Observing and Inferring

Of the many things I have to teach my students, one of the most difficult is the art of inference. When we read, we infer, but I try to show students that we infer constantly: about people’s body language, about who’s walking behind us, about the mood of our mothers and fathers — simply everything. But as we begin working with it at a visual level, inferring from photographs, I find that students often think an inference is merely an observation. In other words, they look at a situation, make a generalization about it, and think they’re merely reciting facts.

For example, take a look at the picture below.

It’s tempting to say that one observation is simple: this is in a store. After all, there’s plenty to indicate that:

  • in the foreground there’s a display case with meat;
  • in the background there’s what looks like a refrigerator display case; and
  • there are people who appear to be client and salesman.

However, the very verbage of the description belies the fact that it’s not an observation (after all, I used the term “indicate”) but instead an inference. It might be an inference with a very high degree of probability, but an inference it is.

I think that this might be a source of political friction between the liberals and conservatives. They’re both making inferences that they assume to be mere observations, and when the other side calls them on it, the discussion often slides into ad hominem arguments. Anyone who can’t see the obvious inference — which to the speaker is just an observation — is an idiot. After all, it’s as simple as seeing that the woman in the picture above is clearly shopping for Christmas dinner.

Warsaw Winter

Hungary had its 1956 uprising, when it appeared that the Soviet satellite might gain its independence. The USSR moved in and reasserted control by force.

Prague had its Spring: reforms and liberalizations in 1968 by the puppet Communist regime that eventually warranted a full scale invasion by the Soviets to settle things down.

Poland never experienced such a “corrective” invasion, though there was always the thought that the Soviets might have invaded had Jaruzelski not imposed martial law on December 13, 1981. Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity party was gaining too much influence and there was concern that unrest might spread throughout the nation.

The conventional Polish wisdom (as I understood it) has been that Jaruzelski imposed martial law in a bid to preempt a Soviet invasion. Antoni Dudek, a Polish history professor, has published on his blog contents of a note Jaruzelski said to Viktor Kulikov, a Soviet general,

Będzie gorzej, jeżli wyjdÄ… z zakładów pracy i zacznÄ… dewastować komitety partyjne, organizować demonstracje uliczne itd. Gdyby to miało ogarnąć cały kraj, to wy (ZSRR) bÄ™dziecie nam musieli pomóc. Sami nie damy sobie rady”.

It will be worse if [the protests] spread from the workshops begin devastating the party committee, organizing street protests, etc. If it were to spread throughout the country, you (the USSR) would have to help us. We couldn’t manage it alone.

And so the possibility for a Polish Winter to match the Prague Spring was very real.

WałÄ™sa, in the meantime, has suggested that Jaruzelski might be brought up on charges of treason. Dudek admitted that while WałÄ™sa usually likes “strong words,” these words might indeed be “adequate.”

Jaruzelski of course denies all of this. Words were taken out of context. Shades of meaning have been applied that were not intended. It seems to be just the beginning, and given the generally closed nature of the Polish archives (compared to the open archives of the former East German government), it seems a resolution is distant, if not impossible.

Dudek’s blog is available here. The Onet story includes information about WałÄ™sa’s reaction. Hat tip to the beatroot.

Intellectual Walls

Mis (Teddy Bear)

Mis (Teddy Bear)

Many people were concerned about Obama’s speech, and some conservatives were voicing fears that Obama would try to indoctrinate the youth. Concerned conservative groups urged parents to keep their children at home, to shield them from the insidious message of socialism. “Parents have a right to decide what their children hear!” they protested, “And we’re only trying to protect our children.”

The irony is, in trying to shield their children from a perceived socialist threat, they were engaging in behavior that historically has been most commonly exhibited by — surprise! — socialist regimes.

One of the most frightening features of the Soviet Union and its satellite states was the complete control they had over information. Orwell’s 1984 had the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, which altered historical documents to create the appearance of Big Brother’s omniscience. The Soviet Union, in many ways, did the same thing.

