Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I'm OK, you're to blame

Bill Moyers has a new PBS show that examines the financial crash.  It is well done and persuasive.  Moyers and the Left have concluded that the financial collapse was caused by greedy capitalists in the financial industry.  And they are right, as far as they go with the question.  

Someone named Charlie Campbell (I was unaware of him) writes in an article labeled "The thrill of blaming others" in Salon.com:

In 2007, the world entered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It had been caused by the bursting of the American housing bubble, leading to the spectacular collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. The fallout was global, and saw plenty of scapegoats targeted – from rich bankers and their bonuses, to short-selling hedge fund managers thought to have profited from the downturn, and chief executives whose self-interested, rash decisions led to this calamity.

A lot of what the financial industry did should have been illegal, it certainly was unethical.  But it is no surprise that Moyers and the Left blames Capitalism and Big Business for the Great Recession.  

Blaming the financial institutions is easy to do, and there is a lot of behavior that was disgusting.  But do we do it to let ourselves off the hook?  Campbell continues:

How much easier it is to attribute responsibility to them, rather than face the truth of our own involvement. The notion of collective responsibility is one that we prefer not to engage with. Only those who were financially very prudent can exempt themselves from blame. The rest of us were happy to run up more debt than could be sustained for long by a banking system that depends, like so much of institutional life and commerce, on public confidence. 

You know, what caused the financial catastrophe was us, the common folks, the vast millions of the masses, so many of whom went on a debt binge - credit cards and mortgages, any way possible to live beyond our means.  The bubble was us.  The Government mandated lower mortgage standards in order to get more people into homes; the mortgage companies eventually lowered the standards to ludicrous lows in order to make millions for themselves; the financial companies created super-complex financial instruments out of them in order to make billions for themselves.  But, it was us, the people, who lost our bearings and decided that so many of us had to live beyond our means, on credit, on the bubble, until it collapsed.

The real solution isn't just stronger banking regulations or breaking up the too big to fail financial institutions (although I support that).  Or to put a leash on the exuberance of the government trying to use government powers for social engineering purposes which always ends up with unintended consequences (although I support that too).  

The real solution is for us, the people, to find ourselves anew, and find that our value is not in our money or possessions or expensive adventures, or outside of ourselves in any way.  To find out that the true wealth of life is in discovering the eternal virtues within ourselves that give life meaning and can never be found in the bottom of our wallets.  This is not something that the government can mandate, it is a cultural and spiritual shift that I think we are in the process making.

Mr Campbell is actually writing about the psychological urge to blame and scapegoat others to avoid looking at our own culpabilities and failings.  It is bad enough that we duck our own responsibilities when we scapegoat others. But, more disturbing yet, is what happens to ourselves when we do so:

Ultimately, we make scapegoats out of those we have come to believe are incapable of suffering – we dehumanize them, making them easier to hate. We create the idea that these other people are inferior to us. That develops into the idea that they therefore deserve their treatment. We deny them the same capacities for thought, emotion and values as us, and treat them accordingly. We can do this consciously or unconsciously, but the results are the same.

We stop seeing them as human beings so that we can blame them and find a way to think of ourselves as good and right and blameless and not really responsible for ... whatever we need to avoid thinking about and being responsible for.  

And so we arrive, once again, at our political system, where those on the extremes of the political spectrum see the world in very comforting terms:  each side see themselves as human, and see the ones they scapegoat and blame as less human, incapable of suffering, and deserving of attack and destruction.  If only THOSE people would all disappear, no... would all be destroyed!!! then life would be soooooo goooooood.  Say amen! And click the "contribution" button to the candidate of your choice.  Isn't it funny, but THOSE people just never seem to go away, no matter how often we have elections.  

I think real change in our world comes through individual growth and change which spreads through example rather than the ballot box.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Fall of Communism made the West overconfident in unfettered Capitalism

Reading an interview of novelist Robert Harris, who wrote a novel about the forces that crashed the financial markets, "The Fear Index", provided one of the most succinct summaries of what happened that I have come across:

As the years go by, we begin to see the shape of the last 30 years or so. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a terrific boost to belief in the free market—a lot of regulations were lifted, and there was a kind of hubris about what the markets could do…This era collided with the digitalization revolution, and it does seem to me that the financial markets slipped out of control—of government control and, to some degree, almost of human control.” 

This makes a lot of sense to me - that it was an overconfidence in the power of unfettered free markets that led to the cognitive capture of politicians, regulators, ratings agencies, the financial industry itself, and last but certainly not least, homeowners and wannabe homeowners.  That overconfidence led to reckless and risky behavior that ended catastrophically.  And that overconfidence was a function of the triumph of Capitalism over Communism.

