. Biden in 2008 given Senator standards).

So that you get an idea, the richest five and their avg. net worth (all data from 2006):

1 Herb Kohl (D-Wis) (owner of Kohl’s Dept store)   $336,885,513  
2 John Kerry (D-Mass) (wife owns Heinz Ketchup)   $267,789,805  
3 Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass)   $102,822,519  
4 Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)   $90,713,011  
5 Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif)   $79,555,657  

Interestingly enough, all five are Democrats but lest you get carried away, Republicans make a fine recovery and occupy 12 out of top 25 spots.  The 25th rank goes to:

25 Maria Cantwell (D-Wash)   $6,181,006  

And the 75th, spot goes to:

75 Patty Murray (D-Wash)   $641,509  

So the questions we really need to ask are:

1. Is it only the rich that can make it to the Senate?

2. Or, is it getting elected that somehow allows for Senators to get rich? (This can be found out by looking at historical records, may be one of the readers who is in the know can comment on this.)

3. Most importantly, is democracy actuallya pseudo-aristocracy? Pseudo because I do believe we are, on the average, much better off than under a true aristocracy.

4.  First a statement then a question. Statement: I believe America till recently has not been class envious, i.e. rich have not been envied for their wealth but actually look upon as inspiration and American ideals promoted all to aspire to be rich. Question: With the recently acquired knowledge of how many rich people got rich and the recently acquired loss of their own net worth, will Americans start thinking differently?

I have opinions (of course!), but what do you think?

Data source: http://www.opensecrets.org/ (click on Politicians and Elections –> Net Worth)

The crime of being poor in America

So most of us despite Iraq, despite Wall Street greed, despite Washington politicking (and may be because of them) do not get shocked easily.

But I was shocked by the New York Times editorial, “The New Debtor’s Prisons.” It cites cases where poor people in Michigan, Georgia and Mississippi who could not afford to pay meager court ordered fines were imprisoned!

Here’s an excerpt, “Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”

If we needed any more proof of the highly toxic affect of American capitalism this has to be it.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, in any position of power is just thinking about money. States and cities have been taught that money is of paramount importance to keep them financially healthy, attract investment and simply to prove that they are run well. The thinking is so warped that a failure of $106/month payment – that too to a juvenile detention center — can be cause for imprisonment. The city doesn’t care that it is unconstitutional, immoral and unethical — poor people cannot be charged for being poor, especially when the state has provided no recourse for them.

Of course a minute of thought will tell even a smart money manager that locking this lady, for example, is only going to cost the state more in terms of prison expenses and keeping that whole apparatus alive. And they could have funded her rehabilitation if only they had not give yet another pork barrel project to a relative or corrupt contractor who in turn would grease their palms.

I am speechless at the heartlessness, and mindlessness, of the American system.