More importantly, though, anything and everything from the corrupt West was censored. The capitalist message was so insidious that it might indoctrinate the happy citizens of the Soviet Union and lead to the downfall of the the most perfect civilization on Earth. Capitalism was bad, so bad that even to think about it was deadly.

The Polish cult classic Mis (“Teddy Bear”) has a scene dramatizing what surely happened each and every time a sports team from a communist country traveled West for a competition. The director of the sports club gives the standard speech before getting on the bus:

You’re going to a capitalist country, which might have it’s own, well, advantages. Take care that those advantages don’t overshadow the disadvantages.

The advantages could be so seductive that they could cast their spell even in the midst of post-war destruction: Stalin imprisoned many of the Soviet soldiers who’d been on the far Western front. They’d seen too much; they’d been contaminated. Indoctrinated.

The Soviets didn’t want informed citizens who could weigh the advantages and disadvantages of socialism and capitalism and choose wisely. Big Brother knew very well how seductive the dark side could be, and he took great pains to shield his younger siblings’ eyes and plug their ears.

Confusion

Some weeks seem intent on confusing the sense out me. Students say things that literally leave me speechless, wondering whether or not the kid is joking. Parents and pundits around the land fall into spasms of paranoia about a presidential speech intended to encourage students to take their studies seriously. An odd, high-pitched whistle begins drifting into the house through the back windows at various times during the week leaving everyone wondering what the devil that sound could be.

A long weekend away from all the confusion and nonsense hopefully will help. At the very least, L will experience and hopefully enjoy her first camping trip.

Start the Presses!

How to keep dollars local in a global community? It’s not quite isolationism, but it’s a legitimate concern in these Made-in-China times. During the debate — such as there was — about Bush’s first stimulus plan, many joked that we were borrowing money from China to buy Chinese products. Now consumers are more interested in keeping the resources local, and communities are helping out:

A small but growing number of cash-strapped communities are printing their own money.

Borrowing from a Depression-era idea, they are aiming to help consumers make ends meet and support struggling local businesses. […]

About a dozen communities have local currencies, says Susan Witt, founder of BerkShares in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts. She expects more to do it.

Under the BerkShares system, a buyer goes to one of 12 banks and pays $95 for $100 worth of BerkShares, which can be spent in 370 local businesses. Since its start in 2006, the system, the largest of its kind in the country, has circulated $2.3 million worth of BerkShares. In Detroit, three business owners are printing $4,500 worth of Detroit Cheers, which they are handing out to customers to spend in one of 12 shops.
(USATODAY.com)

A few thoughts — mostly questions — about this:

First, this shows how utterly arbitrary cash is. BerkShares or Cheers have value because people agree that they do. Dollars, Yen, and Euros, theoretically, work the same way; more people simply agree that they have value. They were willing to agree because currencies represented something tangible: gold, silver, or whatever. Of course the value of gold only arose — in pre-scientific communities — because people agreed it’s valuable.

This leads to the second question: what backs this money? Indeed, we could ask the same of most world currencies, especially the dollar. Does anything, or is it just a dollar surrogate? Is it just pegged to the dollar? If so, that leads to the final thought.

Third, why do they need to do this? Just to keep the cash in the community? Couldn’t they keep the dollars in the community as well — a well-orchestrated campaign to “Keep the Dollars Here” or some such? Would this be happening if the dollar were actually worth something?

Lastly, what of that 5%? Who covers it? Why are banks willing to sell $100 of BerkShares or Cheers or gls-dollars for $95? (This seems to be hinting at what actually backs these currencies.) Is this debt? Do they get something in return from the business that agree to use these local currencies?

Fred Sanford, Where Are You?

