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.