Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Line in the Sand

Again, the Sony ebook reader strikes and makes me happy to enjoy books. The problem is that I have so many good books on the thing that I can't readily decide what to read. And I have far less time for writing about what I have read.

If you read my earlier entry about how the treasury department drew a line in the sand instead of using a stitch in time, and remember it, this entry is for you.

David Wessel, In Fed We Trust, has come up with an interesting theory as to why the line was drawn in the sand which added the spark to the kindling that led to the financial crises (metaphors make everything just a bit more believable, don't they? Especially when mixed so successfully. )

Wessel believes and provides a great deal of interesting circumstantial evidence that Hank Paulson, then Treasury Secretary, didn't want to be known as "Mr. Bailout" by repeating the same kind of bailout used to entice a buyer for Bear Stearns. When Bear Stearns had needed a buyer, public money had been used as an incentive. No more. Paulson laid down the line internally that public money was not to be used with Lehman Brothers. There is evidence that this was probably just a negotiating position that would be varied from as Paulson was known to change his mind at the "drop of a hat", one of my Dad's favorite cliches. In fact, Paulson historically was known for using this particular negotiating tactic of appearing to be inflexible up to the end when flexibility would come out of the closet. However, his temporary bargaining position was leaked to the press who made a grand announcement that "inside sources" had said Paulson was drawing a line in the sand and that no public money would be used to help with the toxic assets a buyer of Lehman Brothers would have to take on.

Continuing with my love of metaphor or maybe just cliches, the news story took on "a mind of it's own." Paulson was stuck with an admiring press that was quite comfortable making judgements and publishing them. (The unpleasantness the press felt resulting from convincing 96 percent of us that the Iraq War was brilliant became a thing of the past even at the point they discovered their error.) Anyone going against the popular wisdom was in danger of being the whipping horse. The press wholeheartedly agreed with the position that a line must be drawn when it came to Lehman. "In the sand," of course. Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke were apparently warned by Timothy Geithner, later to be President Obama's Treasury Secretary, that this was not a wise move. A nonegotiable negotiating position does seem absurd. Unfortunately, due to the leaking of a position meant for negotiation, not policy, nonenegotiable policy was born. In fact the argument was given that Paulson had stated a few months before that "For market discipline to constrain risk effectively, financial institutions must be allowed to fail." Two days after the Lehman fiasco, Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner were busy using public funds to bail out AIG. Before the Bush Administration came to an end, trillions of dollars were being loaned out to bail out the repercussions of this one mistake.

The problem with the concept of "market discipline" and reliance on the free market is the fact that the free market  in bank type organizations really never historically existed, and certainly not since the Great Depression. Sure, they seemed to be all free market and such with their acting in their own self interest to score the largest profits possible. However the government was actually responsible for guiding the process and it was weakened by wave after wave of deregulation. This wave started ominously in 1978 when banks were allowed to bypass usury laws by using the ussary laws of the state they were incorporated in which helped Delaware a great deal. Incidentally, this was a move away from a Christian ethical concept. A steady stream of laws knocked down the regulations which were either put in place after the Great Depression or just assumed as common ethical sense. Both political parties apparently felt the pressure to allow the free market selfishness to blossom in the financial sector. It was a big money maker in terms of taxes and jobs and stuff. Being familiar with the 1929 outcome, didn't seen ti give them pause.

My argument pretty much has always been that the free market leads to terrible things without a backbone of laws that are moral and just  with which to guide this market. I can't understand why a society based on Christianity could also be based on selfishness as the prime motivation for good.

Since the early years of American history the monetary supply has always been assumed to be better regulated and printed and controlled by the federal government. But as law after law placed "financial institutions" outside of the regulatory policies of the Fed and the insurance of the FDIC, trouble was brewing. The fact that banks have the power to increase the amount of money in circulation is a lesson we learn from grade school. The bank doesn't have to have actual money to lend, they just need to have a required amount of reserves and the Fed takes care of problems resulting if the bank goes bust. But "financial institutions" have come to have the same money creation power with less and less regulation. Selfish greed run amok creates distinct problems in businesses this powerful.