South Carolina would probably be in better hands if governor Mark Sanford handed the reins to another Sanford. They both seem to know about as much about education:

The dispute between Gov. Mark Sanford and state lawmakers over the use of $700 million in economic stimulus money from Washington threatens to become a “constitutional standoff” that can only be resolved in the courts, according to a legal analysis released today by state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

The $700 million is a portion of about $3 billion in cash that various entities in South Carolina, including the state government, are expected to receive under President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus program.

Sanford has threatened to reject the money unless it can be used to pay down state debt, but legislative leaders prefer to use the funds as Washington intended, mostly to maintain education spending. (Greenville Times)

Paying down the state debt is a great idea — I’d love to pay down our mortgage debt. However, I wouldn’t sacrifice L’s education to accomplish that, which is exactly what Sanford wants to do.

Sanford says this notion is nonsense, that there would be adequate funding under his budget. Perhaps he’s right. But the worrying thing is that he’s not accepting stimulus money earmarked (I hesitate to use that term, but that’s just what it is) for education. Refuse to accept some other portion of the stimulus money.

Flustered Enraged upon hearing this, I wrote a letter to the governor:

It troubles me that, in this era of waning American international influence, you would consider such drastic cuts in education as would occur if you continue to refuse to use the stimulus money intended for education funding. Our classrooms our crowded; our educational infrastructure is woefully inadequate; our teachers are under-paid — yet you want to force school systems to cut even deeper: up to 480 positions in Greenville County.

The rest of the Western world has surpassed America in the quality of its education: “average” eleventh-grade students study mathematics topics in America that are taught in the fifth grade in Poland, for instance. A six year lag. (How do I know this? I’ve been a substitute teacher in an American mathematics classroom and I lived in Poland for seven years — it’s first-hand knowledge.)

What you’re proposing would only increase that difference.

Please reconsider. The state unemployment rate is significant enough without adding teachers to the fold, and more importantly, our kids can’t afford it.

It seems that South Carolinians are not the only ones concerned, though.

A White House official said Wednesday that only Gov. Mark Sanford can apply for nearly $700 million available in federal stimulus funds, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that even if Sanford turns down the money he still plans to seek funding for the state because of the poor condition of South Carolina education.

“To stand on the sideline and say that the status quo is OK there and that the children are well served, it simply defies logic and is not reality,” Duncan told reporters.

Asked if he was developing a plan to send the money to the state in the event Sanford didn’t ask for it, Duncan replied he was, then rattled off several facts about education in the state that bothered him.

Duncan said that only 15 percent of African-American children in the state are proficient at math and 12 percent at reading. He said the state has the nation’s fourth worst graduate rate for freshman.

“Those are heartbreaking results,” he said. “Those are children that if we don’t do something dramatically different for them will never have a chance to compete in today’s economy.” (Greenville Times)

A Greenville Times editorial summed it up succinctly:

Most Republicans in Congress opposed the excessive stimulus bill that greatly expands the reach of the federal government. So did this newspaper in several editorials. But the bill was passed, the fiscally conservative argument did not prevail, and every penny of those hundreds of billions of borrowed money will be spent.

So, as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was quoted as saying, the “question is do we use it or lose it?” (Greenville Times)

This leaves us wondering why Sanford is so staunch in his refusal. His name was bantered about as a potential running mate for McCain in 2008; there have been rumors of a planned presidential campaign in 2012. Could this be political posturing? Could this be Sanford’s no-thank-you-to-a-bridge-to-nowhere?

Opposing Views

Here’s a comment I posted at aid-gaza.net:

Comment from aid-gaza.net

Comment from aid-gaza.net

(Click on the image for a larger, more legible view.)

The comment, though, didn’t receive the blogger’s stamp of approval, as you can see if you click on through.

It’s hard to take someone seriously who is censors opposing viewpoints after inviting comment. I left another comment, saying just that.

Second comment from aid-gaza.net

Second comment from aid-gaza.net

Wonder if that will make it through?

Update

It did. Spam filtering problems. I suggest Spam Karma.

