Sunday, December 14, 2008

Screw the bankers

There are plenty of ways to share the blame for the present poor state of the economy. In particular, I would say the MSM coverage, excluding the outlets owned by and patently inclined to paint the world as seen by uncle Rupert, has been able to sell more papers by making it sound as if the boards of directors and the vice presidents in charge of creatively disguising trashy debts as sound investments are exclusively the devils in this saga. And on my side of the blogosphere, we see plenty of counter arguments against the stupidity of conservatives who try to lay all harms at the feet of "socialist meddling" in bank regulation that required banks which took deposits in poorer neighborhoods to make loans in those same neighborhoods. I don't happen to think the conservatives are actually stupid on this particular topic but observe that their selfishness and willing alienation from have-not classes makes them function as if stupid.

In the middle of an excellent article he as just written for Vanity Fair, Niall Ferguson seems to reach a similar view: plenty of blame to share if blame is what makes you feel good:
This hunt for scapegoats is futile. To understand the downfall of Planet Finance, you need to take several steps back and locate this crisis in the long run of financial history. Only then will you see that we have all played a part in this latest sorry example of what the Victorian journalist Charles Mackay described in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

You see we have had social conservatives whose numbers were spread over several economic classes for a long time in this country. And for 30 years, the old voting patterns of poor vs rich were successfully breached by the Rovesque strategies of wedge issue politics around social issues. But I think that the fact that until some point in the late 70s or early 80s the middle class had been expanding and average wealth rising was the ironic enabler of the shift in voting patterns. The success of liberal views in raising the standard of living was to some extent then the cause of its own eventual failure at the polls: we never ceased to "vote our pocket books" but our pocket books seemed to be headed toward higher tax brackets. By an equally ironic turn, the last 30 years of "success" of this perverse conservative shift have so ruined our economy that the voting block of people whose dominant issue is a feeling of financial precariousness has expanded back toward the majority that it was in the first half of the 20th century. I say success because the Republicans DID control congress and the White house long enough to significantly expand the advantages of corporations and high income families. Perverse because in 30 years of legislation, [de]regulation and rhetoric ad nauseum about wasteful government spending, they managed to completely expunge that quaint notion that debt is a bad thing and bills should be paid on time from our our nations political dialog.

I mentioned blame. Except for the downward spirals of divisive politics, blame is not a useful tool. Note how seldom Obama named names and how often he spoke rather of hope, change and what to do to make things better. With the pathetic exception of the 2000 election, Americans damn well got what they voted for whether they understood that or not at the time they cast their ballots. Blaming a banker, or a debt rating agency, or a financially insecure first time home buyer who takes an oversized loan is beside the point. Assessing where we have systemic failures should be a first priority. Systemic failure would include shoddy neutered regulatory powers as we now, even Alan Greedspan, all seem to recognize. We should be concerned who knew what and when they knew it regarding the margins of debt and levels of risk and unsustainable or fragile leveraging of debt. Greed being the heart of all actors in this tragedy, our best defense against the kind of fiscal calamity in which we are all now stewing is transparency.

So, getting back to blame, who fights transparency? All of us like to hold our cards close to the vest but who mounts an organized and well funded war on transparency?  We who go for a loan to buy a $22000 car get x-rayed for our credit history and lenders can go on line and learn details of our financial past we ourselves hardly remember. Can the nation's tax payers ask the same questions of those lenders who now want trillions of OUR tax dollars? Hell NO! No one less than Bloomberg has been trying to get a little transparency and they find:
Banks oppose any release of information because that might signal weakness and spur short-selling or a run by depositors, Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington trade group, said in an interview last month.

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