Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Scarcity Consciousness and Overindulgence

The developed world is going through a terrible financial collapse and economic  crisis, and I think it is no coincidence that we are also in the midst of an obesity epidemic.  I think that part of the cause of these problems is that so many people live in a scarcity consciousness.  But it manifested in strange ways.  If we think that there isn't enough, then whatever we have may not last, and we think that we need to gorge now out of fear of famine later - on food, drugs, material goods, homes, cars, planes, yachts, all kinds of stuff.  Voila: housing bubbles, Wall Street uber-greed, obesity.

Even more central, I think, we overindulge when we try to fill empty holes within our sense of ourselves.  These types of holes are bottomless and can never be filled with material stuff. However, if we think that a true sense of abundance comes from a sense of being full and sufficient as we are, with no need to stuff stuff into ourselves in order to feel safe, or prosperous, or enough, then we have no need to live a life of overindulgence.  This is no small task, of course, but it could be the real task we face as a part of growing ourselves into mature adults, being enough as we are, without being trapped inside a scarcity consciousness that is always trying to fill ever empty holes within.

At the heart of the housing bubble and obesity crisis in America and the West may be a psychological and spiritual crisis.  Psychologically, if we can be filled with a regard for ourselves based upon internal character strengths and qualities, we can sense ourselves as full rather than empty, and we won't be needing things from the outside.  Spiritually, if we sense that we are filled with the love of the Divine and have access to the Transcendent, we can know that we are complete and do not need to prop ourselves up with stuff to feel like we are enough.

Ultimately, I believe that the crises that the developed world faces are not political, but psychological and spiritual.  And as such, political solutions won't be able to get to the heart of the matter.  But, this might be really good news, because rather than having to rely on the political system to elect the right politicians, we can solve our own problems by growing psychologically and spiritually as individuals.  I expect that the real change we are seeing in the world is that we are in the midst of that process.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Fall of Giants

I recently finished Ken Follett's historical novel "The Fall of Giants."  It is the first of a trilogy that he is writing on the twentieth century.  It is, as expected, completely absorbing and it brings the history of WWI alive. 

I think we are at a time similar to a hundred years ago, when WWI was looming on the horizon.  Big changes are coming as institution after institution fails, the "Giants" falling today go from the tyrannies of the Middle East, to Berlosconi in Italy, to some of the financial giants of Wall Street (more to follow I am afraid as their over-leveraged, high risk ways have still not ended), to the legitimacy of government regulatory agencies, to so many things.  I actually think that in America both political parties are at risk of committing suicide and may fade into oblivion.  

The change that happened as a result of WWI was the end of the rule of aristocracy in Europe.  The Communist revolution overthrew the aristocracy in Russia, of course, but I think that the days of the aristocrats was over for the rest of Europe as well by the end of the war, especially after the terrible mismanagement and bumbling of the aristocratic leadership had propelled the European nations into the war in the first place, and the management of the war was so inept in the second place, and the negotiated peace was so destructive in the end.  The aristocracy lost their ruling power as a result of their demonstrated incompetence and inhumanity.  

And the world was never the same.

The terrible price that the world paid for this liberation from the inherited, landed aristocracy was 37,446,904 casualties, with total deaths of 8,528,831. It's hard to even imagine.

Now, we are in the grips of another group of aristocracies that are badly mismanaging their responsibilities and are causing real hardships for the people of the world.  The financial collapse has put millions out of work, and entered the developed world into an era of financial pessimism.  

The left blames Wall Street and the financial institutions of the world for their reckless risk taking and seemingly bottomless greed, and they are right.  The right blames government for their being in bed with political benefactors and they are also right.

The entrenched aristocracy has become the unholy marriage between finance and government, and the result is fortunes for the super wealthy, power for the politicians, and hardship for the majority.  Both the Tea Party, who rail against the overpowerful government, and the Occupy Wall Streeters, who rail against the 1% are expressing pre-revolutionary angers.

I hope and pray that we don't end up with millions dead and economies that are totally destroyed by the time that the institutions that are being overthrown are finally finished.  I don't think massive wars are needed, but big changes are coming.  