Atheism and Public Life

I am an atheist: I have no positive belief either way about the existence of God or the supernatural. Though it sounds more like agnosticism, my particular worldview is generally called weak atheism: I make no claims either way regarding the existence of a god (I won’t say “There is no god!” in other words.), but I do find it to be more unlikely than likely that such a being exists.

To my knowledge, I am the only atheist in my family. I am not, however, the only atheist in the country. Yet you wouldn’t know it to look at the religious distribution within Congress.

A report on a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life regarding the religious affiliations of members of Congress begins,

Members of Congress are often accused of being out of touch with average citizens, but an examination of the religious affiliations of U.S. senators and representatives shows that, on one very basic level, Congress looks much like the rest of the country. Although a majority of the members of the new, 111th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 6, are Protestants, Congress – like the nation as a whole – is much more religiously diverse than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, a comparison of the religious affiliations of the new Congress with religious demographic information from the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of over 35,000 American adults finds that some smaller religious groups, notably Catholics, Jews and Mormons, are better represented in Congress than they are in the population as a whole. However, certain other smaller religious groups, including Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, still are somewhat underrepresented in Congress relative to their share of the U.S. population. (Pew Forum)

Read further, and we find the following, handy chart[, which has been removed].

Look closely — I have, and for the life of me, I can’t find myself in that chart.

Where are the atheists? Are we lumped in with “Unaffiliated” or “Unspecified”? Was there an “atheist” option for the survey? If so, did no one check it because no one is an atheist or because no one is politically naive enough to admit it?

This set me on a hunt to determine how many atheists there are in America. “Atheist Revolution” reports that there is “a commonly reported number is that 1.6% of Americans identify themselves as atheists” (AR). Toward the end of the post, a figure of 10% is suggested.

Applied to the House survey, that would leave some 50+ members as atheists. Yet how many openly atheistic politicians are there? One, that I’ve found: 18-term Democratic congressman Pete Stark from California.

There’s good reason for this: the Pew Forum also contains the opening of a USA Today article about atheism in America.

Being an atheist is not easy in this age of great public religiosity in America. Not when the overwhelming majority of Americans profess some form of belief in God. Not when many believers equate non-belief with immorality. Not when more people would automatically disqualify an atheist for the presidency (53%, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll) than a gay candidate (43%), for example, or a Mormon (24%).

Anti-atheism might have found its ugliest public expression during an episode in the Illinois Legislature this spring. As atheist activist Rob Sherman attempted to testify against a $1 million state grant to a church, Rep. Monique Davis railed, “This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children. … It’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! … You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying!”

Lest we dismiss the legislator’s harangue as an anomaly, consider the organizations that bar atheists from membership — the Boy Scouts of America and American Legion, to name two, as well as some local posts of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — and the conspicuous absence of openly atheist politicians on the national stage. (The Pew Forum)

The most famous — and in some ways, the most significant — public expression of anti-atheism comes from Bush, Sr.’s comment to Robert Sherman: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

And yet we’re taking over America, taking God out of everything. My only question is, in what sense?

If anyone is a persecuted religious minority in public life, it’s atheists. Mike Whitney, at Dissident Voice, wrote in 2005 of a study that

showed that in the 1960s only very small minority of the public would vote for blacks, Jews or atheists (all of them in the 20 to 30% range). In the late 1990s when the same question was asked, blacks and Jews scored in the 70% range; not perfect, but much better. Atheists, however, still dithered in the 20 to 30% range. No change. The distrust and bigotry are still as alive today as they were 40 years ago. (DV)

The link Whitney provided is dead, and I have no way of confirming this study, but it certainly seems plausible. We’ve seen that the race barrier is, thankfully, surmountable. When will we have an atheist president? Indeed, when will we have a major-party atheist candidate? My bet: never.

Here in Greenville, I guard my atheistic stance very carefully. I avoid discussing religion with anyone other than close friends. I am fairly certain that no student or co-worker knows that I am an atheist.

