09 November 2011

The Real Story?

A question I got (paraphrasing):  What is the “real story” while our attention is being diverted by so many issues out there?

“Arab Spring”, Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns; millions starving from drought in the Horn of Africa; Sudanese genocide; uppity Iranians; a decade-long, and counting, confused mission in Afghanistan; America’s diminished role in the world; wild energy price swings; mega winter storms, hundreds of Midwest and Southern tornadoes, massive river flooding, a 1,500-mile-wide Alaskan storm; BP oil spill; Somali pirates; Ground Zero “mosques”, Qur’an burnings; Miss Teen South Carolina so succinctly defining the future of our youth (just Google it) and, of course, Lindsay Lohan violating her probation…

 Aside from that, all is well.  What are you talking about?  Oh – do you mean…

US sovereign credit downgrades, almost defaulting on our debts; European debt crises; the 6.5 million person remaining job hole; Wall Street “bailouts”, Tea Parties and the “Occupiers”; taxes “too low”, government spending “too high”; income inequality; public union assaults in Ohio and Minnesota; a completely dysfunctional, Tweedlee/Tweedledum government, not-so-sweeping financial regulation; Bernie Madoff; home prices cut almost in half; the worst global recession and financial crisis in a generation’s time leading to the effective failure of GM, Chrysler, IndyMac, Wachovia, WaMu, Merrill, Lehman, Bear, AIG, Fannie, Freddie and Countrywide?

Is that what you mean?

Greece and Europe?  Greece is a pimple.  Its entire economy is the size of the greater Boston metro area – it’s debts ~1.6 times that.  Its headline value – like Russia defaulting in 1998 – is much larger.  Its contagion to economies that actually matter in Europe – like Spain or Italy… France and Belgium – has always been the real threat.

And with Teflon-Don, Italian PM Berlusconi finally stepping down (one day after Greece’s), due to upset from “austerity” measures deployed to right-size its budgets; with Italian government bond yields now skyrocketing past 7% this morning; and Greece’s over 100% – here you go.  Like Zeno’s Paradox, the next largest economy in the world – Europe – is now about eight cm (~3”) away from hurdling into that brick wall at 160kph (~100mph), it was 50m (~20’) away from, two years ago.  (And you can take that stupid metric system with you.)

American politics?  The public is slowly, finally waking up to the fact that they have only let the same-old two parties run things now for nearly 160 years.  Out with the old?  Dissent grows on the right, within the Republican Party, in the form of Tea Parties, causing an existential conflict there.  Dissent grows on the left with the unions and also with the Occupiers – except they haven’t realized that they should be upset with Democrats too, as they are as in bed with Wall Street and big business as Republicans are.  But they’ll figure it out eventually – unless they get a job.

Both are similar to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose revolt from the Republican Party in 1912.  Teddy’s platform was completely the opposite of the Tea Parties, in the sense that he broke with Republicans to promote things like a national health service; social insurance for the elderly, unemployed and disabled; and income tax.

But it was exactly like the Tea Parties and the Occupiers in that his main theme was really going after business interests that dominated political parties.  He wanted limitation and disclosure of campaign contributions, lobbyist registry and a public record of Congressional committee proceedings.  Sound familiar?  Well, 100 years later, we’re still waiting for such glasnost.

Slow economy?  What slow economy?  As the questioner alluded to, business is booming in Fargo, North Dakota.  All you need is about 10 billion barrels of proven oil reserves under your house and a crash course in wildcatting – and boom – structural unemployment solved.  Next?

What is the real issue?  They are all real issues.  But they are also really just trees in the same forest.  I can’t speak to acts of nature beyond man’s hand in them, but all this unrest and social frustration, from Akron to Athens, is born from the same thing – fallout from a crippled global economic system.

If we did not have the worst employment situation in the US since 1937; if we did not have extreme belt tightening hanging over southern Europeans, ultimately to really be paid for by northern Europeans – none of the above would matter.

We wouldn’t notice or care that Republicans and Democrats are self-serving entities that act for the voters on the day before Super Tuesday, and for themselves for the other 364.  There would be no Tea Parties, no Occupiers.  Republicans wouldn’t dare to strip public unions of their right to collectively bargain.  Democrats would never have been able to pass health care (and even that is in limbo now).

We would still have deficits and debts.  But they certainly wouldn’t be the scary size they are today.  And both parties would be allowed to continue to borrow or tax to secure the funds they need to, one way or another, purchase votes from the electorate, year in, year out.

Anyone who cares that income has been growing less equal – really for four decades now – no one would pay attention to.  Really?  It’s like – all of a sudden in 2011 we’re shocked and appalled that there’s growing income inequality in America?  How'd that get in here?!  An ever increasing value of a home that was virtually wrapped in a bow and left on your stoop (the one you built, of course, before the house arrived), or that rising stock portfolio; would obscure the notion that the value of goods and services that you need to buy every year is getting away from the amount of dollars that you are actually compensated for your hard work.

I guess the real story is, we’re in one big pickle.  And all this various social tension is really just our collective reaction, our collective frustration, manifesting itself globally in one manner or another.

It just adds up to – this is what being in a depression feels like.  We can argue ‘til we’re blue what a depression might look like.  But what it does is it makes us notice, makes us feel, the bad side of everything just that much more.  And maybe that’s a good thing – a wakeup call.

To the extent that we control our nation’s democratic destiny, I guess the thing that this should remind us all – the “real story” – is, at the end of the day, it’s all our collective fault.  Not just Wall Street or big business.  Not just unions, or whatever people think socialism is.  Not just our decaying infrastructure or neglected class rooms.  Not just politicians.  Who elected them?  Us.  Who lets them get away with anything they might upset us with?  Us.

But you come up with 6.5 million more jobs – and all of the above goes away.  All of it.  And with that, our desire, or will, to maybe fix it right for real, while we still have the chance.

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