The end of corrupt aristocracies is ultimately a good thing.  Let's have it be fairly smooth and elegant.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The political crisis in Europe

George Friedman of Stratfor points out that the economic crisis of Europe is really underpinned by a political crisis.  The European elite have dedicated themselves to a united and peaceful Europe ever since WWI and WWII's terrible devastation.  They concluded that the way to a peaceful Europe was to create a prosperity zone of Europe, where all of the nations had it in their own economic interests to be intertwined and dependent upon each other for their own prosperity.  They adopted a Europeanist ideology.

The Europeanist ideology promised prosperity and peace.  There has not been some form of unifying identity to Europe beyond these two promises made by the elite leadership of Europe.  

But, the financial crisis looks like it it ending both prosperity and peace.  The financial crisis has shown the structural inadequacies of the Eurozone and the common Euro - one currency - but many governments and many fiscal policies.  So, when Greece and Italy owe huge debts that they can't pay, the solution offered by Germany is deep cuts and dramatic austerities for the Southern European countries.  

There goes the prosperity for Southern Europe.

And, there goes the peace as well between Southern Europe and Northern Europe.  The North blames the South for their prodigal irresponsibility, and the South blames the North for setting up a financial system that created huge exports into the rest of Europe by creating a free trade zone and a relatively inexpensive Euro.

The question that arises is what happens to the leadership in Europe?  Do the people continue to elect the same kind of elites who are committed to a united Europe, even if it means drastic cuts in their governments?  Or do they go for more populist and more angry leaders who want to overturn the existing political and financial system that seems to see solutions to the debt crisis in terms of austerity and pain for the people, while leaving the elites quite comfortable, thank you very much.

Big changes are likely to be coming in Europe.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Greece started Democracy, is it showing the way it ends?

 Is Greece showing the world the inevitable, tragic fate of Democracies?  Are we all doomed to follow Greece's corrupt footsteps? 

It seems to me that the cancer at the heart of the Greek crisis is the personal corruption and entitlement of the people themselves that is almost beyond imagination.  Apparently, in Greece it is culturally acceptable to pay little or no taxes, and at the same time demand that the government employs a huge majority of the people and provides an amazingly generous benefits system.  This is not a failure of government so much as a failure of the character of the Greek people.

The great Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his masterpiece "Democracy in America" in  1831 when he visited America to see for himself how Democracy worked in America.  He was mightily impressed, but he had a couple of very key warnings about the weaknesses of democracy.  

The first warning is when the people figure out that they can use the government to get goodies:

 “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.” 
Alexis de Tocqueville

America is a little over the 200 year mark already.

The second warning points out that a democracy is only as good as the people who make it up:

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” 
― Alexis de Tocqueville

It looks to me like Greece has fallen prey to both cancers:  the people voted in governments that promised and delivered more services than they could pay for, and the character of the people themselves became dishonorable, as they seem to feel totally entitled to very generous entitlements and are offended by the notion that they should pay for them with taxes.

Is democracy in Greece and the PIIGS of Europe about to collapse because the people will only elect governments that give them stuff?  Is their democracy doomed because of a crisis of character of the people themselves?  Is the U.S. following in those dishonorable footsteps?

I think America will rise again, just as it did from the Great Depression and WWII.  I deeply hope and pray that the ashes won't be as devastating now as they were then.  I have faith in the young Millennial Generation coming of age today to create a world anew, as did the Greatest Generation a cycle of generations ago.  I trust that the Boomer Generation can and will provide vision and meaning to this younger, powerful, creative, energetic, cooperative, and productive generation to create our economy and politics anew. I expect America will find itself and take its lead in the world in a new, not yet imagined way.  I have hope and faith in the power of the very idea of America and democracy.

I think that we don't curse the darkness, but light a candle, one spark at a time, starting with ourselves - creating a light of integrity, responsibility, honesty, and character.  We each can be a spark of kindling that sets aflame the renewal of America, democracy, and the world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Landslide in Mississippi

I have reason to be optimistic that the grip of the Tea Party, the Evangelicals, and the more extreme wing of the Republican Party is starting to slip.  Mississippi just rejected the "Personhood" amendment by a landslide, 59% to 41%.  Issue 26 would have defined a fertilized egg as a person, thus, of course, making abortion illegal.  

