November 14, 2011

Penn State: Winning Shouldn't Be Everything

I'm going to make a broad assertion that may anger people.  While I was at Drexel Burnham Lambert's Tokyo office, I was often asked to accompany clients on visits with Japanese institutional investors.  In that context, I associated with both billionaires and millionaires and I discovered that there is a startling difference between the two. Millionaires can be lucky and stumble onto substantial net worth and income.  A billionaire, however, can only achieve that kind of wealth by thinking of nothing else but the accumulation of financial assets. Billionaires don't make the Forbe's list by accident.  They get there because it's an all-encompassing need.

That's one of the reasons why I could never buy the argument that Ross Perot, for example, would have made a good president.  People who acquire incredible wealth do so by suppressing the occasional inclination to be a good neighbor.  Exercising compassion requires a detour on the way to achieving financial goals, so no matter how well a person might manage an organization, if he lacks the desire to raise people--all people--above the human condition, he isn't qualified to lead anything that doesn't possess a profit motive.

A corollary can be said, in my opinion, about people who will win at all costs.  The adage that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," is possibly the worst lie that evil professes.  Winning isn't the only thing.  In fact, it can be the worst thing when it requires turning a blind eye to pain inflicted on the innocent.  That's what apparently happened at Penn State.  It might be said, therefore, that a decent man sometimes loses--and he does it gladly--in order to uphold standards of morality and to be a good neighbor.  He might not earn any medals or make a ton of money, but he is the real winner.

November 13, 2011

We All Want the Same Thing

Have you noticed how much the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have in common?  Both movements are about disenfranchisement and distrust of those in power.  You would think they’d be working together, but they don’t.  Why?  The reason has to do with their divergent views regarding the government’s role in our lives.  While the Tea Party believes government invariably fails and is best when it leaves people alone, Occupy Wall Street sees government as having a role in regulating and leveling the economic playing field. 

Who’s right?

When I was working for Lehman Brothers, both the U.S. and U.K. governments deregulated their financial sectors in a way that many believed would result in a “Big Bang,” an explosion of availability to cheap sources of capital.  One aspect of the U.S. version was the dismantling of Glass Steagall, which had been in place since the Great Depression and was meant to separate depository institutions, such as banks, from securities firms.  The reason for Glass Steagall was to protect deposits (and depositors) from the high-risk and highly leveraged businesses that investment banks practice.

The result of this deregulation was apparent in the bailout taxpayers were required to endure when the nation’s biggest banks teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.  The effort was deemed necessary when depositories were in jeopardy of sustaining significant losses.  The choice we had was to payoff depositors through the FDIC insurance fund, or bail out the institutions that held the deposits.  Either way, taxpayers were going to fit the bill.  Clearly there had been a role for the government that was missed through deregulation. 

The Tea Party’s desire to drown the federal government in a bathtub will lead to increases in the wealth and influence of the rich and a new Gilded Age.  The history of the Gilded Age was one in which politicians were bought, public resources were sacrificed for the gain of a few, and the interests of the many were trampled upon.  Do we really want to go back to that?  Without a return to sanity, the alternative will be economic collapse, or violent revolution. 

It’s my greatest hope that people forming the two movements making the most headlines today realize that, in many respects, they want the same thing.  Furthermore, I hope they learn to work together to make government (perhaps a smaller government) more responsive to the needs of people, rather than to the interests of corporations, which are amoral and self-interested constructs and not people, at all. 

November 5, 2011

Occupy Oakland

Today I went to Oakland to visit the site of the Occupy protests.  I went there, in part, to disprove with my own eyes Sean Hannity’s assertions that there was public defecation and sexual assaults occurring there.  Rest assured that Hannity, and not Frank Ogawa Plaza, is full of crap.

The square has been covered with straw and a tent city has been established.  Some of the more noticeable aspects of the gathering include a small library containing a hundred or more books, an area where donated food is cached and prepared for anyone who needs it, and a tent where medical services are provided.  Hand-written placards encourage people to clean up after themselves.  The demonstrators are mostly young, but they fit every demographic imaginable and their reasons for dissatisfaction are also varied. 

Cardboard signs are posted throughout the square.  Yes, they speak of the lack of economic opportunities for mainstream Americans, but they also remind us of the destruction of our environment, the prohibitive cost of education, the war in the Middle East.  Along the perimeter of the square the people have demonstrated their desire for peace in a powerful way: They’ve planted flowers. 

I caught myself hoping that the flowers, like the movement, will be allowed to grow.

One of the protest signs, in particular, caught my eye.  It simply said: Join a credit union.  In recent months the large banks have lost deposits that are now going to credit unions.  I believe this to be a positive development.  When we put cash in a credit union, we're not cutomers.  We're members and part owners of the institution.  As I've said elsewhere in this blog, giving people ownership is an important part of the solution to our economic malaise. 

Responding to Anonymous

Someone recently left a simple anonymous  comment on one of my postings.  It was this:

Thank God, because he'll fix these problems!

Here is my response.

Life isn't fair, which is arguably an implication of believing in a God who defines what is fair, is powerful enough to destroy all that’s unfair, but allows the most virulent incarnations of unfairness to flourish anyway.

Ah, you say, but that’s just the problem of pain, a conundrum of faith you’ve already contemplated to your satisfaction. Some people—perhaps you included—resolve the paradox by saying God is infinitely wise and knows that goodness is possible only in the presence of its opposite. How can anyone, for instance, be judged righteous, who hasn’t recognized and overcome evil? To this you might add another, supremely comforting, idea: While mortality is pain-filled and subject to corruption, it’s but a blink of an eye compared to the eternal reward that awaits the just. Fairness will come in the hereafter.

But do you see the problem with that notion? I’m not referring to the inexplicable narrative of how God creates a world and populates it with children He loves, only to watch them kill and brutalize each other. Rather, I speak of the license it gives the living to do likewise, to simply witness the evil and say: “Thank God, for the pain is only for a moment and He will right these wrongs.” This shining article of faith serves as a salve on the conscience and a boast to all who hear it, but it’s also an excuse to do nothing. The living could mitigate life’s unfairness, but too many abide by a tainted premise: While shit rains, I can wait for God’s will to manifest itself, there’s no need for an umbrella.

And so faith waits.

We pray for peace—just like we pray for the hungry, the naked and the sick—but rarely do we become the miracles we seek. Help for the displaced pales beside the wars, pogroms, class boundaries and other weapons of alienation that displace even more. All the while our faith waits for the end times, or a miracle, or some other divine response to prayer’s equivalent of kicking the ball into God’s court.  I would rather we had no faith in a hereafter at all and worked to bring heaven here.  Maybe our world would be more caring and sharing then.