Flowers and Blood

I went to buy some flowers yesterday (having taken Good Friday off), because I have some nice vases at home, and I decided that I liked having some cut flowers around the house.

I picked out a few loose flowers, including one of Sylvia’s favorites, the Stargazer Lily, and had them make up a nice arrangement for about $25:

Good Friday Flowers

…and then while I was at the flower shop, I saw a bloodmobile ad for a blood drive at the church where I go to vote, so I went down there to check if they could fit me in, and they said, “Sure!”, so I made an appointment, took my flowers home and came back and donated.

It was the first time that I’d given blood where they take a double-size donation of red blood cells, separate out the plasma and return it to you for you to cherish.

Here’s a picture of the ALYX machine, separating my blood into flavors. It has three pouches on the left, and you can see the whole blood going into the right-most pouch of the three, the red blood cells being accumulated in the middle pouch, and the plasma on the left waiting to be fed back into me. Technology!

ALYX Blood Donation

They do it all with just the one needle in your arm, and an automated blood pressure cuff. First the cuff presses down, and the right-hand pouch fills maybe quarter-full or so with whole blood, and ALYX works on separating it into parts into the other pouches, and then at some point the cuff lets up, and you feel a chill as the left-hand pouch is emptied and the plasma is returned. Then it repeats for maybe four or five cycles. Takes about 10 minutes longer than a regular donation, but with all the paperwork and waiting and so forth, it’s a huge win all around to get what is effectively a double donation in so short an additional time.

Seriously, though, I can’t imagine (or can barely imagine) thinking about that problem and saying, “Sure, we could build that!”

Sylvia Chappell Memorial Fund at

Sylvia ChappellSeveral people have asked if there is some memorial that they could donate to in memory of Sylvia, so I have set up an account at the micro-lender in her name.

Anyone who is interested can just send a gift certificate to

I will lend the money out to third-world entrepreneurs in her name, and as the loans are repaid, will initiate new loans to new entrepreneurs.

You can track the progress of the loans initiated by the fund here.

…and isn’t this a lovely photo of Sylvia, by the way? Look at that smile!

Please Donate Now

Received tonight from the Obama campaign:

Thomas —

I’m the Chief Financial Officer for Barack Obama’s campaign. I track the donations coming in and the expenses going out.

I asked for the opportunity to write to you directly so that I could try to explain what’s happening right now.

This organization has thousands of employees and spends millions of dollars a day — and at the moment we’re doing it without a safety net.

Our spending plans have been stretched by John McCain’s negative attacks and the overwhelming resources of the Republican National Committee.

As of October 15th, John McCain and the RNC together had nearly $20 million more in cash than the combined total of Obama for America and the DNC. And just this week, we’re facing new and unexpected spending against us in Montana and West Virginia.

Your incredible generosity has gotten us this far. But right now we need your help more than ever to get this campaign across the finish line.

Please donate $100 or whatever you can afford right now:

My team and I are working to stretch every dollar in order to keep as many paths to victory open as possible. But we need whatever help you can provide for this crucial final stretch.

Thank you,


Marianne Markowitz
Chief Financial Officer
Obama for America

…or donate here, where I can note your contribution, steeple my fingers, and gloat, in the manner of Mr. Burns (“Excellent!”)

But seriously, there has never been a starker choice. If you’re not going to donate now, then what campaign are you waiting for?

“If not now…when?”

Another Frightening Show About the Economy

The promised long version of “The Week America’s Economy Almost Died”, the sequel to The Giant [Global] Pool of Money, has shipped!

Okay, for those keeping track, this market freeze-up has been compared, so far in our story, to an oncoming train, an abyss, a monster, and an earthquake. All we need now is a serial killer.

And what made this abyss, earthquake, train, monster materialize all of sudden?

There was one event in particular that frightened the commercial paper market and made it seize up. Explaining it, I’d afraid, means using another finance term, although this one might be a little more familiar: the money market mutual fund.

And we should say here, a money market mutual fund is just, it’s like a savings account: there’s a good chance you even have one; it is, in normal times, it’s one of the safest places to keep your money. You put $1,000 bucks in; you know for sure you’ll get $1,000 bucks out — maybe even $1,010. And you’re happy with just that little return, because you know, at least your money is secure.

Now, one of the main things that money market managers do, to get that little return, is they lend money out on the commercial paper market. They give guys like Mark Peterson at ServiceMaster that $999,000; he gives them that $1,000,000 back the next day. It’s an OK return, but the main thing is: it’s safe, their money is safe, because they’re lending it to huge, trusted companies, many of which have been around for decades, reliably paying back these loans.

At least, that’s the way it was until two weeks ago, when one most dreaded things happened, at least in the world of money market managers — it’s the thing they have nightmares about.

One of the biggest, and oldest funds, called the Reserve Fund, that was its name, it broke the buck. What that means is, for the first time ever, it lost its depositors’ money. For every $1.00 they put in, they were left with only 97 cents…

It’s a big deal.

“Breaking the buck, is, is sort of like, uh, having a serial killer in high school; it caused a little bit of panic… People are not concerned with getting a return on capital; they just want the return of capital. So that, that is panic; that is fear.”

That panic and fear caused an old-fashioned bank run. People, and more importantly, pension funds and big endowments, called their brokers and said, “Get me out of those funds!” The government had to step in and guarantee the money market funds.

And this, right here, as near as we can tell, this is what freaked out Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke. Because this, right here, is the mortgage crisis spreading out into the rest of the world.