If you can't get abortion outlawed in Mississippi, which I presume is a state pretty much on the more extreme end of the conservative spectrum, I would say that a woman's right to choose is still quite safe, and will stay so in perpetuity.  

The ideological extremes always over-interpret political trends.  When the country turned against Obama and the Democrats in 2010, the far right thought it was the Tea Party that caused the turn.  In fact, the far left thought so too, out of fear that their opposite extreme would take over the country that they had thought they had captured just two years earlier.  

But, if fact, the Tea Party cost the Republicans control of the Senate, it seemed to me.  Because of radical Tea Party candidates in Delaware, Nevada, Alaska, and New York, all of whom lost, the Senate stayed in Democrats' hands.

Now, the far right continues to believe that the tide has turned and the country is ready for a new revolution and embrace a tax-cutting, deregulating, abortion-ending, anti-gay, government slashing new reality.  But, I think that quite the opposite is happening.  I think that the country is getting a taste of their righteous and inflexible despotism and is being turned off by it.

Good for the good people of Mississippi for showing, once again, that even though the far right is very passionate and very loud, they do not get to dictate people's choices and lives.   

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The 1%

The Occupy Wall Street movement, or the We are the 99% movement, speaks to a real issue in the country and the world, but it's violence and nutty fringe puts me off.  It is no surprise that the Loony Left has joined the protests in Oakland, Wall Street, etc.  It seems to me that they live in a paranoid fantasy world with Good Guys and Bad Guys, and they give their personal lives meaning by hating and fighting the Bad Guys.  It has been said that the movement has no coherent agenda, but that is primarily because the agendas that are spoken by the protesters are old fashioned far left revolutionary rhetoric that has long ago been dismissed by America and the world.  The failure of Communism never seemed to reach into the brains of some of the loonier elements of the protesters.  

I have no problem with how much money anyone makes.  The more the merrier. Good for them.  It is part of the freedom of America and the freedom of the capitalist economy.  People are free to make fortunes.  That is a good thing.

The only problem I have with people making fortunes is if they do so by damaging others.  I clearly have a problem with meth and heroin dealers making their fortunes because they do so by the ruination of millions of lives.  I have a problem with criminals of all types who create their wealth by hurting others.  I have a problem with the fortunes made by the reckless financial industry who found ways to pull vast sums of money out of the middle class's pension funds, homes, and lives by creating financial casinos that generated personal fortunes for them, but ended up creating the Great Recession and scores of millions of unemployed in America and the developed world.   

But, do I have a problem with the 1% per se?  No.

The left wing Mother Jones magazine published an interesting chart showing the makeup of the upper 1%.  The top category is non-financial executives, managers, and supervisors - 31%.  Next is the medical profession at 15.7%.  Only then does the financial sector show up at 13.9%.  Then you get lawyers, engineers, scientists, real estate, entrepreneurs, arts, government, farmers, teachers.  

How does it become such a wide range of people?  They get their wealth via investments, primarily.  Their money makes them money.  

So, I hate to see this political movement call upon the old, tired and toxic appeals to envy and jealousy. I think the financial industry still is in need of reform by regulation and oversight because their unfettered actions and greed have crashed the economies of the developed world, not because they are making too much money.  The outsized fortunes that the financial people are making come from an incentive system that rewards financial transactions that put the economies of the world at risk rather than do what the financial industry is supposed to do, which is support and spur the economy.  It has become out of balance.

The key question in my mind back in the '80s when the Left Wing was so upset by the spirit of Reaganism was this.  Which is better, a system that allows the top end to grow its wealth 300% and also allows the lower and middle classes to grow their incomes 2, 3, 5% - or a system that has the upper end stay the same or lose wealth, but the lower and middle classes also stay the same or lose income.  I think that describes the difference between Capitalism (everyone grows but the top grows faster) and Socialism (everyone stays about the same but slowly declines in a stagnant system).