I am especially careful around students: I answer students’ occasional questions about my religious views as ambiguously and politely as possible. When showing pictures of a Polish Christmas (as I did this last week) to provide students with a firsthand account of traditions very different than their own, I was asked, “Mr. S, are you Catholic?” I responded: “What do you think?” When the student stated that I must be, I simply said, “Well, remember that our assumptions aren’t always correct,” and left it very ambiguously at that.

The same girl came into class and asked, completely out of nowhere, “Mr. S, what do you think of homosexuals?” How does an atheistic, liberal teacher answer such a question with such obvious religious overtones? I wanted to say, “I think they’re human beings with every right to happiness that you and I have, and I see nothing whatever immoral in their behavior,” but that would have only spiraled into a “But the Bible says” conversation, and it was not where I wanted to go just before class. I don’t remember exactly how I replied, but I know I did my best to dodge the topic entirely.

One of my students has, in large, bold letters, the question “Have you witnessed to anyone today?” written on her English binder. She became frustrated that the Greek underworld as presented in the Odyssey did not conform to her conception of what a proper hell would look like: people writhing in agony for rejecting Jesus. I simply pointed out that the Odyssey was written well before Jesus’ birth and left it at that. “Yeah, I guess, but still…” came her reply, and I actually had to tell her privately, “We can’t take class time discussing why the Christian hell and the Greek underworld are so different.” It would have mad a fascinating discussion, I’m sure, but it would have been a discussion that I would have had to step through very carefully.

The truth is, I felt much more comfortable in Poland being openly atheistic than I ever would in the States. It’s not that I went around with a “God is dead!” shirt on or anything so silly. Moderation: I’m all for everyone believing or not believing exactly as he/she chooses, and I certainly don’t want to be a proselytizing atheist. At the same time, I once used my lack of belief to stimulating an amazingly successful conversation class, and I never tried to hide the fact that I don’t believe.

A lot of this has to do with the differences in the state view of religion in Poland and America, as well as the makeup of the religious landscape itself. Poland is almost exclussively Catholic. There is no competition for souls, and as such, dissenting opinion can be marginalized much more effectively. In America, though, we have free market religion, particularly within Protestantism. Here, everyone is competing for souls. Denominations can handle the competition, but they cannot handle a group saying, “You’re all wrong.” Believers of all faiths can band together against that, and in America, they do. The religious variety in America heightens the us-them dichotomy compared to what I experienced in Poland.

But America is Jesusland.

Take a walk
out the gate you go and never stop
past all the stores and wig shops
quarter in a cup for every block
and watch the buildings grow
smaller as you go

Down the tracks
beautiful McMansions on a hill
that overlook a highway
with riverboat casinos and you still
have yet to see a soul

Jesusland
Jesusland

Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you’d never say
you hang your head and pray

for Jesusland
Jesusland

Miles and miles
and the sun goin’ down
Pulses glow
from their homes
You’re not alone
Lights come on
as you lay your weary head on their lawn

Parking lots
cracked and growing grass you see it all
from offices to farms
crosses flying high above the malls
A longer walk

through Jesusland
Jesusland

Ben Folds “Jesusland”
jesusland
A country that has religious messages posted on billboards cannot ever be a nation that elects an atheist.

Religious License

Here in South Carolina, the Department of Transportation began issuing religious-themed license plates. They have stained glass, a cross, and the words “I believe.”

scibelieveplate

One guess as to what happened:

A federal judge says South Carolina must stop marketing and making license plates that feature the image of a cross and the words “I Believe.”

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction during a court hearing Thursday after opponents said the plates violate the separation of church and state.

U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie said the case needs to be heard in court. In the meantime, the judge said the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot take any more orders for the plates.

