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July 22nd, 2008

The Grinch Will Steal Back to School Season

Weeks (months?) ago, I was speculating (possibly here, but definitely to my long-suffering R.) that any retailers who were hanging on by their fingernails hoping to be saved by Back to School Season (second only to Christmas for many retailers) would be doing en masse bankruptcy filings (of the liquidation, not restructuring form) shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the punditry were still saying one of (a) the economy will tick up in the second half of the year or (b) the economy will not nose dive until after Back to School Season.

Apparently, in the interim, there have been increasingly frantic surveys and polling that can be denied less and less:

http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2008/07/22/big_pitch_to_uneasy_school_shoppers/

Loss leaders, free shipping from online retailers and coupons. Lots of details, and no one is forecasting doom for retailers on the edge ... yet. I mean, unless you count me.

What Precisely _IS_ the job of a regulator?

Tanta over at Calculated Risk actually _liked_ some news coverage over at the WSJ. Wonders will never cease.

Here's the article in question (and I fully agree with Tanta: it's good):

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121641296022866029.html

Short form: FDIC back in 2001 takes over Superior Bank with the goal of selling it off, piecemeal if necessary. It never does successfully sell Superior's subprime mortgage operation (which was a wholesale mortgage business, i.e. relied heavily on brokers for origination). FDIC relied on existing workers for the transitional period BUT in order to sell the resulting loans, offered higher levels of guarantees than might have been typical of either Superior Before the End Came or the FDIC in general. Not unexpectedly, there were bad loans. Antics ensue.

QOTD: "But in a deposition in May for the Beal Bank litigation, a senior FDIC official suggested that fixing the bank wasn't the agency's top priority. "Our job was to go in and sell the assets of the institution, and not try to clean up the operations, per se, to make this a better bank," said the official, Gail Patelunas"

So. The question in my mind is: what precisely _is_ the job of a regulator, if not to "make this a better bank"? Have the folks in charge over at the FDIC under the current administration all along taken the stance that they don't give the tiniest flying fuck how good a job the banks are doing -- so long as they keep doing it or can be sold to someone else who will keep doing it?

Really?

It's gotten _that bad_? Buyer beware is totally inadequate in this scenario. And the band played on, is more like. It's truly a sign of my idealism and optimism that reading that quote still had the capacity to shock me. I'm _not_ surprised that some bad loans slipped through a transitional period. I would have forgiven that in a heartbeat, filed under, dude, we all screw up and we can't expect forgiveness if we aren't prepared to offer it up ourselves. But to have thought it wasn't even their responsibility? That's not a forgive-you-for-an-error, thing. That's fantasize about clubbing someone time. And not in a good way.

critical mass on the Morgenson article

Here's a fabulous summary:

http://calculatedrisk.blogspot.com/2008/07/brooks-on-morgenson-on-mcleod.html

When I read Gretchen's piece over on the NYT, I immediately went to Calculated Risk because I was going, I just gotta believe they ripped this sucker to shreds over there. I was not wrong:

http://calculatedrisk.blogspot.com/2008/07/duelling-discourses-of-debt.html

QOTD for Sunday would have been, had I blogged about, which I didn't because I couldn't get my act together enough to type on Sunday I was laughing so hard over stuff like this:

"Nobody much likes seeing the punch bowl go away when the party is still going strong. Nobody much likes seeing the punch bowl stay on the table until everyone has passed out and thrown up on each other, either." I made R. read/listen to a huge chunk of that post because the analogies were so amazingly on target in stark contrast to a lot of the analysis of That Obama Cartoon on the New Yorker (guys: MOST New Yorker cartoons are Emperor's New Clothes things -- they expose the reality to humorous effect. Not precisely what was going on with the fist-bumping 'fro'ed up Michelle and berobed Barack. Right? _Right?_ Now, if you'd framed it with a TV and put a FOX NEWS label on it, that'd be different.).