It seems to me this is a laziness of thinking. The invisible hand will take care of everything regardless of what we do. It is the very epitome of lack of personal responsibility when cut throat methods of acquiring more and more money are considered virtuous. The axiom that my freedom stops just at the point where my fist hits your nose doesn't seem to apply in this laziness of thought. The collective fist of the market freedom we have given the "financial institutions" has hit everyone. Regardless of how personally responsible they were, they might find themselves out of a job due to circumstances beyond their personally responsible realm of control. When these people need unemployment insurance benefits, they are moochers on the system with no personal responsibility according to advocates of this laziness of thinking. Consideration isn't even given to the fact that thousands of people out on the streets might cause a bit of a tear in the social fabric, not to mention a rapid spiral downward as money effectively left the economy resulting in more business closing, resulting in more unemployment.

The simplicity in the statement "drawing a line in the sand" was apparently invented by a lazy press and passed along from "journalist" to "journalist."  If you think about this long enough you can see this story is popular on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives, obviously, want to depend on the free market. Liberals distrust financial institutions and allowing one to go broke seems like a victory to a knee jerk thinker. It must have been considered a winning story that Paulson had drawn a line in the sand and there would be no more Bear Sterns type bailouts. But it was a little more complicated than that. The invisible hand was beat in arm wrestling with the government in two days as AIG became the first of many future bailouts considered necessary in the resulting panic.

Panic is another key part of selfishness engendered by a "free market.". At the beginning of the crash in stocks, I saw no reason to hold on to stocks in this panic climate. I sold the riskiest parts of my investments almost immediately. Personal responsibility meant that I keep my wife and myself safe from exposure. I made sure that the cash reserves would be enough and actually held on to mutual funds I was pretty sure were likely to fall rather than rise. I was dumbstruck when my bonds started falling as I had some misinformation as a child that stocks and bonds moved in opposite directions. On average, yes, but averages don't apply in a panic. In the end I found I had been one of the more conservative investors around and suffered very little loss. I cut the losses even more by buying some stock near the bottom. It seemed smart but obviously not many people thought so. There lack of enthusiasm for the financial products that had cost them their futures was readily apparent as my stock stayed at the bottom for quite some time.

My lack of selfishness in not selling my mutual funds probably helped someone out there, but certainly not me. Selfishness really guided me to join the panic. Such wild swings can be very destabilizing to the market and the government, yet they result from the principles that make a free market free.

If I were choosing invisible hands to trust, it wouldn't be one of the selfishness of the marketplace, it would be one of higher authority based on morality and unselfishness.

[Disclosure of one of my moments of knee jerk responses and lazy thinking: In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, my knee jerk response was almost always to disagree with the Republicans. President H.W. Bush had stopped short of completing the war. Here was a popular wisdom I could agree with. Bush, Sr. had screwed up and had not gone to Baghdad. Then along came a Bush Jr.intent on protecting family honor over country, and who among us wouldn't? Well, except if we suddenly had some fiduciary responsibility by being elected to some Federal Office. However, rethinking my original lazy assessment of the situation seems critical to being honest with myself, in light of the mistakes we have made since.]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Tidings

Because if this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition -- and then admit that we just don't want to do it.   - Stephen Colbert, making fun of Bill O'Reilly's latest:
For them, the baby Jesus wants us to "provide," no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not? - Bill O'Reilly

In the time of year where Walmart has the Salvation Army in front of each of it's stores at least around my area, the political theorists like O'Reilly try to make sense of this Christian/Capitalism ethical dilemma and why they won't put a quarter into the bucket. The Christian perspective is all there in the Holy Bible, some of my favorite quotations, some of which seem kind of self destructive in O'Reilly's world:
"If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  -Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:21
"When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."  -Jesus Christ in Luke 14: 12-14
I have trouble reconciling the need to help the poor with the need to help them improve themselves so that they can help themselves. I would have a problem with liquidating all of my assets as well. But O'Reilly's vision of Christianity in the form of "The Lord helps those who help themselves" just isn't in the Holy Bible that I know. It's just not there in words or the teachings of Jesus Christ.

And my trouble reconciling our economic system with the Holy Bible, or more objectively, with what I perceive as established theories of ethics or morality, is what I obsess over.