This fund that broke the buck? They weren’t investing in risky mortgages or anything related to the mortgage industry; they were not free-wheeling Wall Street fat cats taking big risks and hoping for a windfall. They were investing in investments that those fat cats laughed at. These were fund managers doing everything possible to be Totally Safe, doing what they always did: buying very safe, very short-term commercial paper.

But it just so happened that the company they bought it from, was Lehman Brothers, and the day before, Lehman had gone bankrupt, in part, because of its exposure to risky mortgage products. So all the money this money market mutual fund, the Reserve Fund, had lent to Lehman was suddenly gone…

“That’s what caused the panic. All the other money market mutual fund managers freaked out. They wondered, who’s gonna be next? And then, like a horror movie, at least, a horror movie made for money market mutual fund managers, another fund broke the buck. And then AIG, the largest insurance company in the world, nearly collapsed.

That was it: money fund managers decided, we’re not lending out any more money out to companies at all.”

The scary monsters in the story: the lock-up of the commercial paper market (above), and the leverage in the credit default swap market. I swear to God I’m not kidding.

“That doesn’t sound scary…that sounds boring,” I hear you say.

“Well, allow me to retort:”

The amount of credit default swaps used for speculation grew to dwarf the amount that were actually used for insurance…

“The corporate bond market cash market is approximately $5 trillion, and the notional value of [credit default swaps] outstanding is approximately $60 trillion.”

In other words, there are $5 trillion of bonds in the world, but the total amount that people have bet on those bonds is $60 trillion. For every bond, there are 10 people promising to pay the full amount if the bond goes bad.

Oh, and there’s one more thing:

“All of this is unregulated, partly because they wanted it to be unregulated…”

“The idea that you can have $60 trillion in a financial market, which is more than all the stocks sold anywhere in the world, and not have any oversight whatever, is self-evidently absurd, and we’re seeing the end result of that today.”

Finally, the show details why an equity-injection plan would be (so!) much better than the big, stupid Paulson bailout plan.

Don’t wait! Get it via podcast from This American Life right now!

Or, download it directly from the This American Life website here.

Or, download it from iTunes here.

“#365: Another Frightening Show About the Economy”
October 3, 2008.

The Week America’s Economy Almost Died

The terrific National Public Radio / Public Radio International team that brought you May’s fantastic story on the subprime meltdown, The Giant [Global] Pool of Money, have prepared a new show on the ongoing credit crisis to air this weekend on PRI’s This American Life.

It will be available for streaming or downloading shortly afterward, but in the meantime, they have produced a cut-down version of the story for NPR’s All Things Considered, which you can listen to now.

It’s just as gripping as the original. I can’t wait for the full-length version!

Listen to the short version here on NPR’s Planet Money site:

“The Week America’s Economy Almost Died”
All Things Considered
September 26, 2008

Skeptics Caucus! Congressman Brad Sherman!

So there I was, reading random news reports about the horrible bailout bill, and thinking bitter thoughts about our ‘representatives’ in Congress, apparently heedless of the calls and faxes that have been running anywhere from 100-to-1 to 300-to-1 against (“They’re running 50% ‘No’, and 50% ‘Hell No!'”, as Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) put it).

And then, in a piece dated today on how perhaps the votes aren’t there for passage after all, I see the name of my actual Congressman:

[Sen. Dennis] Kucinich [D-OH] attended a meeting of the “Skeptics Caucus,” organized by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and consisting of House Democrats skeptical of the bailout effort. The meeting’s speakers included economic professor James Galbraith of the University of Texas and former FDIC chairman William Isaac. Sherman called the legislation a Bush administration “power grab” and a handout to Wall Street. “This is greatest shift of power to the imperial presidency and the greatest shift of wealth to a still wealthy Wall Street that anyone could imagine,” Sherman said.

“None of this has been subject to a critical analysis,” charged Rep. Kucinich. “We haven’t had access to the books to the people who are claiming they are going broke.”

“They rushed this Congress into the Iraq resolution and look what happened,” he added, comparing the rushed tone behind the bailout effort with the push to invade Iraq, “Catastrophe for this nation as well as for the people of Iraq.”

Yes, finally! Go, House! Represent!

Read the full article on The Raw Story:
“Kucinich says bailout doesn’t have the votes”
September 28, 2008

Google Publicly Backs Gay Marriage

What a good company! Makes our family want to buy more of their stock, or do a search, or something:

…while there are many objections to this proposition [banning gay marriage] — further government encroachment on personal lives, ambiguously written text — it is the chilling and discriminatory effect of the proposition on many of our employees that brings Google to publicly oppose Proposition 8. While we respect the strongly-held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality. We hope that California voters will vote no on Proposition 8 — we should not eliminate anyone’s fundamental rights, whatever their sexuality, to marry the person they love.

Read the full Google announcement:
“Our position on California’s No on 8 campaign”
September 26, 2008

Mortgages are less than half the problem

From a Weiss Research white paper on the financial crisis:

Although it is true that the current debt crisis in America originated in the mortgage market, it is not accurate to say that the root of the crisis is strictly in this one sector. Rather, the debt crisis has multiple and varied roots, with excessive risk-taking in credit cards, auto loans and virtually every other form of private-sector debt.

There are currently $14.8 trillion in residential and commercial mortgages in America. But beyond mortgages, there is another $20.4 trillion in consumer and corporate debt. This means that mortgages represent only 42% of the private-sector debt problem in America.

Holy hell. And those auto loans and credit-card debt are underwater from the get-go.

Read the whole white paper from Weiss Research:
“Proposed $700 Billion Bailout Is Too Little, Too Late to End the Debt Crisis; Too Much, Too Soon for the U.S. Bond Market”
September 24, 2008