There was certainly a crisis of greed, but it was a greed that was the madness fueled by the kind of irrational enthusiasm first exposed in the great tulip mania in 1600s.  Wikipedia notes:

"At the peak of tulip mania, in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman."

This, of course, was a bubble that burst, to the detriment of many.

I believe that what happened is that the financial industry figured out the same thing that the government figured out long ago - where the money is.  And where the money is is in the middle classes. 

When government needs money it raises taxes.  Some seem to think that taxing the two or three hundred thousand people who make a million dollars or more raises a lot of money, and it does, but not nearly as much as taxing the vast scores of millions of people in the middle classes.  

In the same way, the financial industry discovered that they could transfer billions of dollars to themselves from middle class homeowners and those who could be convinced that they must become homeowners or they would be left behind.  So, the financial industry fed the housing bubble with ever riskier and unsound mortgages.  But, more importantly, they spread the belief that the markets would make us all a lot of money.  Many of them certainly did make themselves unbelievably wealthy.  

I am mindful of what Warren Buffet said in 2008 when on a discussion panel about how the financial industry could clean up the mess that it caused.  He said that we had to remember who these people were:  they weren't in their industry to benefit the world, they were in their industry to make money, and that is all.  Making money is important to most people, but having and making money be the only goal leads to things like the near collapse of the financial markets and the world economy by people, many of whom to this day feel no guilt nor regret about what they did and who they are.  Their measuring sticks for their value is their how much money they make and have, and how they contribute to society is simply not on their screens.  Strange indeed.

However, millions in the middle classes lost their livelihoods and lost their homes.  Unfortunately, the story is still playing itself out.  False beliefs are terrifying things, they can lead very large percentages of people down false paths following destructive hopes, and they can cause a great deal of pain and destruction.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the exposure of the failure of Communism really didn't mean that Capitalism was some kind of infallible wealth creating system.  Some of the faithful, true believers in unfettered capitalism have yet to learn that lesson, and that is unfortunate.  

Perhaps this election can help clarify the distinction between the fatal flaws of unfettered capitalism which quickly devolves into exploitive distortions of the markets, and the power of a well regulated economic market that creates the space for the power of capitalism to do its magic and create wealth and benefit society - especially the middle classes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Obama shines

I watched State of the Union speech last night.  I thought Obama sounded confident, purposeful, inspired and inspiring, practical, reasonable, and presidential.  I thought he sounded like a good man to have as president.  I think his campaign is to be one of being a sane, common sense person who would like people to listen to reason and work with him to find ways to govern the country.  I thought it was a good speech.  I think, and hope, that he may be finding his voice, understanding his job, and ready to take on the hard core right wing in such a way that he can bring the country along with him enough to be able to put together a workable government next year.  Maybe I'm just under his spell - charmed? - by him and his speech, but I am feeling hopeful that things have a chance to get better in government.  That, and of course, the fact that he is running against either a human lizard, Gingrich, or a charisma-less management consultant incapable of inspiration, Romney.  

As for the Republicans, even the National Review Online had an editorial against Gingrich, on the grounds of his personal cruelty.

"Any Republican nominee will draw criticism for being too biased toward the rich. Not every Republican nominee will be attacked for cruelty in his personal life."

I have been rooting for Romney among the Republicans because I want to see the Republican voters reject the Tea Party and Social Conservative extremists.  I believe that if the Republicans end up with an extremist candidate not only will they lose, but they may destroy the party itself.  And I don't believe that is good for the country.

I still have hopes that the new political entity, Americans Elect, will end up nominating a legitimate centrist that would be interesting to me.  I intend to participate in that process in hopes of creating real support for candidates that are not captive to the extremist wings of either party.  I think that a strong showing by a self proclaimed moderate political movement would be very beneficial to the country, and should move both parties back away from their ideological extremes.

One can dream...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Deep South votes for The Lizard

South Carolina started the Civil War, and it looks like it is still pretty angry.  The Republicans gave Newt a victory in their primary election yesterday.  As best as I can tell, they voted for him because he expresses their anger at the rest of America.  

That's fine by me.  I still think Newt will destroy himself long before he gets the nomination, and that Romney is a disciplined, organized, determined man who will win the nomination.  

If, indeed, Republican primary voters decide that they want a candidate who will be nasty and punishing to Obama during the campaign, then I say let them go for it.  Newt Gingrich cannot possibly be elected president.  He is an unappetizing, mean, bullying lizard and the American people will not want to have to look at his venomous little eyes lecturing them on what is wrong with them for the next four years.  