Thankfully Stephen Colbert has cleared it all up for me. :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bill O'Reilly on David Letterman

I really find Dave Letterman the most amusing person to watch on TV. When you add the second least amusing person (thank gosh for Glenn Beck)  it doesn't really cancel itself out like a law of physics. It was fun watching Dave be gracious and it was fun watching Bill O'Reilly try to sound less idiotic than he does on Fox News and succeed. Books to sell.

Before this gracious interview, however, Dave had set up two phrases for the audience to watch for. Dave had arranged that he would say "That's a lie" when Dave, himself, was too stupid and confused to make sense of an argument. He also said the word "blowhard" would come up during the interview. He was implicitly making fun of  a person who often used such language and who has come selling books on Letterman's show even though Dave had once uncharacteristically said "I have the feeling about 60 percent of what you say is crap." Dave used the phrases expertly during the interview. Jon Stewart's cosiness to O'Reilly is always disappointing but Dave likes "found" humor, where something is funny just because it exists.

While O'Reilly can parody himself without any help, unfortunately the audience who believes him can have a skewed view of the world. In particular, O'Reilly has given Barack Obama two years to get out of the Bush Depression. Apparently, it's all on Obama's head. O'Reilly used the statistic that 52 percent of the people now feel they are worse off than they were under Bush. The wheels turned in Letterman's head and he said that a cut on his hand might seem like only a nick at first but years later, if he hadn't taken care of the cut he might bleed out and certainly be worse off than he was before. It was a very quickly thought up analogy that was very effective.

My problem is that people actually believe O'Reilly when he says Obama has failed. The phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day" comes to mind. But, my real problem is, whatever headway Obama has made to make the Bush Depression less than a Great Depression is taken for granted. Even the trillions of dollars in bailouts the Bush administration made helped to put a bandage on a cut that would have bled us all dry.
I was talking with someone the other day who had said he had to have his fix of Fox News every night to get his head straight (i.e. know how to think.) I was gracious enough not to comment as I have in the past when he was around me. I was reading my ebook reader and was content. Then he commented on my ebook reader and he said he had tried one and just couldn't get into it. He didn't use the typical excuses I have always used like "I like the feel of a good book in my hands." He just couldn't get into books basically. I pondered a while (I didn't have to respond right away as he was destined to be around me for a while.)

Finally, I said, well, there are other things you can do besides read books, I like to read the New York Times. He taunted "YOU DON'T READ THE NEW YORK TIMES, do you?"  Well, yes, I admitted. The New York Times might have 10 pages on one news item whereas other newspapers usually had very short articles.

Then I said something that was both paradoxical and amusing apparently only to me, "Never trust anything that can be said in a short amount of words."   :)

Closed Loop

The Woot! of the day. Some kind of podcast thing. I just thought the image was not exactly the image I would think of to sell my product. Then I realized..... oh no, this is an analogy for my blog!!!!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On a Different Note...

As fun as it is to write about vultures, I find even more fun writing about the non-predatory life that is carefully provided by a higher power, whose genius I now do not ever question. I just need to include this cross reference to my other blog where happier and less sobering information about the world are similarly flung around in an apparently aimless manner. The Internet is an information (I use that word loosely) flinging paradise, and I do want to make sure I'm flinging something else besides the stuff I'm throwing at the zookeepers in this blog.
 Enjoy!   Life is good, except when it's not.

The words of truth are always paradoxical.
- Lao Tzu

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bad Portents

On the way to work yesterday just before noon, I saw a fallen baby deer on the side of the road. A few vultures were nipping at it's dead carcass. I felt it was a bad omen of doom, but I had had such a good morning at home. Yet, sure enough the day was pretty gloomy at work. Awful things happened

In fact the last week or so has had a number of events that would make one take pause. I had to summon the police to one incident in particular where I was physically threatened This is a first at my job here, but not an infrequent occurrence where I used to work in Montgomery. The policemen were awesome but in the shuffle I was asked to identify someone they had tracked down. I misidentified the guy! He exclaimed "I was the one with the cell phone."  I looked carefully at him and indeed, he was not the perpetrator at all but the guy who was on a cellphone 1 minute before the actual problem occurred. Yes, he was with the people who caused the problem, yes he had broken the rules with the cellphone, but he decidedly was not the person who had physically threatened me. I apologized saying, "Sir, I am so sorry I misidentified you. I happened to speak to you just before the problem. Please forgive me." I said this loudly so the police would have no recourse against this guy. He seemed to be very relieved and forgiving.