Department spokeswoman Beth Parks said the agency stopped taking orders more than a month ago, after it collected the 400 needed to cover the cost of making the plates. She said they are in production, and none has shipped. (AP)

I’m sure there are many in the state who are appalled by this. Just another example of those damn goddless bastards trying to destroy religion in America. That’s what the Andre Bauer, the Lt. Governor, says:

For those who say this violates the Constitution by giving preference to Christianity, I think this lawsuit clearly discriminates against persons of faith,” Bauer said in a statement. “I expect the state attorney general to vigorously defend this, and it is time that people stand up for their beliefs. Enough is enough.” (Harold Online, cached at Google)

plate2Yet how could anyone argue that it doesn’t give preference Christianity? There are no other freaking choices! I’d have gone for a FSM plate myself, but I don’t think my wife would have appreciated it.

Nate, at Shots from the Battery, really hits on the important issue, though:

I really wish we could sue the fundegelical state lawmakers who are forcing us taxpayers to bear the burden of the litigation they knew they were inviting. It’s a waste of $$ that the state taxpayers cannot afford. (SFTB)

Every morning going to work, it seems like I hear about the state making more and more budget cuts because of the falling tax revenue. South Carolina is predicted to have a stunning 14% unemployment rate by the spring, and these nitwits are out trying to make a mindless religious point.

Marriage and Divorce

One of the blogs tumbling into my Blog Lines account on daily basis is the New York Times‘ “Freakonomics.” Justin Wolfers posted “Assessing Your Divorce Risk” and provided a link to Divorce 360. I was immediately intrigued, for how can one quantify something as personal and diverse as divorce?

This site provides people with information and support for all stages of divorce. I’m not thinking about a divorce — or even close to it — but I was fascinated with the idea of the “Marriage Calculator” widget. When I filled out the necessary fields, I learned the following:

People with similar backgrounds who are already divorced: 4%
People with similar backgrounds who will be divorced over the next five years: 7%

It sounds like the wife and I have little to no chance for divorce, according to this widget. However, it includes the caveat/explanation that “In general for the five-year divorce prediction rates, those with less than 3 percent are at lower risk, 3 – 7 percent are of average risk and more than 7 percent are at higher risk.”

So we’re at average risk for a divorce.

What would go into calculating this rate? As the page loaded and I clicked across to another tab, I gave it a little thought. Surely age at marriage will count. Length of time we’ve been married would also be important, I reasoned. But beyond that, I couldn’t think of anything that might really give any sort of indication regarding divorce.

Fiscal strains present in the marriage? Nah — thousands of marriages survived the Depression and few people in the States are suffering at a level anywhere near that.

What about how long we’d known each other before getting married? A spur-of-the-moment (relatively or literally speaking) decision might be at a higher risk than those who’d taken their time in getting to know each other. At the same time, how would you quantify that for such a survey?

image1

What they ask for, though, is simple: gender, education level, age when married, years married, and period of time when the respondent got married.

Wolfers points out how many just assume “the risk is zero,” and I’ll admit, I still feel that way, even after having taken the survey.

It makes me wonder about the legitimacy of the survey, though. Certainly there are indicators for a higher risk for divorce, but how can anyone determine an “average” risk?

Truth is, I can’t imagine a scenario that might put so many strains our my marriage that we might talk about divorcing: the death of a child can lead to divorce, I believe. Yet there have to be other factors, for not everyone who suffers the loss of a child divorces.

If two people are determined to stay together, to make a relationship work even in the face of a tragedy that tears some couples apart, then statistical analysis is useless. The risk for them is zero, because they’ve both said as much. If two people are determined to make a marriage work, and the success and happiness of their marriage is a major goal in their life and not just something that’s bumping along for the ride, with the mortgage and insurance payments, then it seems to me that all other numbers are useless.

Those other factors that lead me to believe that this is basically worthless. All it says is that you fit into this or that demographic stastic; that’s not the same as risk.

Calling All Pakistanis – NYT

On Feb. 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirized the Prophet Muhammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai?