Anyway, the beat goes on with Brooks going right over the top in a little Victorian screed about the sin of spending and Tanta has at him over it. Nicely done, as usual. All very entertaining, particularly in view of having recently read _Financing the American Dream_, altho as H. has noted (and Tanta notes) all you need to have done is read anything from a hundred or so years ago and paid some attention.

If you actually read Brooks article and give it a little thought, the complete absence of mention of regulation and regulatory institutions I think gives more insight into (a) Brooks and (b) the problem under discussion than any of this moralizing. People do what they can do. To some degree, you can cut down on speeding by giving tickets and talking about saving the planet. But if you want to cut down on highway deaths, you redesign the roads so they aren't lethal to people who are traveling at higher speeds. And if you want to cut down on speeding, you freaking make the manufacturers build the cars so they don't _go_ that fast in the first place. Or, at least, not easily.
The Freakonomics blog over at NYT has an answer.

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/are-we-a-nation-of-financial-illiterates/

Predictably, their answer is: teach people to be Smart About Money, specifically, they need to understand compound interest and the price of money and How Markets Work.

Let us pause for a moment and contemplate that as a concept.

Sorry about whatever was in your mouth, and has now passed through your nose and dirtied your screen. Feel free to take another moment to clean it off.

If we all have to understand compound interest for this to go well, let's just say, ain't never gonna happen. As a little sidelight, when I read his remark about how we don't teach kids how to bake a cake in high school, my immediate response was two-fold: (a) we should and (b) actually, that's usually in junior high. Or at least it was.

Moving on from the cake (because, let's face it, revolutionaries have been having _way too much fun_ misinterpreting remarks about cake for a long time, and it's senseless to participate in that at this point), I really do think this is kind of one of those things where teaching the kiddies is dumb. That's not how we make sure we get income tax out of the population. That's not how we reduced the mortality rate associated with cars. That's not how we stomped out smallpox. I'm thinking something more structural is going to be needed.

Believe me, I'll be posting more on the general topic. But I promise to try to stay away from the Freakonomics blog.
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b89eb5b2-5804-11dd-b02f-000077b07658.html

Covers the usual ground (hey, we aren't all rational, and markets aren't perfectly efficient, central banks are not the only source of problems and blah, blah, blah) plus hey, maybe inflation _shouldn't_ be our biggest concern, in fact, maybe inflation fighting has become a new Maginot Line.

Diana Korte, _The VBAC Companion_

Subtitled: The Expectant Mother's Guide to Vaginal Birth After Cesarean

If you've made it this far, you should have a pretty good idea of what you're signing up for by reading the rest of this review or, as the case may be, this book. Which I recommend, if you are contemplating pregnancy after having had one or more c-sections.

It would appear to be out of print, but is readily accessible used online; I got a paperback copy via Amazon. Copyright 1997, this dates from when ACOG was trying to get the c-section rate down in part by promoting VBACs instead of repeat cesareans. Likely due to litigation, ACOG has changed the guidelines since this book was published. This book and ACOG agree that in the event of a uterine rupture (and not the technical-rupture-than-no-one-cares-about but the real deal), best-odds for the baby's survival require emergency c-section within 17 minutes. The implication is not only do you have to be in a hospital that can do a c-section, but there has to be a team standing by, a point which is often glossed over. Many hospitals are using this as a reason to just not do VBACs.

ETA: Here's a response on ICAN to the 1999 guidelines change:

http://www.ican-online.org/vbac/critique-acog-bulletin-5-july-1999-vaginal-birth-after-previous-cesarean-section

Many freestanding birth centers won't do VBACs and many midwives of varying credentials who might otherwise do a homebirth won't attend a VBAC homebirth for related reasons. Some of the ones who used to got their chops busted pretty hard if they had to transfer and their covering ob-gyn learned what they'd been up to. I'm still trying to decide if I'm quite clever for having lined up a birth center that will do a VBAC, or way out in the realm of risk-taking, so if you have some questions about my decision, let's just say we may share them. I'm not, however, interested in discussing them.