I remembered a time when I worked in a library in a shopping center. All kinds of crime went down in that neighborhood. Once we saw guys running past throwing packages of meat in every direction. Following them were security officers running to try to catch the shoplifters. In another case, the police had rounded up two young black gentlemen who they thought had snatched a purse. The little old lady, who happened to be white, made her way slowly to the police car. As I watched, she said, "I don't know. I just can't be sure." The sheer terror in the eyes of the two young men will haunt me forever. That is why my misidentification was so earth shattering to me.

Equally earth shattering was a series of work emails that caused much consternation when added to all the events of late.

Then, this morning, there were at least 30 or more vultures in that same spot on the side of the road (a road my wife and I call "the wilderness highway" as it cuts through a section of area reserved for a buffer on the local Trent Jones Golf Trail course.) I couldn't even see any part of the deer just masses of vultures crawling over each other.

Yet, I got to work and all the gloomy problems of yesterday had been resolved. Then my boss told me a story about how the vultures clean up diseases that would happen without them. Thank the heavens for those vultures, I knew that damned deer was a bad portent! :)

Monday, December 13, 2010

That Nasty Old Red Tape, June 3, 2003

[The crises] "springs from a predatory attack on the safeguards that had for decades kept housing finance safe and stable. In the early 2000's the Bush administration sent clear signals that regulations on mortgages would not be enforced. The signals were not subtle: on one occasion the Director of Thrift Supervision came to a press conference with copies of the Federal Register and a chainsaw. There followed every manner of scheme to fleece the unsuspecting -- 'liars' loans,' 'no doc loans,' and 'neutron loans' were terms of the art in the business -- bundled together, rated and securitized, then spread through the world and left to fester until rising interest rates and crashing prices wrecked the system."
- James K. Galbraith
from the May 18, 2009 foreword to
John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Secret Fed, Part 2

Also, in the document dump the Fed was forced to do, was the fact that much of the borrowing of the $3.3 trillion, a hidden assumption of risk by US citizens, was by foreign banks. UK's Barclays was the largest of the borrowers asking and receiving a huge $232 billion loan more than the second highest user of the Fed, Bank of America who garnered $212 billion. Then came Bank of Scotland at $181 billion, Wells at Fargo $154 billion and others less needy.

During the financial crisis after balking at the idea of purchasing Lehman Brothers, Barclays eventually purchased the Lehman Brothers skyscraper and other targeted assets at fire sale prices.

Barclays today:

Basically the Fed rescued the world from utter financial collapse and assumed risk on our behalf on an eye popping scale, the Fed hid the risk from us, and the Fed was lauded for making the right bet. I'm glad they wagered correctly.  Whew!

Secrecy about risk led to the financial crises and secrecy led out of it. I guess the question is really that if the job had not been done in secret, would it have ever been done? The Tea Party folk definitely wouldn't have liked us handing out money to foreign banks, believing we should stop all foreign aid.

The $700 billion bailout, a fraction of our money that was actually put at risk, raised a furor among Republicans with their own president proposing it. I believe the Tea Party was sort of born here as conservatives felt that the bailout was wrong, but they had no where to go if they were to affix the blame to themselves. Hence, a new party to join.

However, what was wrong was not really the bailout, although we can quibble about how we should have done it. The incredible sums of money put at risk must at least point to the size of the depression we were heading towards. It wasn't a mere $700 billion dollar problem. I guess the problem is that the average guy will never really get a feel for what could have happened. The average guy votes, but the secret government is the one that has the power. It apparently convinced or didn't need to convince George W. Bush that 4 trillion dollars had to be wagered very quickly (but don't worry too much, we can hide 3/4 of that. The 700 billion will be enough for them to know about. That should blow their minds sufficiently.)
The Fed's original mistake, of course, was in not regulating what they needed to, and letting the invisible hand make policy. Bailout was just picking up the pieces that the powerful invisible hand had crushed.

My prediction for Time's Man of the Year?   Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, for better or worse.