NYT

My Hometown

Headlining The Nation:

It was hot as Hades on June 5 in the little mountain town of Bristol, Virginia. But that didn’t stop hundreds of southwest Virginians–in the most staunchly Republican part of a state that hadn’t voted Democratic for president since 1964–from streaming into the local high school gym to whoop it up for a liberal, mixed-race fellow from Chicago with a mighty suspicious moniker. Fresh off his lopsided, nomination-clinching primary victory in North Carolina, Barack Obama had chosen–to the mystification of political experts–to launch his general election campaign not in the “battlegrounds” of Pennsylvania or Ohio but in a remote Southern backwater containing 17,000 souls who’d given George W. Bush 64 percent of their vote in 2004.
A New, Blue Dixie.

Sincerely, Mr. Waxman

A letter, dated October 28:

Dear Mr. Blankfein[, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Goldman Sachs]:

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department announced plans to invest $125 billion of taxpayer funds in nine major banks, including yours, as an emergency measure to rebuild depleted capital. According to recent public filings, these nine banks have spent or reserved $108 billion for employee compensation and bonuses in the first nine months of 2008, nearly the same amount as last year.

Some experts have suggested that a significant percentage of this compensation could come in year-end bonuses and that the size of the bonuses will be significantly enhanced as a result of the infusion of taxpayer funds. According to one analyst, “Had it not been for the government’s help in refinancing their debt they may not have had the cash to pay bonuses.”

Press accounts report that the size of the bonuses could exceed $6 billion at some firms receiving federal assistance.

While I understand the need to pay the salaries of employees, I question the appropriateness of depleting the capital that taxpayers just injected into the banks through the payment of billions of dollars in bonuses, especially after one of the financial industry’s worst years on record. As one newspaper recently reported, “critics of investment banks have questioned why firms continue to siphon off billions of dollars of bank earnings into bonus pools rather than using the funds to shore up the capital position of the crisis-stricken institutions.”

To assist the Committee’s investigation into this issue, I request that you provide the following information and documents for your company as well as any affiliates or subsidiaries:

  1. For each year from 2006 to 2008, the total compensation and average compensation per employee, paid or projected to be paid to all personnel, broken down by salaries, bonuses (cash and equity), and benefits; and a description of the reasons for the year-to-year changes in these amounts.
  2. For each year from 2006 to 2008, the number of employees who were paid, or are projected to be paid, more than $500,000 in total compensation; the total compensation paid or projected to be paid to these employees, broken down by salaries, bonuses (cash and equity), and benefits; and a description of the reasons for the year-to-year changes in these amounts.
  3. For each year from 2006 to 2008, the total compensation paid or projected to be paid to the ten highest paid employees, broken down by salaries, bonuses (cash and equity), and benefits; and a description of the reasons for the year-to-year changes in these amounts.
  4. Documents sufficient to show all policies governing the granting of the bonuses to the groups of employees referenced in items (l) to (3).

Please produce the requested information to the Committee no later than November 10, 2008. To the extent that 2008 year-end bonuses have not been finalized by that time, you should notify the Committee as soon as those bonuses are determined and supplement your response with updated information and responsive documents.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is the principal oversight committee in the House of Representatives and has broad oversight jurisdiction as set forth in House Rule X. An attachment to this letter provides additional information about how to respond to the Committee’s request.

If you have any questions about this request, please ask your representatives to contact Theodore Chuang or Alison Cassady of the Committee staff at (202) 225-5420. Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,
Henry A. Waxman
Chairman

I’m not sure which is more disturbing: the fact that the letter has to be written to begin with, or the fact that Time and Bloomberg scooped Congress. Shouldn’t the banks’ books have been open from the beginning of the bailout, so that Congress doesn’t find out from Time magazine that these banks are robbing taxpayers?

Oh, right — that would be real oversight. How foolish of me.

(Source: House Oversight Committee Web Site)