Which is not to say that I wasn't interested in better understanding. Given the number of books I've read about parenting, childbirth and pregnancy, it seemed a little wrong I hadn't read anything in particular about VBACs, other than the occasional on-line article that I could not help but roll my eyes at. I very much wanted to avoid certain books about VBAC on account of I'm pregnant and hormonal and just Do Not Need to Be Dealing With That Stuff Right Now. Diana Korte's better known for her _A Good Birth, a Safe Birth_ (which I got from the library and read while pregnant with T., IIRC). She never had a c-section, never mind a VBAC, but she's clever with the questionnaires and good at assembling data and presenting it in a well-structured fashion.

The structure is straightforward. She presents how many women got here (cascade), what they might be feeling (fear and loathing), and why a VBAC is something that is worth considering, even if it requires some effort. She then describes how to go about lining up a sympathetic health care provider/birth attendant and location, and figuring out how to get your insurance to pay for it. She lays out a variety of standard traps to watch out for (people who expect labor to progress rapidly) and some standard warnings about other birth/lactation unfriendly practices some hospitals still (at least ten years ago) engaged in. Interspersed throughout are quotations from the women who responded to her questionnaires about their experience. Korte does a really nice job of including the voices of women who Tried Really Hard and Did Everything Right (for suitable definition of Right) and still had a repeat c-section. Several call-out boxes list questions to ask various people when you are trying to identify your birth attendant/location/etc.

She even spends a few pages on how to have a good repeat c-section experience, if that's what you decide is right for you.

The back of the book is consumed by the usual resources listings and a copy of the questionnaire, should you choose to participate.

This book did a great job of what I wanted done (filled in terrain I had a rough sketch of) without doing anything I didn't want done (like, make me even more hostile to medical care as perpetrated in the US today).

Will I be taking a VBAC class? No. Will I be attending ICAN or C/SEC meetings? No. Will I take a childbirth class? Probably not. Do I even have an opinion about what anyone else contemplating what to do in a similar situation? Not especially. I know several women who really tried hard for a VBAC with their second and it did not work out for them. I know even more women who scheduled their repeat cesarean because there was no way in hell they were going through that natural childbirth ending in emergency c-section thing again. I know one woman who had two (premature) babies (more or less) naturally and both spent substantial time in the NICU -- I'd take a c-section over that in a heartbeat, not that anyone gets to make that choice. I even know one woman who decided enough was enough with this Bradley thing and on her third went in, got an epidural and was amazed at how smoothly everything went (well, DUH!).

With a little luck, sometime in September I'll be moaning in a tub of water. With a little more luck, I won't then be transferring with a stubborn cervical lip. But ya know, there are some hard limits to how much say anyone gets in a birth. And that's the nicest thing of all about Diana Korte. She's worked really hard to improve the birth experience for women, both by suggesting what they can do and advocating for change at hospitals where most births take place. And she has never lost sight of the fact that no one really gets to control how this all turns out.

ETA: I think it's actually really hard to write any book on this topic, much less what this book attempted (a moderate advocacy, informed by relevant studies). Most readers (or at least, most people who post reviews) are going to bring a lot of themselves to this book, and the filter may or may not do the contents justice. With that in mind, if someone has told you this book is a very balanced portrayal because you really want to have a repeat c-section, and they are really trying to convince you to do trial of labor, this book will almost certainly piss you off. Because that _person_ is pissing you off. Do whatever the hell you think is best for you, but try not to blame this book. If you are terrified of any degree of risk at all, and are looking for a VBAC advocacy book that says that there is _no_ risk at all to VBAC (or childbirth in general), this book is going to piss you off by pointing out some possible negative outcomes. If you _really really really_ want an epidural as soon as you start labor, and a fetal monitor because _that's how you knew you had to have a c-section or your first baby would have died_, then this book is _NOT_ for you. Stay away. But odds on, if you read my blog with any frequency, none of these things is true of you. ;-)