The Secret Fed

The cause of the Lehman Brothers debacle was their reliance on risk as a moneymaker, or the "undervaluing of risk" as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan liked to put it. The problem with risk was that the investment firms and banks were hiding it from the investors. One of the main features of capitalism is advertising. Advertising is mostly misleading and just plain old lying about a product. I learned this long ago when my "Hotwheels" toy cars weren't as hot as they were advertised on Saturday morning when I actually got them for Christmas as a child. I never forgot it. I look at the new commercials for the investment banks and see them saying the same things they said before. You can trust us, we'll see to your future.

Banks and investment firms were making tons of money selling investments like Credit Default Swaps and Securitized Debt Obligations on the high end of the scale, and Mutual Funds for peoples 401k's, risky mortgages and other instruments on the low end. Risk was incredibly high but it was "undervalued" or hidden. We know that some people in the government knew the risk. Some of them testified before congress. Economists like Nouiel Roubini, or  "Dr. Doom," as he was labeled because he was always talking about the risk, knew about the problem. (And he is even doomier than the news media even today. See :
He would actually like to be called "Dr. Realist," and having been completely correct in his former prediction and warnings, it seems like a small request. The media still calls him Dr. Doom highlighting the media's former cheer leading for balloon salesmen and their smearing tactics for anyone with a pin.

After the giant mistake of the Fed allowing Lehman to go under, panic was everywhere. This made the bailout critical to our national interest and the interest of world society as a whole.  As we dealt with the unforeseen consequences of the Fed's big oops moment, the bailout was definitely pretty smart, well following pretty darned dumb

"Helicopter money" is the established method of stopping the downward spiral of a depression. The idea is to throw as much money, as if from a helicopter, into the economy protecting it from imploding like it did in 1929. Values increase. Milton Friedman coined the term for this way to stop spiraling deflation. It just didn't matter who you give the money to as long as it drifted through the economy. Inflation fights deflation.

In an article in Financial Times (UK), an analysis is made of documents that the Fed has leaked recently. Many American newspapers figure the news from the Fed is about what they expected. Rah! Rah! Britain Sebastion Mallaby has a different take on the subject. The TARP fund was $700 billion with the blessings of congress. However, $3,300 billion more was loaned without congressional approval to banks and companies. I wrote that figure correctly. It's just being revealed now in the leaks. That is, it was hidden before.

Sounds kind of secretive don't you think? It was. We only learned of the risk we were undertaking because of a small clause in Dodd-Frank bill which forced the Fed to disclose. They had to disclose the risk they had hidden from us. Not only the amount of the money was hidden but the risk of many of the investments being based on collateral like subprime mortgages and junk assets.

The people who got the helicopter money, well, it wasn't the people losing their houses. And, under a new administration, to get the money for people who lost their jobs and have now run to the end of their unemployment, there must be a compromise for the continuation of tax cuts for the millionaires who are still millionaires because of the very risky hidden bailout, a bailout risking a substantial portion of every one's money. It is mind boggling in its insidiousness.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Its so tough sometimes, really. I have been feeling a little poorly all day. And I take time to read some of Adam Smith's (economist) works and I see that I have totally misunderstood him. Well, actually, everyone else did, then they taught it to me. 

"Invisible Hand" - It's so obvious, isn't it? No need for a value system, everyone will be fine as long as they are selfish, and heck, anyone can accomplish that. :)  The invisible hand is really great to have around, it's kind of like "natural selection."  The best survive....  if you like that ugly disused parking lot over there with the mugger behind the bush.  Perhaps the mugger is misunderstood himself. I mean he thought he was only doing his part to be selfish.

Adam Smith actually used the phrase twice in published writings and once in a lecture. All three times he didn't use it the way we have been taught. So, if he only used it twice in his writings, we are talking about 400 page books, could it have been that important to him? And then if you were to find out that he was actually talking about trade balances between nations, the only one of his three usages that comes close to our idea of the great invisible hand of the market, then you might be tempted to give up on concepts or education or at least mine. :)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nudging, Part 2, end of preface.

My usual mistake is to start a conversation about economics without fully explaining my understanding or usage of the terms involved. Of course no one every prefaces their conversations with a glossary. So, I thought I would go ahead and do just that.

Democracy - "rule of the people"  a Greek term. A form of government. There are three forms: consensus, direct, and representative. We have none of these in the United States in a pure form, but we tend towards a representative democracy which ebbs and flows as to how representative it is. There are all kinds of checks and balances with a constant changing of the rules. My definition of democracy is simply "rule of the people" regardless of what form, and I think of it as an ideal rather than a concrete term. That is, I believe it is a far end of a continuum which we can only try to approach.

