Monday, November 23, 2009

Feeding the Beast--Our Insatiable Need For Villains

The truth?  Jack Nicholson was right.  We can't handle the truth.  Either that or we just prefer not to hear it..

The truth is that America is still suffering from what is likely to be a very long hangover after a decade of binge spending.  Led by George W. "Keep Shopping" Bush and his friends in Congress, we spent most of the last decade digging ourselves into a deep and wide economic hole.

No one behaved like a grown up.  We elected and supported representatives who ran our government into debt while we ran ourselves into debt with the help of our financial institutions who loaned too much money to people who couldn't pay it back.  When all the bills came due at once, no one had any money to pay them.  So the government is printing money and the ultimate bills will be paid by our creditors, our kids, and people who own dollars that will buy less and less over time.

If this wers a movie, we would come away from this humbling experience chastened, embarrassed, wiser and determined to get it right the next time.

But in real life it's apparently much easier to just get angry at everyone except ourselves and look for villains to blame.  We are told that we didn't do anything wrong.  We're the victims here of the bad guys who brought us down and continue to screw us at every turn.  Nothing is our fault--it's all about those horrible folks who did us in. 

At first the villain was simply called Wall Street Greed but that was too general to be truly satisfying.  During the last few months that problem was solved by simply blaming everything on Goldman Sachs and the people who run the company.  The depth of our addiction to bad guys became clear when even the New York Times piled on last week with an editorial saying that Goldman--only Goldman--should be ashamed of itself.

The international crisis was created by Merrill, Lehman, Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the other Goldman competitors who leveraged up themselves and the system to levels that caused a true meltdown when their bets went wrong.

To blame Goldman--which was not the major player when it came to creating the toxic assets and which did not leverage itself up on one bet like the others did--would be like blaming a manufacturer of automatic weapons for what happened at Fort Hood.

The system didn't get brought down by bad mortgages.  It was brought down by major investment firms (not Goldman) who decided to leverage up 30 and 40 to 1 in a single asset class. As result, instead of just taking a hit on a bad bet--which happens all the time--they were wiped out and the international financial system was put at serious risk.

The government (not the taxpayers because we haven't paid a dime yet) bailed out AIG to the tune of $170 billion and counting. Goldman received $12 billion or almost exactly 7 percent of that money. And yet, they are the only name ever singled out as the bad guys who ought to be ashamed of themselves for having the nerve to benefit so dramatically from the recovery in the markets because they're better than everyone else.

What about the companies and people that got the other 93 percent? Do you ever hear any of them singled out for special demonization the way that Goldman has been?  Is there any indication that anyone at Goldman committed a crime or did anything illegal? Has anyone been charged?

Goldman did what investment firms are supposed to do.  They invested legally and wisely in a way designed to make themselves and their shareholders wealthy at the expense of others who were less insightful.  Until a year ago, that's what American success was all about.  A "good" accountant is one who figures out a way to help his clients pay as little tax as is legally possible.  A "good" lawyer is one who can get you off no matter how guilty you might be.  A successful person or company is one that makes an enormous amount of money.  Someone must have changed the rules without telling the rest of us.

For many angry Americans, the Big Three--Obama, Pelosi, and Reid--have been the ultimate villains since their first day in office.  It's ironic that there are two major seemingly contradictory complaints about Obama.  One is that he is doing too much and he's ruining the country.  The other is that he hasn't done anything at all and he's ruining the country.  But when you're dealing with demonization, facts become an irrelevant nuisance. The important thing is to get really angry and encourage others to do the same.

So at the very time when we face serious problems and desperately  need intelligent and nuanced discussion of complex issues, we are getting the exact opposite.  At the time when we most need to become reacquainted with true patriotism involving shared sacrifice, we are being told that we are not the cause of any of our problems so there is no need for us to be part of the solution. 

Instead we are told to get really angry and focus on the villains who got us into this mess with their greed, avarice, and evil motives.  It certainly won't help solve any of our problems but it is not nearly as painful as looking the real nature of our challenges and the key to surmounting them squarely in the eyes.

For most of us, those eyes stare right back at us when we look into the mirror.


Norwegian Shooter said...

I love your writing, Larry, but this post goes too far. Goldman is being singled out because:

1) they didn't get hurt that much and are now back to making record profits,
2) there is a revolving door between Goldman executive suites and DC, and
3) there is more to the rage at Goldman than mortgages, for instance the super-fast computer algorithms that can print profits

I'm sure there are more, but these are the big ones. Also, AIG was a much more intense and longer-lasting demon than Goldman has been. But at some point, people get tired of beating the same horse. Goldman's day will pass, too.

You can't blame the people for repealing Glass-Stegall or refusing to regulate derivatives. Voters didn't elect and support representatives to do these things. The financial industry did. (Goldman gives money to politicians, don't they?) You know who is the biggest class of people to blame for government debt, Republicans who passed Bush's tax cuts.

"But in real life it's apparently much easier to just get angry at everyone except ourselves and look for villains to blame." Of course it is, when you have a way of preventing this, let me know.

As far as the NYT editorial, it isn't fair to say they only blame Goldman. It's one editorial, they have spread blame around over the course of the crisis. And if there is one person to blame for the editorial, it is clearly Blankfein. Can you defend his recent remarks?

Spare me the illegal bit. The crisis was enabled by allowing systemic risk to be legal.

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Neil said...

It's really not a question of finding villains.You seem only to want to absolve the present administration and protect Goldman as well. I'm not sure why in either case. In a few years (hopefully it will be many but I doubt it) we'll be right back where we were in the fall of '08. Why? Clearly, because we've given a 'soft' landing to those that should have been allowed to fail, regardless of their size. That's the only true test of whether free enterprise and capitalism work. It does only if we are forced to pay the price for our failures.

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