We ended up with an overly deregulated capitalistic system where the top end grew by leaps and bounds, and the lower and middle stayed very much the same.  The expanding economy didn't lift all boats, as it turned out.  

Finding the balance is always the result of competing ideas and political forces.  We had nearly thirty years of Reaganomics which crashed into the wall in 2008.  We are experimenting with Obamanomics now with his attempt to grow the government and control the markets.  The angers on the Left and Right today are largely inchoate, naive, and fairly stupid.  But they speak to real issues to balance the need for growth and freedom to innovate and create, and the need for the society as a whole to feel they are operating in a fair world that isn't stacked against them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Corzine never learned a thing

In an amazing display of total unwillingness to learn the bitter lessons of the financial collapse of Wall Street in 2008, Jon Corzine has bankrupted a company that he recently took over:  MF GLobal Holdings Ltd.  

He did the same things that Lehman and Bear Sterns had done not long ago.  He leveraged his company to the hilt and beyond, taking massive and reckless risks, on the bet that he could become fabulously wealthy (which he already was anyhow) and make his new company one of the Big Boys of Wall Street.  His company was smaller than the Too Big to Fail financial giants, so he apparently slipped under the radar of the new regulatory system and found the unsupervised license to risk it all.  

He failed.  In fact, it looks like he may have done more than risk it all, he may have risked more than he was legally allowed to, as there are hundreds of millions of dollars of clients' moneys missing, and the suspicion is that he used clients' money for the companies proprietary trading.  Jail time?  

The story is the same as in 2008.  An out-sized, hyper-ego, testosterone crazed, super macho superstar thought his own brains and instincts were infallible, and he Bet the Farm expecting to generate billions of profits for the company and hundreds of millions for his own personal wealth.  And nobody had the courage to stop him.  The company founder, the institutional shareholders, the board of directors, the auditors, all of them were mute or powerless to oppose the super-aggressive Corzine.  

Corzine had been the top dog at Goldman Sachs (and was forced out in 1999 by Hank Paulson, apparently), then he became the Senator and then the Governor of New Jersey.  But the voters apparently were less that overwhelmed by his brilliance, and they fired him from both jobs.  He decided to make his comeback in Wall Street.  Fortunes were lost, as well as 3000 jobs.  

The bad news is that the Jon Corzines of the world are still crashing through china shops in Wall Street.  The good news is that it is harder for them to make the kinds of fortunes that they did prior to the Lehman Brothers collapse, as it appears that the new regulations are actually dampening the risk taking of the financial giants on Wall Street.  Thus, Corzine was forced to lower himself to take over a smaller player on the promise he would turn them into the next Goldman Sachs.

I think the point is that there is never going to be an end to hyper arrogant, ego-maniacal, super risk taking men who think they are the exceptions and who are confident that they alone will discover the keys to the financial kingdom.  To me the solution is to create a legal and regulatory system that can work to keep the damage that they do contained to themselves without cratering companies and countries with their reckless arrogance.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hope for debt reduction?

In a miracle of bipartisan sanity, a group of 40 House Republicans asked the Supercommittee of 12 to consider raising revenue, and a group of 60 House Democrats asked the Supercommittee to explore entitlement cuts.  

It is blindingly obvious to me, when we are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that we spend, the we must do both - raise revenues and cut spending.  The Republicans have been locked in a death spiral of tax-increase-avoiding ideology, and the Democrats have been locked in a death spiral of entitlement-decrease-avoiding ideology, and the country careens toward financial disaster.

I was also very pleased to see that the Supercommittee had both Simpson and Bowles, and Rivlin and Dominici testify before it.  They were very clear.  The Supercommittee should NOT cut the deficit by the $1.2 trillion over ten years as they had been tasked by Congress.  They need to cut at lease $4 trillion instead. 

If the Supercommittee takes these messages to heart and offers a major, bold program that includes revenue increases and entitlement cuts and saves $4 trillion over ten years, and the 40 Republicans and 60 Democrats break ranks with their ideological masters, this country has reason to hope after all.

I send them my prayers.