Capitalism - economic system in which there is private ownership of the means of production for individual profit. This is the simplest way to explain the concept but with this simple definition comes the ideas of profit and decisions being made by private individuals not at all affected by government. The continuum here is easy to see as American economists understand we do not actually have a capitalistic system unless they modify the meaning. They might say we have a mixed economy in the USA. Again there is a continuum, and my definiton of capitalism would be that end of the continuum which is completely laissez-faire, or free from government interference. Otherwise it is mixed.

Before I go on to my final two terms, let me bow before you, my dear reader, in an attempt to nudge you into following my musings without prejudice. I am simply your servant here in my blog and do not wish to be judged a bad servant. I humbly bow and lay before you groveling....  oh you get the idea, nudge, nudge.

Please don't judge me harshly as I now stray away from common thought and twist the definitions just a bit. Maybe you, my dear (nay not just dear but intelligent cute and my that's a nice shirt you are wearing there) reader, won't notice.

Socialism - an economic system where the means of production are owned commonly. Sound right? Nope, I must be in serious error. Check Wikipedia entries:  Socialism vs. Capitalism   Notice anything different? Socialism is also a political theory but capitalism is not. Huh???  This seriously screws up my continuum of the ownership of the means of production, stretching from individual to common. Could capitalism exist in the absence of government?  Well, I guess, but imagine the completely laisez faire world. I could just shoot you and take all your money for profit, job done. I could enslave you to work for me, job done.

No, there is a problem here and I intend to rectify it, prostate as I am before you. - wink- But I won't be behaving badly and just type the definition I want into Wikipedia. I'll just explain it for you here where nobody reads or cares to correct me.

 I was in junior high when I was given a book by my social studies teacher. It was different from any other school book because it was given to me in addition to my regular social studies textbook and I could keep this one if I wanted to. I remember that it was red and told about the menace of Communism. A cold war for librarians. Oh, before I go on, my fourth term:

Communism - something I will not be talking about even though you might think so because of the mass confusion of the word "socialism" with the word "communism" especially if you live in my area of the country. Communism is a form of government, socialism is a form of economic system. Job done. :)

I see it like this. Democracy is something to be striven for but is incredibly flawed in our country. Because of this nothing works well. Arguments that it is the best system that exists fall short with me and always cause me sinus headaches.

Capitalism, the best system we could have ever come up with, (oh my head), exists on a continuum where the opposite end is socialism. We exist somewhere in between. Socialism actually exists as a set of laws to modify lasaiz faire capitalism. Please trust me, it's there.

Basically, my dearest reader who was ever on the face of this earth, I cajole you with all the powers of pandering I can muster, just keep in mind that when someone, particularly me, says "democracy," "socialism," or "capitalism," it's much more complicated than just saying the word. And the complications are what I wish to write about in my upcoming grand economic theory, which you are going to skip if you know what's good for you. I'll warn you what to skip with appropriate cues in the chapter headings.

By the way, if I were to say a simple word like "tree," what would your mind-picture be?  Pine, tall oak, short maple, maybe an ash, or coloring book stick figure with brown trunk and green top? No answer? Speak up! Now my hearing is affected. I'm taking an Allegra and going to bed. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

The words of truth are always paradoxical.
                                                      - Lao Tzu

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lost's Finale, Lehman Brothers, and Pop Wisdom *

I loved Lost's final episode, "The End." **  I like television shows more than motion pictures because movies usually have "Hollywood endings" which just make me feel silly for having watched them. They are predictable and point out my waste of time and money.