It is actually possible, I believe, that if the Republicans nominate Newt Gingrich that not only will they lose the presidency, but they may end up destroying the Republican Party itself.  After eight years of W's presidency that ended up creating the Great Recession and making a bumbling botch of the war against terrorism, I am not sure that the Republican Party will be able to survive the kind of vicious, opportunistic, grandiose, deluded attacks on Obama, the media, and much of the American populace that Gingrich would wage.  

If you are filled with hate, I guess you want someone who is filled with hate to represent you.  But, hate is not much of an attractor, it is a repellent, and not only Newt, but the entire Republican Party may well crash and burn in the process.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why vote for Obama?

Now that the Republican nomination is essentially over except the shouting (getting cable TV ratings, getting publicity for failing candidates for future TV and book gigs, getting revenge, getting a few more moments in the spotlight before fading from view) it's time to be grateful that the Republicans are offering a relatively moderate candidate who is offering a standard conservative agenda, but who is not a livid culture warrior, an avid ideologue, a lizard, or an extremist nut-case.

That being said, what about Obama?  The center-right blogger, Andrew Sullivan, offers reasons why he supports Obama now.  He supported Reagan in 1980 and Obama now, just as I did and do, because the times, they are a changing, and different times require different politics.

Why vote for Obama per Andrew Sullivan, as he writes in Newsweek?  Because of his record (rather than the ideological spin from either the Right or Left):

    • He gets a 12 month pass in office after the economic meltdown because economies take time to shift course
    • Banks - he focused on stabilization of the financial system rather than the exacting of revenge
    • Since the job collapse bottomed out in the beginning of 2010, the economy has added 2.4 millions jobs (more than the net jobs created by Bush)
    • Overall government employment has declined 2.6% over the past 3 years (compared with 2.2% decline in the early years of Reagan)
    • The stimulus put a bottom under the free fall of the economy and prevented a second Great Depression
    • Cut taxes, a third of the stimulus was tax cuts
    • Cut the payroll tax (social security tax)
    • Grew non-defense discretionary spending only half as much as Bush

  • OBAMACARE is actually a moderate center-left program, not socialist:
    • Based on the individual mandate, which was pioneered by the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation
    • Does not have a public option desired by the Left Wing
    • Has health insurance exchanges similar to a proposal by Nixon in ‘74
    • Sets standards and grants incentives for states to experiment,
    • Provides universal health care that is controlled rather than the old law which mandated that all hospitals accept emergency-room patients anyway

    • Seeks long term strategic advantage rather than bellicose headlines
    • Sought and killed Osama bin Laden
    • Decimated al Qaeda
    • Is winning the propaganda war, plummeting al Qaeda’s popularity in the Muslim world
    • “Leading from behind” has made other countries actively seek America’s help and reappreciate our role

  • DOMESTIC POLICY - Practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics
    • Extends a hand to his opponents, is rejected, moves to a moderate liberal position without being tarred as an ideologue, except by the extremists, of course
    • Refuses to wage a culture war
    • Offered to cut entitlements, but was answered with a refusal to raise any taxes at all
There is much that I am disappointed in about Obama.  Especially, for me, his refusal to take the Simpson-Bowles reform and try to turn it into law.  Many on the Left are disappointed that he is not the liberal crusader that they are.  Many on the right fear him as the liberal crusader that the Left wishes that he were.
I think the real fear the Right Wing has is that Obama is transforming the country and moving it away from the politics and culture that dominated for thirty years since Reagan's inauguration.  What they don't see, or don't want others to see, is that he is doing it as a moderate, center-left president rather than a fire-breathing left wing ideologue.  The Right Wing knows how to fight their ideological mirrors on the Left Wing.  So that is how they see and represent Obama, as one of them, but Lefties rather than Righties.

I haven't decided who I am voting for yet.  I still am very interested in what the process created by Americans Elect will produce as an alternative to both parties.  But, for now, Obama looks better than Romney, and much better than any of the hard core conservatives trying to beat him.

I am not sure how he governs in the next four years though.  He hasn't been able to reach across the isle, and he hasn't shown the stomach for confronting and beating a bellicose opposition.

Perhaps the Republicans will so sour the nation that they will give a victory to Obama and give him a more accommodating House and Senate.

One can dream...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Romney Miracle

Michael Gerson, a center right editorialist on the Washington Post, pointed out yesterday that it is something of a miracle that the candidate who is decisively winning the Republican nomination is the relatively moderate candidate rather than one of the extremists.  

This is the Republican Party that has become the most conservative I have seen it in my lifetime.  They have been completely uncooperative and obstructionist when dealing with Obama and the Democrats over the last three years.  They give every indication that they would look at both Bushes and even Reagan as too moderate to suit them.  The Republicans in congress have been fanatically right wing with no give or compromise to them at all.