My love of TV has been lifelong. My addiction to television started when I came back from Germany, a child who had only been able to watch movies, or more likely, movie serials on Saturdays. My mother was there beside me every Saturday morning in a theatre at the Air Force Base in Weisbaden, Germany, where my father was stationed. It was in Weisbaden that I have my first memories. I remember choking on a marble, not able to breathe, as my mother saved my life.  I remember that marble bouncing down the stairs after I coughed it up because my mother yanked me up and down by my feet as she frantically screamed and continued to yank me up and down while carrying me holding onto my feet into the hallway of our apartment building to bang on the neighbor's door. I remember my mother risking her life dangling on the window ledge, many stories from the ground, so that she could clean the outsides of those large windows. Mom was very cleanly and particular. I remember guppies eating their newborns as my mother also frantically tried to net them to put them in a safe container. And I remember the wrinkled German lady who fooled me into thinking a string had gone through her neck, with a little trick that you often see performed on hands rather than necks. Her wrinkles were so thick on her neck that it was believable that her head might just be balanced and you couldn't see the disconnection because of those wrinkles. But, most of all I remember those movies where my mother would sit by me and pay attention to me and explain things to me. No I take that back, what I remember even clearer was the moment I was shown a television set in America at my brother's house with my nephew Eddie showing me the way it worked and teaching me just how to control what before had been uncontrollable.

I'm a DVR person now, of course. So Lost just ended for me tonight, months later than it ended for most people. As it came to it's conclusion I wasn't sorry but celebratory over a show that had become so powerful it could negotiate it's own ending with the network agreeing not to cancel. Lost always reminded me of a book as have many other shows. But other continuing storyline shows would either have to figure out a quick ending as they were about to be canceled or would just disappear in the middle of their story. Lost did it all and I was proud of them. People who's judgement I trust hated the ending. Me, my judgement was clouded by my love for the show. I had recognized the potential on the first show, but when the light came out of that hatch and the next season began with Desmond, I was so hooked, I lost all objectivity.

Four things happened to me today, TV wise. I saw the ending episode of-The Riches, another favorite book-like show. It ended in the middle of it's storyline with more unresolved points than any continuing show in recent memory. Secondly I saw the SEC championship game. Thirdly, I saw Lost come to a wonderful conclusion. And lastly, I saw a BBC documentary on the downfall of Lehman Brothers. The ending of Lehman Brothers was the more consequential of the endings. In fact, many financial types believe today that 30 or 40 billion dollars from the Bush Administration at that time to be used to guarantee Lehman's assets would have led to a slow resolution of the property bubble collapse and saved trillions of dollars in lost wealth. The drastic consequences of letting the "bank" go "bankrupt" were mostly unforeseen by the U.S. Department of Treasury who believed they could "handle" the problems. Others believe the U.S. Treasury had to draw a line in the sand at this moment.

A line drawn in the sand in regards to President Richard M. Nixon would have been wonderful. He should have been tried and escorted into a nice minimum security prison for his crimes, the pardon before a trial or verdict being an obvious perversion of the Constitution. Surely this would have had some preventative effect on later presidents (Reagan and Bush Jr.) as they too decided to "go rogue" and ignore the law. But I believe the fundamental problem in the financial crises was not where to draw the line in the sand, but it was a mistaken belief that after the line was drawn somehow the invisible hand of capitalism would make us all comfy and happy. What else would the line stand for? Government would not interfere, capitalism would run it's course after events walked past this particular part of the beach. Throwing caution to the wind, and letting that wonderful free market decide the world's financial fate appeared to be a little nutty to the British bank Barclays. British people always believe we are a little nutty honestly.

As Bank of America surprised the Fed and decided to purchase Merril Lynch instead of Lehman Brothers (Lynch realized its own probable upcoming fate at those very Fed meetings to save Lehman. The Lynch guy looked at the physical appearance of the poor Lehman guy and said he was going out to make a little call.) Barclays was finally allowed into the nice room labeled "buyers" to decide whether good old second choice Barclays would take over Lehman and their debt. Barclays was willing. Barclays would end up looking at the mess and asking it's country's leaders whether it should go the full Monty and guarantee an American bank's survival all by it's lonesome which tacitly obligated Great Britain as well, since the Americans turned so quickly on the French and all. The answer from the Halls of Europe*** was "no," of course. Basically, the decision point was "Why wouldn't America guarantee it's own bank's assets?"  Line in sand vs. line in sand.

You see, under the deregulation (dismantling of restraints on capitalism) process, banks were not banks anymore. And entities like Lehman could, well, become like banks and control money supply and borrow 40 dollars for every dollar they actually had, no pesky bank regulations needed. Well, when that didn't work out, we drew a line in the sand where capitalism would have to step up to the plate. To put it another way: when capitalism fails we should look to capitalism for the rescue.

[I love this kind of logic. It's my favorite. Recently Wikileaks let people read whatever information Wikileaks could get it's hands on, in the form of illegally leaked diplomatic cables. Knowledge is made available for the the greater good of society. Why, heck, that is actually my duty as a librarian. You see we kind of believe in this invisible hand that will make everything alright even if we did just let someone borrow a book on Bomb Making for Dummies. Anyway, in the midst of all my morbidly fun entertainment in reading the news stories about the cables, came a statement from the State Department that came down to this logic: The release of these materials threatens people who rely on the United States for the wisdom of "democracy and open government." Apparently democracy is hampered by knowledge and open government (release of documents, no secrets) leads to a threat to open government. Open government trumps open government or is it the other way around. :) ]  No more brackets this post, I promise.

After Barclays decided it wasn't in their country's best interest to involve themselves, the Treasury had to make a decision. Surely the invisible hand that got us into the greatest financial mess since that of 1929 would get us out of trouble, too (ignoring that this logic had failed during the decades long Great Depression.) So they let Lehman Brother's go bankrupt leading to, well, you know the rest. Unfortunately for capitalism's big invisible hand and the wise leaders propping the hand up, millions of actual anonymous and therefore equally invisible hands hit the buttons in the voting booth. They abandoned their underlying popular wisdom (capitalism is the best of all possible worlds)  and voted for the party most likely to reregulate. It was the new popular wisdom (capitalism is not the best of all possible worlds when I don't have a job.) Parentheses are not brackets by the way.

There were so many issues in the last presidential election.  There was the popular wisdom that the Iraq War was all wrong which followed closely on the heels of the popular wisdom years before that it was a wonderful war. And there were popular wisdoms about changing horses in midstream, and so many other popular wisdoms. But, as I remember it, the overriding popular wisdom seeping through all the mass of 2008 election trash was the sorry state of the economy. Two years later, it's the economy again, pop wisdom having shifted to capitalism as the best of all possible worlds (because I still don't have a job after two years and I've forgotten why I don't have one and I can't seem to remember that the first depression thingie lasted decades.) I just wish the Bush Treasury had realized that Lehman Brothers represented a "stitch in time" rather than the opportunity for a "line in the sand."

I never enjoyed working in the Reference Department of the library because people wanted actual information they could rely on, and I had very little belief that mankind was capable of such feats. It was like I was the purveyor of a religion I didn't believe in. My brother always said the more you know the more you know that you don't know. It faced me every day in the Reference Department and I was miserable at times. Once in a while I would get a call that would ask a question that was answerable, one where I fully believed in the answer I was giving. My favorite one was a drunk guy calling from a payphone at a bar saying, "Hey, you are the library right? Tell my buddy here that the moon is bigger than the sun. I bet him 50 bucks. Here, I'll give him the phone. "

On TV I really prefer the scripted stuff, old or new. Some television series I like just because they are so incredibly long that you could start back at the beginning having almost forgotten everything because of the sheer endurance and length of the show, kind of like this blog entry. NYPD Blue is like that. I think Perry Mason has this appeal because the plots are so similar to each other and the span of the series is so long that I get confused about who actually did the deed the last 4 times I watched the episode. I also attempt to not remember who did it as well (my active suspension of disbelief so I can enjoy the show.) Unfortunately, popular wisdom is kind of like Perry Mason except the Pop Wisdom series appears to need a much shorter length of run to confuse about "who did it?" while there seems to be no end to suspension of disbelief for a wrecked political and economic system. If only we could negotiate an ending for this particular farce. But that popular wisdom, that we could change things, has been Lost in the very distant and also the very recent past. I would tell you that the pun was not intended but that would require brackets.

*or Why I Still Haven't Adjusted my Car's Mirrors Properly  (inside joke) 
**  Lost's "The End" completes my "book-like television" theory that I had had since the first season and probably serves to underscore the producer's belief that all continuing story TV series should have a proper ending. The Beatles also had a "The End" which was their last song together. It was really quaint but a little too quaint to actually have it as the last song, thus it was not the last song when they added a short little tune called "Her Majesty."  Lost also had another "episode" of sorts after "The End", that was about 12 minutes long, just for fun and probably for the same reason as, and maybe because of, The Beatles.

***One of my all time favorite Bushisms.