Beyond Washington, the conservative commentariat are loudly and passionately extreme.  Rush Limbaugh rails against the liberal media for promoting the non-conservative candidacies of Romney and Huntsman.  Who knows what extremes Glenn Beck is spouting? but one certainly imagines that he has no regard for RINOs like Romney.

So, what is going on?  I think the Tea Party's moment has come and gone.  I think that the Republican primary voters are revealing that they are not as extreme as they are portrayed to be.  Certainly, the loud ones are on the extreme in the Republican Party, same as the loud ones are on the other extreme in the Democratic Party.  But, to borrow an old phrase, it may well be that there is a "silent majority" in the Republican Party that is tired of the extremist polarization and paralysis wrought by the Tea Party, the Social Conservatives, and those in the Republican Party that see demonization of liberals as some kind of morally justifiable strategy.

I think that another symbol of this shift from extremism to moderation is the fate of the inventor of demonization by the Republicans as a way to take over the government from the Democrats - Newt Gingrich.  The nastiness that Newt pioneered when he led the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 has come back to bite him.  Demonization became the acceptable strategy.  But, of course, it became acceptable on both sides of the isle as a result, and our politics have become so polarized that it is sometimes painful even to witness.  In a lovely bit of irony, Newt himself was hoist on his own petard, as PACs supporting Romney demonized Newt and knocked him off the lead in Iowa.  It looks like Newt is done, but he is nasty and vindictive enough that he is going to continue to campaign, and I presume he will be ever escalating his venomous attacks on Romney out of revenge.  

I still wish that the overt moderate, Huntsman, could win the nomination, and he is apparently going to continue his campaign.  I like that, just in case the vengeful Newt and the hard core conservatives manage to destroy Romney, Huntsman would still be alive to receive the moderate and independent Republican votes.  

But I really want to celebrate that the leader of the presidential candidates for the Republicans is relatively moderate, not a hard core conservative.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hoping for Huntsman

I know it's a very "moderate" thing to do, but I really do hope that Huntsman surprises everyone and gets a very big vote in New Hampshire tomorrow in the Republican primary.  That could bring him lots of money to campaign on, and I think he would make a good president.  I especially like that he is the only candidate, including Obama, who has a plan to break up the too big to fail financial institutions.

Huntsman is the overtly moderate Republican, and Romney is the covertly moderate Republican.  I can live with a Romney win, especially if he wraps up the nomination and puts the more hard line conservatives away.  

If the Republicans run an extremist right winger they don't have a chance, but I would hate for the country to risk being run by the nasty and unstable Gingrich, the dim bulb Perry, or the theocratic social conservative Santorum.  (Paul is too loony to even worry about)

It is time for a little magic to drop into this campaign season, and a big Huntsman showing would be just that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Romney wins Iowa, and probably the nomination

The big news in Iowa is not who won, Romney and Santorum, but rather it is who lost, Perry and Gingrich.  Only Perry and Gingrich had any chance of beating Romney to the nomination, I believe.  The rest are niche candidates that get their moments in the sun and fade quickly.  Perry proved himself to be inadequate to the task, and Gingrich proved himself to be too burdened with his toxic and unreliable personality to be able to take it all the way to the nomination.  Both will probably try to recover and will continue their doomed efforts, but I think it is over for them.

Another way of saying that is that the Tea Party is losing its death grip on the  Republican Party.

More to the point, the Republican nominating process is pretty much over.

Of course, the world will step in and have something to say about who is our next president.  Things will happen, and Obama and Romney will have to respond to those things.  In 2008, Lehman Brothers went down and the country had to try desperately to keep our financial system and economy from collapsing.  McCain and Obama each responded differently, with Obama looking like a calm head in the midst of a crisis, and McCain looked like a man who would panic and make things worse rather than better.  I think that was a big factor in McCain's loss in 2008.

I still hope that Huntsman gets legs in New Hampshire and can overtake Romney, but that seems to be a very remote possibility.  Huntsman is the only candidate talking about breaking up the too-big-to-fail, too-big-to-manage, too-big-to-regulate, too-big-to-rate financial institutions.  And I think that is one of the biggest issues that faces us.

Another hope I have is that Americans Elect will succeed in their nominating process and produce a moderate, centrist candidate who can change the way we nominate our presidents by taking the process away from the extremists of both parties and creating a process that appeals to the independents, moderates, and centrists.  It is more than time for pragmatic, problem solving leadership rather than presidents who are ideologues or captive to the ideological extremes of their parties.